Karl Crawley and how Ireland started talking about prisoners’ mental health (1974-1978)

Dr Oisin Wall

‘Doing porridge’

Governor: It’s my four eyed butterfly fish […]

Chief Prison Officer: Poorly, is he sir? […]

G: I’m very much afraid he may have developed fin rot […] it’s contagious you see, we’ll have to isolate the little fellow.

CPO: Much as I’ve had to do with Evans, Sir.

G: Evans?

CPO: Yes sir, I’ve had to isolate him sir.

G: Oh what’s he done now?

CPO: He’s been eating electric lightbulbs, sir.

G: Lightbulbs? Did he say why he was eating lightbulbs?

CPO: Yes sir, he said it was because he couldn’t get hold of any razorblades.

This exchange in the first episode of the classic television show Porridge (1974-1977), with its jaunty segue from the governor’s pet to the solitary confinement of a prisoner in crisis, had the studio audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. Yet, when this was written conditions for prisoners with mental health issues were almost non-existent British and Irish prisons, with many prisoners campaigning to improve conditions and, in particular, psychiatric care for distressed prisoners. The campaigns were led by the Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) in Britain and the Prisoners’ Union (PU) and the Prisoner Rights Organisation (PRO) in Ireland.

Karl Crawley in the public eye

In 1975, a year after this episode of Porridge aired, a young man called Karl Crawley became a cause célèbre in Ireland. Like the fictional Evans, Crawley had been self-harming by eating bedsprings, cutlery, parts of a radio, and anything else he could lay hands on. At the time he was 23 years old and had already attempted suicide seventeen times during the six years he had spent in Patrick’s Institution and Mountjoy Prison.

Crawley came to the public attention because, while he was in court facing charges of assaulting a Garda, the PRO picketed the court and put leaflets on the jury’s benches. This landed seven activists with a 12 month prison sentence for interfering with a jury, because the leaflets had detailed Crawley’s history and argued that he needed care in the Central Mental Hospital rather than imprisonment, information that the judge thought would prejudice the jury.

Although Crawley’s charge was minor and would never usually have appeared in the newspapers, the attention from the PRO, their trial, and subsequent appeal, lifted Crawley into the public view. Newspapers reported on his acquittal on grounds of self-defence. They reported on Crawley’s transfer to Meath Hospital after swallowing 5 knife handles, two five inch pieces of metal, and a pipe cleaner. They also reported that the Prison Officers had not believed him for five days, when he told them he had swallowed the objects, until he needed emergency surgery.

Torture accusations

The following year, 1976, the newspapers reported extensively on the case that Crawley, with the aid of the PRO, took to the High Court. During the case it emerged that since 1974, Crawley had been moved to the Central Mental Hospital 11 times and that while in prison he was kept in solitary confinement in the basement and handcuffed every time he left his cell. His barrister, Patrick MacEntee S.C., argued that the Crawley’s treatment in Mountjoy amounted to torture and that Crawley had to be released to receive proper care. The court found against Crawley, the judgement argued that his treatment, although not ideal, was an attempt to keep him from further injuring himself.

Crawley was released in 1976, but that was not the end of his story. After the high court case the PRO put Crawley in contact with Mary Robinson, a barrister, and later President of Ireland. In 1978 Robinson brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), arguing that Crawley’s living conditions in Mountjoy had constituted ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was the first ECHR case against the government of Ireland not brought by a Republican organisation.

Starting a conversation

Crawley lost his case at the ECHR, but the campaign from 1975 to 1978 had succeeded in starting a broader conversation about mental health in Irish prisons. While it had hardly been mentioned before the early-1970s, after 1975 it became almost impossible for the media to write or speak about prisons without mentioning mental health of prisoners. It became a framing device for questions of rehabilitation, for articles about new buildings and the opening of new prisons; and it became a central issue in the discussions of the issues of sanitation, overcrowding, and the ‘doubling up’ of cells. While Crawley and the PRO may have lost their major cases, they had succeeded in shifting the discourse.

Image Credit: PRO’s publication Jail Journal, Vol.1 No.3 (1978). Author unknown.

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