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Irish Prison System needs ‘urgent‘ overhaul


Image: Sr. Imelda speaking at the ‘Unheard Voices’ Conversation held in Mt. St. Anne’s on 23rd May 2022.

Sr. Imelda Wickham is relentless in her demand for a restorative rather than a punitive criminal justice system. After 20 years as a prison Chaplain, she articulated her arguments in a book launched last year by Messenger Publications: ‘Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain’.

In Mount St. Anne’s Retreat & Conference Centre on 23rd May, Imelda headed up a public event with experts in the field, in an effort to find new and creative ways of developing a more humane and holistic justice system. lan O’Donnell, Professor of Criminology at UCD, Seán Duggan, Head of Irish prison Chaplaincy Services, and Peter McVerry SJ founder of the Peter McVerry Trust joined Imelda to discuss options with an engaged public audience.

They called for a public debate on how we can improve our outdated and ineffective system and contribute to a change of mindset among politicians and the public at large, to reduce recidivism, support re-engagement with the community and develop a more holistic system.

Imelda urged people to use their voices, expertise and influence to generate this seismic change – and not to allow her book and their work to go the way of the Whitaker Report (1985).

“We need game-changers like Imelda to call out a broken system, but she needs a broad spectrum of support to roll up their sleeves, bring the discussion to the public square, in order to generate seismic change”, tweeted Messenger Publications after the event.

See also Irish prison system needs ‘urgent’ overhaul (thetablet.co.uk)

[You can read the full article, along with others,  in our Province Magazine – ‘Words & Deeds’ – see Issue-1-Words-Deeds-Spring-into-Summer-2022.pdf


The Unheard Voices in our Justice System:

An Invitation to join our Conversation


You are warmly invited to join us in conversation for: “The Unheard Voices in our Justice System”.

This public event in Mount St. Anne’s Retreat and Conference Centre (Killenard, Portarlington, Co. Laois R32WN59  on Tuesday 24th May is an opportunity to explore the issues raised in Imelda’s recently published book, which calls us to engage in dialogue & conversation in an effort to find new and creative ways of developing a more humane and holistic justice system. The event will afford an opportunity for all who are interested in this topic to share their views and ideas.

‘Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain’ calls for a national conversation to explore new & creative ways of responding to the issue of crime and punishment where all voices are heard.

In conversation with:

Imelda Wickham, pbvm—former prison chaplain & founder of New Directions, a support service for the families of people in prison.

Ian O’Donnell—Professor of Criminology at UCD. His latest book ‘Prison Life’ will be published at the end of 2022.

Seán Duggan—Head of Chaplaincy Services, Seán has a specialist research interest in human rights in the penal context.

Fr. Peter McVerry, SJ—a priest in Inner City Dublin & founder of the Peter McVerry Trust.

The evening begins with Tea/Coffee @ 7pmBooking is essential.  Email: secretary@mountstannes.com by Tuesday, May 17th to confirm your attendance.

To find out more about Imelda’s book: ‘Unheard Voices; Reflections of a Prison Chaplain’ see a selection of  interviews and articles on this page.

Download Event  Poster  New Date Unheard Voices Event Poster – Tuesday 24th May 2022

Please share this information with anyone you think might be interested.

Join Us for the online Book Launch of  ‘Unheard Voices’

Unheard Voices Launch

Please join us for the online book launch of ‘Unheard Voices – Reflections of a Prison Chaplain’  by Imelda Wickham, PBVM (Published by Messenger Publications).

..accessible and pastoral, the book represents a clear call for the beginning of something like a prison abolitionist movement
in Ireland.’ 

Working Notes, Jesuit Centre for Faith & Justice


In Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain, author Imelda Wickham throws down the gauntlet and challenges us to listen to the voices of the incarcerated.  Imelda challenges us to both literally and metaphorically to ‘pull down the walls’ in the design of our societal punishment system, calling for one of restorative justice. Wickham argues that true justice lies in healing for all involved in criminal behaviour, including victim, perpetrator and society.

Join us for an Online Book Launch at 7.00 pm on Wednesday, 13th October 2021

Special Guests

Mary Hanrahan PBVM 
Provincial Leader, Presentation Sisters

Pat Doyle 

CEO, Peter McVerry Trust 
To register for the launch, please email Carolanne Henry, Messenger Publications:

See www.messenger.ie

See also MailChimp Launch InformationHERE

‘Unheard Voices’

Reflections of a prison chaplain

“In today’s world we all struggle with issues of justice and at times are inclined to feel that there is very little evidence of any real justice to be found. As a congregation our Constitution calls us to challenge unjust systems. So for any of us working for justice is not an optional extra but a constitutive element of who we are as Presentation people. For me, it has been ‘a call within a call’, because as prison chaplain I am also called to challenge unjust systems, to be a voice for the voiceless, and promote the principles and practices of restorative justice”.

