‘Most prisoners are not violent and shouldn’t be there’

U-Casadh, a programme initiated by a one-time prison officer, provides support and training to former prisoners. The results have been startling

“A lot of them never had anyone believe they could do anything.” Stephen Plunkett, chief executive of U-Casadh, and Johnny Delaney, who attends the project. Photograph: Patrick Browne

“A lot of them never had anyone believe they could do anything.” Stephen Plunkett, chief executive of U-Casadh, and Johnny Delaney, who attends the project. Photograph: Patrick Browne


In a shed in Ferrybank, just outside Waterford city, some men are building a boat. “It’s a traditional method of boat-building,” says Jim Bruton, a supervisor, counsellor and boat enthusiast at the U-Casadh project. “The Vikings were doing this sort of thing.”

“I never thought I’d be building a boat,” says a keen 22-year-old fisherman, Johnny Delaney, shaking his head. “I’d like to build my own some day.”

The U-Casadh Project (the name means “U-turn”) was established by a former prison officer, Stephen Plunkett. It provides a structured programme of therapeutic support, education, training, employment and enterprise opportunities for former prisoners and people who have been in trouble with the law. The national recidivism rate for former prisoners is 62 per cent; for alumni of U-Casadh it is 27 per cent.

The project has its roots in Plunkett’s experience as a prison officer, which has left him with some firm views about criminal justice. “Locking people up is unnatural,” he says. “Sometimes it’s necessary, but 65-70 per cent of prisoners are nonviolent and shouldn’t be there.”

He tells me about the frustrations of prison life, how hurt and angry prisoners would lash out and how, because he was an aficionado of taekwondo and boxing, he was often put on the front line.

“At heart I was a softie,” he says, “but I wasn’t seen that way because I was doing cell removals and moving people from A to B. When you’d leave the prison to go to a hospital with a prisoner handcuffed to you, all the masks would come off and you’d see the anxiety they felt and the way they were treated. It just opened up my eyes to that world . . . As soon as you were back in, all those masks went back on and the walk comes back and the hard man thing comes back.”

He could see that some people made strides when they were in prison, that the structure of prison life gave them something that they didn’t have on the outside. “But two years later they’d be back in,” he says. “It felt like there were no supports in the environment they were going out to.”

A change of direction

While working at the prison, he started to study for a BA in sociology and psychology, and when in 2008 the Waterford Area Partnership decided to hire an outreach worker to help support former prisoners, he took the job.

He would take clients from the prison gates and try to help them come up with a plan for their lives. “It was just me operating from the boot of my car at the time,” he says. He talked to them about they wanted from life and what their issues were. He helped them to fill in forms, to sign on and to access courses. In 2012 he decided to take it all a step further and founded U- Casadh, which now has eight employees and operates a specialised community- employment scheme, funded with the support of the Department of Social Protection and the Probation Service.

There are 25 people currently on the scheme, and U-Casadh deals with a further 38 people in an outreach capacity and about 300 people a year indirectly. Alumni have gone on to university, started businesses and gained long-term employment. They are also free to return at any time to have a cup of tea and talk about any issues they might have. For example, one young woman has been back getting advice on elements of the college experience she finds overwhelming.

The grand tour

Plunkett takes me on a tour of the facility. He shows me to the enterprise centre, an incubation hub created with assistance of the Kilkenny Leader Partnership, where participants are encouraged to start their own microbusinesses. One alumnus, Richie O’Brien, has established a successful honey business called Bee Suir Honey. This was formerly an old Brothers of Charity building. On the wall are before and after pictures.

“This building has a terrible history,” Plunkett says. “It was an alcoholic unit for the Brothers of Charity and there was a [television] programme about a specific doctor who had been abusing mental-health patients here.”

Some of the clients think the place is haunted. “They asked me to get a shaman down before they’d come in,” he says.

Really? “Yeah. Whether it was addiction or mental health or whatever, it was real to some of them. They said they could see spirits. One woman was convinced that every time she came in here, she could see a child walking around in calipers. So we got a shaman down from Wicklow.”

