Michael McHugh Independent/UK 20 April 2015
One of the world’s most threatened birds has found a sanctuary within a prison that houses Northern Ireland’s most dangerous inmates. Prisoners serving life sentences helped create the habitat for breeding lapwings. The birds have made their home on a marshy no-man’s-land at HMP Maghaberry, dominated by razor wire and lookouts behind reinforced glass.
The six-acre patch of waste ground lies between the perimeter fence and the wall of the jail, near Lisburn in County Antrim, known for holding dissident republicans, sex offenders and murderers.
Swampy, short grass and the lack of predators such as foxes have created the ideal conditions for breeding chicks, said retired prison guard and gardener Denis Smyth. “We have to work together as a team, the prisoners and myself. We have a very good relationship with them; there is never a problem,” he said.
Lapwings, which are about the size of pigeons, have suffered a population decline of 50 per cent during the last 25 years as changes in farmland have impacted on habitats.
COMMENT: This brief news item reminds me of an almost forgotten book, “Birdman of Alcatraz”, which was later made into a film with Burt Lancaster in the title role. It was the moving story of Robert Stroud, a man with a fearsome reputation, now in solitary confinement in prison, who finds a sick bird has flown into his cell. Looking after this bird, analyzing its illnesses and bringing it back to full health, gives him a new reason for living. He becomes a different man, and in the process he finds his advice sought after by owners of birds throughout the US.
This change, which came about by accident, is echoed by the calming influence of some reforms in our NZ prisons. At Paremoremo Maximum Security Prison can now be seen, in some prisoners’ cells, tanks containing colourful fish. It seems that spending time observing how the instinct to enjoy life expresses itself with different forms of animal life, and encouraging this by providing the needed environment – this has a valuable spin-off effect that humans need. We are not meant to live in a sterile artificially created state of being. When this is imposed on us we suffer.
Not only so. We are meant to respond to life with what we may call an affectionate welcome. Life is more than getting and spending. Growing up in a family teaches us to love, parents first of all, but this soon extends to others. And it is almost inevitable that this instinct leads us to an attachment to some activity that exercises a compelling attraction for us. If this is a healthy activity we blossom. But what if this is not a healthy interest, perhaps even socially and legally disapproved of because it damages society?
When this is regarded as serious the answer prescribed can be punishment, perhaps even confinement. But we could consider other ways. A phrase that has been around for over 200 years attracts me: “The expulsive power of a new affection.” Offering a fuller life to a species under threat, finding satisfaction in some aspect of healing, developing a skill that gives pleasure to the hearer or beholder – one of these or some other form of life-enhancing activity has been the healing factor that has helped to bring renewal in many lives.
Fortunately there are some in our Corrections Department who are looking for such alternatives, even for long-time offenders. Sadly there are also some who see punishment and imprisonment as the preferred way to go. In the 1930s and ‘40s lads of 16 to 18 years of age were routinely sentenced to two or three year terms of Borstal “training” which, for most young offenders, was disastrous in its effects. Researchers analysed the records of these lads in later life, and found that about 75 % had gone on to become adult criminals. Borstals were discontinued when the Justice Department had digested these statistics.
We honour men like John Robson, and later, Judge Andrew Becroft and others, who introduced more human and subtle ways of dealing with young offenders. But there is still some way to go.