|"If I didn’t meet Breda before I left Cork prison, I’m not sure what I might have done.”|
By Allen Meagher
James served four months in Cork prison and was the guest speaker people paid most attention to when he addressed a Business In The Community (BITC) event in Ringaskiddy in October.
On release James had nowhere to go and would have had nobody to support him only for BITC’s prisoner mentoring programme. Only for the Mentoring Service, he would almost certainly be homeless and may have re-offended.
He didn’t explain what landed him behind bars, didn’t give his surname and photography was disallowed. Among those listening were senior staff from Janssen, Ulster Bank, IBM, Musgraves and PepsiCo, all member companies of BITC.
“I was embarrassed and ashamed for my family when I was before the judge, especially for my children. I was not without my problems before coming before the court and I was out of work.
“Prison was a shock. The cells are designed for one person, but you’d often have three prisoners to a cell. There are no toilets in the cells and you’re locked up for 17 out of every 24 hours. Prison dictated when I ate and slept and walked.”
Luckily, a teacher in the prison put James in touch with a mentor called Breda Wallace. “She put me on the right track and gave me direction,” James said, “She was very understanding and non-judgemental and she knew what I did and didn’t think less of me for it.”
He continued: “When I got out I’d no money, no flat and no-one to talk to. I spent the first nights in a homeless shelter.
Then he met his mentor and things began to improve as their weekly coffee meetings progressed. “She gave support in any way she could, for example, she helped me make phone calls and put me in touch with the Free Legal Advice Centre and Citizens Information. She helped me plan and organise... If I didn’t meet Breda before I left Cork prison I’m not sure what I might have done.”
James urged everyone to appreciate their freedom, not to take it for granted and, knowing that he was speaking to some big employers, he pointed out that he was available for work if anyone present had a position open.
He said he was “honoured, privileged and humbled to tell his story”. However, his story told more than a page of statistics would about the impact of one of BITC’s key programmes.
The Mentoring Service’s aim is to assist prisoners with the transition from prison to the community with the ultimate goal of moving away from crime. It is a new programme managed by Business in the Community Ireland, in partnership with the Irish Prison Service, and funded by the Dormant Accounts Fund.
It provides one-to-one practical and emotional support to prisoners before and after release. For now, it operates in Cork and Castlerea but will be expanded.
For more information contact: Patti McCann, Programme Coordinator T: 086-609-5460 or (01) 874-3848. E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shatter’s leg up for former prisoners seeking work
The ideology underpinning our prison system is supposed to be that of rehabilitation, but what chance are people like James given to become functional members of society when only 52% of employers in a recent IBEC survey stated that they would even consider hiring someone with a criminal record.
As such, many former prisoners are condemned to a life of poverty, vastly increasing the chances that they will re-offend. A new proposal from Justice Minister Alan Shatter, however, hopes to give them a fighting chance by allowing them to omit the time they spent in prison from their CV.
The Spent Convictions Bill will, as Alan Shatter said in a statement “not entail a deletion of the record, but rather a non-disclosure of the offence in certain circumstances."
The Irish Penal Reform Trust praised the new legislation, which will be published in early 2012, describing it as a “necessary element in ensuring that the commission of a criminal offence does not lead to permanent barriers to reintegration into society."
- Conor Hogan