WATCH: From prisoner to pro triathlete - a young father's story about life after jail... and the battle to get a job
On paper, recent research suggests most employers would consider hiring a former offender, but in practice, a criminal conviction on your CV makes it extremely difficult to find a job. Tanya Sweeney reports
With a degree in social science, a master's in criminology and a diploma in community drugs and alcohol work, Wayne Hart certainly seems an asset to his chosen field as a youth justice professional.
Yet Hart's background - which you might think would give him an even greater understanding of his area - has become something of a roadblock in his professional life.
After spending time in prison on drug-related offences, Hart has a permanent criminal record that surfaces each time he applies for a job.
"The one thing I hate, of all the stuff I've done, and gets me in the pit of my stomach, is an application form," he says. "It's a real case of, 'here we go again'. How far do we have to come in life until the past stops biting me on the behind? It's very disheartening."
Reform: Domini Kemp has hired ex-offenders. Picture by Fergal Phillips
Hart's journey towards prison was a complicated one; experiencing dyslexia as a child that was diagnosed only in adulthood, he recalls being told constantly he wouldn't amount to much. Hart was abused as a youngster in care, and later turned to drugs and alcohol. While in Mountjoy Prison, he undertook an addiction recovery programme, and vowed to move towards a crime-free life. Now, he offers motivational talks. His TEDx Mountjoy talk on the topic has recently gone viral.
One of his first jobs, post-prison, was helping to deliver office supplies: "I was getting 50 quid a day, but for me there was a huge sense of pride in being that productive and making a contribution," he recalls. Hart was then motivated enough to move into further education.
"I found it hard to get [work] placements in college because of the garda vetting programme," he says.
"Only for the place where I worked had set up a programme and I asked to go on it, I wouldn't have graduated from UCD, and I certainly wouldn't have gotten my master's. I'm in a job I love but I'd love to be a probation officer, but it's hard to get placed."
On the right road: Ger Redmond is trying to re-establish himself after jail, and ‘inspire my family’. Photo by Mark Condren
Hart, for all his qualifications, has been relatively lucky. Many former prisoners will struggle to find any kind of employment, even if they want to and even if they avail of support for them while they serve their terms.
Last year, 8,500 Dublin-based prisoners availed of education programmes funded by the training body Solas, with 2,367 "accredited outcomes".
Ger Redmond in Mountjoy Prison. Photo: Mark Condren
Ger Redmond, a native of Dublin's Darndale who got involved in drugs and gangland criminality in his younger years, is trying to re-establish himself after jail. He was in Mountjoy Prison for two years from 2014. Redmond's father and grandfather had been to prison before him.
"I remember having a moment at a friend's funeral where I felt I needed to change my whole generation around and started building my life and inspiring my own family," he says.
Redmond, who tweets using the hashtag #prisontopro, has trained as an IronMan professional, despite being unable to swim until recent times. He is also a running coach, but such work can be sporadic and seasonal.
Now, Redmond hopes to get a taxi licence so that he can work flexibly around his wife Pauline, who plans to train as a midwife, and provide for their kids Ciara (15), Keeva (10), Hayley (8), Kellie (6) and Ross (2). However, he has been refused a taxi licence plate time and time again, even after applying through the courts.
Ger Redmond who spent two years in Mountjoy Prison. Pic:Mark Condren
"There is that feeling, 'where does it end?'. You have to hold your hands up if you've made a mistake, but if I can't prove to the government that I'm going down the right road, what is a man to do? I'm in a really good place, and I know I've changed," he says. "Still, some people will totally turn their nose up. I joined a running club and they totally shunned me. I was getting let go after two or three weeks in some jobs. I don't hold resentment towards them - people hold their opinions."
Other ex-offenders, he notes, might not be as lucky: "There are some lads that come out [of prison] and wouldn't get into sports, and if you come out trying to be a normal citizen, but then fall into a negative mindset and start drinking on the weekends... They can only get jobs on [building] sites, as any good factory job does a background check. If they're on a site in winter, some of these lads will be like, 'I'd rather make €100 selling drugs'."
Redmond talks to other former prisoners, telling them it's possible to desist from crime: "I tell them, just because you've made a mistake doesn't mean that people can't change," he says. "I've proven it can be done, whether they believe it or not.
'One silly mistake'
"I tell kids on the prevention programme that if you make one silly mistake, carrying drugs or something and you get a conviction, you lose out on €2m worth of wages over a lifetime. You go from potentially making €45,000 a year to €25-30k if you have a conviction."
Solas last month surveyed 270 business leaders about attitudes to former offenders and found that more than 60pc said they would be inclined to employ someone who had a conviction.
Some 82pc said they would be influenced by the severity of the conviction, and 69pc by whether the person had been convicted as a youth; 67pc said a candidate's chances would improve if they had completed an educational course while jailed.
A number of high-profile employers, among them chefs Domini Kemp and Neven Maguire, have hired ex-offenders, while the Mug Shot café, situated in the shadow of the Four Courts in Dublin, was set up by PACE (Prisoners Aid through Community Effort) Its workforce is made up exclusively of former prisoners.
