Niamh Horan: Prison changed my life
It isn't until they are serving life that they learn how precious it is. But as society is busy writing off its misfits, there are people devoting their lives to making others see a better way, writes Niamh Horan
Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30
'In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." - F Scott Fitzgerald.
When Pat Kavanagh was 16, he had to navigate his way home each day through pushers slipping brown and white pearls of heroin into desperate hands and selling their wares to sore-covered junkies on Balbutcher Lane in Ballymun.
Today, like many who grew up in the disadvantaged areas of north Dublin, he finds himself spending the last few years in prison.
On the wall are photographs of the Ballymun flats and a local wild horse. A steady reminder of where he came from. But rather than sit behind bars, Pat is on the other side of a sleek mahogany desk. As governor of Wheatfield Prison.
The only thing separating him from those he locks up at night, he believes, was the stable upbringing he received from his parents.
"You are where you are today; I am where I am, because we started off with certain advantages in life."
Far from money or material wealth, Pat is talking about love and consistency, routine and security.
"Even if you were born in a sh*tty place, in sh*tty circumstances without a pot to p*ss in, the bottom line is you were given an inkling that you were going to be alright. That someone was going to look after you. We've had those opportunities," he says, pointing towards the cells. "There are a lot of people out there who haven't."
His Chief Prison Officer 'Jimmy' is also from the Ballymun flats, while the governor before him hailed from Kevin Street flats.
"We're Dubs that came from f*ck all, but we were reared right," he says in his typical no-nonsense manner.
In Wheatfield, Pat wants to give the people who end up here a second chance at life: "We do our very best, but remember, we are the end of the line."
By the time they get to the heavy iron gates in the front courtyard, they're a long way down the wrong path. And the consequences hit hard. As I hand over my phones and computer at the entrance, the guards who greet the prisoners initially on their arrival tell me they have seen many tears through the years.
"Hardened criminals have cried facing life, but it's usually the young kids. They could get upset as quickly as lash out, every case is different."
After checks by body scanners and sniffer dogs, we cross a yard into the main building where the walls are painted calming hues of pale blue, pink and cream - a sharp contrast to the cracked glass in the windows leading into one of the prisoners' wings. What happened there? I nod towards a break.
Jimmy, the Head Prison Officer, shrugs: "Most likely a snooker ball. To prevent a member of staff going in."
In a lifetime working here, staff have seen it all. Pat lists the hazards: "I've been kicked, punched, threatened that they'd rape my kids, had urine and faeces thrown over me and into my mouth. It takes its toll.
"You can take a kicking, you can take a punch, but when someone's bodily fluids are thrown on you? That can have an effect."
He explains his routine to deal with such events: "I go out, have a shower and come straight back in. You get back to work because that is usually the prisoner's best shot. You get paid for this job. Just like a fireman putting out fires. If you can't take it, then you should be working somewhere else."
Breaking news of tragedy to prisoners often comes with risks.
On one such occasion, Pat had to inform a man whose brother had died that authorities - working with garda intelligence - had deemed it unsafe to allow him attend the funeral. When Pat broke the news, the man attacked him with a sweeping brush.
Rather than hand down a punishment, the governor says he recognises the light and shade of the men's emotion: "I could understand his frustration. If you get bad news about someone close to you, you can do something about it. You can get in your car and drive to be with your family. These lads have one six-minute phone call."
The biggest lesson Pat has learned working in the prison services is that you should never be quick to judge anyone. The most hardened criminals often surprise him.
He illustrates this with the story of how another prisoner's tragedy led to a very different outcome.
The man in question would often lose his temper, use drugs and was on a one-way road to self-destruction, where officers predicted he would eventually kill himself.
Behind bars, Pat explains, he was the kind who would "walk out of his cell with a telly over his head, looking for the nearest officer to throw it on."
The job fell to him to tell him of his brother's death.
"I went in and said, 'Look, you have two choices. You make your decision whether you live or die today. Your brother has gone and your mother has to bury him. You have to decide right here, right now, if your mother is going to bury you too - or if you are going to live through this."
