In the Absence of a Prison

My secret is a word and a world. I was seven when my neighbour died and it was the first time I heard the word suicide. Her memorial card was circulated around our neighbourhood and people avoided the subject as if it were an unidentified species they could never name. It reminded me of the rosary we held each May on the green. When it was my turn to unroll the prayers, I couldn’t stop giggling because I found it strange to talk to someone who wasn’t physically present. I detected that there was nothing wrong with Mary Mother of God’s absence but something awry with Mary Our Neighbour’s missingness. Absence resembled a wrong-doing and the punishment for it was more absence. A rose-less rosary.

Suicide has a long relationship with felony; felo de se was a legal action taken against the estates of adults who ended their lives. My neighbour was twenty, barely an adult, and the only estate we had was our neighbourhood; a neat, verdant and small constellation of semi-detached houses situated on a hill by a river. I was terrified of what happened to my neighbour not because it seemed alien but I felt somehow responsible for her pain and absence. Although I was seven, I fantasised that it would be only a matter of time before I did the same and God would cast me as a criminal. I invented disguises to justify my existence; first it was silence, later alcohol, and somewhere in-between; prisons. 

Now it seems like a surreal experiment I embarked on. I thought by placing myself within ‘criminal’ environments, I would disappear or at least dilute my own criminality. My family upbringing and culture outlawed victims so I tiptoed towards the criminal, only to find an adjective not a person. I came to agree with writer, Danilo Kiš, who wrote that adjectives were tyrannical. I first entered a prison when I was twenty-two years old to interview a prison chaplain at Mountjoy for my dissertation. I learnt that prison chaplains don’t carry keys so cannot facilitate prisoner movement. Like prisoners, they loiter, hover, wait for gates to open and close. They provide an inmate with an audience of at least two others; God and his servant.

The next time I entered a prison was as a mental health advocate at a high-secure hospital. I had first read its name before I heard it. It appeared regularly in the daily tabloids in our home. Those were bad people; we were not them. After I had completed the Catholic triptych expected of me; baptism, communion and confirmation, God left our home forever. God’s missingness happened incrementally after my inoculations. My parents stopped attending mass at Easter, then at Christmas and then would only partially attend funeral services, usually the removal. The arbiter of justice was not Jesus but Journalist. The newspaper flattened in black and white the evil of society and the address of the evil was often listed as my new workplace. 

I would be a while at the hospital before paper became flesh. For two weeks, I sat in an office reading files, made up of patient requests, which sometimes mentioned their offence, but largely narrated their complaints. I lived less than a mile from the hospital and cycled through a small wood to get there every day. What did human evil look like? Somnolent, sedated, sweet. There were men bouqueted in dressing gowns drinking from beakers of tea with six sugars and boys cutting out their pictures from tabloids, sometimes to conceal, sometimes to broadcast. Through the fixedness and immobility of the system, I could see everything at once, like a poem or a painting and in that sense it had no edges at all. 

I witnessed a serial child rapist, with a stature of nearly 6ft 5, play tennis with a racquet made of rubber. Everything was softened and synthetic here; metal, porcelain, glass did not exist. Architectural protrusions were identified as ligature points and removed; anatomical protrusions were managed through anti-libidinal medication, sometimes called chemical castration in newspapers. The bodies of the men were bloated from medicine and biscuits; they became soft, slow and spacious. I learnt the phrase tardive dyskinesia when a man I was working with repeatedly raised both arms when he spoke as if he was swimming vertically through air. Another man asked me to print him pictures of fractals. Instead, I brought him a fern from the forest outside the hospital. He was disappointed.

- Sarah Byrne, April 2023.

Sarah will cover some of these themes in the upcoming Well Review course on Prison, starting April 11th. 

She will also be considering the relationship between beauty and crime in her garden masterclass at the West Cork Literary Festival 2023.

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