Saturday 24 February 2018

'You don't hear of the boys in well-off areas being stopped'

Former prison governor Lonergan sees a new, worrying trend in young people but is optimistic

PATIENT: Former Governor of Mountjoy and Portlaoise prisons John Lonergan does not accept the common reaction to horrible crimes that brands people ‘evil’ and believes good can be found in even the worst criminals. Photo: Steve Humphreys
PATIENT: Former Governor of Mountjoy and Portlaoise prisons John Lonergan does not accept the common reaction to horrible crimes that brands people ‘evil’ and believes good can be found in even the worst criminals. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

John Lonergan is looking down at the front page of a daily newspaper. The headline 'Pure Evil' is emblazoned above a photograph of a man who carried out the horrific attack on two girls aged six and nine.

But the former Governor of Mountjoy and Portlaoise prison isn't convinced.

Now doing volunteer work full-time and giving talks to parents and youngsters throughout the country, he has spent 42 years working with society's outcasts.

"I don't believe that anyone is born evil. There is no such thing as a truly evil person. The acts they commit are, but there is good in everyone, it's just a matter of finding that and nurturing it."

He recounted a telling anecdote from his time in the prison service.

"David was a young boy in the young offenders' prison, Loughan House," he said.

"He told me he would love to care for baby chicks and so I got them for him. He fed them, looked after them in the yard, he loved them, until other prisoners became cruel, throwing stones and breaking their legs. And we had to take them away from him.

"Many years later I was in my office when there was a knock on the door. A gift had been sent up by a prisoner from the art work room. It was a painting of chickens and came with a note asking if I remembered him."

Lonergan believes it is an example of how people always appreciate and remember acts of kindness no matter what their circumstance.

He sees swathes of young teenagers across Dublin and other major cities who are the "Bugsy Malones" of this generation.

"That is what they used to be called in the Seventies because they were always in and out of the children's courts. In fact Fianna Fail had it in their 1977 manifesto that they would take the Bugsy Malones off the streets," he said.

Over four decades later and unruly gangs of teens are visible in inner-city areas. But these days the nickname is not so fitting.

"They are as young as 12 years and they are a different breed. They are hard of heart – and the callousness..." his voice is grim. "There is no empathy. You have to ask, what is going to happen when this next generation become adults?" he said.

"In the vast majority of cases the father figure is absent; they have no positive role models in their lives. And that has a huge impact. The people they look up to are criminals, gangsters. That's who they aspire to be. One teacher told me the problem he has controlling his class when joyriders appear outside with a stolen car. They are all up and at the window cheering him on. They are the people they look up to."

When he ran Mountjoy Prison, 80 per cent of inmates were in on drug-related offences. 'How many of these came from affluent areas?' I asked. "None," was his answer.

Cocaine is the well-documented drug of choice in middle-class Dublin. Why doesn't the prison system reflect this? "Because there would be uproar if the guards went into these areas and searched for drugs. You don't need me to tell you that.

"In disadvantaged areas, a young lad could be stopped when out driving maybe two or three times a day. Have you ever heard of a boy in a well-off area being stopped as he drives down the street?

"Their mammies and daddies would be up in arms, it just doesn't happen," he said.

He has come under criticism over the years, accused of being anti-victim when in reality he would say he is trying to bring the best out of the prisoner.

I mention the haul of flat-screen TVs, budgies and mobile phones that caused uproar when found during a search of Portlaoise prison.

"Everyone knew they had televisions. I had to laugh when people acted surprised. But they were only little 14 inch screens. They weren't these big huge things hanging on the wall. As for the pet birds? I have no problem with a prisoner having a pet.

"It's actually common practice in many countries. It attracts a level of calm and brings out a nurturing side. Dochas have pet dogs. I know in another young prison there was a pet rabbit," he says, pointing out that mobile phones and drugs were the only real scourge.

Over the past number of weeks, the issue of offenders committing further crimes while out on bail has become the focus of media scrutiny.

I ask him did he know when a prisoner who was walking out of the prison gates would inevitably be returning?

"I did", he said. "We could usually tell.

"Some are accidents waiting to happen."

But he explains he can only do his best while they are under his supervision. "Usually when they come in and have a routine in place, these guys are model prisoners. It's when they are on the outside, vast numbers of them are unemployed with nothing to do, surrounded by the wrong influences or back in the clutches of drink or drugs. It is down to the courts to decide tougher or longer sentences, I can't step in when they have done their time."

But he is still adamant: "Everyone deserves a second chance."

Even if the odds are stacked against them.

Sunday Independent

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