The inmate saw out his time and years later, an officer encountered him. It was during a visit to a car fix-up shop on his lunch break that he spotted the man in overalls. On seeing the officer's uniform, the former prisoner-turned-mechanic enquired if he knew Pat Kavanagh.
"Tell him I was asking for him," he said. "Tell him I remember what he said to me the day my brother died. I never forgot it. And I made the decision to live."
Perhaps it is experiences like these that explain Pat's reluctance to see these men in black and white. Indeed, evidence for his enthusiasm can be found in splashes of hope around the prison.
When men who have committed the most heinous crimes apply their energy to the right project, they have proven they also have the capabilities to produce breathtaking creations.
One such inmate, a Dublin crime lord, provides a classic example.
He was a nightmare to watch over - often caught with banned contraband, such as mobile phones, and intimidating other prisoners. He was behind bars after committing a string of violent crimes.
One day, staff provided him with a giant slab of granite and a tiny chisel to keep him busy. He chipped and chipped, quietly working away, until he became neurotic about the end result - producing a beautiful stonework, which now takes pride of place in the prison's garden of remembrance for deceased members of Wheatfield staff.
"When they put that obsessive nature into something worthwhile, the result can really be something special," explains Pat.
Every workshop we walk through tells another story of a man rehabilitated, a talent come to the surface. A colourful mosaic on the wall; painstakingly put in place by a lifer. The seedlings of a new skill manifested in a crocodile that spans the desk of the crafts class. The multicoloured 'buddy benches' in the carpentry workshop, which are covered in butterflies and words of encouragement. They were created by prisoners to give shy schoolchildren a device to signal to teachers or classmates when they need to talk. All they have to do is take a seat.
In the computer class, I hear the somewhat humorous story of a huge Polish prisoner who arrived, aggressive and uncommunicative. He applied himself to an English course and was found each day huddled over a computer, headphones to his ears, until he became fluent. Eventually, he explained to staff that a number of fights on the inside had stemmed from simple language barriers: "The Irish say 'you f**king eejit', like a joke," he told officers. "In my country, this is the biggest insult."
Prison is a microcosm of the outside world and, as on the outside, communication is the catalyst of change. In a wing which houses Wheatfield's most notorious inmates prone to violent outbursts, I enquire about the staff's weapons of choice.
"This is the best weapon we have," says one of the wing's hand-picked staff, pointing towards his lips. "If you communicate effectively, you don't need to use force."
Pat chuckles when he recalls a 'prisoner and staff' therapy session he visited in the UK: "These guys were all sitting around in a circle and told to talk about their feelings freely and openly with one another. Can you imagine saying how you really felt to staff with batons hanging from their belts?" he laughs.
Prisons have traditionally been criticised for providing a wide range of outlets and amenities, but Pat simply sees each facet as another step on the road to rehabilitation. He credits television sets in cells, for example, with being a pivotal factor in the reduction of suicide and self-harm by inmates sitting alone for 18 hours a day in cells 12ft X 8ft . But the power of books also has not been lost at the prison and 12 years ago, 72-year-old lifer Jack* (*names have been changed to protect identities) transformed an empty room into a reader's paradise.
Now, books line the walls, a fish tank decorates the room and inmates can be found with a look of fierce concentration on their faces, as they map out their next move on the chess boards.
Among fiction fans, the crime thrillers of James Patterson have proven popular. I even spot a catalogue for Christie's art auction house for inmates to peruse.
"So what's the been the most rented book since the library opened?" I ask Jack.
He smiles: "Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince."
Elsewhere on the inside, outlets include Pilates, yoga and mindfulness classes, which are always booked out.
As resident fitness instructor Martin explains: "When they hear Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs are doing it, they see the health benefits in it too."
Another aspect to life here is the introduction of the abandoned-animals programme - which includes guinea fowl, chickens and two giant fat sleeping pigs - all abandoned, and cared for by the inmates.
Outside in the garden, Michael* sits with one of the dogs. Now in his 30s, he was 18 when he first began a life sentence for murder. For years he was withdrawn; didn't speak to other inmates and found it difficult to make a connection. The introduction of rescued animals brought out another side to his personality.
