Monday 22 January 2018

Community work a natural fit for Christy after career in prison service

Deborah Coleman

GROWING up as a young boy on an East Limerick dairy farm, Christy Breen could never have imagined that he would spend most of his adult life in a coastal town in the Garden County.

Growing up as a young boy on an East Limerick dairy farm, Christy Breen could never have imagined that he would spend most of his adult life in a coastal town in the Garden County.

As he says, 'I didn't even know where Arklow was at the time!', yet after a career spanning more than 30 years with the Irish Prison Service, Arklow is where Christy is and very happy about it he is too.

'We (Christy and his wife Patsy) only ever intended to spend two years in Arklow and then return to Limerick but we're still here,' he laughs.

Christy cannot deny his Limerick roots and his accent hasn't a touch of a Wicklow twang even after three decades.

'My children have it alright but then they have spent most of their lives here. I am always true to my roots, even down to the GAA,' he jokes.

Growing up on a farm, Christy admits, gave him a very strong work ethic, an important element that he transferred to his prison service career in adulthood.

'We used to milk six or seven cows by hand before school. We all had a job to do and it taught us to work hard in life. Farming was a great education to me. There was always something to do. I didn't have an interest in farming as an adult. My brother looks after the farm and now that I'm retired, when I visit I enjoy helping out but that's as far as it goes.'

After school in Tipperary CBS, Christy had a few local temporary jobs which kept him busy until he turned 18 when it was straight into the Irish Prison Service for Prison Officer training.

He completed his training in the Mountjoy-based training centre and from there it was a baptism of fire in Mountjoy Prison.

'That was the 'mother house' and after the training there officers were sent wherever there were vacancies. After that I went to Limerick. At that time, compared with today there was a very different calibre of prisoner. Today there is much more violence and more serious crimes. There was also a completely different prison system compared with today.'

Back in the 70s and 80s, the purpose of prison was to 'lock them up and after their sentence give them their possessions in a black bag and send them on their way,' Christy explains. 'That was a complete waste of money and didn't help any offender leave as a better person.'

'Limerick Prison was a fantastic place to work in terms of staff relations but everything changed with the gangland crime. We simply weren't trained for this sort of crime. It was new to everybody and by the time a handle was got on it those involved had become so powerful they could run things from inside the prison.'

It was around this time that Christy and Patsy, a teacher, married and shortly afterwards moved to Arklow when he was promoted to an administrative role in Shelton Abbey.

This was a 'plain clothes' job and one where Christy, as a firm advocate of prisoner education and rehabilitation, felt most at home.

'What changed the prison service was getting to know prisoners and not just as a number, the introduction of a good education system and Probation and Welfare services. We worked closely with the VECs so that a prisoner could start a course and then continue it after they left Shelton. Prisoners were interviewed once they would arrive in Shelton and then set up on courses. It showed them they could achieve something and they weren't a lost cause.'

Christy's initial time in Shelton concluded a decade later when he was promoted and relocated to Arbour Hill, a role he found incredible difficult compared with the more prisoner-friendly surroundings of the Arklow open prison.

'Arbour Hill houses all the sex offenders so, while I gained valuable experience working there, it was a very depressing job both from the point of view of reading the files, which are very different to what you read in a paper, and dealing with the prisoners. While I had to be professional and do as much as I could to help them leave as better people, I often felt there was very little that could be done. Very often they reoffend after release and I found many were very unwilling to take any guidance or help from the prison service.'

In 1990 Christy once again was stationed in Shelton Abbey and after four years was made Assistant Governor.

'That was an eye opener because then I was dealing with staff and prisoners. Then when I stood in for the Governor it was everything from catering to education to solicitors and families. The training for this was excellent however and enabled us to be able to hold our own with all of these different groups.'

In 2005, after 33 years in the prison service, Christy called it a day and decided to retire. Various factors influenced his decision to do so after he had served three years more than he was obliged to by choice.

'I decided it was time in 2005. I was only 53 but at that time once you were over 50 and had served 30 years it was an option. Big changes were underway such as computerisation and working conditions.'

Though retired, Christy is not idle and has immersed himself in community work, something he is passionate about yet never had the time for in the past.

'I felt when I was working long hours and raising my family (of five children) I didn't even know what was happening down the street. I was approached to sit on the board of Co. Wicklow Addiction Services which was very similar to what I had been doing already so I accepted.'

From there Christy became involved in the St. Vincent de Paul, Meals on Wheels, the Local Education Committee, Youth Mental Health Week and MABS, all of which are of vital importance in Arklow.

'The need for services such as MABS has never been greater. It's the times we live in, unfortunately.'

Aside from all this community work Christy is also enjoying more time with Patsy who recently retired from her job in Adult Education at Shelton Abbey and his children and their families including six grandchildren.

'Five of the grandchildren live locally and one lives in Dublin so Patsy and I are hands on, school runs and the lot.'

Bray People

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