The 1st September 2002 - 15 years ago tomorrow - I started in the Cork Alliance Centre. When I say I started - I sat in the newly rented and very empty office, wondering what I’d taken on and what I needed to do next.... In that empty office space, with no staff, no manuals to work from, and the fear of not being up to the mark… the adage 'be careful what you wish for' had really landed on my doorstep.
15 years later, and tomorrow is an equally notable day – tomorrow, I co-facilitate a workshop in the Irish Prison Service College with James a former client. The workshop is with newly recruited prison officers. It is part of the innovative community focus of the training, including the user voice, to ensure that the new recruits have an insight into the desistance and change process and the important role they can play in it.
I have a job which helps people to constructively change their lives, which is a true gift. Whilst people’s desistance journeys are not always straight forward or direct, I meet people every day who are trying… and I know many who have successfully left crime in their past.
Yes, our clients may have spent time in prison, and yes, many have or have had addictions, violence and chaos in their lives, BUT they all talk and dream of getting their lives sorted, and like all of us are striving to be “better versions of themselves”* . Their dreams and wants are no different from anyone else’s - and we play a part in working out how this can happen. As President Michael D. Higgins, in his address at our conference stated “the task of transformation, is a task that is one that involves more than those in prison”* and this is where we place ourselves.
To be allowed into people’s lives at this level is the essence of hope for me. Hope is what our project is about - hope for change, hope for something better, hope to be better and ultimately hope for happiness. (Given the challenges and difficulties we work within, as a team we have a "hope check-in" each evening – where we each identify something that gave us hope in the day – not what we are hopeful of but real tangible events.)
Reflecting on my past 15 years, what gives me hope is
hope in seeing peoples courage, stick-ability and tenacity in the face of huge challenges;
hope in knowing the resilience of the human spirit;
hope in feeling the depth of peoples kindness, care and openness to helping others;
hope from having inspiring people in my life today, people who I am better for knowing and working with, and whose knowledge, insight and experience I rely on to guide our project;
hope when people have the courage to phone or come in day one, and to continue to do so, despite the meanders of their journey;
hope from knowing that people know they can always turn to us if and when they need to;
hope from working with a team so committed to their work, that on top of it they have hosted two of the most amazing conferences on desistance;
hope in the people who gave of themselves and their life stories at our conferences, to help people understand the journey out of crime/ addiction and to encourage others onto their own path of desistance;
hope from having a Board with such understanding and grá for our work;
hope from the positive changes that have happened in both the Probation and Prison services;
hope from President Michael D Higgins giving such a connected and heart felt key note address at our conference last year;
hope when people outside our project hear about our work, see the value of it and appreciate that people do change;
and most importantly, hope from the relationships that are change, affect change and sustain change.
The road to change asks a lot from people on their journey of desistance from crime, and in return we label them 'ex-offender /ex-prisoner', making it a never ending prison sentence. We choose to continually hold them in a world they are trying to leave, we choose to close doors for them because of our fears and yet somehow we expect them to face theirs. We find it appropriate to continually punish someone for literally forever and a day. We chose that not them. If we want people to change we have to allow it to happen. So yes we may have to dare to hope, and dare to trust, but change can only happen if we all dare, and we need to ‘dare greatly’. This, I am hopeful for in the (not too distant) future.
As a closing note, I’m reminded of President Michael D Higgins tribute to our work and the hope he gave us through his presence, his understanding, his solidarity and support, and his recognition that “this work is critical, and the benefit of your work cannot be overestimated, and it will not just last for a day, it is something that will endure and it is a crucial contribution, a building block, towards building the ethical society in which we all want to share, in all our imperfections and the versions of our wounded selves.”*
* President Michael D. Higgins, (2016). Formal Address to Cork Alliance Centre Conference -"Narrowing the Disconnect - The ethics of supporting desistance from crime".