CAIN Web Service

'No Sense of an Ending: The effects of long-term imprisonment amongst Republican prisoners and their families' Ruth Jamieson & Adrian Grounds (2002)

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text and Research: Ruth Jamieson and Adrian Grounds Page compiled: Martin Melaugh
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

The following report has been contributed by the authors Ruth Jamieson and Adrian Grounds. The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

No Sense of an Ending
The effects of long-term imprisonment
amongst Republican prisoners
and their families
Ruth Jamieson and Adrian Grounds (2002)

Published by SEESYU Press Ltd.

This publication is copyright (© 2002) of Ruth Jamieson and Adrian Grounds and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the authors and the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the authors. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

NOTE: The following page contains the text of the main body of the report but does not include the footnotes or the appendices.

No Sense of an Ending

The effects of long-term imprisonment
amongst Republican prisoners
and their families

Ruth Jamieson & Adrian Grounds


Report of a study commissioned by
the Ex-Prisoners Assistance Committee (Expac)
Presented to participants 1 March 2002



© Ruth Jamieson & Adrian Grounds 2002


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and authors. The interview schedules in Appendix II may not be utilised without permission of the authors.


Report of an exploratory study  commissioned by the Ex-Prisoners Assistance Committee (Expac) with Ruth Jamieson (Department of Criminology, University of Keele) & Adrian Grounds (Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge)

First published in 2002

Published by Seesyu Press Ltd,
59 Glaslough Street,
Monaghan Town,
Republic of Ireland.


Cover design by Ailish McShane, Ralaheen Ltd., Unit 21, Central Hotel Chambers, 7-9 Dame Court, Dublin 7.


ISBN: 0 9534019 5 2


Copies of the report can be obtained by contacting:
59 Glaslough Street, Monaghan, Republic of Ireland
Tel: 00 353 47 72 182
Fax: 00 353 47 72 332



Preface 4

1. Introduction 5

1.1 Background of the project 5
1.2 Previous research 6
1.3 Aims of the interview study 10
2. Methods 12
2.1 Sample 12
2.2 Data collection and analysis 13
2.3 Ethical issues 14
3. Findings 16
3.1 The ex-prisoners and their current circumstances 16
3.2 Life before prison 16
3.3 Prison experience 17
3.3.1 Interrogation 17
3.3.2 Coping strategies 17
3.3.3 Family ties and visits 22
3.4 Life after prison 26
3.4.1 Accommodation 26
3.4.2 Money 26
3.4.3 Work 28
3.4.4 Social integration 36
3.4.5 Family relationships 41
3.4.6 Psychological issues 46
3.4.7 Pathways to reintegration 59

4. Conclusions 62

5. Recommendations 65

Appendices 67

I Information notes for interviewees and interviewers 68

II Interview schedules 71


This report describes an exploratory study of the effects of long-term imprisonment amongst a group of Republican ex-prisoners and their families. The study highlights a range of needs and makes recommendations for further work to address them. Many of the aspects of post-release adjustment described in the report are likely to be common to other groups of ex-prisoners, including those of different political motivation, and so we hope the report will be seen to be of wider relevance across different communities.

The study was made possible by a grant from the European Union Special Support Fund for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. The generosity and support of the funding body is gratefully acknowledged. Expac would also like to thank the St. Stephen's Greens Trust for funding the launch of this report.

The field work described here was organised and carried out by Expac, with the assistance of Ruth Jamieson (Department of Criminology, Keele University), Adrian Grounds (Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge), Dave Wall (then Chief Executive of NIACRO), Nuala Kelly, (Co-ordinator of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas), and Bernadette McAliskey, (Founder member of the H-Block Armagh Committee.) Committee.) The fieldwork was co-ordinated by Eugene Byrne on behalf of Expac. The work of the other interviewers is also acknowledged with thanks.

The interview based research summarised in this report had its origins in a two day conference in May 1999 which was remarkable for the candour with which the participants reflected on their experiences and different perspectives. The conference shaped the themes that were explored in the subsequent research interviews.

The introductory section of the report briefly outlines the background context and aims of the study. Sections two and three summarise the methods of the interview study and the main thematic findings. Sections four and five discuss some possible implications and make recommendations for further work and forms of support. The interview schedules are included in the appendices.

We express our gratitude to the conference participants, and the interviewees who contributed so much, sometimes with difficulty, in the shared belief that this enterprise was important.

Ruth Jamieson Adrian Grounds
Department of Criminology Institute of Criminology
Keele University University of Cambridge



1.1 Background of the project

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement included a commitment to implement a programme for the early release of prisoners. By March 2001 decisions had been made in 475 cases, and the great majority were released. The text of the Agreement acknowledged that they would need a range of support.

The Governments continue to recognise the importance of measures to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into the community by providing support both prior to and after release, including assistance directed towards availing of employment opportunities, re-training and/or re-skilling, and further education.

In-depth studies of the experiences of previously released prisoners are therefore timely and may help to highlight issues to be faced by those who have more recently returned to their families and communities.

The nature of the challenges faced by ex-prisoners and their families will not be fully recognised without an understanding of the effects that Long-termlong term imprisonment had on them socially and psychologically; how they dealt with prison and separation; how they changed over the years. This study was primarily motivated by a recognition that these deeper aspects of the impact of imprisonment should be explored in order to identify ways in which ex-prisoners and their families may be better able to cope with release and the experience of the past.

Expac was enabled to commission this study through a generous grant from the European Union Special Support Fund for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. Expac organised an initial two-day residential conference, which was held on 22nd and 23rd May 1999. It brought together a group of about 25 ex-prisoners and their partners, and a small number of others with relevant interests in academic research, service organisation and group facilitation. During the conference the areas covered in group discussions included: lost experiences of work and career, dealing with a changed environment, self image and living in the community, managing family relationships, and problems of being understood. The event was cathartic. Themes of loss, change, of time that could not be put back, were prominent, together with disappointment, isolation and difficulty of regaining a sense of purpose. There was reference to the unspoken affinity between ex-prisoners but their sense of estrangement from others to whom understanding could not be communicated. Managing family relationships within and beyond prison could be particularly difficult. In conclusion the conference highlighted needs for further work in relation to employment, advice to others, and research to examine the themes discussed more systematically. Following the conference the proposal to carry out further research was taken forward by designing and implementing a systematic interview study with a small sample of ex-prisoners, partners and family members. The study and its implications are described in more detail in sections 2-4 below.

We believe that together with other recent studies this research highlights areas meriting more extensive inquiry as well as practical measures.

1.2 Previous research

1.2.1 Prison research

Until recently there has been a prevailing view that research on the psychological effects of imprisonment has found little good evidence of psychological deterioration in custody. However, much of this research has important limitations.

First, there is a lack of substantial longitudinal studies in which prisoners are followed up for very long periods of time; in consequence, research has lacked a developmental perspective. Long-termLong term prisoners, who typically may serve between ten and fifteen years before release, enter a different world from the one they left. They have adapted to the prison environment, and may have lost key relationships in the outside world, together with the decade or more of adult life when they would normally have been establishing themselves in their occupations, lifestyles, relationships and bringing up young families.

Secondly, studies of the effects of Long-termlong term imprisonment have generally been carried out during the period of custody, when what is of most importance and relevance is how Long-termlong term imprisonment effects people psychologically after release from prison. The few studies that have examined Long-termlong term prisoners after release have focused on general measures of social adjustment, rather than more subtle, hidden kinds of psychological and emotional disability.

Thirdly, there is a discrepancy between the minimal effects found in formal experimental psychological research and the vivid accounts of the difficulties experienced by Long-termlong term prisoners described in case studies, such as Cohen and Taylor’s Psychological Survival (1972). This suggests that the methods of the psychological studies have failed adequately to capture and characterise the kinds of distress that are reported by Long-termlong term prisoners.

Nonetheless, there are some findings of note in previous research. Separation from loved ones is generally experienced as the greatest source of emotional pain and prisoners may seek to cope with this by solitude and self-containment. Several studies also describe the sense amongst Long-termlong term prisoners that their life histories stop on entry to prison. Zamble and Porporino, for example, refer to the prisoner being "frozen developmentally". Released long-term prisoners commonly describe feeling as if they are the age they were on entry to prison, although they know they are in fact considerably older.

Cohen and Taylor noted that,

We were looking at the ways in which men in general might react to an extreme situation, a situation which disrupted their normal lives so as to make problematic such every day matters as time, friendship, privacy, identity, self-consciousness, ageing and physical deterioration. (op.cit. Note 7, p.41).

[A long-term prisoner] .. faces up to two decades inside, two decades away from home, wife, children, job, social life and friends. He cannot reassure himself that each of these domains is merely being held in cold storage until his return - a life cannot be reassembled twenty years after its destruction. (ibid. p.43).

Without a full consciousness of the way in which the every day world has been broken for the Long-termlong term prisoner, we can underestimate the pains he experiences and assume that his apparent ease represents a natural adaptation to prison conditions, and not one which has been personally constructed as a solution to intolerable problems. (ibid. p.44).

The impact of imprisonment on families and children has received less research, although there have been notable recent studies indicating that the effects on children can be particularly troubling.

1.2.2 Recent studies in Northern Ireland

The impact of long-term imprisonment, and the problems faced after release by Republican ex-prisoners and their families, were the focus of a recent study by Dr Peter Shirlow, sponsored by the Community Relations Council. The study was based on a substantial sample of 100 ex-prisoners and 40 relatives. The report described complex and long-lasting negative impacts of imprisonment on family relationships and children, and substantial problems in relation to employment. The report indicated that features of post-traumatic stress disorder were common amongst ex-prisoners, but often unrecognised. The report strongly endorsed the value of ex-prisoner based support organisations, and emphasised the importance of forms of help that are trusted by the ex-prisoner community.

A major earlier study by Kieran McEvoy and colleagues surveyed over 200 partners of Republican and Loyalist prisoners in 1992. The authors stressed that the fact of being politically motivated did not insulate prisoners and families from having to face substantial emotional, practical and emotional pressures. Support in coping was likely to be sought from families, friends and paramilitary welfare organisations rather than the professional and voluntary organisations established to help ‘ordinary’ prisoners. Structural barriers to reintegration also had to be recognised.

Some of the difficulties of reintegration experienced by ex-prisoners were outlined in a paper prepared by Clare Digney following an earlier Expac conference. Her report particularly focussed on administrative, economic and legal barriers in the field of employment and in other areas of civil life including compensation, pensions, travel, and the adoption of children. The paper argued for policies and legislation to erase these discriminatory practices.

1.2.3 Other research

Studies of prisoners in other jurisdictions may be of limited applicability to the context of paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. However, there is one body of research literature that may be of partial relevance to the problems of released prisoners, namely, studies of the adjustment difficulties of war veterans. Many of the issues identified in the conference discussions of May 1999 had clear parallels in accounts by the veterans in other contexts, for example Vietnam and the Second World War.

The effects of wartime separation (especially on relationships with children) have been well documented in the army welfare literature and in military sociology. These studies have shown that the longer families or couples are separated, the more problems they experience in trying to re-establish relationships. More recently, (after the Vietnam and Gulf Wars) it has also been recognised that the nature of combat or POW experience can have damaging effects on the veterans’ capacity to sustain family and marital relationships. Soldiers returned with an unrealistic, idealised view of the family, and experienced restlessness, irritability and severe difficulties in restoring intimate relationships. There was reluctance by the authorities to recognise the need for psychological help for those returning home, and the men themselves could be particularly disinclined to seek help. Amongst those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) the difficulties could be especially severe, as described, for example, by Solomon (1993) in her follow-up study of Israeli soldiers who had fought in the Lebanon war in 1982 and suffered combat stress reactions.

In many cases, the hiatus that PTSD symptoms create between the afflicted veteran and his family is exacerbated by his reluctance to talk about the war experiences in which he is so immersed ... The family often remains bewildered by the veteran's unusual behaviour, whereas the veteran, locked in his silence, becomes even more detached and cut off. He deprives himself of the emotional support his family could potentially give, and deprives his family of the emotional connection and involvement that is their due (pp.109 –111).

In addition, the veteran's tension, irritability and aggressive outbursts could impair family relationships; there were quarrels over trivial matters and difficulties in resuming a paternal role. Solomon (1993) also noted that the symptoms that interfere with the resumption of family relationships also apply to the veteran's wider social life. He may feel distant, uninvolved, reluctant to go out, and mistrustful of others, believing that others cannot understand what he has been through. Returning to work may also be impossible because of irritability, loss of motivation and loss of sense of purpose.

There were several themes in the May 1999 conference that had resonance with this research literature.

Community of experience

Shared experience of combat or prisoner of war camps can be a source of solidarity and common understanding, but at the same time it can promote contempt or antagonism towards others who have not shared this experience and are presumed to be unable to understand. One of the contradictions arising from this ‘community of experience’ is that others may be shut out from it at the same time as being blamed or resented for not understanding. The shared experience may also be a source of guilt or shame (about the individual POW’s conduct under pressure, letting the side down etc.). It is not always possible to let the Cause carry the responsibility for harm done to others. The insensitivity or ignorance of people the veteran encounters in the community can also exacerbate the sense of isolation and alienation from others.


The discussion about the masking of feelings echoed the literature on psychological survival in prison and the experience of POWs. Individuals mask their own vulnerability and there is a culture of not disclosing what sort of shape you are in; self censorship is exercised in talking about the experiences of imprisonment, and there is the ideal role model of POW that can be difficult to live up to.

Public and private self

One of the issues raised in discussion was resentment of the community's expectations of ex-prisoners and the sense that they had an obligation to continue to play the role of the political prisoner. Examples of this were the perception that the ex-prisoner could be used by political leadership, and that the ‘private self’ was appropriated by political leadership when it suited them. This is echoed in the experience of Vietnam POWs who felt they were being asked to put on a false front and to deny the harm done to them, as part of the war boosting effort.


Questions were raised about the value of the sacrifice, and whether it had been worth the cost. These debates focussed both on the lack of assistance with resettlement and the outcome of the conflict. Both factors tended to increase the level of resentment about authority and the personal cost paid.


Whilst release from prison may provide a form of ‘closure’ for the community, it does not necessarily represent an ending for the ex-prisoner. Post-release may be the beginning of a new form of prisoner identity and exclusion. There is also an acute consciousness of time irrevocably lost and of reduced time ahead.


There were related issues in relation to losses of life history and opportunities, and missed experiences, which may be difficult to acknowledge and come to terms with.

Changed self

One of the ways in which POWs survive is to imagine taking up where they left off (for example with wives and families). It may therefore be hard to accept that there have been changes in oneself and others that cannot be undone.


The strategies and modes of coping which prisoners developed inside, and which were adaptive in the prison situation (e.g., non-disclosure, blocking off emotion) may be inappropriate and maladaptive when continued outside prison, for example in a family context. These strategies for coping during imprisonment and post-release need to be explored further.

1.3 Aims of the interview study

It was clear from the (May 1999 Conference) that whilst the multiple difficulties faced after release can be hard to separate at the level of experience, it is important to distinguish them for the purpose of analysis. For example, a clear analytical distinction can be made between the material or economic effects of long-term imprisonment, the human rights implications relating to past convictions for scheduled offences, and the psychological issues relating to trauma, separation and adjustment.

The purpose of the interview-based study was to obtain a descriptive, in-depth account of the effects of Long-termlong term imprisonment on ex-prisoners and their families. A central assumption was that a better understanding of these effects could only be achieved from the perspectives of those involved. The interviews followed a biographical, historical format so that the present situation of interviewees could be seen in the context of their life histories, and so that comparisons could be made between the individual's situation and prospects before imprisonment, and those that were faced after imprisonment. As far as possible we aimed to cover parallel questions in separate interviews with ex-prisoners, their partners and family members, in order to build up a cumulative and corroborated picture.

It was hoped that the interview based study would explore in greater depth key themes identified at the residential conference, and that the insights gained from the interviews could be used to assist other ex-prisoners and their families with the problems of reintegration into the community.

In addition, we were conscious that the interviews recorded first-hand accounts of a historical era and unique form of prison experience that is passing, and in this regard the interview transcripts may form a valuable archive in due course, subject to the requirements of confidentiality.


