TEDx in Mountjoy: ‘Unfucccing’ the criminal justice system

GAA star Philly McMahon unveils radical new rehabilitation programme for offenders

Dublin footballer Philly McMahon at Mountjoy Prison, where he delivered a TEDx talk to about 100 guests and inmates in the prison’s chapel on Tuesday. Photograph: Maxwell

Dublin footballer Philly McMahon at Mountjoy Prison, where he delivered a TEDx talk to about 100 guests and inmates in the prison’s chapel on Tuesday. Photograph: Maxwell

 

It is still frowned on to swear in church, even if that church is in Mountjoy Prison.

So there was some nervous laughter on Tuesday when Dublin football star Philly McMahon announced the name of his new programme aimed at rehabilitating offenders: “Unfuccced”.

The programme, McMahon explained, emerged from his work doing talks and fitness classes with inmates in Mountjoy. It aims to instil confidence and leadership abilities in prisoners who are ready to make a change.

The hope is once they make that change they will return to their own social circles and influence others in a positive way, “like ripples in a pond,” McMahon explains.

The three Cs in Unfuccced stand for the programme’s guiding principles: “culture, change and community”.

The six-time All-Ireland winner explained this to about 100 guests and inmates in Mountjoy Prison’s chapel as part of TEDx, a speaking event designed to spread new ideas about how to approach social problems.

Celebrities

TED (technology, entertainment, design) talks are most famous for featuring celebrities, entrepreneurs and scientists addressing Silicon Valley types on how to solve the world’s most daunting problems.

Previous speakers include Bill Clinton, Richard Branson and Stephen Hawking, and attendees often spend thousands to attend in person.

TEDx talks are independent of these but follow the same format: short, punchy anecdotes aimed at addressing a wider problem.

There have been many TEDx talks in Ireland but Tuesday’s event was the first to take place behind prison walls. “I stole the idea from England, ” organiser Nikki Gallagher explains.

The theme was “Beyond Walls: from Custody to Community”. Gallagher said she wanted to hold it in Mountjoy to “drive home the metaphor”.

It is certainly a striking venue. The branded merchandise, slick audio-visual technology and earnest optimism of the speakers contrast sharply with the grim steel and concrete surroundings of the prison.

Lisa Anderson, a senior probation officer, tells the audience about her client Brian who once lived a lavish life as a drug dealer before serving five years in Mountjoy.

Ill-gotten wealth

On release he tried to go straight but kept getting tempted by the trappings of ill-gotten wealth. However, with the help of the Probation Service he got though it and has remained out of trouble for a decade, Anderson says proudly.

She says Brian is the epitome of the Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Prison psychologist Brendan O’Connell reminded the audience that offenders “are not monsters. They’re sons, fathers, brothers, friends.” Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as abuse or the absence of a parent, make children much more likely to go on to offend, he said.

Children with four ACEs, “like in a pack of cards”, are 11 times more likely to try hard drugs or end up in custody, O’Connell explains. A criminal justice system which understands childhood trauma as a precursor to crime could massively reduce offending.

The main purpose of Tuesday’s event was to explore ways to make it easier for ex-offenders to find employment on release. According to research by one of the speakers, Dr Deirdre Healy, only 13 per cent of ex-offenders studied had found full-time work after release.

The main impediment, she said, was their criminal record, “but criminal records only tells us who a person was, not who they are.”