by Eoin McCaul

In Northern Ireland, a crisis in mental health was already evident before the pandemic – experiencing the worst rates of mental illness in the UK. A decade of Tory/Stormont austerity has taken its toll on our abilities to combat this crisis, with every aspect of our NHS under attack, but particularly mental health services which are frequently the first to face cuts as they don’t appear of much value in a capitalist society. Unsurprisingly, the working-class communities most impacted by poverty and the legacy of the Troubles are worst affected.

Offenders often victims themselves

However, the documentary Nolan Inside Hydebank – in which the well-known presenter spends time in a young offenders’ centre – offers an insight into the societal harm that poverty and the lack of vital services can cause. Most, if not all, of the young inmates experience mental illness, addiction, and are even survivors of sexual abuse. Almost every person interviewed also displays marks on their arms from self-harm. It is clear that even before prison, many already had severe emotional problems.

The show points out that Hydebank inmates are imprisoned for crimes “ranging from theft to murder”. The harm some have inflicted on innocent victims is not to be forgotten. But the question must be raised – would these young men still have acted in the same way if they had meaningful opportunities and access to support from mental health and addiction services?

Drug abuse: Treat, don’t criminalise

We will not stop drug use by criminalising drug users. That has been made abundantly clear by the disastrous ‘war on drugs’ in the US, and the equally archaic way that we treat users here. By criminalising drug use, we banish users to the fringes of society and make them ever more unlikely to seek help. Treating drug abuse and addiction as a public health issue, with investment in support services, would likely drastically reduce incarceration in facilities like Hydebank.

59% of those released from Hydebank will reoffend within a year. Our current approach to housing also has an impact on this figure. Like many others, one prisoner named David was released into a hostel, into cramped and poor conditions and with widespread drug and alcohol abuse.

David also says that there’s no point in him searching for work as, due to his limited job opportunities, he’ll end up earning less than what he currently gets in benefits for his mental health issues. This begs the question as to why so many positions, now classed as essential, pay so little. Poverty pay and precarious conditions are the reality for most young workers now, even those with third-level education and no criminal record.

Stigma and isolation

Stephen Nolan’s own attitude in this series reflects the problems that face those trying to reintegrate into society. There are quite a few moments where it is clear that Nolan can scarcely contain his disdain for those featured on the show, and one has to question his motives for shining a light on those inside Hydebank. By the third episode, inmates begin to sour towards him, and many decide not to talk any further with him.

He seems incapable of truly imagining what it would be like to be in their shoes, embodying the type of elitism which has led to a penal system which puts punishment above rehabilitation. If we refuse to believe these young people can change and support them in this process, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is impossible for as long as they are cast out from society – maybe originally for drug use which then escalates to theft, or worse crimes as any legal route to progress in life slowly closes shut.

Poverty and hopelessness create vicious cycle

The only way we can stop new victims from being created every day and avoid young people’s lives being wasted, is by addressing the root causes of these problems in society – poverty, mental illness, a lack of decent jobs and opportunities for young people, all problems rooted in the capitalist system we live under. 

We need massive investment in free education for all, apprenticeships and socially-useful jobs with a minimum wage of £12/hour, social housing, as well as mental health and addiction support services which meet need. This can only be achieved by taking society’s wealth out of the hands of the parasitic capitalist class and placing it into the hands of the working class, so it can be used in a planned and democratic way to provide a better future for all.