2.1 Sample

The initial aim was to recruit a group of about 20 Republican ex-prisoners including women who had been affiliated with a cross-section of Republican groups. In view of the sensitivity of the topics covered in the interviews, and the overriding need to develop a context of trust and frank disclosure, the interview group was generated by a snowball method of recruitment. This began with some of those who had participated in the initial conference, and through personal contacts they in turn suggested others who were willing to contribute to the study.

Interviews were completed with 18 ex-prisoners from communities across Northern Ireland. All but two of the men interviewed served most or all of their sentences in the Maze; one served all of his sentence in England and one served all of his sentence in the Republic of Ireland.

In four cases additional interviews were completed: with a partner and close relative in two cases, and with a close relative alone in two cases. There were few of these additional interviews because sometimes a partner or close relative was unavailable, some declined to participate, and sometimes it was the ex-prisoner’s preference that only he should be interviewed.

2.2 Data collection and analysis

Three semi-structured interview schedules (for ex-prisoners, relatives and partners) were developed for the study. These went through several drafts and were refined through discussion and pilot interviews. The final interview schedules are reproduced in Appendix II.

The schedules were designed to enable open-ended exploration of the main topic areas, but in a consistent and systematic way by different interviewers. Each topic area was introduced by pre-set questions, and there were prompts to ensure that relevant aspects of the topic were covered.

The interviews were carried out by five interviewers, with interview training being provided by Ruth Jamieson before the main fieldwork began. Instructions for interviewers are reproduced in Appendix I below.

The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed, and a thematic content analysis of the verbatim transcripts was carried out.

The interviewed ex-prisoners were also given a set of self-completion questionnaires designed to identify current post-traumatic stress disorder and allied symptomatology. These diagnostic assessment instruments have been used in previous research studies on other groups, including ex-prisoners. The Traumatic Life Events Questionnaire (Kubany et al 2000) relates to traumatic history, and an additional question was added to cover any exceptional traumatic events experienced in custody. The Purdue PTSD Scale Revised (Lauterbach and Vrana, 1996) and the Revised Civilian Mississippi Scale (Norris and Perilla, 1996) measure PTSD symptomatology. The Beck Depression Inventory (Beck et al, 1979) assesses severity of depression, and the Beck Hopelessness Scale (Beck et al, 1974) assesses negative attitudes and pessimism about the future.

2.3 Ethical issues

A guiding principle of the project was that an understanding of the effects of long term political imprisonment could only be achieved from the perspective of those who experienced it, in their own words and in the context of their own life experiences, and that the researchers, therefore, should not attempt to appropriate the ‘voice’ of the participants. In conducting this research we were guided by the principles set out below which were agreed by the working group.


  • In the first and last instance the issue of what would be disclosed would be under the control of the interviewee. Where an interview was taped, the researcher would also ask the interviewee for his or her consent to having the interview recorded. The interviewee then would be given a verbatim transcript of the taped interview so that he or she could ask for corrections or deletions from the transcript.

  • The respondent's fully informed consent (concerning the extent of his or her participation, the accuracy of individual accounts, the use of findings, etc.) would be obtained.

  • If an ex-prisoner or relative agreed to participate and be interviewed he/she would remain the ‘owner’ of their own experience and information, and could withdraw their participation at anytime.

  • No person would be interviewed in relation to an ex-prisoner without the ex-prisoner’s knowledge and specific consent.


  • All interviewees would be guaranteed anonymity so that they did not suffer any harm or embarrassment as a result of the research. Therefore, all steps would be taken to ensure anonymity (aggregation of results, deletion of names and identifying details) in the recording, storage and reporting of people's accounts of their experiences.

  • All information collected would remain confidential to the project, and the use of all or any part of it beyond the clearly defined and agreed purposes of the project would not be undertaken without the agreement of the participants.

  • No participant would be identified as the contributor of information or opinion without his or her specific consent.

    Research Relationship

    The research was also guided by the following understandings:

  • The research relationship must be based on the interviewer's empathic neutrality and respect for the respondent.

  • The task of the interviewer was to encourage honest and open responses, to listen and seek clarification or elaboration of points raised.

  • The task of the interviewer was not to judge, persuade or act as proxy for a therapeutic relationship.

    Interviewers participated in a training workshop in Belfast during April 2000 covering interviewing skills, ethical issues and the nature and responsibilities of the research relationship.



    3.1 The ex-prisoners and their current circumstances

    At the time of the interviews with the 18 ex-prisoners they had been out of prison for an average of 11.5 years (range 5 – 19). Half had been out for 13 years or more. Their average age was 40 (range 32-55). All were men. Fewer than half were in employment.

    Five of the ex-prisoners were divorced or single. In total, eight had suffered broken relationships, and amongst the five who were married before they went into prison, three marriages had survived. Nine men were in new marriages or relationships which had begun since their release or whilst in prison. Most of the men (12) had children.

    One respondent said that he felt closer to the people with whom he had lived so long in prison than he did to his parental family.

    To me they were my brothers in there - that was my family. Then one day you walk away. To me that hurt more. That was my family, they understood me better than my own family did. And I think they still understand me better than my own family.

    Although the majority of interviewees said that they had regular contact (sometimes daily) with their families, some reported feeling guilty about their lack of emotional connection with their parents and siblings.

    When I arrive up home it is all polite - the same old talk. It is almost like a [prison] visit again and the closeness, it's gone.

    These phenomena are further described in section 3.4.4. below.

    3.2 Life before prison

    At the time of their arrests the men were predominantly young: on average 20 years old (range 16-26), and half were under 21. Most were single. Five were married and had children. Most had settled accommodation of their own or with families, but three were on the run. When asked about how their lives would probably have progressed had they not been arrested, most men saw their prospects in terms of stable marriages and family lives, but a small minority anticipated that they would be imprisoned at some point. Two men were sure that they would have been killed if they had remained out of prison, and thus ironically imprisonment had saved their lives.

    3.3 Prison experience

    3.3.1 Interrogation

    Most of the ex-prisoners we interviewed reported having been subjected to some degree of physical abuse, sleep deprivation and threat when they were first taken into custody, including death threats and threats to their families. Their reported experiences of violence ranged from,

    Just run of the mill getting lifted

    to beatings, to treatment amounting to physical or psychological torture. For example, one relative reported that,

    On one occasion .. he was thrown from a helicopter, handcuffed and blindfolded and he had no idea of what distance the helicopter was from the ground. This he felt was one of the most traumatic experiences he had.

    Although this was one of the more extreme cases of maltreatment reported, some other men described being subjected to mock executions involving guns while being transported to jail or during interrogation. The reported death threats, which were credible to the men at that time, entailed guns being put to the head with the threat that they would be executed and this would be attributed to their having been shot while trying to escape; or that they would be shot and dumped and the death would be attributed to a Loyalist killing; or that they would be released and it would be put about that the man was an informer.

    Six of these men reported persistent nightmares or intrusive memories afterwards. For example,

    I didn’t have actual images of the torture or anything, but there was for months - years afterwards, and I don’t know how related this was to anything I was involved in, but I was afraid to go to sleep because this thing came – whatever it was – and I was conscious of it and I couldn’t move and I knew there was people close by me and all I had to do was reach out but I couldn’t and it was really, really terrifying because I couldn’t move, I thought I was in a coffin of some sort.

    A number of interviewees - not just those who reported being subjected to abuse - expressed a wish to receive counselling to deal with their interrogation or prison experiences, but few were aware of how to obtain it.

    3.3.2 Coping strategies

    The men spent an average of over 11 years in prison (range 5-18). Six spent less than 10 years, and three spent 15 years or more in custody. At the time of release their average age was 32 (range 25-41). Only 4 were under 30.

    It is not the purpose of this report to give a detailed account of the men's experiences of imprisonment, and it would be difficult to convey adequately the context and nature of their lives at that time within the compass of this summary. Most were involved in eras of turmoil, conflict and change. Several were in custody during the period of internment (1971-75) and most during the period of the Blanket Protest and hunger strikes (1976-81). As McKeown (2001) describes, the period was associated with powerful solidarity amongst the Republican prisoner community as well as episodes of division. The interviewed men who lived through the period of the hunger strikes remembered it as an intensely distressing and difficult time.

    Everything changed, it really changed a lot of us. The struggle until then was an abstract thing. You know when you see people dyingin in front of you, it no longer became a game. It became real and there’s people there who you sang with, joked with, or argued with, who are dead, so that’s when it became real, that’s when your attitude changed, that’s when your sort of belief in the struggle became more serious. Because up until then you thought, well I'm in jail and I'm on the Blanket. I'm doing whatever; I’ll be out when I’m 40; I’ll be out when I’m 30 or 31. That was the way ahead of you. You were only 20 or you were only 21, you were an old man when you got out at that stage. These young men that were dying, and you could see the screws’ attitudes to them. They were even shouting at them and trying to harass them when they were dying: "That’s the f…ing Army." It made you even more angry. That’s when I changed.

    There’s so much happened through that whole jail experience, so much suffering, so much pain, so much grief, so much death that I think it was a whole combination of things and obviously the biggest part of that is the hunger strikers' deaths, of 10 men and I knew every one of them and I sat through the whole thing. I believe that to be a large part of the problem that I have … when Bobby and the boys died. That could have been the period when the most of this problem developed … It destroyed me, all those years.

    I think they [emotions] were massively distorted and stirred up. Personal, emotional, all the emotions were all thrown into … I remember going through periods of real hate of the people on the other side of the cell door in the black uniforms. And I remember picturing myself pushing the door down and going out with a submachine gun and just blowing every single one of them away. And then thinking about the consequences of it. So your emotions get really, really high and at a crisis hit really, really low ... After the hunger strike I think they all just fell in on me – really – and they need to be built up again, and I haven’t built them up.

    Most of the men (14) suffered significant bereavements during the years in custody. Over half experienced deaths of close family members, and the loss of the possibility of recovering relationships with them in the future.

    [My father]..died suddenly. I didn't really know my father because of the prison experience. I was only 17 when I went into jail. .. He had only visited me in the jail on a number of times. He didn't come down to the jail to see me, he didn't like to see me being in prison.

    The men described a range of personal coping strategies to deal with the pressures in prison. Predominantly they emphasised intellectual, stoical determination, and focussing on the present rather than the future.

    I blocked it out all the time [thinking about the future]. People talking about holidays - events that were really positive like that - I blocked them out because I knew that I wasn't ever going to sample that. My day would have been the routine, next day, training, language, music, reading, whatever.

    My experience in jail was that day dreaming, thinking at any great length, allowing your thoughts just to wander back to the present, was a very, very dangerous thing to do, because eventually you must confront reality and it’s all the tougher if you’ve been day dreaming about what might be.

    Now I came across about three if not four different reactions. One reaction was to turn religious. Some men manage to get through their time praying obsessively and I don’t know if they made it; another group of people attempted to create cosy images, and they had family portraits in their cell and come Christmas they’d put tinsel in the cell as if they weren’t inside, and those people I found invariably found life in prison the hardest, they are the people who done their time the hardest, because they were constantly trying to maketake something that wasn’t there. The religious people .. survived better than the day dreamers. And there was a group with a certain amount of austerity. I would avoid listening to the music that I had been familiar with before I was arrested because it tended to remind me. It was upsetting, Irish ballads, country and western music. .. The better course of action was to start to concentrate on learning, reading, coping with what we will do, what we can do .. Looking back I practised a regime of austerity. And rather than have the walls decorated with the family photos .. the illustrations that I did have on the wall were political...

    The recognition that emotional ties with the outside could be a source of comfort but also undermine resolve was expressed by a number of the men. One said that the photos of his family which he had put up on the wall were a constant reminder of life on the outside and that in some ways it would have been easier not to have had these emotional ties. Another bleakly observed,

    I didn't have any bad visits because I wasn't in love.

    This ‘fatalistic relief’ in reducing emotional reliance upon outsiders was also noted by Cohen and Taylor in their study of psychological survival among long term prisoners.

    Several acknowledged times of despair and profound feelings of depression (the ‘big D’), particularly at the time of the hunger strikes. The men also described a strong sense of solidarity and group support. There was mutual recognition when individuals were under pressure, some personal help from other prisoners, and debates about psychology. However at the same time many strongly emphasised the importance of blocking off emotional feeling and avoiding showing vulnerability to others.

    You would certainly feel very low but again you couldn't even show that… you just kept going, you knew that you have to keep going.

    You do find yourself developing strategies to get yourself through and you do suppress your own feelings or problems .. or try to minimise them, and emotionally you are stunted, there's no doubt about it. You are never really encouraged to show any sort of emotions as I say because you would show weakness ... In that situation you were really vulnerable and you had to show a certain facade to it all ... I personally didn't tell anyone very much … Personally I always had a thing about being able to cope and the last thing you want to do was to show that you couldn't really cope; no matter how bad you are feeling you always tried to put up a front for it.

    I tried to keep my mind busy and I also prayed a lot. Plus my daily exercises in the cell ... I bottled it up and didn't like bothering someone else with my problems … In the protest situation .. there were times you felt abandoned. [I became] very low and despairing. [But] you had to, you couldn't let the side down, and you knew everyone was going through the same thing.

    You talk to people. You talked to your friend, next door, next cell… They were your therapists, you were their therapist. Somebody would cry at one time and they went to you or somebody else. Everybody was a therapist in a way, that's what happens. They could tell what was going to happen, how you were thinking because they went through the same as you. So you became self-therapeutic within the Wing.

    I think it made all of us stronger emotionally. We were afraid to show emotions. We always had this attitude that we were rough, tough Provies, men don’t cry. But men do cry. A lot of men, you hear in the silence of the night on the Wing, people crying. There were people crying out. You did cry; you did become depressed. At times you found it very hard to do the time. There was always someone there you could relate to, someone you could talk to. I always went to … or people in the IRA I was very close to in jail that I could talk to because they’ve been through the same thing. And they’ll explain to you ... they’ll try and draw you out ... they’re more the psychiatrists. They would know something that happened to somebody else. .. They were sort of, I don't know … they were an unspoken journal of how to handle things in jail.

    Some of the men said that there was awareness amongst fellow prisoners of the contagious effects of depression and anxiety on others and consequently limits to what could be asked of others in terms of emotional support.

    I never [disclosed what I was going through] to other people at a level that was worth anything. I might have hinted some things but you were quickly reminded, ‘Do your whack. Catch yourself on’. In other words, they didn't want to know because they were frightened of that; they were frightened that it might stir something in them…

    When you were mixing normally [with others] you couldn’t really express what was going on [emotionally] because it had a domino effect on other people. You know, if someone’s marriage is breaking down if someone is getting a hard time, it was, sorry to hear that, but you had to switch off.

    A number of interviewees also talked about their fear of breakdown, and the necessity of hiding it behind a ‘macho’ front, especially under the strain of the Blanket and ‘no wash’ protests. This was partly for their own psychological survival and partly for the larger struggle with prison authorities.

    To an extent, yes [people talked about their problems], but it wasn't very great because of this macho thing where you didn't show emotion … There were people within the prison system who did break down big time … they weren't given any sympathy. They were treated as though they were deluded. You [would] see that yourself and you didn’t want to be labelled in that way. You fought it within yourself with a brave face.

    Initially when someone broke and put on the uniform, they were called ‘squeaky booters’ [derogatory term or label for prisoners who abandoned the protest] ... and they used to get verbal abuse. After a year the verbal abuse stopped because every single person knew he could be the next one. There was just total silence when anybody broke down. But it was a shattering experience … especially for someone who … and there were a lot of prominent people who broke and left the Blanket Protest. A lot of people who came from the Cages … who broke and left, and there were a lot of young lads here which was hurting them, and the authorities loved it when they got somebody prominent and well known who had broke.

    A number of the ex-prisoners and relatives we interviewed observed that for many Republican ex-prisoners there was still a stigma attached to breaking down or admitting to needing help, and their pride or ‘macho’ attitudes from prison prevented them from admitting they were having problems. As Toch noted, ‘every stressful setting has norms which dictate unrealistic adjustments - the soldier must be brave, the patient must be ‘patient’’. The stance of being – in the words of one interviewee – ‘.. rough, tough Provies ..’, which the men were at pains to maintain in prison, prevented some getting the help they needed on the outside.

    Counselling may have not gone amiss with a lot of prisoners. Then again there is a macho thing that counselling has a sort of stigma to it.

