Visiting Northern Ireland was a dream come true for me. I had a long standing interest in the history of the Troubles from when I was a Social Work student at Monash University and would read books on these at length. It was 1982 then. My Churchill Fellowship visit was then everything and more I had dreamed of due to the amazing meeting schedule Lesley Mason from the Northern Ireland Prison Service Rehabilitation team arranged for me over two days in Belfast.
On the first day of meetings in Belfast I met with an agency I had prearranged – Start360. Zoe from Start360 also arranged a great day for me, meeting with their CEO Anne-Marie and Ronan, manager of their Justice Services. Start360 delivers a range of person-centred services to young people, adults, families and communities across Northern Ireland. I learnt a lot from them about the political context they work within now after the Troubles and where justice fits in with that. Anne-Marie also told me the tale of Stephen. Stephen’s story is very thought provoking covering a journey through being in care and then prison. Stephen is now a volunteer at Start360.
That night I had the wonderful opportunity to have dinner with a fellow 2015 Winston Churchill Memorial Trust recipient, Amanda Wood, who works for the Northern Ireland Prison Service and just returned from her trip which was to Australia,
The next two days with Lesley were amazing and have provided me with a wealth of information for my project. Christine Hunter from Probation, also a Churchill Fellow, told me about their Reset Project. Lunch at Hydebank Wood correctional facility was an honour, as it involved me meeting with Sue McAlister, Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and Brian McCaughey, Director of Rehabilitation and Austin Treacy the Govenor at Hydebank. Great innovation underway at Hydebank under Austin, now calling the centre a College and changing the word ‘prisoner’ to ‘student’ and conducting many meetings including ones with community agencies in Hydebank’s cafe that is operated by the students While we were there, Lesley then took me to meet with Jackie from Turning Pages a reading program similar to the Shannon Trust ‘prisoner helping prisoner’ reading program. Later that day, Osmond from Community Support and David from the Quaker Connections came in to meet with us. Two very valuable programs involving volunteers and mentors helping prisoners pre and post release.
My final day of meetings in Belfast took me to Maghaberry Prison, a modern high security male prison where I met with Willie Gribben from Resettlement Services, based at the prison rather than headquarters to be closer to the work. We had a great chat early in the morning. Lesley then took me onto a prison wing where the Family Matters program is operated in partnership with Barnardos. I spoke with John a Prison Officer who has been involved from the start. John had me glued to his every word as his account of the service was captivating and inspiring. So inspiring when he said the program places the family first not the prisoner, as it requires positive healthy families to make the post release prisoner resettlement experience effective and sustainable.
Lesley and I then met with the Listeners, prisoners trained by the Samaritans to support prisoners struggling with mental health concerns needing a peer to talk to. The aim of the program is to reduce the incidence of suicide in prison. It was a great meeting with a group of about ten listeners as we also chatted about their thoughts on prisoner rehabilitation, peer mentoring and post release experiences and issues that lead to reoffending. We then met with Brenda from Housing Rights who works in the prison and has trained prisoner peer mentors to help the service identify, support and assist any prisoner who comes into prison needing help to prevent them losing their accommodation in the community. These guys very articulate and enjoying their peer mentor role in the prison, feeling it is so worthwhile with one of then also being able to continue this volunteer work post release.
Back to Hydebank Wood’s cafe for lunch to have one of the most significant and amazing meetings I have had. Two Restorative Justice programs, Alternatives Northern Ireland and Community Restorative Justice developed and run by two men with profound experience in the justice system and the Troubles. Lesley and I then headed back into Belfast City to meet with Gareth Eannetta at Niacro. Niacro is the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Gareth took me straight to meet with Mairead and the peer mentors, all now volunteers since funding dried up, but due to their belief in the benefits of what they are doing to help Niacro clients they continue to provide the service in their own time. The support ranges from practical help, to help with music, reading and IT.
My life changing time in Belfast and Northern Ireland was topped off by drinks with Lesley, Brian and Louise from the Northern Ireland Prison Service in the Europa hotel, the hotel bombed 54 times during the Troubles. Their services have come a long way and doing wonderful innovative and inspiring work and as a part of this innovation also seeing the value of incorporating the views and services of the ‘experts by experience’.