You took their fears seriously? It’s not about what he personally believes, says Plunkett. “The rapport you build is about believing in people . . . I know nothing of their experience of life and what they believe and don’t believe. I don’t know what coming in here in the morning feels like for them. If it takes a shaman to come in, who am I to say that’s wrong?” He smiles. “Anyway, it worked. No one saw anything after that.”

Outside, Plunkett shows me the stabilisation unit, a therapeutic centre where people can get counselling to deal with mental health, addiction issues and criminal behaviour. There’s a highly successful boxing programme (“no-contact boxing,” stresses Plunkett) run by Seamus Cowman, a coach at St Paul’s Boxing Club, which Plunkett cannot praise enough. There’s also an education and training area where participants can access literacy, woodcraft, security and horticulture courses onsite or are helped to access other courses delivered externally.

Here Kenny Murphy is helping to build the boat. Like most of the others on the programme, he had been in and out of prison for minor offences.

“Drugs, drinking – robbing stupid things,” he says. “I had nothing to do and I was in a bad cycle. But I have a structure in my life now. I hope to have a full-time job by the end of the year.”

Why does it work? “I wouldn’t have been able to hammer a nail before, now I can hang doors. We made this boat shed ourselves. We’re making an outdoor gym here and a gazebo for smoking . . . It gives you life skills and coping skills.”

Women make up 25 per cent of the participants. One young woman tells me that coming here made her think about her future for the first time. “You can see other people making plans,” she says. “You see a girl go to college and you think, Well, what do I want? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’”

She wants to be a beautician. “I’m good at nails,” she says. She would like making house calls and running her own business. “I was a bit wild before,” she says. “I couldn’t be tamed. But then when I came over here, there was more of a routine for me. There’s more I want to do now. The more you do, the more you want to do.”

Another U-Casadh alumnus, Shane McLaurence, is training to be a nurse. In the past he was in a cycle of “drinking at the weekends, getting arrested, driving cars without insurance and tax, repeating the same offences the whole time. I wasn’t robbing cars, but if a friend turned up at the door with a car, I’d go spinning with them.”

When he was much younger he had wanted to be a nurse or a paramedic, but he left school early and hadn’t thought about it for a long time. At U-Casadh they told him it was possible. Over four years they encouraged him to take courses and to volunteer with the Red Cross. They vouched for him.

They saw past the stereotype, which allowed him to do the same. “I thought this was it – cars, bikes, in and out of jail – I thought that was what I was going to be for the rest of my days. Now, when people say ‘come for a spin’, I say, ‘Nah. I’m in college to be a nurse.’ [They say] ‘You a nurse?’ I’m after surprising a lot of people.”

Uplifting work

In the yard, Plunkett and Bruton talk about how uplifting the work can be. There’s an Irish Research Council-funded Waterford Institute of Technology researcher on staff whose main role is to analyse their results. Depending on the year, says Plunkett, they have “a 74-92 per cent success rate . . . Success means a person is no longer involved in criminal behaviour.”

There is a lot of interest in what U-Casadh is doing. Last year it secured €140,000 from the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards, partly to help replicate the U-Casadh model in other areas. “People are screaming out for it,” says Plunkett.

It’s not always easy. Homelessness, mental illness, addiction and domestic violence are frequent issues for former prisoners. Plunkett recently spent a night in A&E with one troubled young man and over Christmas he was practically on call helping clients faced with homelessness.

But it is made worthwhile by the successes. Plunkett says one man, a former burglar, is now flourishing in his job at an alarm company. “He used to take alarms apart, now he puts them together,” he says. “They were willing to give him a chance.”

Bruton shows me a picture of a healthy-looking young man who was, when they first met him, in the throes of a horribly destructive drug habit. His mother sent them the photograph. She said, “It’s because of you I got my son back.”

“This is designed to take people away from a cycle of re-offending,” says Plunkett. “People have to have a purpose and when they find that purpose, whether it’s to be an alarm engineer or a nurse, they need someone to paint a picture with them and to believe they can get there. A lot of the people here never had anyone believe they could do anything. We believe in them.”

  • The 2016 Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards, sponsored by DCC, are now open. Find out more about the application process on socialentrepreneurs.ie
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