    One family member remarked that,

    [They] have an actual added set of problems and it’s called pride. It’s a huge thing and they don’t crack up. They don’t have drug addictions, alcohol addictions. They’re the tough men. So that’s actually worse than somebody who gets out of jail, goes along to the local health centre and says, "Give me some Prozac". And that is a huge dimension to these guys, that they’re too tough to do this. Also, I think there’s self-esteem, and this pride takes them through some of these experiences, the (justification that they were right. Then when they come out and they’re treated like returning heroes within the Republican community for a night and they’re brought out to some hotel and they’re piled on drink on them and given a cup or a crystal plate, and told they’re great fellows, and then that’s it. They think they have a certain status in the community and then once all this gets down to the nitty gritty of living they’re not qualified, they’re not trained, they’re too old for the physical labour, they’re not physically fit to do it. There’s just nothing there for them, there is no support for them. Yet they’re afraid to be seen to crack up. They’re afraid to say, "Listen, my wife doesn’t want me back; the children won’t .. ‘Where have you been for 12 years? You’re not going to ask me where I’m going at night. Don’t tell me this skirt’s too short’". They’re afraid to admit they’re having these problems.

    A small number of ex-prisoners who had been in the Cages and the H-Blocks said that they had experienced added pressure from other prisoners, or particular individuals in the Republican command structure, as a consequence of having signed a statement under interrogation or because they were members of one of the smaller Republican organisations. For some these experiences had lasting effects on their self-esteem and confidence.

    Coming into prison I felt that I wasn’t part of what was happening in prison. The fact that I signed a statement coming in meant that I was different from the rest and that difference has stayed with me to this day, in the sense that especially in the compound side where we were treated as two different peoples in the one organisation, and I found that there was a lot of bullying going on, a lot of misuse of power and there was room for that. People who had been bullies in their own life didn’t change because they had become part of the Republican Movement. And people were very young … And that would be the big impact on me in prison .. the fact that others misused that and I lost all respect for them. I only stayed within the compound system to survive because I knew to get out into the mainstream would have been ‘yes sir, no sir..’, in with all these paedophiles, drug abusers, you name it. So I was safe there, but there was a lot of mental pressure, I would say mental torture. Bearing in mind it actually was torture inside as well, in the compound side which hasn’t been talked about ... I found that when the Blanket Protest really reached a peak around the hunger strikes ... There was debate actually going on within the Cages whether we should actually join it, give up what we had and move down. I found that was a nightmare at the time for me, because I didn’t know how I was going to cope in the cell structure and I thought that I was going to meet some of the same bollocks I had met - some of them I would safely say – to give you a measure of the intensity that I felt towards a few of them. One in particular comes to mind to me, such a powerful figure that I would have shot him dead if I had met him on the outside. Where I am sitting now I would find that I don’t hate him as much but I find that I would love to confront him and let him know certain things.

    But after [the first 7-8 months] I come to realise that within the Republican Movement - within the whole eight months that I thought that I was getting on all right - there would have been mind games played by other Republicans. And these mind games stemmed on for the next five and a half years when I was in jail, not only for myself but for other Republican, socialist prisoners. And we had the IRA .. daily coming out with what was like a big baton putting you down every time you opened your mouth … And at that time I had people who were sitting trying to get an education and the Provisional IRA were putting obstacles in your way to stop you educating yourself or throwing different wee things in your way.

    I will be honest with you, my own self-esteem was completely shattered in Castlereagh. By the time I got to the Crumlin Road and it has been a process of … you tried from being a nothing to try to build up yourself again … I was personally broke by Castlereagh and as well as being broken by the Special Branch and police you were broken again to a certain extent in the prison by the fact that you had let the side down, when you were on remand and how people regarded you then. Because there is a very definite hierarchy in the prison and - especially I found in the Crumlin Road - I felt myself that I was in the very bottom league because of the experience of Castlereagh and what had happened there. And your own estimation of yourself is completely gone at that stage. And then through a process you gradually do build up your own self-esteem. The fact of going on the Blanket Protest was an attempt to prove to yourself again and to try to get your self-esteem back by committing yourself to that and then surviving the whole prison thing.

    3.3.3 Family ties and visits

    Visits, however, could entail additional pressures. For most men their main visitors were parents, particularly mothers. For many the most difficult aspect to cope with was their knowledge that there was nothing they could do about what was happening outside in their families.

    You did worry but there was nothing you could do. Once you're in there that’s it. There’s nothing you could say or do [about] anything that was happening.

    I think I felt very guilty that they had to travel up and stuff like that. I knew they were struggling outside … I felt powerless to help them as well and I felt sorry for them.

    Almost all the men (16) said that they tended to hold back from talking to family visitors about their worries and concerns, mainly so as not to upset their relatives.

    You would hold a lot of that into yourself; you wouldn't want to upset anybody.

    When someone came to visit you tended to tell them that everything was OK, things were going well, there was no bother. .. That’s a lie; for most people it was a lie. So if anybody asked you how you really felt you wouldn’t tell them, you’d just say you’re great.

    We were glad to see them. But we put on a front too. There was a bit of a culture of deceit. We didn’t actually convey how you were or how things were happening. We didn’t want to upset them. We didn’t want the visits to be upsetting. We only had half an hour to try and maintain that family continuity and to strengthen all these ties because of our separation. We had half an hour to maintain and strengthen. So that’s what we used the visit for.

    I would try and think of three or five reasonably mundane topics. I set out not to leave my relatives thinking that I was under any undue stress.

    In a similar way the families also held back from disclosing their difficulties from the prisoners, in order not to upset them.

    While ... was in prison, I know that [his mother] censored what she told him, very much so. And she’d tell me then later on, "Well you couldn’t tell [him] it would only upset him". And it wasn’t in badness - he’d say it was badness - it wasn’t really, it wasn’t badness. She wouldn’t tell him and say things like somebody was sick in case it upset him; and then maybe when he’d come out and ask where someone was, who was dead three months ago, ‘Oh all right’. There was a lot of that, families doing things, muddling through with the best of intentions. (family member).

    This is consistent with the findings of McEvoy et al (1999) that many prisoners' partners felt under pressure not to spoil visits by talking about problems they were having at home. In consequence mutual understanding between prisoners and their families could gradually be lost. By not disclosing to each other the difficulties they were facing they became estranged from each other’s experiences over a period of many years.

    No, [my family have] no conception of what it’s like... I don’t think they understand the emotional pressure of long-term imprisonment; that’s the thing they don’t understand.

    There was no doubt that a lot of what was going on was held back from me. I had very little clue about what was really happening. It is only in talking to my family afterwards, and even just during conversations with members of my family in recent years, that something has come up and was discussed. And all of a sudden it would dawn on me that things were not going as well, or things hadn't been that easy. Or things had actually been worse than I had thought they had been.

    Some respondents reported that there were some things they didn't want to know during visits, for example, they would avoid the issue of their partner's fidelity.

    Sometimes but there was always something you don’t want to talk about, you don’t want to ask about. You know, might be in the back of your mind, or I don’t know, or I might imagined .. Wife might be seeing somebody else, or you don’t know, you wouldn’t ask it, rather not know, you know? And even to the point where you rationalise it and say, but would it matter anyway? But then there would be lots of things that you wouldn’t want to ask about. Certainly you wouldn’t, you know. I remember after about 3 years, you knew you were still .. in ahead of you, so you wouldn’t talk about that - about 5 years time; you think about next month, so you might talk about perhaps next Christmas, do you know what I mean? So you’d avoid looking at something that perhaps you didn’t want to think too closely about.

    Some men described becoming gradually more distant and detached over time.

    At the start - I’d say for a year to a year and a half - I’d look forward to the visits and it took a lot of emotional strength; it did leave me a bit upset when people went away. But after that time, when you went on a visit you found that after the first couple of minutes you had nothing to say. At the back of your mind you wanted the visit over; you just had nothing to say, you’d be saying the same thing over and over again.

    The half-hour visit was very, very hard to get through. You know, a half hour doesn’t seem too long but if you have someone there that you haven’t got a roll of conversation [with], a half hour seems like five or six hours and you just can’t wait to get the visit over.

    Earlier years, always looking forward to them and very disappointed if I had missed a visit. But gradually, and more so in the Blocks phase of the imprisonment, I was having longer and longer time-outs from the family. I think I was drifting away ... and I found that I was turning more into a loner really.

    During this stage of his imprisonment he found that,

    I couldn’t wait to get back into the routine again, and if I had bad news on a visit and it had impacted on me, my way of dealing with that was to go straight into training,Runtraining, run around the yard, back into the shower and block it out. That is the way I did it.

    Others also reported engaging in modes of shutting down or blocking off upsetting thoughts and feelings which threatened their psychological equilibrium.

    The frequency and type of visits (open or closed) varied considerably over the period that the men in our sample were in prison.

    Visits were limited; letters were limited unless you were prepared to smuggle letters out. During the protests and after the protests it was very hard. During the protest period you had a visit once a month, and it was with my parents for the most part, and then it was up to one period where we were getting two visits a month, and gradually up to a week for a half an hour period. It is a very, very artificial situation - a prison visit - because first of all it is in a very artificial situation you are in – you are put into a room at a table with people and you are trying to show your best side I suppose, you are in the middle. They are trying to humour you; there is a whole complex sort of dynamic to that whole prison visit thing. It is very artificial anyway, unless you are very close to someone it is very hard to express yourself on a prison visit.

    The presence of prison officers was also a factor. In addition to the interaction with visitors, prisoners had to face intimate security searches (which were conducted with varying degrees of rigour during prison protests) going to and from the visiting hall. Many reported having to ‘psyche themselves up’ to get through visits.

    [Visits were] oh terrible. I mean, I was very excited looking forward to them, you know, you would prepare yourself, clean, and of course there was never enough time for visits, a couple of hours or something, I can't remember exactly. Often terrible, you just go into a downer, but everybody knew that, we all used to know that, when you had visits you knew people would come back and wouldn’t talk, just go into their cell and close the door, what have you, but so it was that. They were roller coaster things, you'd go in looking forward to it and before you knew they were over; you knew you were going to be depressed for a day, a couple of days or whatever.

    One man recalled visits at the time of the Blanket Protest as follows:

    You were searched, where you had to squat over a mirror, all that sort of thing. You had to give your prison number, and if you didn’t give it, you get hassle, everyone who had a visit. The screws stood right at your back and you were sitting across a table. All that sort of thing. And then on your way back, same hassle. So the problem was you couldn’t look forward to the visit because of what you had to go through to get that visit. So that sort of thing was frustrating. Then after the protest the visits eased up a wee bit. It was a more relaxed atmosphere when you could look forward to a visit. (The person is talking about a Blanket protest visit.)

    Men who had been on hunger strike said they found visits at that time like ‘a nightmare’ or an ‘ordeal’. A number of Blanket men remarked on how embarrassing it was for them to appear in front of their families dirty and unshaven. One said that he found having to wear the clothes of an orderly particularly humiliating and degrading.

    You were locked up 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no clothes, so the only reason they let you on the visit, you had to wear your prison clothes. One thing was that the orderlies that used to wear prison clothes, would put their dirty clothes in boxes and you had to wear their underwear that they’d played football in. And if you didn’t wear it, no visit. So that was one thing.

    Although they were ‘impersonal’ transactions, ‘Business'Another kind of visit was the ‘business visit’ (for smuggling communications or other items). Although these visits involved impersonal transactions they were also remembered as being extremely stressful, especially during the heaviest protest period, because of beatings, mirror searches and fear of getting caught.

    When I heard my name getting called, I used to sit in the corner and shake - just literally shake - because we knew it was coming, and we knew we were going to get poked and prodded and probed with mirrors; and the fact you knew there was going to be, say, a camera coming in that day, what if you were caught with the camera, caught with the radio or whatever it was, .. It was that sort of dilemma. It was like going on an IRA operation; the adrenaline was flowing. You used to take your time going on the visit and as soon as the visit was over, you’d done half a mile as quick as you could and you’d walk back as quick just to get into to the cell, and somewhere private and personal to you, that wee corner with your own dirt on the wall and your own wee white space and your own dirt in the corner and your own wee bit of mattress. That was like heaven, getting back in there again … So it became more of a game after a while. It was a game of cat and mouse. They knew I was doing it but they could never catch me. At the end of the day on visits with those people you knew that they were up to fulfil a role and you had to fulfil a role, so there was no emotional contact, .. it was just they were going to give you something, you were going to get something off them back or you were there to give them something to take out. That’s all it was, it was a role. (Business visit.)

    3.4 Life after prison

    3.4.1 Accommodation

    Over half of the ex-prisoners we spoke to returned to their family homes on release and then moved on once they had established relationships. This is not surprising given their relative youth on entry into prison

    On average the ex-prisoners in our sample had moved three or four times since their release from prison. The main reasons given for these moves were getting married or transfers to better accommodation. Three men had moved very frequently (6, 11 and 20 times), reflecting the level of turbulence in some ex-prisoner's lives since release. This was typically associated with breakdown of relationships, the search for work, restlessness, or moves to avoid security threats. Most of those who moved because of concerns for personal or family security had experienced these problems in Belfast.

    That said, several ex-prisoners were in the process of buying their own homes and many attributed this achievement either to the extraordinary joint efforts or the continuous employment of their partners during the term in prison. Four-fifths of the ex-prisoners were living in Housing Executive accommodation and most considered it adequate for their needs.

    3.4.2 Money

    The majority of ex-prisoners said that they had found it very difficult financially since their release. Many reported that they were ‘just scraping by’. They were managing to stay afloat financially through a combination of their partner's continued employment, ‘ducking and diving’, ‘doing a bit of doubling’ and getting money when they could.

    Scraping through .. just survival, mere survival.

    It has been very difficult. I would say from release to now that I have been surviving. I wouldn’t say I was comfortable or could relax and any major luxury things like a car or a holiday had to be financed, we had to get it through finance or through the Credit Union or something … I can honestly say I have been scheming and scamming to get by and I would say that. But I wouldn’t say I was any different from anyone else, but I am not sure if I am or not.

    [Money] has always been difficult because the work wasn’t there. Sometimes you’d get by .. sometimes you get good times and the money’s there. But to have a permanent job and a permanent wage – and a good wage coming in – that was never there. You were getting the very bare minimum wage. Only for the black market … what we’d call (doing the double), I don’t think many of us would have survived. The fact that … people got caught maybe in the first few years … [you] needed a few pounds, somebody would slip you a couple of pounds. When you come out they expect you to go and live under your own steam, and so do you. And that culture of knowing that dependency soon evaporates through time, and then you’re on your own - getting by.

    The majority of ex-prisoners described themselves as having problems handling money. This may be accounted for, in part, by the relative youth of most of the men on imprisonment. Many had gone directly into the IRA after leaving school, still lived at home or were on the run, so had no experience of the routine management of a wage or operating a bank account.

    [I am] totally incompetent at managing money. I’m not used to money anyway.

    Virtually all of the men who were in relationships, including those who considered themselves competent at handling money, left the management of money up to their partners.

    I think I lost the way ... I had no idea how to budget money. ….I think at the start it was that I wasn’t used to the value. But after perhaps ... in my experience ... six or seven months you knew the value of ... I suppose it was low income, it didn’t go very far anyway. I tend to leave money up to my partner ...

    Yes, I have had piles of problems with that there. When you don’t know how to handle money or the value of money – because you just find it really hard to make ends meet at times.

    Men also reported being given money raised by the community immediately on their release and having no idea of its worth. Few kept it for long enough to derive real benefit from it.

    Initially it was a struggle and as I say trying to get work and trying to get ... You depend a great deal on your family when you get out. I have been very lucky to have a close family and that network of support. I did get support fromthe(P.D.F) a prisoner organisation … that gave me a certain amount of support. But it is funny looking back on it now it is probably the wrong kind of support. I don’t want to sound ungrateful but what happened was – a week after I got out of prison the … held a night in the local club here and had a band and you were given what was collected on the door on the night. And this was thrust into your hand and I mean you had no idea of the price of anything, you had a pile of money in your hand and to be honest I went a bit mad on it, you know. I was spending rings round me, you know what I mean, not really sort of having the discipline to look after the money I was given. Like I was going out and taking a drink and spending it around me when in actual fact if somebody had give me a job or a bit more advice on looking after money and just general stuff like that there, it may of stood to be better than been handed a lump of money.

    A number of the ex-prisoners reported getting into serious financial difficulties, especially in the period soon after release. Most reported that they had neither sought nor received any advice on how to sort out their debts.

