Where the revolving door stops


Six out of 10 former prisoners are likely to reoffend within a year of their release, but a back-to-work course for ex-convicts has bucked this trend in a series of quiet successes, writes ROISÍN INGLE

FINDING a job in a recession is tough. With a criminal record and a string of prison sentences behind them, ex-offenders looking to make a fresh start face even greater obstacles than the average citizen when it comes to getting back to work.

Since it launched, two and a half years ago, Trasna, a year-long back-to-work course designed to make former prisoners job ready, has been recording a series of quiet successes.

Some of the 19 people, mostly men, who have gone through the programme had been out of work for decades, but many have gone on to employment or further education. The scheme is run as part of Jobcare, an organisation founded in 1994 by a group of Christian churches in Dublin to help people back to employment. According to co-founder and chief executive Paul Mooney, only three of the 19 Trasna participants have returned to lives of crime.

This successful reintegration of ex-prisoners into society by preparing them for the workplace can be measured against statistics which show that six out of 10 ex-convicts are likely to reoffend within a few years of their release. An estimated 27 per cent serve a new prison sentence within a year.

The course also makes financial sense, according to Mooney. “The average cost of providing prison space for a year is almost €93,000. It costs €27,500 to put someone through the Trasna programme for the same period.”

Mooney says he has not experienced opposition to the programme but acknowledges that some victims of crime can be wary of rehabiliation services and question whether ex-prisoners are capable of moving on from crime.

However, a recent report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust found that the revolving-door phenomenon of recidivism could be stemmed by providing more funding for post-release services.

As Mooney puts it: “For every hour they are with us, it’s an hour that they are not engaging in criminal behaviour. With a bit of love and guidance and practical support, people can change. We see it here all the time.”

These are the stories of three men who have turned their lives around since signing up to Trasna.

John McCaffrey 25, trainee accountant

I grew up in Dún Laoghaire. My mother left us when I was five – I haven’t seen her since – and my father brought up the four of us on his own. I never got into any trouble until I was 17 or 18 and I started smoking cannabis. I fell out with my father over that, and I was homeless for two years. For most of that time I slept on a grave in Deansgrange cemetery.

I got myself together for a while and found a flat with a friend, but I got on to harder drugs and then the flat was raided, but it took a few years for the case to come to court. I was evicted, which meant I was homeless for a couple of years, breaking into houses and living the life of an addict – at one point I had to have my stomach pumped.

But then I met my girlfriend, who was working for Jobcare at the time. That’s when I started to settle down. By the time my case came to court I had stopped drinking and taking drugs, found somewhere to live and was looking for work – all the things the judge had told me to do when I was charged. But I was still locked up for nine months.

Being in prison was stressful, but I kept my head down. When I look back I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me. If I had never got caught I might still be living the life that I was living.

When I came out I knew what I wanted to do, and with the support of my girlfriend I applied for Trasna and started studying to be an accountant. We have two young children now, and I am payroll supervisor at Jobcare as part of a community-employment scheme.

When I am not working I am studying for my accountancy exams. What I’d like to do is to find work for a big company of maybe 200 staff, managing the payroll. That is the next challenge.

Jonathan Harlow 33, landscape gardener

I was in Coolmine treatment centre when I heard about Trasna and Jobcare. I didn’t know what it would be like, but I knew I needed help to get back into the real world. The main thing that I noticed was how supportive everyone was. I thought people would be looking down on us because we were ex-offenders, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was great to be mixing with all sorts of people, especially the suits.

I was brought up in Galway. I started drinking at 12 and then went on to drugs: coke and Ecstasy and then heroin and crack. When I was 15 I ran away to England and then Spain. When I came home I did a few years in prison for burglaries; I went to Castlerea, and then when I got out I went to Coolmine. I didn’t know my arse from my elbow at the time.

When you are in prison it is all punishment and no rehabilitation. I can understand why some people think that is all it should be, but there is good in everyone, and people do deserve a chance to show they can change. I needed to be shown the way.