Today he is sitting on a curb, quietly nursing a sick dog that has hurt her paw. She whimpers in pain as he offers her soothing words before introducing me to the resident rabbits, Maggie and Sharon.
"It's great to have responsibility for them," he says as he buries his face in their fur. He talks in the dog's ear like a newborn baby.
"You would see the prisoners standing there in a daze, just staring into the distance, lost in the warmth and connection they are feeling with this creature curled into their chest," explains Pat. "Some have never experienced that kind of close bond before."
As Michael points to a male rabbit cowered in the corner of the hutch he shares with five females, warden Kavanagh tells him: "You'd think you'd like it. Trust me son; that would be hell on earth."
The need for humour amidst the stark reality of violence these staff come up against is clear and it peppers our day as we meander through serious issues and tragic circumstances.
Later, as we walk through the iron workshops, Kavanagh explains the prisoners make the steel bars and heavy doors that are used in Wheatfield. Is that wise? I ask. He looks at me amused.
"We make the locks. Don't think we're that stupid."
Outside, another man serving time for murder cuddles up to his mutt Penny, the only animal the inmates have been allowed to keep, rather than rehome. Weather beaten, with scars ingrained in his cheeks, he holds the dog who delights in being cradled in his big, tattooed arms. I gently put my hand out to stroke its fur and she vibrates a long, low growl.
"He's a good judge of character," quips an officer before happily sauntering past to our next port of call.
Another light moment presents itself when we make our way into the fitness centre where prisoners are pumping iron.
"Two thousand and one..." An inmate calls over his shoulder in a faux-exhausted voice upon seeing us coming, "two thousand and two..." he strains, pumping the weight again, to laughter on the floor.
But there are grim moments too.
I sit across from Tim* on his bed in a cell. He gets emotional when we talk about the death of his mother. On a typical visit to see him, she had complained of mild heartburn. The following day, her son rang home to see how she was.
His brother answered with the curt reply. "She's dead," Tim recalls, his eyes welling up. "I couldn't believe it. I came back to my room and sat on my own. I didn't want to talk to anyone."
Although well into his 30s, he appears almost kid-like. Shy and reserved, his slight frame is lost in his over-sized grey jumper. I learn about his crimes afterwards and they're difficult to tally with the soft-spoken person who would like nothing more than to sit and chat all day.
"There's lots of should've, would'ves that go round your head," says Tim.
A picture of a bird soaring in the sky and a sunrise hangs on the wall where he will spend the remainder of his 20-year sentence. It will be many years before he sees it rise or set again.
"It's nice to be reminded," he says. "I have a lovely memory of walking on the west coast before all this. Just walking out in the open, that's what I look forward to."
He had the choice of a view of the stars in an upstairs cell, or a computer downstairs. He chose the latter because he wants to complete his Leaving Cert. The stars, are a little luxury that will have to wait for another time.
Towards the end of the day, I meet Caroline and Paula, CEO and Programme Manager of Wheatfield, respectively, overseeing the 'Suicide or Survive' project in partnership with the prison. It encourages inmates to openly talk about their mental health.
"Many of the men have never spoken about it before," says Paula. "They watch a video of Caroline's story [the CEO set up the charity after attempting to take her own life] and say, 'That's my story too'.
"They know if they do the crime, they do the time, but now they're making a real change and the results are incredible. Some inmates have even become mental health mentors for others within the prison."
After leaving, it's hard to shake the stories from my mind.
Several days later, I am hurrying to another interview in a leafy South Dublin suburb, when I lose my bearings. A young schoolboy from one of the local private schools offers to show me directions. He is confident and chatty and, along they way, he tells me of his dreams to study medicine and become a neurosurgeon - so that one day he can save people's lives.
Afterwards, I can't help but think about him in light of Tim and Michael. Both were the same age as the schoolboy when they decided to take someone else's away.
Would their lives have been any different if they had the same start as these children? Who knows. But as the staff at Wheatfield Prison have shown, it only takes one person to change a life. So for the next group of teenagers who find themselves staring down those iron gates feeling their fortune has finally run out, ironically, it just might be their lucky day.