Blind Justice: How prison is leaving Travellers isolated and traumatised

From unfair treatment to overuse of protection regimes, Noteworthy and The Journal investigate inequality in Ireland’s justice system.

By Michelle Hennessy

Noteworthy - The Journal - Blind Justice Investigation. Our project team speaks to Travellers who are overrepresented in prison and left with no support. Reports of prison staff using anti-Traveller language, with experts saying systematic change and accountability is needed. We find lack of supports, insufficient mental health services and severe impacts on families and children. Traveller Advocate: There is structural racism in the criminal justice system.


“I WAS NEVER in trouble and I don’t even understand why I went [to prison]… The judge looks at you in a different way. They think that when they see a Traveller, that they’re going to be always in trouble.”

Kathleen Wilde served her full sentence of six months in prison a number of years ago for an offence that she told Noteworthy the person she was with at the time committed.

“I never touched anything. I was still blamed for it because I was there. Even though they had nothing on me, I still got jail.” 

Looking back, Wilde said she was “never in trouble” and doesn’t understand why she even ended up in prison. She left that judges “look at you in a different way”, thinking that Travellers are “going to be always in trouble”.

The justice system as a whole has let her down throughout her life, with Wilde saying the gardaí treated her unfairly and like she “was an outcast”. “I wasn’t treated at all like I was a human being.” 

One of her earliest memories of the gardaí is when, as a child, she was woken up by banging on their caravan door, with a member of the police force opening it and “roaring and shouting” for them to be out of that place by noon. The next morning, they were again woken by the gardaí alongside “JCBs, all lines up in a row”.

“I remember getting dragged out in me bare feet… shaking with the cold.”

Wilde left prison “traumatised”, with “no support whatsoever”. She wanted to be alone and didn’t want to mix or talk about anything. “I could have done with a bit of help… which I never got.” 

Travellers overrepresented in prison

This is far from a unique experience for Travellers who generally account for around 10% of the male prisoner population and as much as 22% of the female prison population, though those proportions fluctuate.

According to a one-day snapshot provided by the Irish Prison Service to researchers behind the Irish Travellers’ Access to Justice (ITAJ) report, Travellers accounted for 7.3% of the prison population on 30 November 2021.

Travellers make up less than 1% of the population in Ireland.

  • Our BLIND JUSTICE series of articles is a collaboration between The Journal and Noteworthy - our crowdfunded investigative platform that supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

The ITAJ report highlighted that data provided by the prison service for 30 November showed Traveller prisoners were more likely to be serving sentence for less serious offences.

There were 321 non-Travellers serving sentences for murder, for example, in male prisons but no male Travellers in this offence category.

The majority of the offences male Travellers were serving sentences for related to theft, burglary or robbery. Equally, the majority of the Traveller women in prison on that day – 11 out of the total of 16- were serving sentence for theft. 

We also reported that Traveller women were imprisoned for minor offences such as driving without tax in our award-winning TOUGH START investigation last year.

Anne Costello, programme coordinator of the Travellers in Prison Initiative, told Noteworthy that there are a number of factors contributing to the high representation of Travellers in Ireland’s prison system.

If you look at international research on other ethnic minorities such as the Maori, [indigenous people of mainland New Zealand], you see the same kinds of themes.

These include “a denial of their identity, forced assimilation, the stripping of their culture, high unemployment, early school-leaving, trauma in their lives that leads in some cases to addiction”. There is also “an overrepresentation of Travellers in foster care”. Costello said that “these are all interlinked”.

Maria Joyce, coordinator with the National Traveller Women’s Forum said consideration also has to be given to the role of policing and the poor relationship that has existed between the community and An Garda Síochána for many years. 

Researchers involved in the ITAJ report have said their work points to racial profiling of Travellers by some members of the organisation – a claim that has been rejected by the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

  • In part one of this investigation, Noteworthy reported that Policing Authority is ‘not satisfied’ with Garda Commissioner’s comments on Traveller profiling.

Joyce said there is “structural racism in the criminal justice system”. 

“That’s the first point of contact, from gardaí through the courts to imprisonment and that’s impacting on Travellers ending up on prison more – the UL research backed that up with its findings relating to racial profiling,” she said.

“There are also numerous examples of judges in the courts making really discriminatory or downright racist remarks to Travellers or in front of them.”

Three quarters of the ITAJ survey respondents thought that “judges in their area do not treat Travellers with respect”.

Recent workshops conducted by the Travellers Equality Justice Project and Cork Traveller Women’s Network had similar findings, with the majority surveyed reporting “that they had experienced prejudiced or racist remarks from the bench during their interactions with the Court’s system”. 

