Peer Mediation in Castlerea Prison

Irish Prison Service, Traveller Mediation Service and the Kennedy Institute

Peer Mediation in Castlerea Prison

‘The programme is much more than a course as it provides a life skill which can have a long-term impact on prisoner behaviour and also help prisoners to deal with challenges when released.’

Consensus Research, Evaluation of the Peer Mediation Programme, Castlerea Prison (2019: 13)


This case study describes the development and use of peer mediation in Castlerea Prison, and includes three examples from the perspective of peer mediators. Before mediation began in Castlerea, violence among prisoners and between prisoners and staff was common within the prison, sometimes relating to conflicts that began when those in custody were in the community. Despite some feeling that violence was needed to settle conflicts, it generally had the effect of escalating and continuing the conflict.

Conflict awareness workshops already existed in Castlerea, involving teachers, volunteers from the Red Cross and other partners, including the Traveller Mediation Service and the Travellers in Prison Initiative. These workshops quickly gained support from prison managers who felt that they reduced assaults soon after their introduction. As of March 2020, over 200 people in Castlerea had taken part. The idea to develop mediation skills within the prison emerged from student feedback early on in the course.

The first peer mediation programme ran with 16 persons in autumn 2016. Eleven students identified as members of the Traveller Community, reflecting the prison’s demographics, and the Traveller Mediation Service were partners in programme development. In 2017, the process evaluation (report here; journal article here) identified that enthusiasm among learners was high. The first programme met or exceeded stakeholders’ expectations, confidence levels were raised, and additional time for learning was desired.

The same group undertook a second programme, focusing on practical mediation and conflict coaching skills. Both programmes lasted for six weeks and aimed to develop a pool of people who could provide conflict resolution interventions among peers. After the second programme involved a skills assessment from a Mediators’ Institute of Ireland (MII) accredited mediator, participants requested the opportunity to gain full MII accreditation. The partners developed a bespoke 12-week programme to enable this.

A second evaluation in 2019 found that the programme created ‘an openness and a confidence among participants to discuss conflict and to communicate with fellow inmates about violence reduction’ (p.9). It also noted that, while peer mediators were involved in about 50 incidents of conflict in 2016-17, it was difficult to track the increasing role of informal conflict resolution, conflict coaching and preventative work, compared with structured mediation processes. The evaluation pointed to ‘the central role played by Travellers, particularly Traveller women who have been providing the training’ (p.10), and to the support and follow up from prison teaching staff, as central to its effectiveness. Overall, it found that ‘the Peer Mediation programme had been effective and has made a positive contribution to the prison despite the challenging context’ (p.13) and concluded that prison staff in Castlerea should also receive mediation training, given their central role in supporting and sustaining the programme.

The most recent programme, which aimed for students to qualify for MII accreditation, was developed in collaboration between the Maynooth University Edward Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention, the Traveller Mediation Service and staff from the Education and Training Board (ETB) within the prison. It ran for two half-days weekly over twelve weeks in 2019. Each week, one session focused on theories and processes, and the other on role plays and skill development. Nine people, including four Travellers in custody and two teachers, took this course. Eight passed its written and practical assessments to gain full MII accreditation. This programme was the first time in Ireland that people in custody had attained such an accreditation and, for all prisoners involved, it was the highest level of education they achieved thus far. The programme also reflected the goals highlighted in the strategic pillars of prisoner support and staff support in Creating a Better Environment – Irish Prison Service Strategic Plan 2019–2022.

Those involved in Castlerea have been surprised at the level of cultural change within the prison among people in custody and staff. Violence has reduced and managers, staff and people in custody have trust and faith in mediation. The initial objective was not to start a mediation project, but to collaborate with the ETB and Red Cross to reduce violence. Yet, as those invested in the process collaborated to take the work to the next level, what started as conflict awareness, grew to conflict resolution, continued to peer mediation and arrived at qualified mediators operating successfully in Castlerea. Some managers from Castlerea also became qualified mediators, joining a network of staff mediators within the Irish Prison Service, and making them better able to provide operational support to peer mediation in Castlerea.

