Monday, 11 July 2011

Discrimination against the travelling community inside and outside prison

The Coalition Government’s retrograde approach to the travelling community appears set to continue with the eviction of 100 families at Dale Farm in Essex
Dale Farm nicely illustrates the countrywide problem of lack of site provision, with Basildon Borough Council having been trying to remove the families for years.
Now, the council has court approval for the eviction. And at these alleged cash strapped times for government, the council has been granted £5.85 million to cover policing (£4.65 million) and the cost of the eviction (£1.2 million).
The immediate thought has to be would not such a large amount of money be better spent on buying appropriate land where the travellers could settle? Surely nearly £6 million would have bought enough land to not only cater for the Dale farm families but a sizeable number of the rest of the travelling community in the UK.
Instead, the government and local council seem to think it a much better idea to throw the families off the land, disrupting their lives and putting the educational futures of their children at stake.
The problem of lack of sites for the travelling community was being addressed by the last government which put an obligation on local councils to identify areas for sites. This policy has been abandoned by the Coalition Government which has sought to return to the simple criminal justice approach, constantly moving the travelling community on from one place to another.
The effects of criminalising travellers has been highlighted in an excellent report from the Irish Chaplaincy titled Voices Unheard. The research conducted in prisons over the past year found that around 1 per cent of the prison population is made up of Irish Travellers (IT). This amounts to between 2.5 and 4 per cent of the minority ethnic population in prison. The cost of holding these prisoners works out at between £23 and £38 million a year.
Some 51.7 per cent of IT were in prison for crimes relating to the unlawful obtaining of property while burglary accounted for 36.4 per cent.
Once in prison, travellers feel even more discriminated against than on the outside. The whole prison system can appear like a hostile environment. Report author Conn MacGabhann found it difficult initially to get members of the travelling community to come forward and speak out. It was safer to remain anonymous.
One of the real problems discovered was how the lack of literacy among travellers stopped them getting onto courses to learn a trade. It also makes doing those courses regarded as important to show a prisoner is trying to improve him or herself more difficult. Prisons largely run on paper and if the prisoner lacks those basic literacy skills it makes navigating a way around the system even more of a problem. This adds to the isolation.
It was found that 26.1 per cent of IT prisoners had one or more mental illnesses, a figure that rose to 64.7 per cent in the case of female prisoners.
The Prison Service seems to have been blissfully unaware of the situation regarding IT prisoners, not conducting any monitoring of the prison population.
This has not helpedl, so it must be hoped that the recommendation from the Irish Chaplaincy for proper monitoring of the traveller population is taken up. Other recommendations from the report include that when there are five or more IT prisoners in custody then regular meetings of a prisoner group should be facilitated; there should be a traveller representative to help with reception, induction, monitoring and delivery of services and there should be cultural awareness, equality and diversity training for prison staff.
So it would seem, the attitudes being displayed toward the travelling community, as exemplified by the situation at Dale Farm, are being replicated in the prisons. How many more IT prisoners will there be for instance as a result of the eviction process at Dale Farm?
There has been some real progress made on travellers issues over recent years, with moves to recognise what the culture is all about. The effort to provide sites was also welcome as it sought to redress a position in the country made worse by the repeal of the Caravans Act in 1994. The Caravans Act had put an obligation on local councils to provide sites but this was repealed under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act passed by the Conservative Government. The policies of the present government seem in line with the past Conservative administrations.
The attitude toward the travelling community is truly one of back to the future. What is needed is for a greater tolerance to be shown toward these peoples. Lack of funding is no excuse, given the amount of money that is apparently easily available for evictions.
The sites should be provided as previously planned and the moves continued toward addressing the real issues of discrimination identified in the Irish Chaplaincy report on prisons. Returning to the failed and expensive public order approach is simply no answer, building more problems that often finish up being played out in the prison system.

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