During his visit to Limerick Prison, Alan Jacques took a look at the work that is done to rehabilitate inmates back into society once they have served their time. He reports on the supports that are in place to aid offenders in their efforts to live law abiding and purposeful lives on their release.
These powerful words certainly struck a chord with former Limerick Prison inmate Brian O’Rourke who found salvation through art during his time in jail and now has no doubts about the importance of education and the opportunities it brings.
Brian has turned his life around 360 degrees since his release two years ago. Having spent two and a half years in prison for drug-related offences, the 46-year-old says he now “feels valued” and believes life is full of endless possibilities since commencing his studies at Limerick School of Art and Design this autumn.
“You know, Limerick is great really. People are willing to forgive and give you a second chance,” he opines.
Brian discovered a talent and love for art while in prison and likens being offered the opportunity to study in LSAD, considered the fifth best art college in the world, to “winning the “Lotto”.
“Most prisoners take up art in prison to make something for their family. Making a cushion or a piece of art is their way of saying ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I won’t do this again’. Art is a way of reaching out, but it also helped me ease that transition into prison and it gave me a great boost,” Brian explains.
“Many prisoners don’t have what you would traditionally call book-smarts but they can be very creative people. A door opened to me in prison back to education and I decided I’d be a fool to not take advantage of that opportunity to better myself,” the Abbeyfeale native tells the Limerick Post.
Prison education in Ireland aspires to offer a broad curriculum, encompassing academic subjects, Physical Education, Health/Social education and literacy/numeracy courses. Art, craft and design courses are considered an integral part of the curriculum, with visual arts, music, writing and drama, among the most popular, according to the Irish Prison Service.
“When I first heard there was a school in the prison I was totally surprised and thought it was only going to be Maths and English, but there was all kinds of classes and courses available. It gave me the chance to get my life back on track and to become a productive member of society again. I got to develop my love for art, which also helped pass the time in prison. Time is something you have a lot of, and that structure in my life also helped build my confidence,” Brian reveals.
The County Limerick man also admits to having had only a passing interest in art when he was younger and modestly puts much of the credit for his newfound artistic talents down to his former art teacher at Limerick Prison, Paula Rafferty.
With a huge passion for Fine Arts and painting, Brian is open about his time in prison and keen to use his life-changing experiences, to help those now serving time, to turn their lives around for the better.
“I have a very close family and being sent to prison had a huge impact on them. I think it’s almost worse for the families. I was fed and looked after and had my bills paid while my family was on the outside doing the harder sentence.
“There is a stigma attached to having been in prison, you do feel like an outsider, like you are not respectable. I went into prison and into despair, or so I thought. Instead, it opened up new doors to me,” he said.
For many prisoners the benefits of engaging with art facilitates more than the attainment of skills, knowledge and certification. It can also teach prisoners valuable personal skills such as how to work on their own initiative or as part of a team, anger management skills, respect, patience and understanding.
Art teacher at Limerick Prison for the past 16 years, Paula Rafferty, works with many prisoners who previously had “negative experiences of traditional schooling”.
“We take a non-traditional route and challenge students to see what they can do. Art helps pass the time in prison. We mix it up and do something different every day. I learn as much as they do and once a student has made something you encourage them to ask what else can they do,” said Paula.
“Students feed off each other and without realising it they are also learning literacy and numeracy skills. It’s a great buzz for them. Those who take advantage of their time and take the work seriously, get to take their work back to their cells to continue working on it, which also helps develop self-learning skills,” she comments.
As well as art, Limerick Prison’s education unit offers a whole range of classes from woodwork to computers, media studies, music technology, accounting, social studies, home economics and languages including German, Spanish and French.
The school, which first opened in the seventies, focuses on basic adult education and promotion of core skills. It’s programme is informed by the strategic plan of City of Limerick Adult Education Service and prisoners have a range of certificate options available from Junior and Leaving Certificate to FETAC levels 2 to 6, ECDL and Open University courses.
A new purpose-built education centre was opened in Limerick Prison in April 2008 and includes a woodwork classroom, fitness suite, sports hall and library. When the Limerick Post visited the education unit at the prison, it was like any other place of learning. The halls were hushed, while the classrooms were a hive of activity and study.
Assistant Governor of Limerick Prison, Mark Kennedy, who has 23 years experience in the prison service, maintains that the vast majority of inmates want to better their lives and be rehabilitated. Literacy and numeracy skills are the greatest barrier facing many inmates, he says, and therefore the greatest hurdle to be climbed for those looking to better themselves behind bars.
