Care After Prison: a vital support platform for ex-inmates

While serving a life sentence, Stephen Doyle founded the charity in a bid to help others

 Stephen Doyle, working to help ex-convicts go straight, at their centre in Aungier Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Stephen Doyle, working to help ex-convicts go straight, at their centre in Aungier Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Last December, figures were published showing that almost half of all released prisoners reoffended within three years. The inevitable demands for draconian solutions soon followed.

During the commentary, nobody mentioned the work of a quiet group of people working out of a set of rooms on Aungier Street in Dublin’s south inner city.

Few have heard of Care After Prison or its success: only 10 per cent of its service users reoffend within three years. Fewer still known that its beginnings can be traced back to a letter a prisoner wrote 16 years ago to the family of the man he had killed.

Stephen Doyle was 21 when he and three friends called to the Mulhuddart, Co Dublin house of his ex-girlfriend. They had heard that her new partner, John Murray, was molesting Doyle’s child. Once inside the house, they beat Murray to death. The innocent victim was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, a trial later heard.

After his conviction for murder in 2000, Doyle received the mandatory life sentence. The next day he was in his cell when a prison officer handed him a newspaper displaying the headline “Evil Killer” with his picture underneath.

“I read it and I didn’t know who it was referring to,” Doyle (39) says today. “I just saw the headline, and then there was this overpowering sense of confusion. How could anyone think that I was evil?”

Gardaí had told him he would be a “hero” in prison because he killed to protect his child. “I remember thinking, who the f---- wants to be a hero in prison?”

Doyle says he never intended to kill Murray and was immediately remorseful. Shortly after beginning his sentence, he composed a letter to his victim’s parents. He did not ask for forgiveness; instead he said he was sorry. He insists this is a very important distinction.

“I never asked for forgiveness,” he says, “because I didn’t think they would ever be able to grant me forgiveness. I was prepared for them to say ‘go to hell, go back and die in prison’. I just wanted to get the message to them that I was sorry.”

The next problem was getting the letter to the family. John Lonergan, then the governor of Mountjoy, told Doyle that prisoners were forbidden to contact victims. This was several years before restorative justice ideas started to become fashionable.

Lonergan and the prison chaplain came up with a solution. The chaplain would visit the parents and mention that he had a letter from Doyle, which they could read if they wanted. When the parents agreed to read the letter and sent back a reply, neither Doyle or the priest could believe it.

Three conditions

“The first condition was I was to get myself back in education. The next day I enrolled in school and never left it for the entirety of my sentence. The second condition was I make something positive come out of this, and that’s Care After Prison. Whatever we are today is because of them.”

The last condition was that Doyle forgive himself.

“That’s something that’s ongoing,” he admits. “Some days are okay. Some days you over-relate to what you’ve done and the damage you’ve caused and there’s no forgiveness with that. I know I’ll never go a day without thinking of John and his family.”

Care After Prison is a direct result of the compassion he was shown: “I felt I was being listened to, so I thought I could listen to others.” He found that other prisoners gravitated towards him for advice because of his no-nonsense nature.

“If someone was acting the maggot, I would tell them they’re acting the maggot,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why people kept coming back to prison, so I started asking questions. The common thing was that although people were using services, either by forced engagement or otherwise, they didn’t feel they were being listened to.

“Whether or not they were listened to is immaterial. The sense was that they weren’t, and I thought that was really important.”

Doyle began asking instead of telling prisoners what was triggering their offending. “Because I was a peer, they felt they could tell me stuff. Someone could tell me, ‘I’m still taking drugs but I can’t say it to my probation officer’. They were talking to someone who didn’t hold power over them. It was an honest conversation, but it was also a way to give them proper solid office.”

He advised prisoners on dealing with probation officers and support services, and helped them reconnect with their families. He began keeping case files in his cell and writing a social care programme.

Nine years into Doyle’s sentence, Fr Charlie Hooey and a parole board member, Paul Mackay, asked him if he would consider doing voluntary social work with the Carmelite Centre. He was allowed out during the day and returned to Mountjoy every night. Two years later, Doyle proposed his Care After Prison programme to the Carmelites, who agreed to donate the use of space in their Aungier Street centre.

“My thinking,” he says, “was I’m never going to get meaningful employment, so I need to make something for myself. At the time I was still on work release. It was kind of ironic, because I was telling people how to survive in the community while I was going back to prison every evening.”

Doyle was granted full release by the Parole Board in 2013, after serving 13 years – four years less than the average life sentence in Ireland. What does he say to people who think he got out too early?

“The way our sentences are set up in this country means that life can be an extremely long sentence or it can be somewhere in the middle. If I say to you 12, 13, 14 years, it sounds very quick. But if you live it, it’s a long time.

“You have to balance it, though, and ask is it long enough for taking a person’s life. And what I always say is that it’s not long enough if you’ve done it on purpose. If it’s a case of recklessness, there’s obviously a very different process of rehabilitation.”

Doyle now has 16 staff and volunteers working under him, some of whom are also ex-offenders. Care After Prison helped nearly 600 prisoners and ex-prisoners last year through advice and counselling, as well as directing users towards housing and treatment services.

Doyle says some of the most important work involves getting parolees used to the differences between prison and the outside world.

“When I got out, I had awful headaches because my eyes weren’t used to further than a short distance,” he says. “I remember some mornings waking up and sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for the prison officer to unlock the door before realising that I was at home in my own bed. Some people get really nervous in crowds, or by how fast the traffic moves.”

The programme is partly subsidised by the Prison Service and others, but fundraising remains one of the biggest challenges. A charity for offenders doesn’t attract a lot of donations. When volunteers were out with collection buckets at Christmas, some people took their change back when they discovered what they were donating to.

“Everyone wants people to be punished,” Doyle says, “but it doesn’t seem like they have an appetite for people to come back when they have been punished. And, certainly, they don’t like to support people who support them.” careafterprison.ie