While each collaboration was integral to the project’s development, a special mention is required for the driving forces of the ETB and of the prisoners involved, two of whom became leaders in the work. In the last year, COVID-19 delayed further progress, while one of the two leading peer mediators moved to an open centre. Three qualified mediators remain in custody in Castlerea, and the aim is to recommit to the project following COVID by continuing to educate and qualify more people in custody as mediators, and continuing to engage with the partners and to maintain and grow alternatives to violence in Castlerea.

The Traveller Mediation Service also plans to continue delivering the basic peer meditation course in several prisons from September 2021, and run the MII accredited programme in Cork Prison in 2022.


Case studies of peer mediation in Castlerea

Case Study 1

A person in custody on the protection landing asked a Chief Officer to help stop rising tensions between two feuding families. The Chief Officer approached a peer mediator and asked if they would be prepared to try to mediate the feud that was escalating out of control. The feud had begun outside the prison and involved four people – two persons each from two families.

That afternoon, the Chief Officer organised a venue for the mediation within the prison. The officer who brought the peer mediator to the protection landing asked why they were visiting and expressed doubt that mediation would be successful in that case. The peer mediator explained the value and importance of mediation and argued that, without trying mediation, they would never know whether it could help change someone’s opinion and mind set towards feuds and violence.

The mediator arrived on the protection wing and waited to meet the two families. They met with the families individually first to gauge what the issues were and what were their concerns. It emerged that the feud began over a disagreement relating to who had assumed responsibility for some contraband, leading to threats made from one group to the other and to their family members on the outside. After establishing the facts and consulting with all the parties, the mediator invited the four persons involved in the conflict to meet in the designated room and begin the mediation process.

Both parties were anxious, with one person showing aggression and hostility towards both members of the other family, leading them to question the purpose of the mediation. The peer mediator reassured both parties of the importance of the process and discussed the expectations, options and outcomes of mediation. This eased the parties’ concerns and the mediation process began with the prison staff who was present being asked to leave. One officer asked how long the mediation process would take, and was reassured by the mediator that they would finish when the parties reached a resolution.

The parties were resistant and doubtful at times, seeking to blame each other for starting the feud and denying their own responsibility. The mediator handled this by stating and reiterating the ground rules and giving each party time to speak and to express their feelings uninterrupted. They explored emotions and key events of importance to each individual and considered how these affected those present. The process continued for some time until eventually the parties found common ground and decided to end the feud on certain conditions. These conditions were recorded and signed. Since then, the parties have moved from the protection landing and have resided on the same landing in the main prison.

From the prison’s perspective, this is a good example of a dispute being referred by prison management. Whilst the dispute arose over a falling out in relation to contraband, the mediation focused on how both families could co-exist without the restricted regime. Therein lies the organisational benefit to Castlerea Prison and the IPS, which strives to minimise numbers on restricted regimes. Castlerea has one landing for prisoners in need of protection, requiring the constant review of those persons on restricted regimes to ensure that there is room for all who need it. In this instance, the mediation process directly resulted in a lasting resolution that enabled the two groups safely to co-exist on the general landings.

Interestingly, although the Chief Officer made the referral, the mediator had to assert themselves and explain to other prison officers what was required, and the time and facilities they needed. This suggests that prison staff were aware of peer mediation, but were naturally suspicious of allowing unsupervised conversations between conflicting groups. This example shows the confidence and the resilience of the mediator to get the access, privacy and facilities they required to prepare and deliver the process.

Case Study 2

In 2019, a person in custody (A) approached a peer mediator, seeking information about mediation. He was experiencing anxiety and fear as someone he knew was soon to enter the prison. That person (B) was currently in the middle of a family feud with A’s relative, so A sought guidance on how to deal with the conflict and what methods he could use to help resolve their differences. He did not want to move to the protection wing as this might involve a loss of access to the school, gym and other privileges.

The mediator asked for information about the reasons behind the conflict and its length. It emerged that the concern related to a decades-old dispute among the parties’ grandparents, and that B already made threats to A’s family, knowing that they would soon meet each other. The peer mediator explained how the process works and what the parties might gain from participating, although he also emphasised that both had to be willing to enter the process together.

