Give prisoners a second chance

Teachers in Mountjoy Prison helped Gary Cunningham turn his life around.

 Mountjoy Prison: “I saw how the prison system could literally save lives – as it did mine.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mountjoy Prison: “I saw how the prison system could literally save lives – as it did mine.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

“They should be left to rot away in a cell ... give them nothing!”

I am always amazed at how frequently – and flippantly – I hear the above view pertaining to Irish prisoners. And the funny thing is, I may have concurred with this harsh assessment some years ago until I became “one of them”. In fact, it was only when I shamefully ended up in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison that I saw how the prison system could literally save lives – as it did mine.

As a result, I feel strongly that through proper education and training, rehabilitation and reform are indeed possible for the majority of prisoners. We are not all “scumbags”, and many honestly do yearn for change, for a fresh start. I felt compelled to write this piece in the hope that I might share my well-earned advice on how prisoners and prison staff alike can embark on a new approach to incarceration – to embrace fully a motto I coined whilst housed behind the tall, grey walls of “The Joy”: “It’s not the time you do, it’s what you do with your time.”

My past is one that fills me with dread and shame. I come from a very respectful family, and was born with a silver spoon placed firmly in my gob! So I immediately dispel the myth that your upbringing and incarceration go hand in hand (though obviously everyone is different). I ended up in prison because I was a deplorable, disgusting human being. I was an alcoholic, which in turn made me incredibly selfish and self-centred. So being sent to prison for the possession of cannabis for sale or supply remarkably changed – and saved – my life.

Gary Cunningham: Everyone deserves a second chance
Gary Cunningham: Everyone deserves a second chance

The first thing that struck me as I was escorted into this most intimidating of environments were the misconceptions I (and a lot of people) have when it comes to prisoners. Now don’t get me wrong ... the blame for being locked up lies firmly on the shoulders of the offender. But on the other hand, I was amazed by the number of men I encountered who were overcome with guilt and shame, who honestly longed for real change and the opportunity of a second chance. This is where I feel that education and training services inside our prisons play a vital role.

Soon after I started my sentence I found myself ascending the brightly-lit stairwell that led to the school in Mountjoy – and this is when my life completely turned around. I was astounded by the warm welcome I received from Mary, the school’s head. I was introduced to the teachers and found each of them equally welcoming. These incredible individuals possess the power to make you feel “normal” rather than the social reject you have convinced yourself you are.

Their day can be quite challenging. Sadly, there are a lot of men and women in our prisons who find reading and writing a genuine struggle. In young men in particular, this can lead to the projection of a rather hostile demeanour, with them feeling embarrassed and ashamed. And yet, these incredible teachers never show signs of giving up on you ... no matter how hard you make it for them. They have a genuine desire to help you better yourself – to break the negative cycle your life may be in and offer the hope of a brighter future. This particular assistance is absolutely vital in order to achieve rehabilitation and reform. Yet you still hear people on talk radio programmes and elsewhere saying “Give those scumbags nothing”.

The reoffending rate in Ireland, within the first three years, currently stands at 62.3 per cent, which is alarmingly high. But if it’s true that the way you “do your time” will ultimately determine your future upon release, reducing funding for education and training means that the reoffending rate will undoubtedly increase. “We can’t afford it” is an argument one often hears, but currently it costs the taxpayer roughly €1,842 a week to house a prisoner. So, if the offending rate were to drop wouldn’t that be money well spent?

I can personally declare that if it wasn’t for the amazing teaching staff I encountered in Mountjoy and in Loughan House Open Centre, my life upon my release would have gone down a very different path. But, thankfully, I was given the tools to radically change every fibre of my being by these individuals and I am forever grateful to each and every one of them.

Of course, there are some prisoners who don’t want any help, who for whatever reason don’t long for change or a fresh start. Unfortunately, these are the ones we tend to read about all the time. But their attitude does not give us an excuse to write off every man or woman who made a stupid mistake and is currently spending time inside. Everyone deserves a second chance.

And so I leave you with some small crumbs of thought... People make mistakes – as humans it is part of our makeup – and some are horrendous and hard to forgive. But if a person owns their mistakes, if they do not hide behind a plethora of excuses for what they did, if they show a genuine desire to change, should we not do everything we can to encourage them to become better people? Doesn’t that make sense both for them, and for the supposedly caring society we live in?
Gary Cunningham is the author of Joys of Joy: Finding Myself in an Irish Prison (Liffey Press)

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