Poor scores in pre-sentencing reports

Another issue facing Travellers convicted of a crime, according to Costello, is that they are more likely to receive a poor score in the Probation Service’s pre-sentencing risk assessment because of the criteria it considers.

A pre-sanction report assesses an offender to see whether they are suitable for a non-custodial sentence. The report describes the person’s attitude, whether they accept responsibility for their actions and also personal circumstances such as addiction or their family situation.

“It will look at things like early school leaving, unemployment, regularly moving homes, family members in crime, addiction.”

Costello explained that “lots of Travellers will score highly in that because of the wider societal discrimination they’ve faced for their whole lives”.

“The Probation Service is now looking at a new tool that is more sensitive to ethnic minorities and in the meantime we’re asking them to change the way they interpret those assessments and the way they are presented to a judge.

“So, if someone was an early school leaver, they can explain that no secondary school would accept this man because he’s a Traveller, or that there was some other form of discrimination in the educational system when he was coming through it and that he should be given another chance.”

Unfair treatment in prison

Once in prison, Travellers have reported unfair treatment . Kathleen Wilde told Noteworthy that she felt she was “being treated a lot differently”. 

She said that other inmates bullied her, would push into her and “didn’t want to be around” because of who she was.

Photo of prison interior with individual cell doors with quote from Kathleen Wilde on her experience in prison - The experience that I had wasn't very nice, the people weren't very nice to me... because you'd always be called gypo, k-----r, always something.
Source: Photo - Tetra Images via Alamy Stock Photo

Costello said that she is still hearing examples, “not everywhere, but from some” prisoners, of staff using anti-Traveller language when they speak to them.

“One man recently said he asked a prison officer something and he said ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, I don’t speak inbred’. That person isn’t going to go back to him now to ask anything.

“Even when the K-word is being used, there sometimes isn’t an understanding of how problematic that is… People don’t realise that they only use that word with negative connotations, even if you’re not using it to describe a Traveller, it is still offensive.”

Costello said the Traveller Justice Initiative is asking the prisons to have a “zero tolerance approach” to the use of this kind of language.

“Prisons are hierarchical places… The governors need to say that if you use that language – or see other people using it and do nothing – then there will be consequences for your career,” she said.

Training only really works well if a person is open to challenging their own bias, if you have a very fixed view then in some cases training can make that more entrenched. When people are rigid like that then the only way to change their behaviour is to have consequences.

Maria Joyce, coordinator with the National Traveller Women’s Forum, said women in prison have also reported dealing with prison officers who were “very anti-Traveller” when they were in prison.

She said that while some prison officers are doing their jobs well, those who hold openly negative views of Travellers in women’s prisons can “make life difficult” for the women.

Joyce agreed that while training is helpful, it won’t always work.

What's needed is a systematic change in relation to training and accountability. Officers need to be held to account.
Source: Photo - Oireachtas TV

A 2019 report from the chaplain of the Dochas Centre women’s prison noted that the Chaplaincy Service had been approached by a number of women over the course of the year to discuss “individual incidents of unfair treatment by staff”.

“These complaints included verbal abuse, xenophobic remarks, threatening language and pointed exclusion/favouritism of others,” the report stated.

In all cases these incidents caused emotional upset and distress, often triggering memories of mistreatment in other contexts, creating a re-traumatising effect.

“It is important to note that the vast majority of uniformed staff provide a very high level of support and care to prisoners. These incidents constitute a small number, but they cannot be ignored.”

The reported added that “in most cases, the women involved did not feel safe to make complaints in writing to the governor for fear of further penalisation from the staff involved”.

In response to queries from Noteworthy, the the Irish Prison Service said training for new recruits in the Irish Prison Service College has been updated in recent months.

Learning outcomes now describe who Travellers are “and what their traditions and customs”. This includes reference to the fact that “deaths and funerals are particularly sensitive elements of Traveller tradition and culture”. 

They also highlight “differences in health, social and economic statistics relating to Travellers in Ireland and in the criminal justice system” and “the offensiveness of a number of inappropriate terms relating to Travellers and the actions which officers should take to address the use of such terms by other prisoners or staff”.

The training also encourages prison officers to “invest additional time in communicating with and supporting Travellers to engage with service providers, avail of entitlements or apply for privileges”, according to a spokesperson. 

Use of restricted regimes

Because Wilde didn’t feel comfortable around other inmates due to their harsh treatment of her, she was place on a protection regime. 

