Another scoop for The Institute. Just two weeks after a talk by a Certain State Pathologist we were invited yesterday to hear John Lonergan speak to the law students. A fair turn out, but I guess not everybody is a scalp-hunting celeb-groupie like me. We've often heard Lonergan on the wireless in Ireland because he is articulate and has a particular view of the failure of the state to notice, let alone cherish the dispossessed. As Governor of Mountjoy Prison, he tried to skip the 20th century and bring the Victorian prison system (slopping out, banging up, a little light sodomy) into something that was more modern, more compassion and more effective. He has acknowledged that the heart of legislators may be in the right place but their purse is in the other room. It's all very well to insist that each prisoner should have his own cell, but if you send arbitrary numbers from the court to chokey (arriving often in the middle of the night), you inevitably have 'doubling-up'. I think he was on the button in elaborating that this might mean sharing a few cubic meters with an incessant talker for 17 hours every day: abuse and oppression doesn't have to employ the lash ... or sodomy.
Another refreshing aspect of his talk was that he just stood up in his tweed jacket and talked. No powerpoint, no notes, just a capella. But this did not mean a rambling anecdotal discourse. It was data-heavy on the exponential rise in prisoners, the percent recidivism, the statistics of overcrowding. I'll now have to get to the CSO to confirm my notes: can it really be that there were only 600 prisoners in Ireland when Lonergan started work in 1968 and 6000 now?? And it's a wake-up (he knows his theatre, this feller) to hear an elderly man in a suit and tie channeling his young charges to utter the great taboo "Fuck Off" in a public forum.
I had to leave before he had quite finished questions (places to go, classes to teach) but mine would have been "What can we do, now, to most effectively erase this blot on the landscape of our compassion?"