I am so much happier now. I work from 8am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, on the grounds of a housing complex in inner-city Dublin. I am getting into horticulture, and I’m hoping to do a course at some point. It does take time to adjust to working life – you need a lot of patience – and sometimes you just feel like ripping the stuff out of the ground.

But I feel better about myself than I ever did.

With Trasna, they care about you. They are genuine. That is not to say they let you away with anything. If you miss work or are late your pay is docked. But they always say, “whatever you want to do we will support you,” and that means a lot.

Paul 36, bicycle mechanic

I had a happy childhood, but I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I started drinking at 12 and was getting into trouble with the Garda for robbing cars or being drunk and disorderly by the age of 15. I was into lighting fires, making bombs, getting involved with republicans, thinking I would blow up England. I got a buzz from anything that went bang.

Later I got into class-A drugs and my flat got raided. I went to prison, and what I realised there was that I could survive being locked up. It gave me more guts knowing I could handle prison, and I met people who had done armed robberies. I listened to them and learned a lot.

When I got out of prison I made my own replica sawn-off shotgun by using copper pipes and melting down lead. I was always very resourceful. The butt of the “gun” was sanded down and varnished, and it looked exactly like the real thing. I used it to rob shops, filling stations and newsagents, that kind of thing.

I spent most of my 20s living in hostels. The drink was my main addiction, but then I got so emotionally messed up on the drink I turned to heroin to get me off it. I smoked heroin for two years before detoxing myself with methadone, and then went back on the drink.

For a good while I was a functioning addict. One of those addicts people don’t see. Some people think drug addicts are just the junkies you see strung out on the streets. But I was holding down a job cleaning windows, and then later I worked in rope access. I travelled all around the country, abseiling down cliffs or bridges, putting up scaffolding and that kind of thing.

I went back on the heroin again, thinking I would be on either drink or heroin for the rest of my life, and then when I was 35 I woke up one morning and realised I couldn’t cope with it anymore.

I started going to Narcotics Anonymous and then went for treatment as a full-time day patient at Coolmine treatment centre. That was when the guilt started kicking in. Remorse about sticking replica guns in people’s faces.

I can’t imagine how those people must have felt, but I realised I couldn’t change the past, and now I’m just focused on giving back.

I work in Rothar, which is a voluntary project where rust-bucket bikes are donated and we do them up. With Trasna I went on a job- preparation course and I got on this community-employment scheme at the bike shop. My plan is to study as a paramedic from September and get into search and rescue using my rope-access background.

I can understand why people think I don’t deserve any help, but at the moment I am just trying to sort myself out so I can give back on a big scale. I will be drink- and drug-free for a year on July 9th. What I’ve got from this process is unbelievable. I am so finely tuned to myself and my issues now that I can’t run away from myself the way I used to.

I have turned things around. All my determination and resourcefulness that I used to use in the wrong way I now use to make positive changes in my life. I didn’t realise how much help was out there until I went looking for support.

Helping 4,000 offenders since 2000

Separate from the Trasna scheme, more than 4,000 former offenders have been placed in employment, education or training since 2000 as part of the Linkage Service, a rehabilitation programme, with more than 900 of those placed last year alone, according to the organisation’s annual report, which was published on Thursday.

The Linkage Service, which is managed by Business in the Community Ireland in partnership with the Probation Service, offers guidance and placement to ex-offenders. More than 40 per cent of its clients have been placed in employment since 2000. Last year saw an increase of 20 per cent in the number of employment placements compared with 2008, despite the economic downturn.

The scheme employs 16 training and employment officers around the country. The Probation Service refers clients to the officers, who help develop a plan for their future. In 2009, 358 people were placed in part- or full-time work.

Paddy Richardson, manager of employment programmes with Business in the Community Ireland, says the scheme has far-reaching benefits not just for the people it helps but also for their families and peer groups and for the wider community as a whole.

“The Linkage Service and other such services that assist former offenders upon release are essential to combat the current issue of overcrowding and serve to save money in the long run by keeping people out of the prison system,” he says.