    Yes, I never had a bank account. I never had savings of over £1000. I’ve never had, I wouldn’t even know what that means. Most of the money went into the hand and was used up. I couldn’t think I’m going to have a holiday in Spain, because I didn’t even have a passport. I wouldn’t have a British passport, and the Irish one was too dear. You felt kind of trapped at times. It was one of those things where you’d say I’ll do it next week; I’ll do it in six months time. But you’re only convincing yourself that things will change, you will change things if they don’t change, you will take it in hand, you’ll take fate in your hands.

    I got [financial] advice in the form of ‘reminders’ .. . learned the hard way. … If I had assistance and put things into focus, [from] somebody who I could look up to, somebody who’s got a bit of savvy about them, and say look you’re mis-managing the whole thing here, I can tell you what to do.

    Many reported having problems ‘facing up to the people across the desk’ at the Local Social Benefits Office, either because an application process was too complicated or opaque or because the process itself made them feel as if they were being interrogated again.

    I think the girl [in the Benefits Office] actually filled [the forms] out. I did find them difficult yes. They were just a maze of tick boxes and questions and for me it was like an interrogation again.

    Although if it had to been left up to myself I probably would not have applied for the half of the things I was entitled to or it would have been a real struggle to get things together. So again I was very lucky that I had that support behind me. I know that wouldn’t be available to all prisoners and in that sense it was very important.

    3.4.3 Work

    The major single obstacle to successful resettlement for the ex-prisoners we spoke to was finding and keeping meaningful employment. Finding adequate employment was also of fundamental importance for the ex-prisoner's financial circumstances. No other factor, including problems with managing money or accessing state benefits, was reported to be as important. More than half the men were unemployed at the time of interview. A third were working in the community sector, and all but one of them had university degrees. Three were involved in volunteer work in their communities. Over a third of the men had a skilled trade or other specialist manual skills, and a fifth had at least ‘A’ level qualifications. A fifth had no formal skills qualifications. Overall, the men tended to have significantly higher educational qualifications at the time of their release than was average for men in Northern Ireland, and considerably higher qualifications than other unemployed men .

    The fact that the rate of unemployment among the Republican ex-prisoners we talked to was higher than the average for men in Northern Ireland (7.7%) will surprise few people, but the size of the ‘employment gap’ between them and other males, including other Catholic men in Northern Ireland is startling. Fifty three per cent of the ex-prisoners we interviewed were currently unemployed compared to 10.4 % of Catholic and 5.2% of Protestant men. The size of the group we interviewed is too small to allow statistically reliable generalisation to all Republican ex-prisoners. However, if the men in our study are typical, then, as a group, Republican ex-prisoners would be five times more likely to be unemployed than their Catholic counterparts and over six and a half times more likely to be without work than all men in Northern Ireland. (See Table 1 below).

    Table 1: Northern Ireland Unemployment Rate - Males (%)









    Unemployment Differential

    1971 Census



    2.6 : 1

    1981 Census



    2.4 : 1

    1991 Census



    2.2 : 1


    1983 CHS*



    2.6 : 1




    2.4 : 1




    2.3 : 1




    2.3 : 1




    3.0 : 1




    2.4 : 1




    1.9 : 1




    2.6 : 1


    1990 LFS**



    2.0 : 1




    2.5 : 1




    2.4 : 1




    2.1 : 1




    2.0 : 1




    2.0 : 1




    1.6 : 1




    2.9 : 1




    2.3 : 1




    1.9 : 1

    LFS Quarterly Estimate
    Spring, 2000






    1.7 : 1

    LFS Quarterly Estimate
    Spring, 2001






    2.0 : 1

    *Source: These figures were derived from the Continuous Household Survey, Unemployment Estimates by Stated Religion, CHS 1983-1989/99.

    **Source: Annual Labour Force Survey, Unemployment Rates 1990-1999 for Male and Female Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland (economically active aged 16+)

    The date of release of the ex-prisoners we interviewed is also relevant to the issue of employment. The rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland rose steeply throughout the 1980s peaking at around 26% for all males and 37% for Catholic males during 1985-87. For the ex-prisoners in our sample, the earliest year of release was 1982 when the unemployment rate for Catholic men was running at 30%. The rate was never less than 20% for those released in later years. Over half the men in our sample were released between 1986 and 1990 and consequently they found themselves confronting a bleak economic environment in which to seek work. This was after an average absence from the labour force of over 11 years and in three cases over 15 years. As previously noted, on average they were in their early thirties on release.

    Moreover, the chances of finding employment were even more stark for those ex-prisoners trying to resettle in areas like Armagh, Cookstown, Craigavon, Dungannon, Derry, Newry &Mourne, or West Belfast which historically hadhave the highest rates of unemployment in Northern Ireland. A recent report by Féilim O'hAdhmaill (2001) provides a detailed analysis of the training and employment opportunities for ex-prisoners.

    To a large extent the high rate of unemployment among ex-prisoners as well as their involvement in the informal economy is overdetermined. The interviews indicated that at least three major factors may play a role: discontinuity of employment through involvement in the conflict and imprisonment; restricted access to employment; and psychological effects of long-term imprisonment.

    Discontinuity of employment

    It is not unusual for returning war veterans to have higher rates of unemployment than their non-combatant counterparts in civilian society. (This is due to military service causing not only disrupted employment, but also the loss of work experience, skills acquisition and employment networks for the duration of the person's absence from civilian life.) However, the level of unemployment experienced by Republican ex-prisoners we studied is of a different order of magnitude than that found among Vietnam or other veterans. It was more akin to levels that would be expected among long-term criminal offenders.

    Restricted access to employment

    It is a commonplace observation of studies of returning veterans that restricted access to employment makes the re-entry process harder and prolongs the period of adjustment to civilian life. But the situation of the ex-prisoners in our study is exacerbated by a number of factors, not least of which is the fact that the conflict in Northern Ireland is not unambiguously ‘over’. Thus the opportunities for the employment of ex-prisoners are constrained by issues of security. Many of the respondents in our study reported that concern for their personal safety also severely limited the areas in which they could work.

    It is always in the back of your mind, it is always a dilemma applying for jobs depending on the particular area you are going to work in and I found myself filling in application forms and just ignoring the fact that I have been in jail. And to a certain extent I have told lies really in the job interviews where the question is asked… simply because you have at the back of your mind your own security and also you do find that people’s attitude towards you does [change].

    I approached several people for a job when I did get out of jail for work later, and I found that in some cases it was difficult because a lot of the people I had asked for jobs were working in sensitive areas. And I know this happened on at lease three occasions where I had asked the contractor for a job and he would say he would love to employ me but I can’t take the risk of taking you to a particular area, say in Belfast or somewhere, in case you were spotted, because you have to remember the situation in the late ‘80’s early 90’s was .. a fair amount of assassination was going on – people were worried and stuff like that.

    The safest areas for the ex-prisoners to work in - their own or other nationalist communities - are often the areas that historically have had the poorest job opportunities. At the same time, the nearby areas with more job opportunities (for example, East and South Belfast) are often locations where the qualified ex-prisoners are least likely to be offered or to accept work because of security considerations or discrimination.

    In addition, concerns about the safety of co-workers who might be at risk by association prevented otherwise willing employers from offering ex-prisoners work, or restricted the types or location of the work they were given. Some of our interviewees reported that police harassment when travelling to work as part of a group also led to work-mates or employers being unwilling to have ex-prisoners in the workforce.

    I’ve applied for jobs, and the first thing … you get half-wayhalf way … prison …. criminal offences. For starters, I could never fill that in, and they tell you that if you don’t fill in the proper writing, you can be cancelled for doing that, so … every time I apply for a job they’re all in it. And there’s two reasons for not filling it in. One of the reasons is that you’re giving your own personal security away, because you don’t know who’s going to be reading this. And the second one is that even if you did get the job, it still isn’t safe over here; there are still areas where I wouldn’t work.

    I have worked .. in dangerous areas like Belfast, and there’s people who didn’t want me going down there because they thought that [if] I had been seen on the building site the whole lot of them would be targets, which to a certain extent was true, so the boss didn’t send me to Belfast, so there were allowances made there. You felt that you were just getting work because people had sympathy for you, so that had problems too.

    With the best of intentions people employed me, but suffered because in certain areas it was too dangerous to send me to work and there was police harassment all the time to other workers because I was working on the site. In the end I just had to give up my job.

    Some of our interviewees reported that even when they had managed to secure employment, the intervention of the security forces could lead to their dismissal from jobs.

    It actually came from the RUC as well. I lost a very good job over them because they were not happy with where I was working. It happened very simply - they went to the firm and started making enquiries about me and one thing and another, and it was a pretty large firm, again there was a lot of other men working and they didn’t want the hassle of me. So I lost my job over it.

    One ex-prisoner cited the direct intervention of the security forces as the cause of losing his job and being prosecuted for social security fraud.

    Well I was approached by a Special Branch officer who wanted to recruit me as an agent and I told him to ‘go and stuff yourself’ and he got the Social Security on to me… [The same ex-prisoner moved to another job and had a similar experience there] … So they arrested me, charged me with obtaining employment for pecuniary advantage.

    When I actually got out of jail – people wouldn’t even want me travelling in the same vehicle as them if they were going to work because they were going to get stopped, going to get harassed and one thing and another. And nobody actually wanted me; not that they didn’t care about me, but they were putting their own lives at risk like.

    I had work but I had to leave because of the employers and the people that I was working with were concerned with me being there - that they would be shot coming or going from the place.

    Given concerns about personal safety and the safety of others, it was often the case that ex-prisoners looking for work, especially those living in divided communities, were limited de facto to Republican areas. Here much of the work available was in the informal economy and largely controlled by the Republican Movement. Some of the ex-prisoners interviewed remarked that the political vetting which operates in this area of possible employment left them ‘out in the cold’.

    A further significant factor restricting access to employment, particularly secure and permanent employment, was having a criminal record as a scheduled offender. Ex-prisoners were faced with a choice of either declaring their ex-prisoner status - which automatically excluded them from consideration for many jobs - or covering up the gap in their CV's and risking later discovery. Only a few held out any hope that this dilemma would be resolved by the declaration of an amnesty.

    For instance, there was one job that I applied for and I filled the form out saying that I had no criminal record – which I don’t have a criminal record. I was called into the office one day and I was told that I had filled the form in wrong and that I couldn’t be trusted because I had told a lie and I had to be let go. I lost the job because of that.

    Well you go for jobs. I went for jobs. I’ve actually been told one time that I’ve got the right qualifications, enough ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels and computer studies, and I was the best candidate for the job, but once they heard I was an ex-prisoner, then they don’t want to know. I went for a job in the Royal Victoria as an auxiliary nurse. Once they heard I was an ex-prisoner, because you had to state that you were in jail .. And I went for a job in a school as a laboratory technician when I was in …, and again I was told by the headmaster that I was the most qualified candidate, and when I went for the interview I was asked by a parent who is a Catholic and who knew all my life, what happened if somebody mentioned that you were in the IRA, and I said that I can’t answer that question. And they said you can’t get the job. ... Your past, you can’t escape it. I don’t want to, I’ve done nothing to be ashamed of.

    There’s something like twenty six areas from which I am barred from applying for a job as an ex-prisoner. The Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness is an ex-prisoner himself. If I applied for a job in the health service now or in education, I can't get a job because I'm an ex-prisoner.

    As has also been noted in Peter Shirlow's (2001) study of the resettlement of Republican ex-prisoners, all of these factors tend to ‘push’ towards insecure, cash-in-hand, casualised employment in the ‘informal’ economy where ex-prisoner status can sometimes be an advantage. Almost all of the ex-prisoners we interviewed reported that they had worked in the informal economy at some time since their release.

    I think my history of being an ex-prisoner has helped me find employment. The reason being it helps me find a particular type of employment. Door men in clubs - because there was a network of ex-prisoners always on the look out for each other and get them in, money in hand. So I think that’s how I ended up doing a doorman in a club because people recommended me and said come on round we’ll get you a job here. And that’s how people help each other. So I think I had preferential treatment there from somebody else who wasn’t an ex-prisoner.

    But at the same time it may render the ex-prisoners open to greater exploitation than others working in these sorts of jobs.

    I resent being employed by people who I judge to be manipulating and underpaying and using people like me. I totally resent it. It gets me into trouble pretty regularly with employers.

    From getting out of prison, I’ve experienced [unfairness and exploitation], yes, on almost every occasion where I’ve worked. I’ve worked in bars, I’ve worked in building sites, since I’ve got out of prison … I’ve worked for friends who have employed me and each time I’ve felt exploited, yes.

    Psychological effects of long-term imprisonment

    One of the most significant psychological factors that impeded settling into work was unwillingness or inability to accept the petty tyrannies of workplace authority and a number of ex-prisoners reported walking off the job as a consequence of this.

    The first job was a nightmare working in a … factory, ... the dirtiest place I have ever worked in, in my life. But I had great difficulty in it, because I found myself saying I had spent all those years in prison, and I was standing at a conveyor belt and I thought what is it all about? I couldn’t hack it at all and I had great difficulty with authority. So much so I ended up in a row with the manager and f**ed him off and walked out very smartly. Because he had clicked his fingers at me and once he done that, that was it you know…. But I moved on to another job. It was a slight step up from the dirty job … I found the work very tough, the pay very low and the attitude very dim. It was power, all about authority again, and I ended up having a row with someone there, and I cleared off out of it. I would say working with people in authority was always very tough.

    Hard [to accept authority] to the point that on five or six different occasions I’ve walked off jobs where people - I don’t mean people asking me to do something - I very much resent people telling me to do something and using an attitude to do it. With that superior type attitude that I was an inferior type person - I resent that very much. Yes, I would not treat anyone that way. I find that people who have got into positions of power and have got money tend to look down on people who don’t. I’ve never ever tolerated anyone doing that to me.

    Others mentioned lack of confidence and anxiety about the use of new technology as problems.

    Work was sort of the first basic thing on my mind but not having the confidence and thinking that I didn’t have the ability and work experience over the years. And I found it very difficult to get into work.

    But, as one ex-prisoner remarked, there is ".. not much technology in using a spade and shovel", stacking bricks or doing "low paid donkey work"; and not working could also have psychological costs.

    I’m carrying bricks for bricklayers. The reason why I keep doing it [is] because I find it helps me. If I’m not doing physical work I tend to get more depressed and more moody being very, very unhappy. I need to be doing physical work.

    Almost all of the ex-prisoners who had participated in the ACE (Action for Community Employment) scheme reported finding the work experience either irrelevant or demeaning. Some found the ACE employers patronising. One said that the ACE manager he had contact with was exceptionally sympathetic and helpful in helping sort many practical aspects of resettlement. None thought that the scheme served as a springboard to ‘real’ employment and none reported acquiring transferable skills or confidence as a result of it. This is largely consistent with O'hAdhmaill's finding that the main factors militating against ex-prisoners obtaining training and qualifications, apart from security issues, were discrimination, a lack of sensitivity to ex-prisoner's training needs, a lack of appropriate courses and a lack of confidence on the part of ex-prisoners.

    Taken together, restricted mobility due to security concerns, discrimination because of a record of imprisonment, lack of training, lack of experience, lack of local jobs in the formal economy all serve to produce a very significant overrepresentation of ex-prisoners among the low paid and unemployed.

    3.4.4 Social integration

    Most of the ex-prisoners we spoke to said that they had been warmly welcomed back into their own communities. Some said that they were treated as heroes and accorded a certain status and respect. But despite this goodwill, the welcome tended to be short-lived. After an initial period of solicitude, the men were ‘left to their own devices’.

    People were very, very good. Neighbours, friends, relatives and all that there, were very, very good. But they had their own lives to live and after a couple of weeks and that they were just living their own lives. They’d acknowledge you and that was it.

    You do have a false image of how people are going to react. You know, all of a sudden you find out that people have been living their own lives and dealing with their own problems. And it was good to see you and all the rest of it but you know they moved on. Funnily enough, after a few weeks all the ‘hubbub’ had died down and people were getting on with their own lives and you were just another person. Whereas when you first went into the bar everybody was buying you drink, for the first couple of weeks people were taking you out and showing you around the places, that sort of died down and you got into a routine and the whole thing. One thing that comes out of it was that because you came from this community and went to prison you were somehow special. You sort of expected that people sort of owed you a living or something – that you had a special place in the community simply because you were a prisoner. I think myself I was anxious to avoid that.

