Beyond the Wire: Ex-prisoners and Northern Ireland’s shared future
by Emilie GRAZIANI for Northern Ireland Foundation
2 April 2014
The screening of “Beyond the Wire” that took place on Wednesday, 2nd April at the Movie House was one of the many movies presented at the Belfast Film Festival. The main purpose of “Beyond the Wire” is to open a discussion about ex-prisoners and their life after prison. The idea is to broadcast the film within the prisoners’ and ex-prisoners’ community, to show how reintegration is a hard process. The film tries to legitimise the need for assistance and support in Northern Ireland.
The film, made in 2013, is the result of extensive research by Ruth Jamieson, Peter Shirlow and Adrian Grounds. The main result is that there is a high level of resilience among this community. The impacts, positive and negative, were noted in the research.
Positive impacts include maturity, an educative experience, the willingness to be part in the peace process, and to help their own communities; yet these findings were not emphasised in the film.
Negative consequences of imprisonment are many, from economical difficulties (finding a job) to psychological burdens. These are actually the focus of the film, demonstrated by the mix of short testimonials from former male and female prisoners, with explanations given by Ruth Jamieson (a specialist of the issue of ex-prisoners) and Dr Oscar Daly (a general adult psychiatrist).
Prison was a traumatic experience, especially since most experienced harsh conditions — such as torture or psychological pressure — due to their political and controversial status. About 40% of the ex-prisoners surveyed admitted to experiencing significant mental health problems as a result of their imprisonment — most frequently anxiety, depression, sleep problems and suicide.
Another interesting finding of the research was that while the differences between men and women are not that important, the distinction between communities is. Nevertheless, whatever the community, the man is seen as strong and as someone who cannot suffer. Male pride seems difficult to challenge. Talking about difficult experiences in prison is therefore not an option for most ex-prisoners, for fear of being stigmatised. But they do experience traumas and need to express them in order to heal. Meanwhile, there is a high rate of self-medication in order to forget the pain. According to the researches of Ruth Jamieson et al, 69% of ex-prisoners have drinking problems. They are also overusing anti-depression tablets.
After the film showing, the audience engaged in a panel discussion, led by Ruth Jamieson and Joe Barnes (a republican ex-prisoner). Jamieson’s main recommendation is to open a conversation with policy makers, since the issue of ex-prisoners is not mentioned at all in official texts or proposed reforms. There is also the need for adequate mental health services. Local communities have a role in addressing alcoholism. Social workers and psychiatrists should be trained and supported, in order to deal with sensitive issues such as the troubled past of Northern Ireland.
Barnes emphasised the trauma of prison, and wants to discourage young people from the path of prison, by reducing its sometimes too romanticised image.
One question to the panel concerned the perception that policy makers are not really interested in the topic of ex-prisoners. Hypotheses are that it remains a sensitive and complex issue to deal with.
The panel discussed the dilemma presented by the conflict between professionals’ duty of care (to their client) versus their duty to report any potential alleged terrorist or suspected terrorist activity (under anti-terrorism laws). Jamieson spoke of a former ex-prisoner, who refused to be seen by a psychologist who did not want to talk about the Troubles and risk having to report the conversation. Yet the ex-prisoner would need to address his issues in order to resolve his drinking problems. In the end, he didn’t and his situation worsened.
Tackling the issue of rehabilitating ex-prisoners in society is indispensable as part of the shared future vision of Northern Ireland. Their crucial role should not be neglected. Their experience of prison could be a valuable source of inspiration within their respective communities and beyond.