In this guest blog Dr Conn Mac Gabhann, Irish Chaplaincy’s Traveller Equality Project Manager, discusses the challenges facing Gypsies and Irish Travellers, how this group is engaging with services in prison, and how times are changing.
Gypsies and Irish Travellers make up about 5% of the prison population of England and Wales. Given both the human and financial cost of this level of incarceration – approximately £155 million annually, excluding healthcare and education provision - I often wonder why successful approaches to the custody and rehabilitation of this prisoner group don’t become the norm rather than the exception. Many of the men and women from these travelling communities share similar social backgrounds, similar educational backgrounds and have, generally-speaking, followed similar offending pathways. When the factors that contribute to Travellers ending up in prison are the same, it is unsurprising that many of the resolutions to these issues are the same.
A recent report by the Traveller Equality Project, The Right Type of Education: A briefing on education and training provision for Gypsy and Irish Traveller prisoners in England and Wales, found that 68% of Traveller prisoners did not attend school at all or left at or before the age of 14. Of course, such statistics are unsurprising; for some years, government and voluntary sector reports have highlighted the uniquely low level of literacy amongst Traveller prisoners, which hovers around 65 - 70%.
You may say: ‘So, what? Travellers don’t like school; they don’t learn to read or write; they can’t get a job that requires literacy which limits their life chances; and so they end up in prison. Big deal; now, tell us something new!’
The something ‘new’ is this: Traveller engagement. Even in this era of cuts to staff and resources, Traveller prisoners continue to organise Traveller Group Meetings and operate as Traveller Reps across nearly 50 prisons. In June, events have taken place across many prisons in England and Wales for the annual Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month celebrations – there have been concerts, traditional meals, lectures, a book launch, film screenings and much more. And it has been organised in large part by Traveller prisoners. Travellers are increasingly empowering themselves, identifying themselves as Gypsies and Irish Travellers and advocating on their own behalf. Travellers are increasingly engaging with services in prison such as education and training.
The trouble is, just as Travellers are overcoming the impact of unrelenting historic and current prejudice and accessing services in large numbers for the first time, services have been removed, reduced or rendered inaccessible. Behind the criminological jargon, that means John is not allowed out of his cell to learn to read because staff cuts have meant that there’s limited unlocked time.
Times have changed. Traveller prisoners are not the hard-to-reach, inscrutable and disengaged group as the popular perception of a few years ago would have you believe. They are the men and women who are speaking eloquently to other Traveller prisoners about the importance of registering as ‘W3-Gypsy/Irish Traveller’ on the prison database system; they are the people who are assisting other Travellers as Prisoner Reps; and they are the people who are becoming Samaritan Listeners and Reading Mentors.
A survey carried out by the Shannon Trust in April 2014 found that 9.5% of learners on the Shannon Trust Reading Plan nationally were from a Gypsy or Irish Traveller background. This was significantly higher than all other ethnic groups except ‘White - British’. These figures indicate a very high level of interest amongst Travellers in gaining literacy skills, in improving their job skills and making a better life for themselves and their families.
Traveller prisoners will seize the opportunity to improve their situation but it is up to all of us to ensure that prisons provide suitable opportunities. Leaving John in a locked cell is no longer an option.
- HM Inspectorate of Prisons, (February 2014), People in prison: Gypsies, Romany and Travellers, (London: HM Inspectorate of Prisons).
- Mac Gabhann, C., (2015), The Right Type of Education: A briefing on education and training provision for Gypsy and Irish Traveller prisoners in England and Wales (London: Irish Chaplaincy) available at:
- Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, (January 2015), Deaths of Travellers in Prison, (London: Prisons and Probation Ombudsman).
- The Traveller Equality Project webpage has educational, cultural and research resources available for download here