(Sr. Imelda Wickham in an interview in 2019 for our Province Magazine).

Imelda Wickham is a Presentation Sister and a former provincial of the congregation. She was a prison chaplain for twenty years and held the role of National Coordinator of Prison Chaplains for three years. She is currently involved in establishing a support service for the families of people in prison called New Directions – Supporting Families of People in Prison.

Imelda’s book ‘Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain’ (Messenger Publications) provides readers with a brief human insight into life behind bars in penal institutions. In its pages Sr. Imelda Wickham, pbvm challenges the use of prisons to deal with addictions, mental health issues and homelessness, arguing that true justice lies in healing for all involved in criminal behaviour, including victim, perpetrator and society. Her reflections on prisoners’ stories also paints a picture of what life can be like in a prison cell.

In his foreword to the book, Fr Peter McVerry SJ states:

“Prison chaplains have an independence that allows them to speak the truth as they see it. Imelda has always used this independence to give prisoners a voice and this is what kept her working in a system which left her deeply troubled and still does.

Imelda knows intimately the routine and language of prison life and her love of the ‘wit and banter’ within the prison walls is palpable and makes this book an enjoyable read.

Her years working in the prison system have taught her that there must be another way: a better way of working not only with offenders but their families, their victims and the victims’ families.”

An interview with the author

The following text is an extract from an interview by journalist Niamh Horan, with Imelda Wickham, pbvm which was published recently in the Sunday Independent Newspaper ( 25 July 2021).  See How talking to prisoners taught Sister Imelda about humanity – Independent.ie

Today Sr. Imelda is in the sunshine of her Dublin home a she recalls tow decades of life in prison cells, giving hope and comfort to murderers, rapists, sex offenders, thieves and those on the edge of society.  She has had to comfort inmates on their first night inside and break the news when family members have died.

Sr. Imelda decided to write a book when the pandemic hit and she could no longer visit the prisoners.  She wants to start a national conversation  to explore “new and creative ways “ to approach criminal justice. Her main aim is to replace the current ‘retributive’ system which focuses on punishing the offense, to a ‘restorative’ justice system where the prisoner takes full responsibility, seeks reconciliation and makes restitution within the community.

UK research show that restorative justice reduces the frequency of offending by 14 percent. This also leads to significant cost savings for the criminal justice system. Sr. Imelda believes that by helping perpetrators we will help the victims and there will be less crime in society.

“In prison, I have seen humanity at the rawest.  That gets you in touch with your own humanity.  The prison was my life. I saw the resilience of the human spirit, how they can still survive after losing everything.  Their goodness never gets lost in the darkness”.

See also an input given by Imelda on restorative justice at Rubicon 2016, a culture and faith think tank in Dublin, Ireland,  filmed live at the Church of Ireland College of Education. https://youtu.be/7lWsGRf81A0

Her book is available from 24th July 2021 from Messenger Publications See Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain (messenger.ie)

See also Irish Jesuits – Book Review

Reflections on the Unheard Voices of Prisoners

Book Review by Dr. Kevin Hargaden, Director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith & Justice, 6th August 2021 (see News – Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Ireland (jcfj.ie)

Part of the text of this review is reproduced here.

Imelda Wickham is a Presentation Sister whose work is currently based in Clondalkin, west Dublin. Since the 1990s, she has been a significant presence in the life of prisoners in Ireland through her chaplaincy work. Although she is now retired, she retains an active role in the post-release service, TRAIL. Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain honours a promise she made almost a decade ago to her friend, Sr. Imelda Carew to write her reflections on her ministry.

Reflections on the human cost of imprisonment

The book comprises of two sections. Its second half is made up of short, accessible reflections which are artfully written, which cut straight to the human level, the reality of what imprisonment does to people.

The first half of the book is more analytical, introducing the reader to Sr. Wickham’s personal journey and how she has navigated – and been changed by – prison chaplaincy. The opening section makes a provocative but coherent comparison between entering a religious order and crossing the threshold of a prison. She is happy in her vocation and does not equate the situations. But examining how both involve an individual conforming to a long-standing institution is a useful device through which she invites us to empathise with the prisoner. The limitations and challenges of life in a religious order are freely chosen, but the restrictions on the life of prisoners are imposed.

