‘Travellers in Prison - Voices Unheard’

National – Awarded £7,500

‘Voices Unheard’, led by Conn MacGabhann, is a disarmingly honest and often tragic portrayal of the mental health issues affecting one of the most marginalised groups within British prisons. While academic reports have highlighted the disproportionately high levels of mental illness amongst Irish Travellers within wider society and within prison, ‘Voices Unheard’ articulates in a haunting and unmediated way the distress of this group.

The aim of this project was to represent the main mental health issues facing Irish Travellers in prison in England and Wales. The project did this by recording Travellers speaking about the unique experiences of this group within the prison system. Issues such as depression, violence, discrimination, isolation, substance abuse, institutionalisation and illiteracy were discussed.

These issues are representative of the lives of many Irish Travellers in prison. Through the eight audio visual slideshows which constitute the ‘Voices Unheard’ DVD, The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, is now able to illuminate the mental health crisis affecting this prisoner group. ‘Voices Unheard’ is being gradually and sensitively, disseminated for two main purposes within the prison system.

Firstly, ‘Voices Unheard’ is acting as a training tool for staff within the Prison and Probation Service. It achieves this goal by encouraging its audience to embark on an empathetic journey by following the words of the Traveller prisoner. The plaintive, often self-critical voices of Travellers on this DVD are far-removed from the depiction widespread in both the media and wider society of Travellers. Consequently, through the understanding offered to staff through these personal stories The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain is achieving its aim of creating a healthier environment in prison for the well-being of this group.

Secondly, the ‘Voices Unheard’ DVD, is intended to act as a catalyst for discussions within Traveller groups in prison. As the number of Traveller groups held in prisons across England and Wales increases rapidly, the demand for a resource dealing with mental health issues in a culturally sensitive manner has become more pressing. As Traveller men are often extremely reluctant to talk about their emotional well-being, this DVD by Irish Travellers is proving to be a powerful entry-point into effective discussions about mental health. The benefits of effective listening and talking about issues affecting mental health are long established. For a prisoner group, sadly over-represented in admissions to psychiatric units, self-harming and suicide attempts, this DVD offers a natural voice to which Travellers have already started to respond by opening discussions.

Which achievements are you most proud of?

The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain is tremendously proud to have created the first resource which highlights the mental health issues affecting Irish Traveller prisoners. As Travellers are amongst the most marginalised groups in society and prison, the impact of this DVD which turns misunderstanding into understanding and turns, we believe, inaction within prison into action will be far-reaching.

Every few days the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain is informed of a self-harming or suicidal Traveller prisoner. As a result of the Voices Unheard DVD, prison authorities and prisoners themselves have a catalyst to illuminate the key issues and in turn reduce such signs of mental distress.

Who, do you think, has most benefited from your project?

The Irish Traveller prisoners who are in custody across England and Wales have benefited and will benefit as a result of this project. The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain up until the production of this resource has repeatedly been asked by prison staff about how best to approach issues affecting mental health. At long last we can provide a first step to normalising discussions about the critical issues affecting Travellers in prison.

The DVD was produced by Monica Janowski.


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