Imprisoned Overseas – article by Brian Hanley, ICPO Caseworker and Family Support Officer

09 Jun 2014

Light through bars of jail cell

Read the article below by Brian Hanley, Caseworker and Family Support Officer with the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas. Brian is currently undertaking prison visits and information work in Australia, visiting Irish prisoners and immigration centres in Sydney, Darwin and Perth. 

Some ten years ago I travelled to San Diego on my J1 working holiday. I can still remember the excitement as the ten of us alighted the plane and made our way to the infamous Banana Bungalows where we would be staying for a night or two until we organised work and accommodation (a feat that took more than a fortnight in the end).

That first evening my friend and I were sitting on the deck, looking out at the sea, when another Irish man approached us. He was out of breath and clearly had a few jars on him. John proceeded to tell us how he was ‘nearly shot by the cops fifteen minutes ago’. Apparently, John was meandering along Pacific Beach when two police officers approached him. He was carrying an open beer can in contravention of the law. Owing to John’s inebriated state, he mistook the instruction given to him by the officers as being a request for identification. Within a flash, the two officers drew their firearms and were pointing them directly at John, ordering him to ‘freeze!’ Upon reflection it now appeared to John that they took his reaching into his pocket for his passport as an act of aggression. Suffice to say John was not carrying a firearm; rather he had a few dollars, a passport and another bottle of beer.

I tell this story for two reasons; firstly, it shows how dramatically life can change in an instant and secondly, it demonstrates how we all need to be aware of the laws and customs in the countries we visit. In John’s case, the risk of being shot for putting his hand in his pocket is decidedly less in Kerry than it was in San Diego!

Having worked with Irish prisoners overseas for almost five years now, it is astonishing how easily someone can find themselves on the wrong side of the law. It is not – as common perception would have it – because most prisoners are bad or mad, rather it happens because of carelessness, selfishness, poor decision making, mental illness and addiction.

With the mass outflow of Irish to Australia in recent years, it is hardly surprising that the number of Irish persons coming to my attention in the course of my work has increased noticeably in that time. Of these, the vast majority find themselves in trouble with the law, directly or indirectly, because of alcohol. It may be drunk-driving causing death or an assault outside a pub or club but invariably, alcohol is to be found at the root of most offences. The amount a person drinks is up to themselves to decide. However, things can happen in an instant and the consequences may last a lot longer than any hangover. Quite apart from the devastating effects crimes can have on their victims, those who transgress the law in Australia can expect to be subjected to a stringent prison regime; deported after their sentence is finished; left with a criminal record restricting employment and travel opportunities; and cause untold upset to family and friends. As one mother emailed me recently: I really can’t believe we are almost a year into this … it was so devastating at first and I never thought the time would pass … every day is still hard. 

Writing this, I am reminded of something Wicklow comedian Dara Ó Briain said in his stand up show at the Theatre Royal in 2006. He told his audience that in the UK things are either legal or illegal, whereas;

There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under “That’s grand”; then it moves into “Ah, now, don’t push it”; and finally to “Right! You’re taking the p***.” And that’s where the police sweep in.

Obviously this is not the casebut it does serve to highlight the importance of familiarising yourself with the different laws, customs and cultures in any country you wish to travel to. For example, you can be imprisoned for extended periods of time in the United Arab Emirates for unintentionally writing a bad cheque, or for not observing their strict laws around modesty (quite how they propose to have the soccer World Cup in Qatar in 2022 is anyone’s guess!). Possession of two joints (less than 300 grams) of cannabis is punishable in the Philippines with a mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years. All people, whether indigenous or not, must be treated equally before the law of the country they are in. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if you have been arrested for something that isn’t a crime in Ireland or for something that would be treated quite differently here. If it is the law in the country you are in – you are subject to it.

Help is available for those affected by imprisonment in a foreign country. Should anyone you know become subject to the criminal justice system in Australia, or elsewhere, there are supports available. Everyone has the right to have their local Embassy or Consulate notified of their arrest and detention within a reasonable period of time. It is very important to do so and something we strongly recommend. Similarly, people can contact their local Irish immigration or welfare centre and the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) directly for advice and assistance. It is worth remembering too that however upsetting these situations may be for all concerned, people can and do surpass even the most challenging of circumstances.

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) is a charitable organisation, established in 1985 by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The ICPO works for all Irish prisoners wherever they are: it does not make any distinction in terms of religious faith, the nature of the prison conviction, or of a prisoner’s status. The ICPO is currently working with over 1,000 Irish people in prison in more than 20 countries. The majority of ICPO clients are detained in the UK, with a significant number of clients also detained in the US, Australia, and Europe. The ICPO is currently also supporting Irish prisoners in South and Central America, Africa and Asia. There are ICPO offices in Maynooth and London.

Irish prisoners overseas require support in relation to a wide range of issues, including repatriation, deportation, health and legal matters, discrimination, ill-treatment and access to post release support. In addition to supporting clients in relation to these issues, the ICPO administers a hardship fund which assists clients who are unable to access basic necessities, such as food, water, clothing and medical treatment. The ICPO also provides on-going support and advice to the families of Irish prisoners overseas.

The ICPO is very grateful to its funders, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the St. Stephen’s Green Trust.

For more information see or follow the ICPO on Twitter @ICPOprisoners