[…]  Throughout this book, there is a profound but easily missed recognition that while the wider world – and all too often the church as well – looks constantly for progress and growth and impact, the Christian vocation calls us to something deeper. The chaplain is primarily committed to presence.

[…]  The view of chaplaincy presented in this book is threefold. The chaplain is called to stand prophetically for justice, to be an advocate for those imprisoned, and to “promote the principles and practices of restorative justice” (p. 23). It is fair to say that even though there are a few initiatives here and there, restorative justice is not at the top of the list of priorities for the Irish criminal justice system.

Prison is not working

Perhaps the most depressing section of the book is where Sr Wickham tells the stories of men who committed crimes “in order to get back in” (p. 29). Having been so ravaged by their life experience, enduring wider society was harder than incarceration. There are many things to reflect on in that phenomenon, but above all others is the clear fact that if this is how prison functions, prison isn’t working.

While being accessible, funny, and pastoral, the impressive aspect of this book is that it represents a clear call for the beginning of something like a prison abolitionist movement in Ireland.

Early in the book, I read the sentence that has stayed with me longest:

“Is it not time for some prison walls to come down and for society to have the courage and foresight to explore other options to address the issues of crime and punishment?” (p. 13)

We can’t tear down every prison wall. But we can ask probing, honest questions about the system we have in place, make appropriate verdicts on whether they achieve what we hope they will achieve, and exploring alternatives if it is found that they do not.

(The text is an extract from a Review by Dr. Kevin Hargaden, (Director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith & Justice ) on ‘Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain’ by Sr. Imelda Wickham, pbvm).

Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain by Sr. Imelda Wickham is available to purchase from Messenger Publications and in bookshops nationwide.

See also further reviews & articles on relating to Penal Policy and Prison life at https://www.jcfj.ie/research/

Restoring the wilderness

“..as prison chaplain (and Presentation Sister) I am called to challenge unjust systems, to be a voice for the voiceless…”.

Whenever I am asked to write something on justice in the light of my experience of working as chaplain in Wheatfield Prison for the past twenty years, I am always reminded of the young man who approached me one day with a piece of headed paper in his hand and said: “Will you look at this, ‘Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice’, I know what Faith is but, what’s Justice?”  I can’t remember the answer I gave him, but it is a question I frequently ask myself and struggle to find an answer to.

In today’s world we all struggle with issues of justice and at times are inclined to feel that there is very little evidence of any real justice to be found.  As a congregation our Constitution calls us to challenge unjust systems. So for any of us working for justice is not an optional extra but a constitutive element of who we are as Presentation people.  For me, it has been ‘a call within a call’, because as prison chaplain I am also called to challenge unjust systems, to be a voice for the voiceless, and promote the principles and practices of restorative justice.

Challenging unjust systems

Sr. Imelda Wickham

How does one challenge unjust systems while continuing to work within the criminal justice system? At times I feel like John the Baptist ‘crying in the wilderness’. The wilderness of my own being, the weariness of keeping going, and the unimaginable wilderness of the poverty and helplessness of people who struggle daily to survive. This continuous reality has forced me to seek the way of justice and peace from within, while continuing to fight the good fight for justice from without.

This young man referred to earlier has been part of the criminal justice system practically all his life, and in the eyes of many he is getting his ‘just deserts’ and reaping the rewards of his actions. He would say the same himself. “It’s all my own fault; I was just stupid; I was out of my head on the gear”. 

Prison has its place in society.  However, I believe it should not be given the central place it has in the criminal justice system in Ireland. In my experience (weighed against the harmful effects of imprisonment and the high rate of recidivism) the current system should be regarded as ‘no longer fit for purpose’.  It has a limited usefulness as a means of caring for a small number of people who need to be removed from society either for their own safety and/or the safety of others.

  • Prisons should not be home to the homeless, but they are.
  • Prisons should not be the place for the mentally ill – they need to be hospitalised.
  • Prisons are not for the addicts – they need, and have a right to treatment centres.
  • It is no longer acceptable that prisons are the places for people society ‘wants rid of.’

This out of sight, out of mind mentality still prevails among us, and many of us subscribe to this mentality without even realising it.  It can be a way (for some) to avoid the inherent messiness of life.