    They gave me a great welcome: how great it was for me to be home, hope things go well, wish me happiness, sympathetic, ‘We know you’ve been through an awful lot’. They were very conscious of the fact that we have been through an awful lot, and conscious of my suffering and all that my family went through as well. … Through time, the hero bit wears off; you get back into the conflicts of life and the different things, the whole normal experience … All they know is that you’re an ex-prisoner; that’s all you’ll ever be, an ex-prisoner.

    One of the most difficult readjustment issues facing returning ex-prisoners is negotiating the status of ‘ex-prisoner’. It is not always clear what being an ex-prisoner means, especially to other people. Most respondents felt that the years they spent in prison had a profound effect on their place in the community. Many said that they felt they did not fit in anymore. They did not know people even though others claimed to know them.

    There are so many people who would recognise me and know me, but yet there would be no real closeness there. I am seen completely differently. … As time goes on there is a bigger distance …

    It is sort of difficult to explain that – in some ways it has been good and other ways it has been bad … People wanted to keep their distance from me and didn’t want to get stopped with me … That was a big drawback on me.

    [Your identity as an ex-prisoner] affects you work-wise … When you are doing a door-man and somebody would come up to you and … they would say, ‘I hear that you are an ex-prisoner’, and you would look at them just in case you might get a slap in the mouth, … and you would say, ‘Aye, that's right’, and they would say, ‘It is nice to meet you.’

    Negotiating the ex-prisoner identity is particularly difficult for those who are well known figures from the prison protests or in the Republican Movement. Although they can take some satisfaction in the public acknowledgement of their role, they have little prospect of escaping scrutiny. One respondent explained,

    The problem I find with my place in the community is that most people know who I am, most people recognise me on the street. I get stopped and people talk to me who I don’t even know. I know nothing about them but they know a whole lot about me. And it affects me to the extent where at times I enjoy it, I enjoy the attention, I enjoy the notoriety; I get embarrassed about it as well. At times, depending on the situation, depending on where it is, and dependent on who the people are I might get embarrassed about it. But certainly it has … people have put me on a pedestal and I don’t like the idea of that, of being on a pedestal because I can always fall off it, and in some people’s eyes I have fallen off the pedestal. But the fact is that I don’t particularly want to be up there because being on the pedestal carries with it an awful lot of responsibility as well. And there are things sometimes I would want to do but I wouldn’t do it because of who I am. It has sort of restrained me in many ways.

    He also said that people have an image of him as ‘the IRA man, the big tough man or whatever.’ He found it difficult to deal with ‘idiot type bar persons’, and,

    There's a reluctance in people my age to get involved in conversation with people like me, unless they're drunk.

    Many felt that they did not fit in anywhere, that others had preconceived and ill-founded notions of what they were like as people and had the impression that ex-prisoners were in a position to act as ‘fixers’ or go-betweens. A number felt used in this way.

    There was people within the community - older people - that if they needed things, like their house [had been] vandalised or things like that, people seem to look up to [you] as someone who can sort of help them. I don’t know what way they would have looked at you, but they sort of see you as some influence over the community because of your imprisonment and they would have come to you for help - for things like the housing or things like that….The person who has just come out of jail, once they come into their community, the people in their community seem to look up to them as people who can help them sort out their problems.

    I think that I am seen as different, I am seen as part of the community but different. They have given me this sort of respect or something, of me on a higher level in some cases which I am uncomfortable with. I feel that they treat me as - I am not sure how to word this but it is a feeling I pick up - as somebody with power, somebody of importance; where I am always trying to do the opposite - just average, just blend in with everybody. They still attribute this power to me. It would come out in jokes in humour; they would say - you would know all about that, he is in powerful places, he can get things done.

    No. It’s only different in a sense that people come to you if they have a problem, but then again you can view that as if you’re just being used by those people to sort their problems out, because if you have a problem they won’t come and help you. So you’re sort of still being used.

    The ex-prisoners’ politics could be an important factor in determining the kind of reception they were given in the community. For the most part Republican ex-prisoners said they were welcomed in to the community, but those who were seen as critical of mainstream Republicanism reported that not only were people wary of associating with them, they could also find themselves excluded from jobs. One observed that,

    Speaking out against the status quo has affected my integration into the community more than actually being in prison. It’s been negative to a degree, but again it’s hard for me to quantify that. There could be a lot of people who agree with what I say, but they don’t say anything at all.

    To the extent that the Republican Movement serves as an informal distributor of jobs, resources and assistance, public disagreement with mainstream position can have negative consequences, particularly for employment. It may also affect the ex-prisoner's social relationships in the wider community where people may be afraid to be ‘tarred by the same brush’ or ostracised by association.

    I suppose politically there were certain people who had a certain attitude. It was complicated .. because how people related to you depended on how they viewed your political stance and you have to put this into the whole context of the times … Things were changing, for example, in the area with the Republican Movement. People had certain attitudes because I had been identified with a particular grouping in jail, people were very wary about me when I got out: you know, what way I was going to go, and who… While most people were glad to see you out, people were wary of you, wary of and afraid that you would be a threat to them in some way and that was an attitude that I come across quite regular. For example at the ‘do’ that they had for me when I got out a senior member of Sinn Fein for example made sure that I was not allowed to speak after that in case I said something which was out of line. I had no intention of saying anything but there was all that sort of thing going on. Certain people had a perception of you, or thought they had, based on their own prejudice.

    A common observation was that the gap in experience between those who had been in prison and those who had not was unbridgeable.

    It's a gap that can’t be filled. They went different ways, lived different lives, had different experiences. I don’t know how to live their lives. This was another world to me. They lived in other worlds. We lived in the one world; we lived in the one-dimensional world of prison. There was a multi-dimensional world of normal life experience – going on holidays, getting jobs, settling down, planning a family, that was their world. Our world was the prison, tied into the political situation – always - that determined everything.

    [Being an ex-prisoner].. was limiting, if it’s limiting at all. People are prepared to get up and help you in a way that they wouldn’t get up to help, say, somebody coming back from America, or somebody who came out after having robbed the post office or murdered your wife. They would do things for people like myself. But by and large you find that you have to get on with it.

    Maybe we sort of expected to be treated a bit differently. We were just slotted back into things as if we never went away even though there was this big gap. People were expecting you to be all right, ‘Here’s a drink for you’. ‘Cheerio, see you around.’ It didn’t work like that. I didn’t fit in. We weren’t of the same people. People that I grew up with who were at [a family] wedding, there was a gap. People I went to school with from Primary 1 until I left school, people who were in the Movement with me when I joined the Movement, there was nothing there. All my friends were inside. I look on them now as my family. It’s just hard to explain, I couldn’t identify with people outside.

    I didn’t fit in anywhere. That they had moved on big time, that they had established roots, that was the main pattern. That they had established roots, they were solid, secure, they were in employment. They seemed to be coming to the end of something that I was only beginning. And therefore I think they recognised this as well because there was no common ground between us. I found that looking back on all that, I would say to myself, how the f… am I going to manage all this; where do I go now? Going crazy to get out of prison, here I am standing in my own living room, looking out through the window saying what will I do now? And everyone seemed to be a stranger. And even though the conflict was still going on I felt that I just didn’t fit in anywhere and I thought if I don’t fit in here I will go somewhere else. And I considered moving away, abroad.

    At times you’d make plans OK, but you’d make crazy plans. You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. There is nothing to stop you, there’s nothing you’d really ... you’d never sit down to plan to say I’m actually going to go through this. Because your expectations change from when you get out. You sort of get lost in catching up.

    Some said they had had to start again socially, but that they found it hard to form new relationships. Others expressed only limited interest in building relationships with others, saying that a very small group of good friends (usually other ex-prisoners) was sufficient.

    I think a lot of them didn’t know how to approach me at all, didn’t know what way to speak to me or were a bit nervous or wary of me and I was the same to them. I think that hasn’t really changed in a sense that some of my closest friends - the ones I can relate to - are ex-prisoners in the community. You can relax with them and no bullshit. If something is going on in my life that I want to talk about I could relate it to them. And to me it was almost like being back into prison again, and it brings back to mind people coming out of prison and saying, ‘I know it sounds silly, but I wish I was back in again.’ And I used to really cringe when I heard that but now I understand why because it is a group together and they support everybody else to a degree. When you are outside on your own you have to get on with it.

    The shared experience of imprisonment, particularly the shared experience of prison protests, were a source of common understanding and solidarity among ex-prisoners. The strength of these social and emotional bonds is intense.

    I think in prison, especially during the Blanket, dirty type protest, there was a genuine comradeship bordering on love which developed among the people there because of the hardship we'd been through, because of the mental torture and the physical torture and the starvation. A great comradeship built up to the point where people died for it.

    The affinity and shared experience among them is a valuable source of mutual support and assistance, but one with which an ex-prisoner's partner, friends or family may feel they cannot compete. Many ex-prisoners reported that they have continued to be dependent on other ex-prisoners when they encounter problems after prison and that their partners and families were not really part of this network of supportive relationships. To illustrate the lasting nature of these bonds, one man said of his relationship with another Blanket man,

    The old comradeship, the old faith, this almost love for each other, that I so respected and held with such regard … is still there.

    Ex-prisoners are uniquely positioned to understand and support each other, but their solidarity, which can be such a source of strength and resilience, can also work to exclude others. This exclusionary potential is evident in the assertion that civilian others ‘can never understand’. This insistence on the impossibility of others ever understanding only serves to perpetuate the distance between the individual ex-prisoner and the uncomprehending others with whom he should be communicating.

    The work of Yerkes and Holloway on the readjustment of returning veterans from the Persian Gulf War is pertinent to the problem of bridging the communication gap between ex-prisoners and their families and others. They argue that the acceptance of veterans’ claim that civilian others can never understand serves a number of ultimately self-defeating functions. First, it allows the veteran to avoid developing a method of communication with others about his experience and reinforces the conviction of the specialness of the veteran. Although, the veteran's avoidance of communication with non-veterans may protect him against pain, it is at the price of his continued isolation. Secondly, it enables members of the family and the community ‘to close out or isolate themselves from veterans' experiences’ with the result that, ‘with few shared …experiences between them, each is seen as a stranger in the other's world’.

    In this respect there are important parallels with the returning Republican prisoners, and an important step in rebuilding relationships between the ex-prisoner, his family and others in the community is to begin to find ways of communicating about the prison experience and its effects. Aphrodite Matsakis argued that acknowledgement of the Vietnam veteran's experience by his family was a vitally important emotional dimension of his resettlement and that, while society might prefer to forget or deny the veteran's experience, he could not do so ‘without annihilating a part of himself’. The desire for acknowledgement of sacrifices made or costs paid is not limited to veterans; indeed, the issue of acknowledgement was one that continued to cause friction between one ex-prisoner and his family. Similarly, it is important for the family and other members of the community to try to convey some sense of what their own experience of the prison years was like.

    One interviewee reported that there had been little attempt on his part to talk through the missed years, in part to avoid hurt and conflict.

    [It has been] left unspoken.

    There is a dilemma: whilst things remain unspoken they are not understood, but there are also costs and risks to talking about them. One ex-prisoner's partner observed that,

    Part of the problem is that the family expects him to be touchingly grateful and he's not prepared to be touchingly grateful. He didn't make anybody do anything, and yet they want his gratitude. There could be a little more compromise there…

    Other ex-prisoners readily acknowledged the problems the lost years presented to his family. For example, one said,

    Well, they did as much time as we did because they had to travel and they had to make ends meet. They were constantly on the go all the time, and getting stopped at check-points and paying fares; and then when they got to the jail, they were messed about too, and sometimes they wouldn't get in because they kept them that long that the visits were closed.

    3.4.5 Family relationships

    Many of our respondents talked about the ‘lost years’ in terms of what they had missed in their personal lives (e.g., seeing children grown up, the chance of starting a family, establishing careers). They had missed changes in technology and the built environment; and had lost worldly ‘know how’ (how to operate a bank account, apply for benefits etc.). The men also talked of having spent the prison years in a different world.

    However, it appeared that ex-prisoners tended to evaluate their own relationships with their families or with partners against unrealistic, developmentally static and often idealistic conceptions of what these relationships ought to be like, or were like for other people. They tended not to realise the extent to which others might also grow away from their families, and, for example, find them irritating, lacking in understanding, or tolerable only briefly at Christmas etc. As a consequence, the men tended to overestimate how different they were from other people.

    The returning prisoner’s emotions and coping behaviours are not abandoned at the prison gate when he is released. He brings his emotions (both acknowledged and unacknowledged) and coping behaviours from prison into interpersonal relationships with people outside, particularly relationships with his family. The same is true for the family and friends of the ex-prisoner; they will bring their own feelings and changed ways of being into the relationship with the ex-prisoner. Neither is likely fully to appreciate the changes in the other during the years of imprisonment. This may be partly due to the constrained and superficial nature of communication during visits. One respondent summed up visits well:

    It was an unreal situation. You can be the best father in the world for 30 minutes. The kids looked upon you as a sweetie factory. ...It was always difficult [to talk about things that were on your mind] because you wanted the visit to be as pleasant as possible. Sometimes you felt there were things you couldn’t bring up at the visit, and you try to confine that to letters and stuff like that. So it was an unreal situation, a completely false situation.

    Most prisoners reported that they were aware that their families also were holding back from disclosing things that concerned them. After years of this non-disclosure and superficial conversation, it is not surprising that people felt as if they did not know their son, brother, father, or friend who returned. Problems of readjustment could be particularly difficult when the prisoner was returning to his own family and children after missing a significant period of family life.

    Re-establishing relationships with wives and children

    Most of the men (12) had children, and a number of the ex-prisoners we interviewed reported that they previously had, or were continuing to have, difficulties in their relationships with them. This is consistent with the findings of McEvoy et al to the effect that 63% of prisoners’ partners reported that their children were experiencing problems relating to their parent's imprisonment (e.g., disturbed behaviour, anger, depression). One man said that he had noticed a change in the way his children related to him when he got out of prison and he suggested that the children might have been protecting themselves from being hurt by his leaving again.

    When you go to hold someone and you know that the warmth has gone and there’s a coldness there. It’s much, much improved now, but then when I got out … seen the gap … obviously I’d been away for so long and the kids didn’t know who I was, so they knew an image of me, certainly I felt that. I understand it now, why that gap’s so wide, why that coldness, why that reluctance is there. I think most ex-prisoners’ kids are like this. They build a shell, build an escape gap, or a cordon between that love and that absolute love in case you've gone again, and I think most ex-prisoners' kids do that. … I felt hurt by it. I didn't feel resentful towards the children for it, but I understood it. I understood it and thought that it was very sad.

    Another father made a similar observation.

    When I came out she was 11. So she hadn’t seen her dad for a long time, I didn’t know how to deal with what was .. She was becoming a teenager. She’d been a little girl. I’d been very close to her when she was a child, of course, she come up to see me regularly - the wife brought her. But then I hadn't been there, she didn’t know me, she had been living with her mother, her mother had a brother living with her, but no father figure, you know. I came back and she was obviously happy to see her dad and all of that, but it wasn’t easy. Perhaps - I don’t know - the strange thing about being in prison, you can become a bit of a guard yourself and a bit of an authoritarian, you know.

    In some cases the problems faced by ex-prisoners concerned the anti-social or self-destructive behaviour of their sons, for example, misusing drugs. Although the number of respondents reporting these problems was small, the kinds of difficulty they were having were consistent with studies indicating that father absence has a more negative impact on sons, and that adolescent males may be particularly vulnerable to problems on the father's return. These problems are likely to be more marked where fathers are suffering from PTSD.

    He sort of couldn't accept me coming out, being in the house again. He couldn't accept it. … rebelled against everything. That was only within the week [of home leave]. He went out of his way to cause trouble. He couldn’t accept me coming out and being the dominant figure in the house.

    Another father expressed the fear that,

    My son will probably finish up in prison, my son will, because he has no respect for anybody or anybody's property. He's a thief. I lost him.

    Some found that they related to children in a way that was no longer appropriate to the child’s age, and where relationships were resumed there could be a permanent degree of estrangement.

    My parents pointed out to me that [my son] he’s such and such an age, he’s not a baby any more, I felt protective of him, I even find that now with … I tend to be over-protective with her. She gets embarrassed with that.

    Yes with my son, yes. Again we never got over that stranger bit we had. I don’t think we ever really ... although we were close like, we’d go out together, we’d head off, but there was still a bit of a distance there. He doesn’t open up to me and I don’t open up to him totally … He's gone on. I suppose I've missed the boat in many ways there.