“When they come into prison we ask if they want to work and the vast majority want too. We provide work or work training or education if they choose and the vast majority of them will choose to do so,” Mr Kennedy insists.
“One of the biggest challenges here would be reading and writing. These are weak points. If we can get them reading and writing, then there’s great job satisfaction.
Art attracts them into the school. If you try and persuade them to learn through English or something else they won’t do it. But you tease them in with art and start off by teaching the prisoner to write his name on the bottom of his artwork. By whetting their attention with a little bit of art, they slowly start to learn and get a taste for learning,” he said.
“You see the hardest fellas with the tattoos and they are up there and they are knitting and they are sewing and they are making tapestries. That’s in their make-up to be creative. It starts off with them making little things for their kids like matchstick boats, tapestries or small jewelry boxes. The vast majority of men have that creative make-up in their brain. They’ll all watch the ‘Discovery Channel’ and all of a sudden a whole world of possibilities has been opened to them.”
Limerick Prison also runs a literacy programme called toe-to-toe where inmates are trained up as mentors to teach fellow prisoners to read and write.
One prisoner who began his studies in Limerick Prison, completing a number of Leaving Certificate subjects and completing an Open University certificate course, was awarded an honours degree in 2013. Another prisoner who returned to education in Limerick Prison also received his teacher-training diploma from Mary Immaculate College last year. These are just two examples of countless success stories from within the walls of Limerick Prison where lives were changed for the better with education and training offering a ‘stay out of jail’ card for the future.
“Everybody has something to do. There are fellas cleaning the yard out there. It’s an exact replica of life on the outside. If you go into town any day people are going in working in a shop or going working in a kitchen, and just getting on with their daily lives. It’s the same in here. It’s grand staying in your cell if you are just starting a five-year sentence and thinking I’ll sit around and watch ‘Sally Jessy Raphael’ or ‘Dr Phil’ every day. But it won’t be long getting boring for them and they’ll need to be doing something to pass the time.
“We have no problem getting people to do Masters Degrees and Doctorates because they are that way inclined. One prisoner came to me recently, who’s in here for a very serious crime and he told me proudly that he now has 98 certs. Probably 10 years ago we would have been rolling around with him on the floor but now he has got this great sense of achievement,” said Mr Kennedy.
This great sense of achievement became evident to me during my visit to Limerick Prison as I witnessed inmates in the carpentry room taking great pride in the wonderful garden furniture they hand crafted. I was shown a prototype of a park chair, designed by inmates, especially for use by special needs children in wheelchairs.
This sense of pride was evident when I witnessed fully trained inmates in the hot prison kitchen busy cooking up a storm of 300 lunches. It was also there in the computer room and classrooms and most evident of all when I spoke with a young prisoner in the prison library who enthused about his love of books.
“You are allowed three books for three weeks in the library. A lot of people like PlayStation and there are two computers in the rec room, but a lot of people do like to read, especially true stories, which is what we are lacking at the moment. Non-fiction really is what prisoners are into. I like to read about people’s lives,” he tells me.
This young man seemed excited to have the opportunity to tell someone from outside the prison walls about all he was learning and was very keen to show me all he had learned about computers. His enthusiasm was infectious and left me wondering if education might too become his salvation on his release from prison.
Many of us can often be guilty of strong and prejudiced views against those who’ve committed a crime. They are considered unwanted members of our society and we want them out of sight and out of mind. The idea that prisoners are offered the opportunity to avail of education and training is not something that always sits well with us. We often forget that the punishment for people who break the law is they are sent to prison and lose their freedom and all the rights associated with it. After that they are entitled to the exact same rights as the rest of us, including education.
“Once you come through the gates the staff in here will not judge you. They will work with you in a proper way to try and address the issues that put you here in the first place. If we kept you for a year, two years, three years, ten years, life, and did nothing with you and shipped you back out then, you are going back out worse and are no benefit to society. The same risk that caused you to offend will still be there,” claims Ciaron McAuley of the Irish Prison Service.
“The Prison Services role is to address the issues that caused you to offend in the first place and send you back out giving you a better chance, so that by the prisoner behaving himself, society is safer. If a man came in here after committing a robbery and we can send him back out and he doesn’t commit robbery anymore, he benefits, and society benefits because he isn’t engaging in criminal activity. That’s what prison is supposed to be about. That’s why they have access to education, access to healthcare, access to recreation. It’s all part of the rehabilitation process,” said Mr McAuley.
American education reformer Horace Mann hit the nail on the head when he once said, “Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former”.