As a congregation some years back we were invited, and called upon to form community ‘among those made poor’. This invitation still awaits us even now in our advanced years.  A call to get in touch with the passion and zeal for the ‘mission ‘of Jesus that is in our hearts’, was how the Congregational Chapter of 1991 described it.  Nano Nagle’s legacy continues to evolve and find its expression   today wherever we find ourselves ‘hand to heart’ alongside ‘those many people kept poor’ in our society.

Reawakening compassion

There is a view that as a ‘post-recession people’, Ireland has become an unforgiving, self-righteous and vindictive society, and that in our vindictiveness we feel the need to develop and sustain a punitive system for all wrong-doers.  Our capacity for compassion and empathy has been greatly diminished to the point that reconciliation and forgiveness are not words we hear spoken of openly in the mainstream. I would go so far as to say that their usage has almost become ‘politically incorrect’ outside of a religious milieu!  It seems to me that self-righteousness has somehow crept in to replace reconciliation, and vindictiveness has replaced compassion. This is a common societal problem which in the long term can harden hearts!

People of welcoming heart

There is an urgent need to restore right relationships with each other based on Christian values and to develop a ‘climate of care’ especially for the weak and vulnerable among us.  ‘Care of the Earth’ must include ‘Care of the Poor’ in the here and now.  We need to rediscover how to ‘love the sinner, while hating the sin’    otherwise we stand in danger of becoming a soulless society.

Nano Nagle ministering to the poor on the streets of Cork in dark and challenging society of the 1700’s saw the physical and spiritual needs of the person first and foremost.  Their suffering humanity called her to action amongst the almost insurmountable political, financial and social challenges of her time.  She did not look away. Nano’s legacy to all ‘people of welcoming heart’ continues to evolve and express itself wherever Presentation people find themselves—locally and globally.  We carry with us a responsibility to the society in which we find ourselves, that this should be so, and to find a practical expression of compassion in ‘our work for just systems’ appropriate to our time and place.

My hope for the future is in a system and process of restorative justice that is embraced as an alternative to the current retributive and adversarial system.

Restorative justice

Restorative Justice is: • person-orientated and Gospel based; • about restoring right relationships, and about making restitution for the wrong done, and the harm inflicted; • about bringing people together as opposed to setting them apart; • about healing for the victim and the perpetrator, and about the local community accepting some responsibility for what happened among them.

The concept of restorative justice has been recognised at international level as having the potential to restore the lives of all those affected by crime, including the victim and the perpetrator.

In 2009 the National Commission on Restorative Justice published its final report stated that the Commission was convinced that the implementation of a restorative justice model on a national basis would make a positive contribution to the lives of all citizens.  It went on to state that victims, offenders, their families and their communities can all benefit from a restorative approach to criminal behaviour. The Commission strongly recommended national implementation in a structured way.  We are still waiting, and this report like many other such reports is now decorating our shelves or gathering dust in some  governmental department.

Restorative Justice provides a way for all of us to reflect on our own way of life and on how, unknowingly, we too may be part of the societal sin among us.  This is no easy ask.  Alongside this recognition, victims of crime need to be cared for, and perpetrators of crime need to accept responsibility for their actions and for the damage they caused to victims.

They need our care, and they need to make restitution and repair the damage in as far as it is possible.  None of this happens in the current criminal justice system whereby the victim and perpetrator are kept apart, and neither allowed express the hurt and violation suffered or the regret and remorse experienced.

I strongly believe (with others) that a restorative justice system is the only way forward, and for this to happen it must be preceded by public education and support and acceptance for it as a way of working. She said:

“The Kingdom of God ‘on Earth, as in Heaven’ will be realised when in a just, caring and forgiving society, right relationships are restored and the people of God have learned to live as brothers and sisters in the family of God and His kingdom”.

‘All of those who have destroyed the lives of their victims do not cease to be our brothers and sisters. This is a way for us to continue to find ways to ‘love the sinner, and hate the sin’.  I believe that each and every one of us needs to become the voice of restorative  justice in our society, as a means of renewal and restoration both individually and as communities.

So back to that image of John the Baptist ‘crying in the wilderness’.  Let us together seek the way of justice and peace starting within and then continuing to fight the good fight for justice from without.

Sr. Imelda Wickham, pbvm

This piece ‘Restoring the wilderness’ is an extract from an article that first appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 Issue of Bachloga (Little Shoots) resulting from an interview with Imelda. Bachloga is a quarterly magazine sharing Presentation Life that is produced by the North East Province.

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