    She's frightened of me running away again after building up the relationship with her, and I can still feel it with her.

    There's my barrier and there's their [the children's] barrier, that's true.

    Another important aspect of children's experience of a parent's imprisonment concerns what they are told about the imprisonment and the circumstances surrounding it. McEvoy et al (1999) found that 90% of the partners of politically motivated prisoners said that all or some of their children knew of their parent's imprisonment. However, it is not clear whether their respondents' children had been told of the nature of the offences for which their absent parents had been imprisoned. Other studies of prisoners' children emphasise that withholding the truth has potentially harmful effects on the child later on, for example if the child is given a partial or distorted account of the circumstances at school, from other adults, or from the media. In the course of our research we became aware of one case in which the child of a life sentence prisoner was led to believe he had been imprisoned for knocking down a dog in the street. The importance of telling the truth - i.e. developing an honest and age appropriate response to the child's questions about the absent parent's imprisonment - cannot be overstated. It is an issue that is relevant for all ex-prisoners’ groups.

    After release the forms of behaviour that were habitual in prison could also cause conflict and tension when the prisoner returned to his family.

    If you’re institutionalised for that length of time, they [ex-prisoners] have no concept of anything, of daily living. They don’t understand the price of butter. Particularly in that quasi-military situation that the political prisoners were in. They were arrogant, they had arrogance built into them, it was the only way they could survive with the prison warders. They certainly weren’t .. currying favour with the warder. There was an arrogance - "Get me my clean clothes" - that sort of thing, which tended to sometimes over-spill into the home situation. "What do you mean, I left my jeans out for wash last night, why aren’t they clean?" That sort of thing. It takes a while to knock that off. (family member)

    Both families and ex-prisoners have to make adjustments in order to cope with the situations in which they find themselves. Families have to ‘close ranks’ to cover the gaps (practical, financial and emotional) left by the prisoner's absence from family life. Members of the family will have adapted to the man’s absence - for example, the wife taking on the father's role, gaining self-confidence, making independent decisions, taking on responsibility for supporting the family. The ex-prisoner may feel he has been ‘phased out’ of family life when he returns unless the family is able to make space for him to find new roles and ways of being within the family.

    Inevitably, both the returning prisoner and members of his family will have changed over the period of his imprisonment. Changes are likely to be more marked for those who were younger at the time of imprisonment and for those who had more traumatic experiences. Although the age of the prisoners in our sample was typical of most serving soldiers, the period of their separation from home (more than a decade on average) is far longer than for virtually all veterans and most prisoners of war. Therefore, problems of readjustment are likely to be more rather than less marked among the men we interviewed.

    Establishing new relationships

    Most of the ex-prisoners were married and many of these relationships were established after the prisoner's release. Some respondents reported that they previously had several unsuccessful relationships before living with their current partner, or they were now living alone. Most of the men we interviewed also acknowledged that they brought difficulties with them into the relationships.

    Yes. I find it hard [to feel close to other people]. I sometimes find that I've lost the capacity of really loving. I think I can love, but I think I have lost a good deal … I used to be able to love absolutely and now I love with reservations, and I don't like myself for that.

    I lived with a couple of girls - women I should say. And one of them was particularly very good with me and helped me. She is now a counsellor. I think my experience helped her become a counsellor … I was her apprenticeship. … I think myself you only need … all I require from anybody is understanding. Not Understanding has caused major problems, there have been major dislocations. And this has manifested itself in so many different ways … We’re not normal, we haven’t had normal life experience, we find it very hard to acclimatise and become accustomed again to ordinary life. There’s going to be blips on the screen and many of them, but it’s all part of the learning processes of life, that we had to catch up on. I don’t think we ever really catch up on, we just go different ways.

    Another found the demands of his relationship overwhelming.

    It has contributed to the situation I am in now … trying to find work, trying to keep the house that I had with this relationship I had with my partner and the four kids, trying to find money to keep the house and a roof over our heads. And it’s constant again, having to find work, having to go to work, having to do the legal work to keep the house going and the resentment I felt having to do that. The resentment I took out on my partner because I felt that she had known this, she was quickening up the merry-go-round and I had to keep running faster, and that developed into a resentment, and that actually helped bring about the tension and the strain on the relationship. And it’s nonsensical because it’s just not true, but that’s the way I was feeling.

    Simple generalisations can not be made about the impact of long-term imprisonment on the personal relationships of the men in our sample. Only a small number were married at the time of imprisonment and of those, half were still with their partners. Most ofthe men who reported the breakdown of relationships while in prison formed new relationships since their release and it is significant that, despite the difficulties experienced in resettling, many said that their families and particularly their children gave them a sense of purpose for the future.

    3.4.6 Psychological issues


    Until recently there has been little recognition that the return to civilian life is itself a stressful event, particularly for prisoners of war. One ex-prisoner compared his experience of release to ‘getting thrown off a cliff’ because he had been given little warning of his release and no preparation for the pressures of being on the outside.

    The emotional experience of resettlement amongst prisoners of war has been observed to follow a common pattern. Immediately on release the individual may typically experience a sense of euphoria, followed by a period of over-stimulation and then depression. This is consistent with the first experience of release from prison (both home leaves and actual release) reported by the ex-prisoners we interviewed.

    I was elated, spent 5 minutes in the house, then went out and got ‘hyped’ (drunk) … was in a big hurry to do everything.

    I was elated, but tried to put a lid on it because I was aware that others were not getting out.

    I would say walking though the prison itself and all the wee corridors to get to the end, seeing that section of the prison that I had never seen before and knowing you were going out of it, I would say there was a big adrenaline pump going on.

    Others reported being unable to believe that they were really getting out of prison or being afraid that it was not true.

    I didn't really take it in until I was walking through the gate…

    Every minute stretched into an hour… Until they eventually walk you out and the final gate closes behind you, and you’re standing in the car park of Long Kesh after all those years … I didn’t know … I was numb … because I was still waiting on the hand going on my shoulder saying you’re arrested for the charge of something else. That fear was there the whole period even before I was getting released - this can’t happen, they’re not going to release me. Even driving out of the place I was still waiting on the RUC or the British Army coming after me and pulling me over and taking me away again. That was a real, real fear that I had.

    However, one ex-prisoner said that he found that his emotions were numbed on his first day home.

    Too long a sacrifice - it does tend to deaden the senses, very much so. It was a question of accumulating information rather than touching experiences… it was a factual trip rather than an emotional trip in many ways.

    Another reported feeling just,

    Settled, relieved, sense of achievement. But very settled, very settled.

    Another took some satisfaction in the belief that he had managed to emerge from prison unscathed.

    F*** you, I got out, you know, reasonably intact …very satisfying. I'd done my time… still had my wife. I felt satisfied [it] hadn't done too much damage to me, or at least I thought that.

    Many reported experiencing a period of over-stimulation.

    Before I got out of jail I saw these ice-cream gateaux. When I got out I would taste one and I wanted two more. Eggs were the same. I wanted an egg … after 12 years I wanted a fried egg. You want a proper steak, you want proper food, want onions; the first thing we ate was bananas, all this because we never had it for 12 years and then you made yourself sick of it.

    Many reported experiencing a period of depression and excessive use of alcohol once the ‘high’ of being free had worn off and the practical reality of trying to find employment and make their own way began to bite.

    A number of ex-prisoners also reported experiencing profound sadness before they left the prison because of the difficulty of leaving comrades behind.

    Everybody was in the Wing, and they were all my close friends and comrades and I remember feeling a bit guilty for leaving them. Most of the possessions that we had in prison which isn’t a great deal, we give them all away to whoever needs them. I walked on out that gate that morning, everyone was cheering and shouting and were happy for me, and I felt sad for them because I was leaving them behind.

    I didn’t want to go out. It was very emotional because [of what] you went through -people on the Blanket there who you shared experiences with, whether it was emotional, happy events or sad events. You knew people in there, you were more in tune with them, people who had lost their parents, or their families were dead, or you went through that with them. If you went through a bad period they helped you through the bad period. No-one was on an island on their own, you all suffered the same, you all went through the same at a different period of time, so we all could relate to each other. So leaving that environment was pretty hard.

    Initially that day when I got out of jail I was very caught up about the prisoners I had left behind. I wasn't very happy that I was getting out of prison.

    You go around the jail and see people you’ve been with - with whom you connect. It’s very emotional, I cried when I left because I left a lot of good friends behind me. It was like a death in the family - that type of emotion - when am I going to see these people again?

    Shortly after getting the news that I was going to be released within the next few days, I was going to the Crumlin Road in the next few days, that would have been my send-off then. … I found that.. my young brother was in the Wing and he was only coming in to do his sentence as I was leaving. And by that time they all knew what they had to do, because by that time we were starting to get out after 10, 15 years, whatever it was. So they all knew what was ahead of them. But it had a great impact on me leaving the people behind who I knew well, and they were all putting on brave faces. I think I sort of dreaded going out at the same time because I was so used to that group that they meant something to me as a group of people. And to go outside again, and you were just one person among thousands, and you had to get on with it – you were left on your own. So it was the leaving of the group, there was great bonds made between those people … I think the actual signing of the documents where the governor signified that was me free of prison, but not free of being a prisoner because I was out on parole for the rest of my life in a sense.

    A different world

    It was like an Alice in Wonderland type scenario. You were leaving one world to go into another one, but you wanted to go back to the old one. … It was only when you got to the front gate with your £21, and your wife's looking for you that reality hit me … you want to turn around and go in again, but you can't. The door's shut.

    I was thrown out on the street. I had no preparation for the real world. The real world was going to impact on my senses, my whole experience, in a big way and I never knew. The real world was something different. It was outside the walls of the jail and I hadn’t a clue what this world was. I had an idea because I’d seen it through the TV screen, I’d seen the world changing through the eye of the television, but that’s not real.

    It was like coming out of a coma.

    Many ex-prisoners echoed this feeling of having inhabited another world, of ‘crossing over’ into a different world, or of experiencing both time and space as unreal. There are similarities between our interviewees’ descriptions of their post-release experience and those of returning political prisoners in the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors, who felt disoriented and harassed on their return in similar ways.

    Sensory bombardment

    Virtually all mentioned the sensory impact of the outside, especially the impact of colour. One ex-prisoner described it as being hit by a ‘tidal wave of sensitivity’.

    And when I got out to the front door … the welfare worker … took us on to the Crumlin Road and I was hit by the blaze of colour because all you had was grey steel.

    One of the first things that hits you is the greenery. In the Maze everything is grey..

    So many things [were] fresh and new.

    It was strange to be in [people's] homes and to see homes after the shapes of prison cells and to see stairs and to run up stairs, and to see gardens and to see traffic and roads and to see the inside of pubs, and to taste beer. All those things were strange.

    I came out round about August when the place was in full bloom …I remember leaving the jail for the first time. In the jail your vision is confined, in the H Blocks you had an exercise yard, and on one side there would be the H Block which would run parallel with the windows of the cells, and then you’d have a tripod fence going round, and it was all fenced off with tin. You couldn’t see out, you could only look up. And we used to do that training, running round the yard, playing football. I used to compare it to running around the inside of a biscuit tin. You only look up, so you had to use your imagination. So imagine coming out from all those years, after having spent five years locked in a cell 24 hours a day, out of contact with nature, your whole sensory deprivation comes into play here. You haven’t had contact with nature, you haven’t seen grass, you haven’t seen a car. When you went to jail, Morris Minors were still on the road. This contact with nature was very, very important as a human element. Being able to see further than 200 yards. Another thing was women, you hadn’t seen too many of the opposite sex and suddenly you were completely bombarded with all this. It was sort of like an explosion on the senses, the very nature. To the extent that when you went out and met my family and they were there and we all headed back to Belfast down the M1 and travelling in a car – I hadn’t travelled much in a car even before I went in. I hadn't much opportunity. The initial journey home, I wrote a poem about it, trying to convey this experience in a sort of poetic medium. To illustrate what I am trying to say, for example, coming down the M1 I would see all the fields and I would see the trees and I would have noticed and did the different hues of green. Whereas they would have been nondescript [to others], I could actually distinguish in terms of hues of green. It was like a euphoric situation. I knew that the people were so acclimatised and conditioned to accept all this and did not see this, and I was very conscious of that fact.

    Yes it was, the first leave was so filled with events. It was a sense of so much to take in, and where I noticed a real difference was when I returned to the Blocks [after home leave], they looked so small, they looked so grey, they looked so dull, so dirty and I was really depressed going back in and it took about a week to wear off even though I went down to play football the next day. It took about a week to wear off. My coach who had been out by this time, told me that this is the way it would be, that we would be under a lot of pressure coming back in and I was. The second time, I anticipated this horrible feeling of going back in, and there was no horrible feeling. And it was just being released and pulled back in the first time. At least the second time you were prepared and it was just a normal day.

    Changes in external environment

    Most ex-prisoners remarked on the changed nature of the built environment and feeling lost in their own neighbourhoods, especially those who were returning to Belfast. By contrast, one mentioned the depressing lack of change in his run down neighbourhood, despite redevelopment of the commercial part of his town, noting that he found seeing the same old wall murals dispiriting. Another mentioned the greater geographical polarisation of communities. Several remarked on the improved standard of living, especially in housing (heating, indoor toilets, etc.). The number, quality and speed of cars was very striking to many.

    The speed of them was shocking.

    Other changes of material existence and daily life (for example supermarkets and supermarket trolleys), and in particular the faster pace of life, were singled out as striking differences.

    Everything was faster. Even crossing the road you felt the car was so far away but the next thing the car was on top of you. You couldn’t judge the speed, the pace of things. It was as if you were the one in slow motion and the rest of the world was rushing by you …You see sometimes on TV in a pop video, a singer would come through a crowd at a tube station and these crowds would run by and he’s just seems to be acting normal and everyone else is buzzing by, that’s the way you felt. If you were walking down the road, even if there were only a couple of other people on the road, you felt that you were there among them but you weren’t. You were just in a world of your own. You were amazed at how fast things were going.

    Some of the changes which had taken place in the external environment presented problems to prisoners on their release, for example, the introduction of escalators in shops and the volume of traffic.

    And coming into Belfast the volume of traffic, it was scary. I would have walked a mile to cross the road.

    The blaze of colour, the smell of the exhausts and all, and I couldn’t cross the road. Every time I attempted to cross the road I misjudged the speed, I wasn’t used to the speed of traffic at all. So much so that she had to come back and grab me by the hand and take me across the road.

    For this reason, many found learning to drive unusually stressful. Using domestic appliances such as washing machines and videos also often had to be learned for the first time. Using money had to be re-learned and presented difficulties for many. Decimal currency was a torment for some. A significant number of ex-prisoners had never used a bank account, cash card or ATM machine. The value of money was also confusing.

    Using money. The last time I bought a pair of jeans, £3.40. Now £15.20. Magazines were £2 or £3. The Irish News I bought was something like 5p, and so on. This all comes at you, it’s very hard to accept. I remember buying shirts for £19.99 and I looked at my sister and said, ‘What, £20?’ I couldn’t believe this, ‘Are you serious or what?’ The shirt would have cost £2 in my time.

    I would say the main things were the speed of traffic, all the different cars, the money being different, not being used to having some currency and I ended up with big pockets of change because I couldn’t sort of focus to count it out. I wasn’t used to it, using phones and stuff like that.

    A few ex-prisoners remarked that the values and morals of the younger generation had changed, citing the number of single mothers, earlier sexual experience and lack of engagement with politics (the preference for drinking, parties and dances). After a decade or more in the intensely politicised environment of the prison, many perceived a general lack of political engagement or commitment of people in their communities.

    One man reported continuing to act with the constricted sense of autonomy he had in prison.

    I had problems with actually opening doors, turning the handle of doors, opening the doors and walking out. There were times I sat down and I remembered that I could walk out, I can actually open a door myself.

    Being with others

    One ex-prisoner observed that his prison experience was something that ‘you cannot phase out of your whole psyche’ and this was reflected for many in problems coping with crowds and feeling overwhelmed by ‘a sea of people’.

