David’s story: ‘The Irish jail system is a school for criminals.’

When David Emerson left school he started work as an apprentice roofer in the midst of the building boom. "Everything was rosy," he says. But two serious head injuries in as many years left him with a very different view of life.

His skull was fractured by a baseball bat when he was attacked outside a nightclub. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . Everything went downhill from that.” He had to quit his job for health-and-safety reasons. He started drinking heavily and was “picking up charges for being drunk [and] stupid”.

Now 28, he finished his first prison sentence, seven months in St Patrick’s Institution, 10 years ago . But worse was to follow. “I purchased myself a motorbike before I went to jail and had a bad road crash when I came out. I was in a coma for two months, and when I did get out of hospital I was half deaf and half blind.

“I had multiple injuries, and I just couldn’t cope with life. I couldn’t hear people. I couldn’t see things in front of me. I was getting paranoid. I had to get a drunken buzz when people were around me so that I was able to associate with people. So I started getting off my head drinking, and picking up charges.”


He had bouts of depression, and went on anti-psychotic drugs for a while. He also clocked up a series of convictions that culminated in a six-year sentence for his role in hijacking cars.

How was prison? “I found it all right, to be honest,” says the Blanchardstown man. “I got on with it. It didn’t bother me. But there is no real rehabilitation service in the Irish jail system. It’s a school for criminals.”

When he was released from prison in 2007 he started drinking heavily again. At a party in an apartment he jumped out of a window. “I ended up breaking my two legs. I don’t even remember it. My head was all over the place that day. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

A close cousin died and Emerson went on another drinking binge, during which he smashed into a woman’s home with a hammer. At the trial his defence counsel said Emerson had suffered multiple neurological and physical injuries in the motorcycle accident and had a complex psychiatric history. He was given a five-year sentence.

In 2012 he was in trouble again, charged with a serious assault. After that he started going to addiction counselling. The Peter McVerry Trust set up a care plan, and “my life started coming together.”

He moved into an apartment complex supported by the trust, and stopped drinking last Halloween. He then became addicted to cannabis but says he has been clean since February 19th. After completing several recovery programmes he was given an apartment of his own, which his girlfriend and two children were able to visit.

“Now I can cope with life. I don’t need to turn to drink any more. I turn to someone to talk to and take the weight of the world off my shoulders, pick up a phone.”

Emerson spoke to ‘The Irish Times’ last June. That day he joined members of the Peter McVerry Trust at a reception at Áras an Uachtaráin to mark the organisation’s 30th anniversary.

Two weeks later he was back in court, having pleaded guilty to the 2012 assault charge. As at previous trials, his defence counsel said Emerson’s acquired brain injury caused him to have behavioural problems that caused him to get into trouble.

The court ruled that a custodial sentence was appropriate given the nature of the assault and Emerson’s numerous previous convictions. He was sentenced to 16 months in jail.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column