“We have had a huge turnaround of people coming back; they are actually trying to get back in for Christmas. Prison is preferable to having nowhere to go,” Sr Esther Murphy told the Irish Independent.
A volunteer chaplain at Mountjoy Women’s Prison or Dóchas Centre, the nun said that for some “being in prison is better” than being alone on the streets at Christmas because in prison there is food, heating, camaraderie and “they are in from the cold”.
“I wouldn't say it is perfect because they are still away from their family - but the people who want to come back into prison will otherwise be sleeping in a tent down by the canal this week. That is unimaginable.”
She said the lack of housing and accommodation is resulting in ex-prisoners ending up back on drugs or alcohol to help them cope with homelessness. “It is beyond words,” the Mercy nun said in exasperation.
“You cannot rehabilitate anybody living on the streets. People need a roof over their heads and their own space in order to be able to get to grips with their addiction; they will never get to grips with addiction if they live on the streets.”
Those who criticise the ‘revolving door’ within the prison population have “no understanding” of the challenges, she said. “When they don't have a place to go, they end up on the streets, and they are back to square one – they then end up taking drink or drugs to numb the pain.”
Her wish for the New Year is housing for all.
“My wish would be that every single person that comes out of prison, having paid their dues to society, should have a roof over their head.
"Providing a treatment centre for those with addiction is way down the list of priorities.”
According to Sr Esther, Christmas is a very challenging time for prisoners.
One woman, who is facing her first Christmas in prison, told Sr Esther, “Christmas magnifies the loneliness and sadness for everything and everyone we are missing. It is emotionally overwhelming.”
The prisoner added: “We miss the love of our families more than words can say and we try to support each other. There are small acts of kindness and humour that help us stay strong and keep hope.”
Another prisoner who has three young children told the chaplain: “Being in prison is hard enough day to day but at Christmastime it is heart-breaking.
"We are meant to be spending this time with family and friends. We should be outside doing Christmas lists and shopping. Instead, I have to call my mother to ask her to do my children's Santa list.”
“Having three small children and not being able to see them at Christmastime is so emotionally draining. I won’t have a visit from my children on Christmas day because this is not a place for them.
"I try not to think about not getting to see their faces light up with delight because I just break down crying. You can never get these times back.”