In the Dóchas Centre's fabric workshop, a woman who was involved in one of Ireland's most infamous murders is diligently working on a sewing machine. Like most of the 131 prisoners in custody in Ireland's purpose-built female prison, she seems happy. "I love it," she says enthusiastically. "I can't wait to get up in the morning and go to school."
While the women here are behind bars, life at the Dóchas Centre is far removed from the typical prison environment. The rattling of the keychain on the belt of the Sunday Tribune's guide during the visit is the only indication that we are inside a prison.
For one thing, there are no 'inmates' here. There are 'women'. Instead of cells, the women have individual rooms with their own bathrooms and TVs. They also have keys to their rooms. The ethos of Dóchas is rehabilitation through care and compassion. While Dóchas is located within the Mountjoy complex, it is light years away from the archaic and inhumane regime at the men's prison.
A woman from Donegal was being released on Friday after a short stint. But when the time came for her to leave, she told staff she didn't want to go. On more than one occasion, former inmates have come back and knocked on the front door, asking to be allowed come back. Many are homeless and have nowhere else to go. Other women have asked if they can come in to use the showers.
For some, it is the secure home environment they never experienced before. Uniforms for the prison officers are optional and the relationship between the staff and the women is friendly, even warm in some cases. "Come in and have a cup of tea, will you?" a group of woman call out to our guide, a senior member of staff. While the atmosphere is relaxed, a scan of some of the women's faces is a reminder that this place houses the country's most notorious women killers. 'Black Widow' Catherine Nevin and Kathleen Mulhall, mother of the infamous 'Scissor Sisters' Charlotte and Linda, are going about their daily business on Friday morning. The Dóchas Centre is home to all three Mulhalls as well as Sharon 'Lying Eyes' Collins and Kelly Noble, serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter.
Many of the women here are serving time for serious crimes. Some 25% of inmates are serving a sentence for murder, manslaughter or conspiracy to murder while 21% have been sentenced for possession of drugs for the purpose of sale or supply. A further 28% are doing time for offences such as robbery, theft and criminal damage.
While the gruesome crimes committed by the Mulhall sisters and Nevin have long fascinated the public, the most high-profile women prisoners at the Dóchas Centre have also proven to be the quietest.
"Most of our long-term prisoners we don't have any problems with at all. They know they are here for the long haul. They just put their heads down and get on with their lives. They generally get involved in a lot of the training and education programmes too," said our guide.
"They need to do things to fill their days. It's the remand prisoners who are usually the most volatile. We get to know our long-term prisoners very well, we know their personalities. For the women who are here long-term, the worst thing you can do is nothing."
There are plenty of education and training programmes to choose from. The women are woken at 8.30am. There are kitchens in each of the seven housing units so the women make themselves breakfast. It is their responsibility to keep their living quarters clean and tidy.
Some of the housing corridors' internal doors are left unlocked at night and women who have earned the trust of prison officers live in this area. At 9.30am, the educational and training programmes begin. Everything from hairdressing, beauty therapy to photography is on offer. Educationally, there is a range of Fetac programmes as well as Leaving and Junior Cert courses. There's a waiting list for some of the courses.
Charlotte and Linda Mulhall have taken up hairdressing since their incarceration while Catherine Nevin has become involved in blanket-making classes. There's a large gym area at the Dóchas Centre and one of the women runs aerobic classes.
Beside the main courtyard, where two large labradors roam around the large green area, there's an outdoor basketball court. The women don't use it much, except occasionally to sunbathe, so sometimes the inmates from Mountjoy are brought over to avail of it.
There are currently two women whose babies are living with them at the Dóchas Centre. When the children reach 12 months old, they must leave the prison, most likely to be cared for by relatives.
The Dóchas Centre operates as an open prison of sorts. The women are not locked up during the day. Many of them spend time outside in the prison's two courtyards. Similar to the current trend in parts of Dublin, some choose to remain in their pyjamas all days while others make a considerable effort with their clothes and make-up.
In some ways, the women almost run the place themselves, being responsible for cleaning, much of the cooking and taking out the rubbish. "It's not our job to judge people here," adds our guide. "It's our job to rehabilitate and reform them. It's a good thing for them to feel they have responsibilities in here."
The Dóchas Centre is not immune to the overcrowding problem across all Irish prisons. Eighteen sets of bunk-beds were recently introduced to deal with it but no women here sleep on mattresses on the floor. It's not ideal and no one is happy about this situation. Not the Irish Prison Service (IPS), not the prisoner officers and certainly not the women themselves, who would rather not have to share a bedroom.
Out-going governor of the Dóchas Centre Kathleen McMahon also had a major problem with the situation, suggesting two weeks ago that lesbianism was among the risks associated with prison overcrowding. She chose to take early retirement from her role, saying the centre was now so overcrowded that the progressive regime was being "cannibalised".
When the proposed Thornton Hall prison complex is built in north Dublin, a women's prison with the same ethos and regime as the Dóchas Centre is to be developed. "The Dochas Centre is our flagship model," Brian Purcell, director general of the IPS, told the Sunday Tribune. "The new facility will continue with that regime and improve on it, we will have a lot more space. The bunk-bed situation is not ideal. The regime we have for women at the Dóchas Centre works very well. It wouldn't necessarily work the same for male prisoners. Men and women are different. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus."