Fr Kevin Hegarty
Michael McMahon is a lay Catholic chaplain at a provincial prison in Britain. One evening he received a call from a prison officer, asking him to meet Gary, a 19-year-old prisoner who seemed depressed. Gary found the meeting helpful. When Michael was leaving Gary told him to take away a rope that he had made from torn strips of a bed sheet, knotted into a noose.
Gary’s story had the usual elements associated with young offenders - broken home, poor parenting, episodic education, escape into alcohol and drugs financed by stealing. He had been in prison before for a short time. This time the sentence was longer. He was in despair at the prospect of life, for over a year, in a small cell. The desperate escape of suicide had seeped into his soul.
In a recent article in ‘The Tablet’, McMahon made the point that one reason why the prisons in Britain are so full is that people like Gary keep coming back. In April 2006, of the male prison population, 82% of 15-17 year-olds, 78% of 18-21 year-olds and 67% of adults re-offend within two years of their release.
I do not have the relevant statistics for Ireland but, I reckon, they are similar. Vincent McGrath, telling of his time in Cloverhill prison, in ‘Our Story. The Rossport Five’, gives an eloquent depiction of the trend here.
Programmes for the rehabilitation of offenders take place in prisons in Britain. McMahon refers to one, ‘The Sycamore Tree Course’, run by the Prison Fellowship, which uses the gospel story of the corrupt tax collector Zaccheus to help offenders realise the consequences of their crime and to take steps on the road to reformation. Unfortunately, this good work can evaporate when prisoners return to dysfunctional communities without support.
Some new projects, drawn up by Community Chaplaincy organisations, attempt to address this problem. The projects include mentoring programmes, help in overcoming addiction and aid in finding accommodation and employment. These projects are relatively new but there are early signs of success.
The first one was established in Swansea in 2001. In the first 12 months of operation, only a quarter of ex-offenders were re-convicted and returned to prison. Less then two years into the project, the re-offending rate had dropped to a third of the national average.
In Ireland there are two restorative justice schemes in operation in Tallagh and Nenagh. They include three elements: helping the offender recognise the consequences of the offence, a personal apology and a commitment, where relevant, to attend a drug or alcohol awareness course. They are mainly aimed at first-time offenders and young offenders responsible for shop-lifting and vandalism.
These schemes are also successful in reducing recidivism rates. Máire Hoctor, TD, who is a director of the restorative justice programme in Nenagh said last week that it has proven ‘itself to be a major force for change in the behaviour of local young people. More than eight out of ten young people who complete the programme do not re-offend’.
Last week’s report of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, which recommends a national restorative justice programme, is welcome. In passing, may I say that I believe the Oireachtas does its best work in such committees, which comprise members of all the parties, working in concert to address problems. Am I alone in finding the abrasive exchanges, which usually dominate Leaders’ question time in the Dáil, very boorish? I remember, in my innocence, when doing the Higher Diploma in Education many years ago, agreeing to a request from a first year Civics class, for a debate on school uniforms. I had no experience of such deviations from school norm. The class soon descended into noisy, incoherent mayhem. I am often reminded of my embarrassment on that day when I watch Oireachtas report on television.
The report proposes increased funding and support for the restorative justice programmes in Nenagh and Tallagh. At the report’s launch, Jim O’Keefe, TD, made the telling point that the cost of the schemes in these two pilot areas was between €1,800 and €2,000 per individual, while it costs more than €90,000 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year. Even the most unrepentant monetarist has to see value here.
It is heartening to learn that the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, has responded positively to the report. He is to set up a working group to implement its recommendations. Maybe it is a sign that our government is beginning to respond to the challenge of caring for those, deemed by many, to be ‘morally undesirable or socially unacceptable’, to use some words of the late Judge Sean O’Leary, published last week. For the Christian, of course, there is no other option. Jesus Christ asks us to see him in the face of the social casualties, the weak-willed, the misled and even those who have committed the most wicked of crimes.
Uncomfortable or what?