    That night they had a big function for me, at one of the drinking halls, one of the clubs on the … and there were hundreds and hundreds of people there, and there were bands, drums beating… and the noise was just … I had to get out of it, and walked and just walked. I came back into the place because I felt there was a responsibility that all these people had turned up for me so I had to go back into it, even though I hated it. I just wanted to get away from all the noise. But I stuck it through and then the closest members and friends of my family came back to my father’s house and there was more drinking and more partying. That I couldn’t take either and I left. But the whole area had changed. I didn’t know the area. When I went into prison I knew every street, every corner, every brick in the area. I came out into a whole new area where I didn’t know. This was in the early hours of the morning. And I got lost walking in the area. And I met an old friend of mine who brought me back to my father’s house and I went in and I just … there were two doors, and I just sat in the hall and closed the front door and closed the other door, so no-one knew I was there, and just sat in the hall away from everyone. I didn’t want anybody. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want any more .. I was crying. I just kept crying.

    [I was] very frightened… wanted to go back to prison…utter despair. Why the hell aren't I happy? I'm out. I'm free. I'm across the border. They can't touch me. My family's all here. And yet, I didn't have that feeling. I was just so frightened.

    The situation was frustrating. There was nothing I could do. I was just put in that situation and try to get through it and cope with it … I found it very difficult to cope with everybody; it was just like a sea of people around me. No control over nothing, just to know how to cope with it.

    If you go out in the town in the … shopping centre, and all these college people running around, you get very panicky, you feel yourself coming out in a cold sweat and shaking. You want to get out. You just want to get out. You know you don’t belong. I find that when there is and isn’t a crowd.

    Many reported that mixing with other people made them feel restless or uncomfortable.

    Very uncomfortable, I found that even though they were talking about me I was very hyper, I found it very difficult to relax. I wanted to be out or doing something else. When I moved from A to B, the whole process started over again, I wanted to move to some other place, I couldn’t sit.

    [I was alright] … as long as I had an escape.

    Many reported that they found being at home unexpectedly difficult and that they felt less closely attached to their families.

    Being with all the people. They were strange; even though they were family, they were strangers. I didn't want to be there, .. wanted to be back in jail.

    My first parole I actually went to a wedding. My brother’s wedding. You didn’t fit in. They were your family but they weren’t your family, because when I left they were all kids - I was the oldest - and being there with them there was no attachment, there was nothing there. I was there at the wedding for the sake of being at it because it was my brother, but it was nothing spectacular, it was just ordinary ... At the end of the day you say to yourself, why the hell did I go to that for?

    As for my family, I find that in one sense I would like to move a bit closer there but the desire is not there to do it. And I am living in … as well. I find that although there is only a 20 mile gap it suits, it lets me off the hook.

    The impossibility of small talk

    Some ex-prisoners described having to make small talk as excruciating. They found it very difficult after their experiences in prison to relate to the mundane everyday concerns of others, and they could find the business of surface interaction an effort. They often did not know how to respond, or became irritated by others’ attempts to converse.

    It was hard to converse with people…[they] knew you but you didn't know them. They were the sons of somebody you once knew.

    I couldn’t relate to them. There was people coming up to you and saying to you, ‘Do you remember...’ and I’d say, ‘Aye’, just for the sake of conversation, ‘I remember you.’ … [I remembered] their names but not their faces. Someone else says, ‘You call me …’, and I’d say, ‘You lived at the top of the street’, and that was the end of the conversation. I didn’t want to talk to them.

    I got a good education in jail, and on that level I was different from people who had just got past primary school and who were caught in everyday affairs of life and domestic life. People concerned with paying the rent, electricity, getting a bottle of gas. This was unbelievable to me - is this very important? I was caught in a different dimension. It was surreal and maybe a loftier thing. Because mine was a whole mind living; theirs was a practical everyday living. Mine was an existence of the mind, where I had to survive and I’d come through so much and seen so much, so much pain and suffering, death with the hunger strikers and how we impacted upon the whole situation and the Blanket situation. And all these things were going through my mind, and to hear these ordinary people caught up with the ordinary everyday affairs of life, I could not relate to that. That would come in time, but to me that was something that was not meaningful. Why are you worrying about having a bottle of gas? - but of course they couldn’t cook - but to me that was crazy. They were worried or concerned about playing a video, the latest record out, the newest TV, the best washing machine, or all the new paraphernalia that was coming onto the market. Their concerns were nothing to do with mine. I had been divorced from all that, the reality of life, everyday living, normal living, experience of life. Clothes, they were into fashion. I must go down and buy one of these … I would hear them talking about different fashions in the shops, and that was completely irrelevant to me because where was the fashion in jail?

    The unspeakability of the prison experience

    Despite their impatience with these forms of social interaction and their intense irritation with the banality of small talk, virtually all found talking about their prison experience to anyone other than another ex-prisoner (including Loyalist ex-prisoners) more or less impossible.

    When I arrive up home it is all polite, the same old talk. It is almost like a visit again and the closeness it’s gone, it is not the same. And I have found more and more the distance is getting greater rather than smaller. I would always feel that maybe they don’t understand me or I them, I always feel there is a big communication gap somewhere. I found outside I can get on with most other people. There would be a closer connection with ex-prisoners of course, whether Loyalist or Republican. I would have met Loyalists that I would have a great conversation with because they understand the whole issues around it.

    You’d go into a bar, socialising. Sometimes you’re comparing the experience that you had ... the worst being locked up on the Blankets, and we’re talking about spending years on the Blanket, 24 hours a day, and the conditions that they were in, spreading your shit on the wall, your excrement, twice daily maybe, and the person in the next cell doing the same thing. And the beatings, what you heard, the oppressive nature of the prison. It was a real artificial society, it was not a real society, it was an artificially created society. The whole oppressive regime that came with that, and the constant tension and stress and the psychological things. And that was now a memory, but it wasn’t a distant memory because it was still very much to the fore. You found yourself drifting and comparing the world as it was then to the world as it was previous, and saying – ‘these people do not know what I’ve been through; how can I convey to these people my experience?’ And you feel that it is almost impossible and so you don’t tell them, or [when] I’ve tried to explain to people .. I think to myself, ‘that’s too long; anyway, who’s interested?’

    He was very unapproachable when he first came home and we didn't know whether to talk about jail or not talk about jail - whether it would offend him or not. (family member).

    On the one hand the men held out the possibility of emotional disclosure (with other prisoners only) but at the same time asserted the impossibility of communicating the experience to anyone else. These sentiments served to perpetuate the guilt and isolation felt by ex-prisoners, and closely echo the ‘residual bitterness’ (towards both captors and civilians) observed in Far East prisoners of war returning to the UK after 1945.

    One ex-prisoner suggested that it might be possible to meet his family halfway if they could read about what it had been like for him and others.

    On occasions I get the impression that they [my family] felt somehow that I don’t appreciate the long investment they made, or the sacrifices they went through, or the trouble that I created. And in some ways I can’t afford to take that on board. I can say thanks but not too many thanks because there’s a huge argument involved in terms of the politics. I’ve lived for a political objective for twenty five years; it’s harder for me to let a little thing go in some ways than [to let] my family go … What I tend to say to them is that, ‘Look what I gave you. I gave all my years for you …We’re saying that we’ve come home to a land that wasn’t fit for heroes. Look what we did for you. We did this for you, your future and your children, so meet me half way.’

    I’m not sure that an individual one-to-one, heart-to-heart, pouring out of heartfelt thoughts might be the best thing to do. I then fall back on maybe the practical … the broader understanding … a lot of what I have learned about alcohol, depression, drug taking, I read in small articles and snippets in the newspapers and the magazines. And I often wonder whether there would be somewhere to drip the dire experiences through to people that were not confronting them in their face, saying, ‘Your son did this, your brother did that, your father did something else; and this is where you’ve got to understand and empathise with him and turn it round’ … I can’t actually put down a template of how best it should be done.

    Delayed Mourning

    As noted above, most of the ex-prisoners (14) in our sample had family bereavements during their time in prison. Over half of these deaths were of close family members and were violent or conflict-related. Several ex-prisoners reported that they were only able to accept the reality of the loss once they had been released and were able to visit their relatives’ graves. They felt that they had to put emotional parentheses around their grief for as long as they were in prison. This was particularly acutely felt by those who had not been allowed compassionate home leave or who had suffered bereavements related to the conflict which were reported on television.

    I witnessed it [brother's funeral] on the television. In some ways it saved me too because to land out to that funeral, - and it was a big police funeral with military all around, there was close to murder outside the house - I think I might have went berserk myself, but I was saved. It was unreal watching it on the television … to watch the whole family going up the road with the coffin and that, but in some ways it helped me continue with the routine in prison as well. If I had a got taste of what it was like to be outside I would have wanted to run about and have a few drinks and fit it all into that window. And I know from talking to other people that I would have felt guilty about that … they rushed away off to the pub after the funeral. But I think at the time, I was in two minds whether I wanted it or not.

    (Were you able to mourn his death while you were in prison …?)

    I would say no, it was put to the one side … But in the prison, no, of course my idea always being that when the heavy stuff was going on you had to block it out to survive, you couldn’t go about.. What happened when you went into your cell and closed the door or something like that was a different matter, but when you were mixing normally you couldn’t really express what was going on because it had a domino effect on other people. You know, if someone’s marriage is breaking down if someone is getting a hard time, it was ‘sorry to hear that’, but you had to switch off. So that was the way I seen it. … I knew in my own mind that he was dead and I accepted that fair enough, but it seems so unreal to see it on television. In other words I had to make some contact even by the graveside to put that to rest, to move from the unreality of the television to the actual reality of seeing the grave.

    His father and he walked up to the churchyard which is very near where he lives, and he didn’t expect the feelings that he had because it wasn’t as if he was suddenly being told that [his brother was] dead and buried here … and this is [his second brother's] grave … He said that that took an awful lot out of him. (family member).

    A number of the ex-prisoners who suffered the loss of a family member, particularly the death of their fathers, reported feeling overwhelmed with guilt and a belief that the death had been hastened by the parent’s worry about their son’s involvement and imprisonment. One ex-prisoner's partner suggested that the deaths which occurred after prison resonated with all the previous bereavements which the ex-prisoner had not allowed himself to feel at the time.

    Depression and alcohol use

    In the interviews ten men reported problems with depression since release and five considered that they had problems with excessive alcohol use. Two men reported having suicidal ideation that was acutely felt while in prison and in one case it continued after release.

    [I had] a constant image, a constant image. I don’t get it so much now. I still get it occasionally, but for a few years I just had a constant image of putting a gun to my head like that and blowing it off myself. It was a recurring thing, all the time … [What stopped me] was either my family, or I was just too cowardly to do it, or I hadn’t got a gun to do it and I didn’t relish the thought of cutting my wrists, but I believe if I had been on the outside when I was in that frame of mind, I possibly would have done it.

    The descriptions of depression ranged from just feeling ‘low’ about life problems such as looking for work, to depression that was sufficiently disabling for the men to seek help.

    I am not coping with the stress well at the moment … I went to a doctor, but I've stopped that as well. I am constantly tense. I have constant pains with the tension, so in answer to your question, no, I am not coping well with it at all.

    I will be honest with you – I have suffered from depression and I have actually had to have treatment for it; although some of it was related to the drink and one of the side effects of alcohol is depression. And to a certain extent I think I can say that a certain amount of the depression was more to do with what might have been: the question ‘was it worth it’ is at times there .. and there are reams of other issues that are personal issues. But I do find that does sap into the depression, having wasted time. Plus .. there have been times where I have tried to lead my life as if I had never been in prison and it is not something that I would ever bring up in company among people. If I was in company with people that never knew that – it is something I would never bring up. And it is something that you can never get away from, … you cannot get shot of that, it eventually comes back to you no matter how much you try to draw the line under it, to let it go.

    At one stage [about two years after release] it was fairly serious because I was drinking every day and that would have been over a period of almost a year. In a way I didn’t see myself as being an alcoholic or anything like that. I didn’t even see myself as being an excessive drinker, I thought it was still a social thing - till I wised up ... I'd been out of prison for 2 years, couldn't see how I was going to get work, or meaningful work anyway. Alcohol was a substitute.

    I actually knew deep down that I had the problem But my depressions and my moodiness and my [need for my own space] really got to such a point where there … there was no physical violence or anything like that, it was just the moodiness and the routine where I hated noise, I hated the kids coming in and out and so forth. But I had a relationship for .. years and if it wasn’t for the partner I was with I would have been in an awful lot of trouble a long, long time ago, mental problems. She really, really helped me through it. It was actually her who made the appointment for the doctor. I promised her I’d do it. … I wanted to try and get some help. So that’s why I’m here. I wanted to get myself right. I’ve known for many years that there’s a deep down problem that I haven’t dealt with and I’m hoping to do that now.

    I think because of the way he deals with stress, he has a potential problem with alcohol that I think he's only just beginning to crystallise in his mind as actually being a problem. But I think that's more because he just can't relax … he thinks after a few drinks he'll relax. (current partner)

    Several other ex-prisoners commented on the close connection between misuse of alcohol and despair. Some observed that they had used alcohol as a form of self-medication for dealing with depression. Two respondents remarked that it could be particularly difficult for ex-prisoners to resist the alcohol culture that had grown up in their city.

    I am not trying to blame this on anyone. I think the whole of this area where I live … is largely responsible for it. We have been ghettoised I think. There’s a wall around [this district]; there’s a whole drinking culture that has developed. You go out into … any day of the week .. For these last 30 years [this part of the city] has been a drinking culture. There was a massive mushrooming of shebeens over them 20 years and they were allowed to go ahead because they didn’t mind. The laws [for banning it] didn’t ban that, they actually encouraged it. And I think we’re dealing with it now, [or] we are not dealing with it - it’s still there and got worse. Kids watch their mothers and fathers coming in drunk and now the kids are all getting drunk. I went down that road last night and I saw people who I knew as babies sitting inside their own door their mothers inside, with bottles of cider outside the house and other people sitting in the corner. I walked over to work the other morning and saw a whole crowd of guys who had been there all night – this was eight o’clock in the morning – playing this music. And it’s just a drinking culture I think, and I think it has served its purpose in the war against the government; and I think our own people, the Republican Movement, have neglected this and have allowed this to develop. So you had a period where that was common, it’s natural, it’s normal and it’s there. It’s probably done more damage to the young people than anything else has - that ghettoisation, physically and mentally, of people.

    You have to resist pub culture. I had so many friends who are alcoholics who have come out of prison. I never found it hard [to resist pub culture], I found it very easy and I work in a place three nights a week where it’s booze, booze, booze. People say to me, ‘how do you sit in this place and not have a drink?’ … But it felt that I could develop a liking for it and the problem is driven out with people, and you maybe meeting people. … But I suppose it’s easier if you’ve money and you’re going out to a restaurant. But I think pubs - you get the worse type of character in pubs.

    I know so many people now in [name of place] who need help desperately, desperately need help and they are not getting it. What happens now is that there is a drinking society, a drinking culture and they deal with it through drink. If they don’t finish up with a bad psychological problem … a lot of them finish up alcoholics and finish up in hostels, finish up sitting in the corners. I know a whole lot who have already. I know at least three that’s died – not getting any help whatsoever.

    Even when some of our respondents had recognised the need for assistance in dealing with their depression or use of alcohol, and had taken steps to get help, the response they received was sometimes not very useful. One observed that it could be difficult for ex-prisoners to access help for such confidential problems because the organisations providing support did not make it easy for ex-prisoners to access the services without everyone in the neighbourhood knowing.

    One respondent said that when he went to his GP to ask about counselling he was told,

    ‘It’s broken, can’t fix it. Get on with it, that’s just the way it is.’

    Diagnostic questionnaires

    The Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) was completed by 11 men. A score in the range of 30-63 indicates very severe depression, 19-28 moderate to severe depression, 10-18 mild to moderate depression, and 0-9 is the normal range. Three men had BDI scores indicating moderate to severe depression; seven men had scores indicating mild to moderate depression, and only one man had a BDI score in the normal range.

    Only six men fully completed the Beck Hopelessness Scale. Scores of 0-3 are in the normal range; scores of 4-8 indicate mild, 9-14 moderate, and over 14 severe negative attitudes/pessimism. Four of the 6 men had scores in the ‘moderate’ category, one was in the ‘mild’ category, and one was in the normal range.

    All the men reported events that were potential traumatic stressors. On the Purdue PTSD Scale (Revised) scores in the range 58-85 indicate full PTSD, and three men had scores in this range. On the Revised Civilian Mississippi Scale a score of 89 or more indicates full PTSD. Two men had scores in this range. One man met these thresholds on both scales.