A was hopeful he could sit down with B to discuss their differences. When B arrived, he sought out A and made threats of impending violence. A reacted by staying in his cell, leaving only to go to the school. The peer mediator told A he would try to meet B to propose mediation. Several officers were asked to facilitate a meeting between the mediator and B, but were reluctant to do so. That day, the mediator saw B on the yard and tried to speak with him. B was unsure, initially assuming the mediator had come to pass on a negative message from A. However, the mediator convinced B to walk around the yard with him. The mediator explained that he had been approached by A, and that A was seeking to resolve the dispute peacefully. He discussed the value of mediation as a means of resolving a feud without losing face, to stop violence and intimidation, and to live in peace. B explained he could not stop because his family said he had to get revenge and that he was not allowed to speak with A. B ultimately shook the mediator’s hand and they went their separate ways.

The next morning, a prison officer helped the mediator speak with A to tell him about the conversation with B. He explained the situation, reinforcing that for mediation to work, both parties must be engaged and willing to participate. A reiterated his concern that the dispute was between their grandparents and that he should not suffer as a result. The mediator said that mediation was always there if B decided to participate, and that in the meantime, A could try to avoid the yard and spend more time in the school. A later moved to the protection wing.

From the prison’s perspective, while the situation did not result in successful mediation, it also did not result in a violent incident. The person under pressure sought and received peer-to-peer guidance, with the mediator showing skill and resilience in encouraging reluctant staff to facilitate the work. The parties decided they could not mediate largely because of external pressures from their family members in the community who did not want such a process to take place, although the case demonstrated that the process was known within the prison and this has benefits even when mediation is not successful.

Case Study 3

The Governor and Chief Officer approached a peer mediator to speak with two families engaged in a bitter, violent feud. The families were in conflict in the community for some time and continued it into Castlerea. Family A were on the protection landing and Family B were on the main landing. The prison authorities wanted to try and bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict between the families, as the violence was gathering momentum inside and outside the prison.

A peer mediator was collected from the main landing and escorted to the protection wing to meet with Family A, who he already knew personally. He explained his role as a mediator to Family A’s father and its value in helping the feuding parties to work together to find a resolution to their disputes. The father indicated he had been aware of mediation on the outside but had never considered it. He noted that his family was tired of the fighting, which had led to their imprisonment. He said he would prefer the feud to end without bloodshed and without either side losing face. He was also quite sceptical that Family B would be willing to mediate.

The mediator went back to the general landing and met with Family B. He introduced himself and shook their hands, explaining why he wanted to speak with them and the role and aims of mediation. Family B said it was something they needed to explore as the violence was getting out of hand and had recently resulted in significant damage to their community home. The peer mediator stated that Family A were willing to meet to find a resolution, which surprised Family B, although they were also happy to meet. The mediator consulted the Chief Officer and Assistant Chief Officer who agreed that the families could meet in the school library for mediation the following day.

When they met the next day, the mediator explained the process. He reinforced its voluntary nature and the need for the parties to work together to find a mutual resolution, if mediation were to work in their case. He also reiterated his own impartiality and neutrality in the process, noting that he knew members of Family A and seeking to assuage any concerns Family B might have as a result.

The process became heated and required a ten-minute break for the families to gather their emotions, with both families agreeing to reconvene the process after the short recess. The mediator then asked the families to consider the impact that the feud was having on their lives, exploring their emotions and feelings around its impact. Eventually, both parties agreed that enough harm had been caused, and that it was time to end their conflict. The mediator reiterated that it was within their grasp to avoid serious harm coming to them or another family member because of what was happening. The parties shook hands, recognising the need for change from both sides, albeit without feeling especially amicable.

Following the mediation, the parties ended the feud, and were released from Castlerea several months later without there being any further problems in the prison. The peer mediator made contact with the Travellers in Prison Initiative to follow up, and was informed that the parties were continuing to engage positively on the outside, with the support of the Traveller Mediation Service.