Prisoners are generally placed on this type of regime because they are considered to be at risk due to factors such as feuds, drug debts or evidence they gave against another prisoner.

Anne Costello said there is a perceived overuse of protection regimes among Travellers in prison and this is something that the Travellers in Prison Initiative are working on.

“If you ask people ‘do you want protection?’ when they first arrive in prison, it seems like this lovely safe place, so why wouldn’t you choose that?” 

However, she said that “it’s not always being explained well enough to people what that will mean in terms of the freedom they’ll have or the opportunities to gain privileges”. 

If you’re not fighting with someone or afraid of someone, why do you need protection? And the problem is that once you’re on protection, even if you get off it then there can be issues, there may be suspicion about why you were on it – ‘is he a squealer?’ 

The Irish Prison Service provided Noteworthy with provisional figures of the number of prisoners on restricted regimes for protection reasons for two dates this year.

They show that on 19 April this year, 72 out of the 575  prisoners (13%) on these regimes were Travellers. Later in the year on 19 July, 82 out of the 595 prisoners (14%) were Travellers.

It is important to note that these figures represent a snapshot of an individual day in the prison, rather than an overall trend.  

Costello referenced a pilot in Castlerea prison in which a prisoner who is a Traveller did meet-and-greets with Travellers who were new to the prison.

This includes informing them about what a protection regime would mean and encouraging them to join him in classes. She said there was an increase in numbers attending the school following these interactions.

“We’d like to see that replicated across the prison service, it would be such a simple thing but it would require cooperation from prison officers in terms of bringing a prisoner down to meet people whenever they’re coming in,” she said.

The Irish Prison Service told Noteworthy that it is necessary for vulnerable prisoners and others to be separated from the general prison population for their safety. Rule 63 of the Prison Rules 2007 states that this may be done either at the request of a prisoner or when a governor “considers it necessary”. 

Another prison rule requires the Director General to review this after 21 days and it can be extended for a further 7 days after which time it must be reviewed again.

The IPS said prison rules provide for a statutory entitlement for a maximum of two hours out-of-cell time daily, with an opportunity for “meaningful human contact”. 

The Prison Rules provide that the imposition of a restricted regime is closely monitored by the Irish Prison Service and the status of each prisoner on restricted regime within the prison system is regularly reviewed.

In recent months, the Irish Prison Service College has engaged with the Traveller Justice Initiative and the Traveller Mediation Service in order to review and enhance the training.

The IPS said that training now outlines that the implications of ‘protection’ need to be explained to prisoners “in terms of incentivised regimes, access to education, out of cell time, and reputation if they come off protection at a later date”.

Severe impact on children

The impact of their imprisonment stretches outside the prison walls, particularly when it comes to children and women in the community.

Maria Joyce from the National Traveller Women’s Forum, said the consequences for children can be particularly severe if their mother goes to prison.

“Women in general are often the primary carers, but we know from Census statistics that among Traveller women it’s a much higher percentage who are primary carers,” she explained.

If a mother is in prison, that’s breaking that bond with her child or children, there’s a sense of loss, the absence of a parent, it’s huge.

She said in some cases the children may end up in foster care, or if they are already in care, imprisonment may reduce their access to their children if regular visits cannot be arranged. Some Traveller mothers in prison go months without seeing their children. 

Large brick building with small windows and a number of lights and security cameras beside it. 'Individual incidents of unfair treatment by staff' were reported in the Dochas Centre women’s prison
Source: Radharc Images via Alamy Stock Photo

“That makes it hard to maintain the relationship and to rebuild the bond when they get out of prison,” she said, adding that it can also be challenging for mothers to put structures back in place to ensure their children can come back to live with them on their release.

“There’s a lack of supports to navigate that system,” she said. “And one big issue is access to safe and secure long-term accommodation. The prison will ensure the woman has a place to stay on her first night out of prison, but in the weeks and months after it’s not guaranteed and often they may be staying at a B&B.

“This makes it harder for them to get their children back. If they were renting before they went into prison, they may have lost benefits such as rent allowance and they need support to get those back as soon as they get out.”

‘Life put on hold’

One woman, Pamela*, who spoke to Noteworthy said her partner, now in his 40s, has been in and out of prison since he was 14. She explained that several member of his family had been involved in criminality when he was growing up.

The couple have a son together and had a baby girl who died a few days after she was born. Pamela said they tried for more children but she had a number of miscarriages since their daughter’s birth.

Her partner’s stints in jail feel like prison sentences for Pamela too, as she explained that she can not socialise when he’s not there.

