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The only education that worked for me was the one I got in prison

I was, to put it mildly, a problem child. I picked up my first arrest at the age of eight, behind the wheel of a stolen car – a brown MK 1 Ford Escort. As I drove the car I had to sit on the spare tyre, and even then I could barely see above the dashboard. A Traveller friend had taught me how to drive.

When the gardai spotted me and gave chase, I just put my boot to the floor and I ploughed the car straight into garden railings. I remember the copper banging on the window shouting; "Open the door, open the door" and I replied, "Read me my rights". The window was smashed and I was dragged out by the ears.

Over the next eight years, I accumulated roughly 35 criminal convictions, mostly related to stealing cars and joyriding. Nearly every day of the week my mates and I would steal a car. I loved the buzz I got from it and the attention it brought me. While normal kids were in school, I was mitching and belting a car around my estate in Coolock.

I regularly played truant up to the age of 13, when I left school permanently. On the rare occasions that I did attend school, I would stand my opened copybook up on the table and fall asleep behind it.

Despite the mayhem I regularly caused and all the convictions I accumulated, I never got locked up. Anytime I got a charge sheet my mates would say, "Ah Alan, you're bound to get locked up now" – but it didn't happen. I became convinced that my mates suspected that I was avoiding prison because I was an informer. I didn't like that, because I knew I wasn't.

alcohol

One night not long after my 16th birthday, after drinking copious amounts of alcohol, I waved down a Garda car. I told the guards I had stolen two cars the week previously. They were happy to oblige and put me in the back of the police car, drove me to the station and charged me. I remember saying to myself, "Now I'll definitely get locked up and the lads won't think I'm a rat".

I was brought before the children's court. The judge was going to give me 'one last chance' – probation as opposed to a jail term. I stood up in the court and asked the judge to send me to prison. Reluctantly, the judge sentenced me to three months detention at St Patrick's Institution.

When I entered St Patrick's, I was well on the path to a life of crime. I used and abused every intoxicating substance I could get my hands on. I could barely read or write.

Now, I'm clean and sober. I live a quiet, law-abiding life. I've just published my first book – and St Pat's is part of the reason why.

When I first arrived into St Pat's, I was shell-shocked: the place was a nightmare, noisy and chaotic and frightening. On my first night inside I cried my heart out: I was like a little child. I'll never forget how I felt that night, begging God to let me go home.

But as the days progressed I quickly became accustomed to prison life. I met friends from Coolock, I moved to a better prison landing and a cleaner cell. And I attended school.

CRACK

School in St Patrick's was my kind of school, because it was full of my kind of people. The teachers were great. They weren't authoritarian and they didn't look down on you. They would laugh and joke and basically have a bit of crack with ya. One of the teachers, 'Phil', took a particular interest in me.

Phil would bring me newspapers to read; she would sit by my side and under her guided finger would take me through story after story. She would give me homework to do in my cell and then she'd correct it with me the following day. I caught on very quickly and I would take newspapers back to my cell to read at night.

I was released from that three-month jail term and immediately went back to my old ways. It wasn't long before I was back inside, this time serving 18 months for allowing myself to be carried in a stolen car that knocked down two detectives and two gardai during a high-speed chase. In fact, my arrest was splashed on the front page of this paper.

Back in prison, I went straight back to school. 'Phil' told me about a competition at Listowel Writers Week, judged by the great playwright John B Keane. She asked me, would I try my hand at writing a short play for the competition.

I didn't have a clue where to start, but 'Phil' really simplified it for me: "Alan, it's like me and you having this conversation, but you write it down on paper." Through persistence and determination, I eventually wrote a play titled A Start in Life. I gave it to Phil and completely forgot all about it. Three weeks later I received a letter from John B Keane awarding me second place in the competition. The prize was a cheque for £20 and a gold Cross pen. I couldn't believe it: for the first time in my life, I had won something. I was dead chuffed.

Between winning second prize in the competition and the attention I was getting from the teachers, the governors' and the chief officers, I gained the confidence to continue with my writing.

I never saw myself as a 'writer'. I wrote for fun, for attention, for my ego, and to manipulate (or so I thought) the prison system into thinking what a good boy I was.

CHESS

I would write short stories for my fellow inmates to read in their cells at night. I got involved in anything that was creative, be it drama, working in the library, being involved in the weekly prison paper, or taking part in public-speaking competitions against outside colleges (winning twice).

I was still a criminal, still a substance abuser. Every time I was released from prison, I would reoffend. And every time I went back to prison, I progressed further and further with my education. I learned how to play chess, I did church readings for the prison chaplain every week, I read book after book, I wrote more and more.

I loved it with a passion. It didn't matter what prison I was in, whether it was Mountjoy, Portlaoise, St Patrick's or Wheatfield, I always went to school because it was all about creativity, finding what I enjoyed, what I was good at and working on it, exploring it.

All I really wanted to do was write, so I decided to enrol at Ballyfermot College of Further Education as a mature student and get a Higher National Diploma in print journalism. On the first day at Ballyfermot, I felt a bit weird walking into a classroom full of people who were mostly a fair bit younger than me – and mostly middle class.

But I was determined to stick with it. I quickly got published, and the appearance of a story about airport security in The Sunday Tribune and an Anne Doyle interview in the Sunday World brought me lots of recognition. Journalism was now my new addiction. Every time I completed a story, I was getting a fix.

Sadly, my drinking career eventually got in the way of my journalism career.

Now, having put drink and drugs and crime behind me, writing is the most important thing in my life. I do it every day.

One of the things that made it possible was prison education – the only education that ever worked for me.

I live with my mother, who was and is my saving grace, my angel. She never gave up on me, even when she might have had reason to, and perhaps that's why I never gave up on myself.

Disorganised Crime; The Jaw-Dropping True Story of a Chaotic Youth and An Unlikely New Life, by Alan Croghan, published by Penguin, price €14.99


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