Tom Browne, who runs health and safety training company Salus, has trained and hired around a dozen former offenders. He was introduced to prisoners in Mountjoy Prison nearing their release date, and says he found some 'good guys'.
Ger Redmond who spent two years in Mountjoy Prison. Pic:Mark Condren
"Not everyone you get would be right for you, but that's not unique to the prisoner population," he says. "It would be most unfair to stigmatise people who have just come out of prison. There are many people in prison who never want to be there again. They think, 'if I'm here, I'll educate myself and take as much training back out with me'. Maybe I was extremely blessed, but there was a better sense of loyalty with those who had been in prison. They feel, 'lots of people wouldn't touch me, but this guy did'."
Brenda Farrell, general manager with Harmony Timber, has worked alongside IASIO (the Irish Association for Social Inclusion Opportunities) to provide jobs to around 15 people approaching the end of their sentences at Shelton Abbey open prison in Arklow.
Tommy Chaiyo runs a martial arts gym in north Dublin, and has also hired former prisoners after meeting them at an expo in Mountjoy Prison: "I had it in the back of my mind, 'you're meeting a criminal', but when I met with them and spoke with them, you'd never have thought they were in trouble with the law. They kind of opened my eyes a bit," he says.
One employee of Chaiyo's, recently released from prison, became particularly indispensable:
"This guy went above and beyond the call of duty," he says. "I trained him up, sent him on courses, and he'll start college in a couple of weeks. He did tell one or two people [he worked with, about his conviction] but people just got on with it when they saw what he was able to do."
Such testimonies are heartening, yet the experience of those who have spent time in prison suggests that stigma still exists.
Barry Owens, operations manager for IASIO, believes there is a huge motivational value in being employed.
"All of them are interested in finding work," he says. "Some aren't [ready] yet because of addiction or homelessness or something else they need to work on first. But those who want to stop committing crime often feel optimistic about the future, and optimism and hope is so important.
"It's not ever going to be easy [for the job-seeker], because even without a criminal conviction, people don't get the first job they go for. We're trying to build a resilience and realism around the job application process."
Hope for future
"What I'd like to see is employers actively thinking of their hiring practices," says Nikki Gallagher, director of communications and secretariat from SOLAS. "We need to create a situation where having a conviction from 10 years ago doesn't impact on the rest of someone's life, and their skills and experience are valued for what they are."
Deirdre Healy, associate professor and director of UCD's Institute of Criminology, says the possibility of finding steady employment is central to a person's success in desisting from criminality.
"If people don't have hope for the future, you're asking a lot of them," she says. "Having that knowledge that they can integrate back into society is one of the most important factors.
"There's also the social aspect - having a job creates meaning in people's lives, and a connection to the world. It also gives them something to lose.
"The main thing I'd like to get across is that if you're talking about someone desisting from crime, it's not just the job of the person - it's the role of society to meet them halfway. As a society we need to be a little more mature on how we approach these issues. Maybe the question to ask is, if we have this person who wants to change, how can we help them?"
Eddie Mullins, governor of Mountjoy Prison, says a significant proportion of prisoners with good supports and opportunities will turn their back on crime.
"We see that most people want to better themselves," says Mullins. "Prison is a difficult place to be. It's a very intimidating, macho environment that people want to get away from."
Owens notes that several small to medium enterprises in Ireland are open to the idea of hiring those who have spent time in prison. He'd like to see this goodwill widen out to larger companies and different sectors. IASIO already offer myriad supports to employers that hire former offenders, but on a governmental level, Owens would like to see even more tax incentives made available to employers who do employ former offenders.
"They are companies where the owner makes the decisions - it's harder to break through to multinational companies who screen convictions out," he says. "Not every multinational screens criminal convictions out, but you have to know the organisation you are applying to."
The temptation is certainly there for many ex-offenders to apply for jobs that don't require Garda vetting or a background check, but this can limit their options considerably.
And according to Owens, honesty is usually the best policy, and disclosing one's record with a potential boss can be part of a successful job application.
"There is a huge array of people with convictions and some are able to apply for jobs where they don't have to disclose their record, but we would advise that they do disclose," says Owens. "You've not lied, and you've not been dishonest [if you don't], but we coach people in giving the right information to the employer so that they in time can make an informed decision on whether to hire them."
Asked on his advice for other employees considering hiring ex-offenders, Chaiyo notes: "Just keep an open mind and look at them on a human level. You take a chance and you pay them, and if they come in late or act up, you take the same disciplinary measures that you would with anyone else."
In the meantime, Redmond's plan to find stable employment is still very much in motion as he seeks to achieve a normal, stable life for his family.
"As a man I want to build up a home, do things for my wife and family and show them I'm here for them and I'm willing to work hard for all of that," he says. "It's what every household needs. You just need to know what your future is."
Irish employers who want to offer opportunities to former offenders can contact IASIO on 01 866 2706 or at iasio.ie.