It’s hard, he’s inside and I’m here trying to meet the bills each month, keep the home going and take care of the family. On top of that, I have to make sure he’s treated right in prison.

“I’m fed up, when he’s in prison I can’t go out with my friends because there might be scandal about it. There’d be talk around the place if I went out and one of the girls said I left them or something. So I’m locked at home, my life is put on hold as well, the farthest I can go is the shop.

“I used to work as a cleaner in a canteen, but I had to give that up because of the long hours and there was no one at home to mind the little lad,” she said.

She worries her son will follow his father’s path.

“He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he’s a quiet lad who keeps his head down and he wants to go into a trade, but I always have that fear,” she said. Pamela said she has, at times, tried to conceal her son’s Traveller ethnicity, including at his secondary school as she was worried he would be treated differently by the teachers.

She remembers being placed at the back of the classroom when she attended school because she was a Traveller. Her son has managed to get work experience, but she knows of other young men from their community who have been turned away from apprenticeships or jobs because it is known they are Travellers.

  • Last year, Noteworthy exposed the systemic issues facing Travellers in the education system as part of our TOUGH START investigation. Read this article here

Although she knows difficult experiences in her partner’s youth likely contributed to his criminal behaviour and addiction, she has angry moments.

“When he gets out of prison he’s back on the drink and drugs and I just didn’t know why. I’d be thinking you have a beautiful home and family – what more do you want, why do you need the drink? But a lot of stuff has come to light about when he was young,” she said.

Photo of a packet of tissues on the side of a couch with quote from Pamela on life when her partner is in prison - There were nights when my little boy would be up in bed and I'd have the washing and cleaning up done and I'd cry my eyes out.
Source: Photo - Joeri Mostmans via Alamy Stock Photo

Mary* has two adult sons in prison. For the younger son, it is his first time in jail, but his brother, who is in his 30s, has been in and out since he was 18.

As a teenager, her older son got into drugs and that led to criminality, she said. 

“He got heavier into drugs, he ended up taking heroin and E tablets [ecstasy],” she said. “Everything went downhill” from when he was 18 at a house party with his brother who was a year younger than him. 

“There were a few of them at a house party… they were all taking tablets,” she said and her 17-year-old son died from an overdose.

“There was only a year between them. I had to cope with the death of one son and another who wanted to be dead… After that, he just didn’t care about his life or anything else.”

Mary has had to pay her son’s drug debt over the years because his life was threatened, including in prison, where she said he continued to have access to drugs.

“You try to take on everything, you have to take care of the house, you have the kids – I took on my daughter’s kids when they were taken off her – and on top of that you have his drug habit to pay for.”

She worries about how her sons are treated, citing instances in which her older son said prison staff over the years used anti-Traveller slurs when talking to him.

Photo of prison bars with a quote from Mary on prison staff using anti-Traveller slurs when talking to her son - He's done wrong and if you do the crime you have to do the time - I know that - but they're still human beings, they're not animals.
Source: Photo - Alamy Stock Photo

“There can be one officer in there and if he gets to dislike you he’ll make your life hell. You can complain to the governor but then it’s his word against the officer and they’ll just say ‘he’s telling lies, look at his history’, sometimes they won’t even let them see the governor so they just give up.”

Concern over mental health services

Both women said one of their main concerns about their family members in prison related to their mental health and access to vital supports, including counselling and help with their addiction issues, both in and out of prison.

Pamela said her partner had been trying for a number of weeks before his most recent offence to access mental health treatment.

She said his time in juvenile detention was a traumatic experience for him and he has had to deal with the grief of losing several family members – at one point he lost a brother, a sister and a nephew in the space of a year-and-a-half while he was in prison.

In prison, he is on medication and is doing better, but she’s worried about what will happen when he is released. “When he comes home he’s very edgy for a few days, he used to have panic attacks.

“He’s been clean the last two years, he’s doing great and putting on weight, he’s started doing the Traveller classes because he likes making things.”

Pamela has arranged access to a local drug councillor for her partner for when he is released from prison. She is worried that the supports on the outside won’t be enough to keep him off alcohol and drugs or to address the deeper mental health issues he has. 

One time, he spent weeks ringing places trying to get treatment and every door was shut in his face. He overdosed on my epilepsy medicine, his heart stopped and the next morning they released him from hospital – why wasn’t he sent to a mental health ward? A week later he was back in hospital again because of drugs.

Mary’s son began to show signs of serious mental illness the last time he was out of prison, she said. “He had been off the drugs for eight or nine months and seemed to be doing okay but then his mind went, he started talking to himself,” she explained.

