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Conviction for crime should not mean ‘a lifetime of discrimination’

Damien Quinn founded a charity that helps former inmates re-integrate in society after he struggled to following his release from prison

“Prison for me was actually the easy part,” says Damien Quinn, these days a lecturer, community worker and founder of Galway-based charity Spéire Nua (New Horizon), which helps offenders re-integrate in society after serving time.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a nice place to be at all, but you do know there that your punishment will be over on a given date.”

The problem, he says, is that “when you’re done nobody has prepared you for the fact that everywhere you apply for in a positive way, you’ll be locked out of because of your background”.

Quinn served a three-year sentence about 15 years ago for possession of a kilo of cannabis but resolved, as so many in his position are encouraged to, to use the time constructively by pursuing educational courses.


After his release, he found job applications tended to end swiftly at the Garda vetting stage. There was a period of severe disillusionment too, and a spell when he was back involved with drugs, before he finally got to the stage where he felt allowed to put his past behind him.

On Thursday, he will be at the launch of research commissioned by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) and led by Dr Joe Garrihy and Dr Ciara Bracken-Roche of the School of Law and Criminology at Maynooth University into the challenges facing people with convictions (PWCs) as they seek to get jobs, put their past behind them and live normal lives.

The report, The Secondary Punishment, based on a survey and interviews, is described as “a scoping study” because of the relatively small sample sizes involved. The need for further research in the area is acknowledged.

However, the report highlights the large numbers of PWCs who find themselves dependent on social welfare payments because of the hurdle a conviction presents to getting back into the workforce.

Most convictions are for minor offences with barely 1 per cent of 338,823 cases before the District Court in Ireland during 2022 resulting in a custodial sentence. Of those who do go to prison, only a quarter or so are in some form of employment three years later, according to census data, while the figure is 40 per cent for those who complete a period on probation.

The authors point to Northern Irish research suggesting 85 per cent of employers would not hire PWCs because of concerns about the safety of existing staff or clients.

“The research reminds us of the changes we must continue to make as a society to ensure that, once a person has served their sentence, they don’t go on to face a lifetime of discrimination,” says Saoirse Brady, executive director of the IPRT.

“Employment enables people to give back – to their family, community, and the economy – and helps to make society a safer place. Employers are eager, with the right information and support, to support this journey for people with convictions,” she says.

The report recommends a range of supports both for the PWCs and the firms who might employ them. It calls for an expansion of the existing scheme for spent convictions, limits on the use of Garda vetting where is it not appropriate and the establishment of frameworks that allow people to positively demonstrate their determination to put previous experiences behind them.

Spéire Nua is intended to provide just such a structure, with the organisation working with PWCs so as to allow them the opportunity to establish their commitment “to being better versions of themselves”, says Quinn.

He has worked with about 50 people since establishing the organisation on a voluntary basis but has recently won contracts from the Irish Prison Service that will allow it to work with prisoners before and after their release.

“The aim is to help employers as well. If they are willing to look at people’s present rather than just their past then we will help them do their due diligence on candidates during the hiring process.

“I deserved to go to prison and the people I was in there with deserved to be there, but some of them had amazing potential and yet the next time you heard about them they were dead, or back to where they started. So many of them just want to get jobs and play meaningful roles in their families . . . to live happy lives. Think of how enriching it would be to be part of helping somebody to do that.

“There’s a demand for staff and a huge pool of talent that is untapped. If they are just willing to take the chance, it can be a transformative journey.”

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Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times