    The results from these diagnostic assessment instruments suggest that most of the men are likely to have been suffering from significant symptoms of depression, and up to four of the men may have had significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, at the time of the interviews.

    Changes of personality

    As Ursano et al (1996) described, personality changes resulting from prisoner of war experience need not be pathological; the experience of captivity may lead POWs to redirect their goals and life priorities. They argue that the degree of maltreatment and deprivation experienced is equally significant as the length of captivity in bringing about personality changes. This appears to be consistent with the experiences of the men we talked to. Another factor alluded to by those who held positions of command responsibility, especially in the H-Blocks, was the burden of decision-making in a situation where so much was at stake for the men and families involved in the protests.

    When reflecting on whether they had changed in character and outlook, the men gave a wide range of responses. Some saw positive changes, for example in becoming less impulsive and more diplomatic, and more highly educated.

    That’s my feeling, that I’m more tolerant, that I can discipline myself to look across the range of options and say well everything isn’t black and white.

    Others were aware of persisting changes in their capacity to relate to others.

    Yes, I’m introvert now. .I do not show emotion very well. .. I find it hard to relate to people initially .. I used to be very friendly with people but now I find it very hard to get to know people properly.

    I don’t think I could go back to the way I was. Even if I tried, I don’t think I could. I think it would be a false sentiment. I don't think I could get close to people.

    I personally think - and I have been told this by people close to me - that I don’t express emotions very much and I have let stuff build up inside me; and I think it goes back to the whole thing of trying to cope with it yourself. .. Because you were left in the past to cope with a load of stuff, you didn’t really share a lot of stuff, you feel that you can cope with it. I think I have been fairly poor in sharing emotional stuff with people, you sort of repress that side of you for fairly long periods of time. The thing about prison - and I am not sure about other people - you are always afraid of showing weakness; you had to be strong and in situations you had to be tough and seen to be strong. There are so many weaknesses in that situation that there were people who would have exploited your weakness, or that is what you felt. So you were always putting up this strong front being able to deal with that. In actual fact that is carried on with you simply because you don’t want to seem weak, and I found that in recent years that I have tried to cope with things that maybe I shouldn’t have coped with alone.

    There is the obvious distinction between one’s intellectual development and emotional development. The intellectual development I don’t think was dramatically impaired, but emotionally yes, maybe because the time in prison doesn’t slot into one’s life.

    In discussing how he dealt with problems he had in his personal relationships, one ex-prisoner remarked that he would,

    Not tell anyone at all, just say everything is OK. [I] tended to do that all the time. I won't talk to people about my emotions. This [interview] is the closest I've ever come to it.

    Some family members observed more complex consequences of the years in prison; a mix of strengths and areas of inexperience in the ex-prisoner, together with deeper questions and uncertainties about what might have been.

    He’s shrewd, very shrewd, and he’s a good judge of character, but the sort of things that you would take for granted as an adult - you’ve been to the theatre lots of times, you’ve been on holidays ... you’re probably owning your tenth car - those sort of things that in one way he’s finding, he’s starting to do that now…

    Aspects of his development which were put on hold - I used the word earlier - when I found him childish. In one way it’s endearing, childish enjoyment of things ... little things like going on holidays, such excitement like going to the seaside ... He gets such enjoyment out of little things and wonderment in it. As for personal development - the whole 30 years - that’s a question that the whole of the North could answer. If it hadn’t happened I would have gone to university, I would have got a job, I would have done this ... Maybe you wouldn’t, but you don’t know, that’s imponderable. (family member).

    In their personal evaluations of the past, some men looked back with a predominant sense of achievement. For some, weighing the cost of the past remained troubling because they saw political objectives unachieved and great personal costs to their families.

    The cost is a shared cost in that other people have lost out on something as well as I have … Emotionally I think I have made a lot of gains - that is the paradox of the whole thing. I have made a lot of gains psychologically, I have strength coming through it all. But emotionally I feel that I am shut down and have been shut down for many years and gradually move away from that. Losses in relationships, losses in opportunities and the simple things in life I suppose.

    Sometimes I think I’ve lived this life and fought this war on someone else’s emotions, someone else’s beliefs, someone else’s … it wasn’t actually me, I was along for the ride and I got roped into all this. I didn’t actually make a conscious decision. Sometimes I’d like to roll it all back and say, ‘Right let’s go again’. I don’t know whether that’s a lesson of life or whether that’s just me or whether everyone feels like that. But I certainly feel that way now.

    What was it all about? What was it all for? I was responsible for inflicting pain on people. Was it worth it? Was it worth one death? Was it worth the death of one IRA volunteer? Sometimes I feel it hasn’t been.

    3.4.7 Pathways to reintegration

    It was evident in our interviews with the ex-prisoners that each man had to find his own way on the outside and that this was what most wanted after the unfreedom of prison. However, it was also clear that some encountered and continue to experience difficulties in resettling that they cannot overcome alone. Some of the most intractable of these at a personal level were psychological problems attributable to long term imprisonment, primarily depression, PTSD, alcohol misuse, or impaired ability to work and to love.

    It is not easy to unravel the knot of challenges encountered on resettlement, but if the process of returning to the community is seen as comprising a series of tasks and pathways taken - some material, others social, emotional or existential - then successful re-integration involves:

  • Adapting to a changed environment (technology, traffic, built environment, etc.)

  • Managing the practical realities of living on the outside (housing, household, finances)

  • Rebuilding relationships with family (parental family, partners, children)

  • Establishing new personal relationships

  • Establishing new relationships in the community

  • Developing modes of communicating about self and prison experience

  • Finding meaningful work (including retraining, further education)

  • Developing a sense of purpose for the future

    The men reported that the most significant sources of support and assistance in achieving these tasks were their families, other ex-prisoners, ex-prisoner self-help groups and health professionals. Many needed the help of knowledgeable friends and advisors in order to claim the benefits to which they were entitled. Others needed the encouragement of family members or other ex-prisoners to seek individual counselling or help with psychiatric problems. None of the people who were experiencing problems in relationships with their partners or with children had either sought or received outside help.

    The interviews indicated that a number of conditions need to be in place if help is to become possible:

  • Appropriate help must exist, including relevant self-help information resources.

  • The need for help must be recognised.

  • There must be knowledge about existing sources of help (outreach, publicity about services, education about the effects of long term imprisonment).

  • Accessing sources of help must be safe.

  • People must trust the sources of help (confidentiality, professionalism)

  • People must overcome the perception that using that help entails social costs (e.g. the stigma of admitting to problems, especially in small, close-knit communities; the idea that it is disloyal to a partner to seek ‘outside’ help, or that seeking help entails a loss of face).

  • There needs to be awareness of the limits of self-help, and pathways of referral to professional assistance.

    As noted in section 3.4.3 above, the single biggest obstacle faced by the returning prisoners was the problem of employment. Most of the men reported that they found the task of getting work, especially finding any meaningful work, extremely demoralising - in part because the unskilled work in the informal economy which so many found themselves doing was so discrepant from the significant and highly committed roles many had played in the Republican Movement. This makes the tasks of making sense of their prison experiences, re-establishing relationships on the outside and having a sense of purpose for the future much more difficult. Some have found ways of surviving in the interstices of the (often disadvantaged) local economies where they live. Others have fared better. What is clear is that it is beyond the means of any individual ex-prisoner, or individual ex-prisoner group to create their own employment without significant inward investment into the areas of high unemployment to which most of them have returned.


    Important themes emerged from these interviews. The ex-prisoners and their families faced complex issues of loss, psychological change, and areas of experience that were not, or could not be, communicated. They described persistent structural and cultural barriers to social integration, particularly in the area of employment. Most of the ex-prisoners had been out of prison for over a decade; but for some, difficulties in coming to terms with the losses and sacrifices of the past, and in finding purpose for the future, remained vivid.

    In relation to further academic research, the exploratory work described above suggests strong parallels between the experiences of this group of Republican ex-prisoners and other groups who have experienced very different kinds of trauma or captivity. The literature on war veterans returning home at other times and other places has important resonances not only with the experiences of this group, but with other prisoners more generally. All long-term prisoners have to find forms of adaptation to the prison environment, and face irrevocable losses of time and life history. We hope that the theoretical background and methodology developed for this small study may be of wider applicability in future research.

    It should be stressed that the interviews in this study focused predominantly on areas of personal and social life that had been experienced as problematic, and so the overall picture conveyed may not do proper justice to the varied and innovative forms of support that have been developed by and for ex-prisoner communities. The picture also needs to be balanced by recognising the resilience and strengths of the interviewees. However, it is clear from this study that much continues to be suffered, and much more needs to be done.

    The ex-prisoners and their families saw, in retrospect, a clear need for better and more informed preparation for release. There was a need for information and education about the difficulties they were likely to face, so that they would not be surprised and react with bewilderment and incomprehension when faced with unexpected behaviour. Programmes of psychological and educational work would have to be provided by people with personal knowledge about what to expect, and whose perspectives could be trusted and accepted by prisoners and their families.

    I think a big issue that is not tackled is the family. I think every prisoner is going to react differently when they come out. There’s no stereotype. Some guys are going to go off the rails, some guys are going to look for their own solution in their own way, whatever heals them, be it drink, drugs, men, women or whatever. I would imagine that if the families had more support and more knowledge and were more realistic about it, that they could maybe help the prisoner cope with it… If the families were told, ‘Listen this is what happens in jail - you get up in the morning and you send for your breakfast’. And if for a while the ex-prisoner comes down and says, ‘I’ll have a boiled egg this morning and two slices of toast and not three’ .. I’m not saying they have to be waited on, but .. don’t fly off the handle or be insulted.’ (family member).

    There was also a need for more open discussion between prisoners and their families about their hopes and expectations on release.

    [His] mother was convinced that she was finally getting her son home and nothing could tell her she wasn’t. [His] mother and father had so much emotionally invested in him coming home. ... [They hoped] he was going to stay. But the point is - and I don’t think our family’s any worse than any other family over this - nobody discussed it. It was like going into a marriage not knowing whether your partner wanted children or if they ever wanted to be tied down with a mortgage or what part of Dublin or what part of Ireland they want ... It was like going into a business arrangement with no business plan. [His] mum and dad never really put in black and white what they wanted of ... but it was great when he was going to come home .. But nobody had discussed their expectations. I don’t think they knew that they had to do it. But you’re this person over there with one set of dreams and another person here with another set of dreams and somebody with their other ideas. It was a marriage with no dialogue. (family member).

    Expac has begun the process of exploring the difficulties of adjustment faced by ex-prisoners and their families. It is likely that the accounts given in this report will be reflected in the experiences of other ex-prisoners and the organisations that support them. It is important that mechanisms are established to enable families and ex-prisoners to explore more openly the areas of difficulty described in this study, especially those that have tended to remain closed and hidden. Ways need to be found of making such disclosure safe and culturally acceptable. The experience of ex-prisoners is an essential part of the experience of the community as a whole. It must be interpreted, valued and helped to contribute to a resolution of the broader conflict.

    The problems described in these interviews require a range of forms of support, extending from practical advisory work to more specialist work for those whose difficulties, for example with depression or alcohol use, are most severe.

    It’s not the thing to admit when you come out of prison and say you can’t use the phone; you don’t know how to use the ‘hole in the wall’ gadget; you’ve not even heard of them before. I remember, a .. friend of mine she’d done 10 years, and she made me go around the shops with her because she was afraid to hold money, and help her across the road, little things like that. There’s absolutely nothing out there for them. There has to be some sort of system, ... there has to be somewhere out there where they can go to and not feel ... go to somebody who would not make them feel any less for having these problems, …[someone who] would say, ‘Listen lad, 1977 you went into jail, there wasn’t such things as personal computers, mobile phones, all this sort of thing.’ ... There was none of that sort of thing; there was no back up. There seemed to be an opinion that once you’re out that’s enough, your freedom is enough. It’s not enough. You have to re-educate people. The world’s moved on so much in 15 years. (family member).

    I know so many people now … who need help desperately, desperately need help and they are not getting it. What happens now is that there is a drinking society, a drinking culture and they deal with it through drink. .. A lot of them finish up alcoholics and finish up in hostels, finish up sitting at the corners. I know a whole lot who have already. I know at least three that’s died - not getting any help whatsoever.

    The support needs to be extended beyond the ex-prisoner. The partners and families need their own sources of help and understanding to which they can turn, and they need to know that their difficulties are shared. The broader community too must be informed and positively influenced to develop empathy and understanding of the needs of ex-prisoners and their families. The quieter and more distant voices that echo in this study have been those of the children, whose own problems of lost parenting and family disruption also need to be recognised

    The problems that are experienced by families and ex-prisoners and their relationships with the broader community will take much time to resolve. The first step in effective resettlement of any ex-prisoner is establishing a belief in their value - in themselves and in the community. The most direct way of achieving that is through work. Urgent and thorough mechanisms must be put in place to integrate ex-prisoners fully into employment, and to overcome the serious impediments that currently hinder their efforts to find satisfactory work. As emphasised by Clare Digney, substantial action is needed to remove the barriers to ex-prisoners gaining employment that is properly commensurate with their abilities, age and often high educational status.

    This report reflects profound difficulties faced by a substantial section of the community who can make a major contribution to the resolution of the conflict of which they are a part. We hope our report and recommendations will help facilitate this contribution. For too many, after the initial welcoming party that greeted their homecoming, the promise of social integration and acceptance was empty and unfulfilled.


    We hope this report will be of relevance to several audiences, including ex-prisoners and their families; organisations concerned with human rights and equality; policymakers; health and social care agencies, and the broader community. Whilst specific tasks need to be further developed by those who have particular expertise in the key areas identified above, we hope that the following recommendations will be helpful.

    1. Further research is needed to explore the themes that are emerging from this study in more depth and from a wider range of perspectives. In particular, it is important to confirm whether others from different communities and political backgrounds share the experiences of ex-prisoners and families described here. The perspectives of partners and children also merit more attention than has been possible in this study. We hope that our methodology will be useful for application in further work.

    2. At a policy level there needs to be recognition that existing arrangements for rehabilitation and resettlement of other offenders are not always appropriate for the needs of politically motivated ex-prisoners. Discriminatory barriers to social reintegration continue after release and raise issues of equality. A criminal conviction and time served as a prisoner restrict travel, rights as a parent, rights to compensation for criminal injuries, pensions entitlement and employment opportunities. Such experiences exacerbate a strong sense of injustice that needs to be addressed and resolved. An examination of such impediments should be carried out and detailed recommendations developed for their resolution.

    3. As well as legislative and administrative impediments to employment, within the community the problem of restricted and stigmatising work needs to be addressed. There is a need to broaden the range of employment opportunities for ex-prisoners. A mechanism should be established, such as a government led task force, to identify immediate action that can be taken to improve opportunities for ex-prisoners seeking work.

    4. Sufficient skill and experience is required amongst health and social care organisations to understand and help the psychological difficulties carried by ex-prisoners and their families. Greater sensitivity and awareness is needed across a range of agencies, both statutory and voluntary, concerned with health, alcohol and social problems. For some ex-prisoners and families a dedicated centre providing specialised assessment and counselling is needed. Such a centre could also contribute a wider educational and training role. Those with clinical experience of the effects of chronic post-traumatic stress could contribute to the development of appropriate services to address the psychological difficulties of ex-prisoners and their families.

    5. For those in prison and families awaiting their return, better preparation for release is needed. Support organisations could provide a pro-active educational role to ensure that there is understanding of the adjustment and interpersonal problems that may be experienced, and work is done on them in advance. Within the prison system policies should seek as far as possible to mitigate family losses and disconnection. The Prison Service together with support organisations in the community should urgently consider how services to prisoner's families can be improved to address the psychological problems identified in this report arising from long-term imprisonment.

    6. The extent to which the social exclusion of ex-prisoners is addressed is likely to be a defining factor in the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. The social inclusion of ex-prisoners can not be achieved by their support organisations alone. The structural problems of employment, prejudice and their contested status remain. Corresponding work by government in relation to employment legislation, prison policy and health care is needed if the aim of reintegrating prisoners into the community, recognised by both Governments in the Good Friday Agreement, is to be met.


    Back to list of Contents

    If you have any comments, suggestions or queries, please e-mail us at:

  • CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
    CAIN is based within Ulster University.

    go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
    Last modified :