“When he went back into prison, we didn’t hear from him for a few weeks. I was calling to ask if he was okay but they said they couldn’t tell me anything because he’s an adult.

“I asked someone from Exchange House [the National Traveller Service] to visit him and they said he wasn’t doing well. The fight I had to have to get him into a psychiatric ward was ridiculous.”

She said that he was frightened and “locking himself in his cell”. He told her that he dragged his 17-year-old brother who died “out of hell” but said that now “he was his brother… buried in the grave”.

Now he is on medication, which she said has helped, but she knows that he needs counselling to help him deal with the grief and guilt he feels about his brother’s death. 

Travellers hide a lot, especially men, they won’t talk about these things that have happened when they were young, they don’t want to go to counselling to tell people their business.

Ongoing waiting lists for counselling services 

Maria Joyce said there are similar trends with Traveller women in prison when it comes to the prevalence of mental health issues. 

“There’s a revolving door system for some women, they’re the most vulnerable of Traveller women and they end up trapped in a cycle of being released and going back in,” she said. 

“Some women who are already on depression medication may experience a delay in getting that medication when they first go into prison. This can have a significant impact as it may have taken years to get the right medication in place.”

She said when a prison is over capacity that can also impact on access to services, including counselling. 

Kathleen Wilde told Noteworthy that she didn’t receive any counselling while on a protection regime. “I was just left here and that was it.”

She said she would have benefited from this at the time as well as after she was released from prison. “I felt myself going in on my own, inside myself.”

According to figures released in response to a parliamentary question by Sinn Féin TD Sorca Clarke last year, on 9 March 2021 there were over 1,200 prisoners waiting to access the psychology service and over 530 waiting for drug addiction counselling services.

In response to a number of questions from Noteworthy, a spokesperson for the Irish Prison Service (IPS) said wait lists remain in every prison for mental health and offence related assessment and intervention with the Psychology Service.

It said it is anticipated that a recent recruitment campaign will lead to an increase in permanent psychologists on site, filling existing and new posts. “Vacant posts remain and a national campaign is being planned to advertise locum psychologist positions to cover these remaining posts.”

It is anticipated that this increase in staffing will support a reduction in wait times, in conjunction with systemic support in relation to improve day-to-day client access.

The Psychology Service ensures that it takes into consideration Traveller-specific needs when engaging in assessment and individual formulation and interventions, the IPS spokesperson said.

“For example, the service includes the use of material and advice from Traveller-specific mental health projects, and diversity (including cultural differences in beliefs and attitudes between the therapist and client) is taken into account.”

The IPS also cited some examples of initiative undertaken. This includes the Limerick Prison Psychology Service benefitting from the Tipperary Rural Traveller Project who facilitate groups in the prison and make direct referrals to the psychology service.

Separately, in Castlerea Prison – where IPS said there is currently a large body of men from the Traveller community – a consultation occurred back in 2016 in conjunction with the Travellers in Prisons Initiative which included a site visit to the prison by members of the Traveller Community as well as HSE Primary Health Care Workers from within Traveller Communities.

“To this day, there is enhanced interagency working as a result of this project,” the IPS said.

‘We are human beings’

Kathleen Wilde wearing a white spotted shirt - on how the justice system needs to change - Travellers want to be treated fair. At the end of the day, we are human beings... and we're just the same as everybody else in this country.
Source: Photo - Martin Beanz Warde via Noteworthy

When it comes to Travellers and the prison system, it is clear that there are many ongoing problems to be addressed. 

As Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission wrote in the forward of the Irish Travellers’ Access to Justice (ITAJ) report earlier this year: “It is abundantly clear that the relationship between Travellers and criminal justice institutions is deeply problematic.” 

When asked what was the one thing she would change about the prison system, Kathleen Wilde did not hesitate to ask for Travellers to be treated “a little bit more fair” and be seen “as human beings”.

“Just because we lived in caravans, we lived on the side of the road, doesn’t mean we’re different. We’re human like everyone else.”  

*Names have been changed


Blind Justice


In part one, we report that the Policing Authority is ‘not satisfied’ with the Garda Commissioner’s comments on Traveller profiling. In part three, we reveal that councils are refusing homeless accommodation to Travellers using criteria ‘with no basis in law’.

Have a listen to The Explainer x Noteworthy podcast on the investigation’s findings.

Image for BLIND JUSTICE project - Hands gripping prison bars

This article is by Michelle Hennessy of The Journal, with reporting by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy as well as freelance journalist Martin Beanz Warde.

This Noteworthy investigative series was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy general investigative fund to cover additional costs. 

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