Escaping imprisonment of fear in piecing together a life after jail


John has spent 24 years wandering. He's been in jail 25 times - in England and in Ireland. John (not his real name) has seen a lot of talent wasted - people who could have made something of their lives if they had got help at the right time.

"There is nothing for people in prison. You are listening to men at night screaming, crying, having panic attacks. They are frightened people, prison is a frightening place, but nobody cares," says John, who is currently living in a hostel in the north-west.

"Then the day comes when you are let out the gate and you are actually worse. You are afraid to go out, you are paranoid thinking everybody in the street is looking at you, and the first place you head for is the pub. Isn't it sad to think that's all people have to look forward to - a pint?"

John's problems started at home when he was growing up in Co Tipperary. He describes his father, an Army man, as "a tyrant" who tried to impose a military regime on his children. "If there was a piece of dirt on your shoe, you got whacked across the head. He hated me for some reason - I was his punchbag."

At the age of 20 he went to England. Later he travelled to Europe and north Africa. He did seasonal work but also started stealing.

"Things then become habit-forming. The money always seemed to be there when you were cold and hungry. You take it and it becomes a habit. And then people start to shun you."

When he got out of prison nobody wanted to know him. "When you're down, they try to keep you down - the police in particular. They see you in a town and they tell you to keep moving."

The longest sentence he served was 12 months but he says prison robbed him of any sense of self-worth. "I lost my pride. I hated society, I hated authority. These people are supposed to help you but they don't."

He has seen younger men start to go down the same road and has tried to help them because it is "a lonely, isolating, depressing existence" where you stop believing in yourself and you stop believing in others. "You know you are an outcast."

Things have started to turn around for him over the past year because he got a place in a hostel where the staff helped him believe in himself again.

"They treated me like a human being for once after all those years. They told me I was welcome. They praised me for the simplest things and it lifts your heart. It's the first home I've had in 26 years."

He is now on a FAS course and is optimistic about getting a job, but he is critical of how money is shared in society. "It's amazing the talents people have in prison and money should be spent to bring these out. It is like with a seed - there is nothing pretty about a seed, but what comes out of it is fabulous. There are a lot of men in prison and they have a hidden talent, a hidden beauty, and that could be brought out if only they set up the proper facilities."

The Celtic Tiger economy, he believes, is for people who have money. People who were well off had become wealthier. "But there is a terrible greed there now that is not the Ireland I knew years ago when everybody was more or less on the same level."

He says he also sees a greater anger and resentment among those who don't have money.

The increasing gap between rich and poor angers him. "Maybe they want to have poor people so they will have someone to look down on, so there will be someone looking up at them."

Irish Lives will appear in The Irish Times each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Fri- day until Christmas