My work in a maximum security prison

Stella Kemp

Stella Kemp

Stella Kemp is Irish Link Co-ordinator for the Prison Phoenix Trust and Port Laoise Prison teacher.

Here is the second part of her experience of working in Ireland’s highest security prison. This time Stella takes us into the Segregation unit where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in extremely austere conditions.
The night before my fist class in the Segregation unit in Portlaoise prison, I was my usual calm, unbothered self. Sleep wasn’t coming easily though, so I pottered downstairs to make a cup of tea or something. My son was playing a game on the Xbox. It turned out to be Lara Croft flinging her fine form around, Zena Warrior, princess style, slicing zombies at a thrust of her highly trained hand or foot and climbing impossibly sheer rock faces. I was beginning to be her, as I watched her fearless never tiring struggle to get…… wherever she was going. I went to bed. And slept.

The next morning at work, where I am privileged to teach yoga at the high security prison, Portlaoise, I am escorted to the Seg unit, the other side of the prison, by Mark, the principal teacher in the Education department. We rely on the goodwill of the prison officers to open numerous gates and doors. We can’t walk there as the crow flies; it’s a convoluted trail and only an insider could believe it.

First, Mark and I backtrack from the Education unit, near the outer walls where we had collected the big chunky keys when we first arrived, that let us in the Ed unit. The length of time this takes depends on the prison officer opening the gates, about ten minutes usually; we then come back into the prison minus the key (security reasons naturally) and go into the big hangar-like structure where vehicles enter and leave the prison through a door there. While we are waiting for a prison officer to open the door, the Governor is also held up waiting at the same place. Mark introduces us.

It is a windy, sunny day as we pass through more gates; the fences are high. There is a tiny prefab in a yard where we are searched again. Mark greets every prison officer affably. I try to do the same; in totally new surroundings it is hard to be aware of it all. At last we arrive. There is a small plaque to the right of the door announcing that we are at the Seg unit.

The building is brand new, dusky pink and grey.

The first impression is the unpleasant smell of cleaning fluids stinging my nose. Clear plastic bags containing prisoners’ belongings – which seem like piles of rubbish at first – the floors of two large halls are littered with these bags. You don’t get to keep much in the Seg unit. The officer who opens the first door is a little surprised to see us. Visits from teachers are rare, although Mark has been over a few times. He tells me I am only the fourth teacher ever to enter. He tells the officer I am to be coming over every Tuesday from now onwards.

Upstairs, around a corner…. I hope Mark knows the way, there are no landmarks, and every turning is the same, each door identical to the last: cream, grey…wide sterile corridors, like a hospital with hidden patients, not a soul anywhere. The atmosphere thickens. (Lara Croft reaches to her core for the expertise required to meet what could hit us from around the next clinical corner). Mark breaks the spell – how am I finding it? I tell him about the Xbox. He totally gets it and we laugh. We are not there yet. An identical staircase, spotlessly clean, now I smell nothing. I remember this, because I find my sense of smell can reveal a story of its own sometimes.

The three lads I am teaching on the Seg have nothing. They are not on punishment; they are there for their own safety. I accept them as they are: for two hours I teach them yoga, we will reside in the present moment. I will discourage them from mentioning the past (they probably won’t) and there is little reason to touch on the future, although this might happen but only in a good way. It’s early days yet, the second class is next Tuesday, so I can say little except I think that they are going to enjoy their yoga class….

…. Not a month later, I still come over on Tuesday mornings. The class is going fine. One lad has loads of metal in his foot from injuries, so we need to prop up his heel for any standing postures. He is always surprised at how much he can achieve. Sandy and Sam (from the Prison Phoenix Trust) suggest starting a wary class standing or sitting, and I felt in this case that it was valuable advice. We end with a good relaxation. One lad did try to get out of relaxation, saying that it sent him to sleep which in turn made him feel groggy, and I suggest to him to challenge himself not to fall asleep, to stay with my voice….it’s unusual for someone to try to skip relaxation! There are a multitude of reasons for doing or not doing certain postures and I just try my best to be sympathetic, and to understand the complexities of each student.

The mess of clear plastic bags has gone. The place is clean and spacious. When you get used to somewhere it gets smaller. It’s not daunting anymore, but Lara Croft is always there (just in case)!

The Prison Phoenix Trust
The Prison Phoenix Trust is a registered UK charity. It encourages prisoners in the development of their spiritual welfare, through the practices of meditation and yoga, working with silence and the breath. They offer personal support to prisoners around the UK and the Republic of Ireland through teaching, workshops, correspondence, books and newsletters – and to prison staff too. They work with people of any faith, or of none, and honour all religions. To find out more visit their website at

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