AN "in-cell" phone service allowing prisoners to connect with the Samaritans has been introduced to combat mental health issues during the pandemic.
Assigned prison volunteers - trained by the Samaritans - are also on call 24 hours a day in the event that a fellow inmate requires face-to-face emotional support.
The initiative works on a rotational basis and prisoners are given the option of chatting with a Samaritans member - outside of the prison- by phone or an in-house volunteer.
Samaritans provide a compassionate ear to those wishing to vent anxiety. Established in Ireland in 1961, there are now 21 Samaritans branches across Ireland with more than 2000 active volunteers.
Their listening service in Cork Prison has been operating for a number of years.
However, an in-cell phone service was most recently added as part of a suite of measures to prevent mental health issues during the pandemic. Other facilities introduced include in-cell televisions with a Cork prison channel providing information on educational and remote learning options.
A spokesperson for Cork Prison said that self-harm and mental health issues have greatly decreased since they were introduced.
The pilot scheme has paved the way for prisons across Ireland who have now introduced phones in cells. They pointed out that inmates can also use the technology to reach out to a prison chaplain.
Cormac -not his real name- who is a resident in Cork Prison has been working as a listener throughout the pandemic.
He spoke of how the initiative has played a key role in protecting prisoner confidentiality.
"Before, there were so many people waiting to use the phone on the landing," he said. "There was no privacy there and oftentimes you'd see a fella crying after coming off the phone. We have a reputation now. People get to know that when they come to us there is never going to be a problem. They need to discuss what's going on in their head."
He said that listeners are particularly mindful of prisoners adapting to their new surroundings.
"When I came here first I was full of fear," he said.
He said they have often been woken in the early hours of the morning to assist with fellow prisoners.
"Sometimes people feel better sharing these things with someone outside of the person they are sharing a cell with. It's later at night that negative thoughts are going through their heads. Nine out of ten are after 9pm. It's always at night. When the cells are closed prisoners have time to think. You can't contact your family at 3am but this has left them with the option of talking to somebody."
Keith, who is also a listener, described why some need the service more than others.
"Some of us are working in the laundry or kitchen but a few are spending up to 23 hours a day in a cell," he said. "If they are really stressed they will contact one of the listeners. There is a list of men available for certain days of the week.
"If one isn't available the other will be taken out of his cell. Most of the time they will calm down after they've said what they wanted to say.
"The prisoner is taken to a listener's suite so at least it's private. I don't mind doing it because I know it's important to be there for other prisoners. They'll always thank us for coming down."
He highlighted the concerns of prisoners.
"They are missing their families," Keith said. "While they can chat to them on zoom they find it difficult not being able to hold their child. We know from experience what they are going through."
Keith also listed the positive offshoots of the pandemic including video calls.
"We are now talking to members of our families knowing that they are sitting down in comfort and don't have the stresses that come with a visit," he said. "They are seeing their gardens and asking if they can see that rose they planted a year ago. They are seeing the renovations that have been done as well as pets and new babies. It's great for people to have the chance to see their home again."
The Irish Prison Service also issues a monthly in-house newsletter to ensure prisoners can stay updated on current events.
"We know what's going on in the world. We know what's going on in our cities. The news is on 24/7. We also get a lot of news bulletins from the IPS."
Listeners in the prison also have access to regular meetings with the Samaritans team to ensure their own mental health is unaffected. Sandra McGrath, who volunteers with the charity, said it is vital that listeners are supported too.
"Prisoners are always being supported," she said. "If they are not being supported by the listeners they are being supported by us too.
The listeners do such a great job and they need that support. We check in with them every fortnight and have a chat as many of the stories they hear are so tough to listen to."
- To find out more about the Samaritans visit: www.samaritans.org