On a visit to Mountjoy, Chai Brady investigates the good works of techy inmates
The magic happens on level 5 where old keyboards and monitors lie in green baskets on the floor of what looks like an average computer lab at first glance. Except this room has bars on every window.
The old pieces of desktops are ripe for harvest, with all sorts of wires and components that will be used to fix other machines that have a better chance at life. A smaller room within the lab has screwdrivers, pliers, containers filled with various bits and bobs, multimeters and bare circuit boards ready to be revived.
Being in Mountjoy prison’s computer lab in D-division is not like the yard or the landing, where the atmosphere changes and most of the trouble occurs. There’s something relaxed about the space that Work Training Officer (WTO) Tom Crone has cultivated.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic as prisoners were finishing up in the lab, Mr Crone said the inmates have a “good bit of craic” and the response to the programme has been very positive.
The inmates are able to escape some of the dynamics of prison life, while focusing on developing skills as well as being involved positively with society. Mr Crone said: “We wanted to develop some kind of programme where the prisoners could be giving back, be engaging, could be learning a skill or a trade and this is what we came up with.”
Although the aesthetics of the computer room aren’t unique, Mr Crone believes it is the only Microsoft registered refurbishment site operating from a prison within Europe.
“We are certified by Microsoft to take computers in, to repair them, fix them and we can print our own Microsoft licences. To get a licence for a computer will cost a few hundred euros, we can issue a license to a charitable organisation for €6 a pop, and again we don’t even charge the €6, Governor Brian Murphy looks after it,” he said.
So far the team have sent out 250 computers to different charities, schools and nursing homes. Initially they started working with Age Action Ireland, a charity for the elderly. They also work in conjunction with tech company IBM to design software that they put on the computers, which can help elderly people understand the technology. This can be anything from how to pay bills online to more basic uses.
Mr Crone said of his team: “They go through it before we shop it out, they make sure everything is up to date, everything is where it should be, all the different pieces of software are there, so there is a big involvement with the lads – they know exactly who the end user is going to be and they’re conscious and they’re very into it, they really enjoy what they’re doing.”
So far the team of up to 20 inmates fix all sorts of broken hardware in the prison and have saved Mountjoy – or ‘The Joy’ as it’s known colloquially – over €160,000. They repair 650 TVs a year.
Fixing personal radios and other gadgets can be a huge financial burden on the families of inmates, but can be such an improvement for their lives in prison, so the team are a welcome asset.
Although he comes from a metalwork background, Mr Crone has always had a love of computers and when management decided to shut down the metalwork programme in the prison he completed Microsoft refurbishment and ECDL instructor courses to start the programme.
Now eight different certified computer programmes are taught in Mountjoy, with the hope that inmates will have a chance to further their education or enter the workplace after serving their time.
There have been success stories, with very competent, hardworking individuals going on to work in tech companies such as Microsoft.
The initiative has become very much like a restorative justice programme, although it is not a process of mediation with specific victims and offenders, but by giving back to communities as a whole.
In one case Barntown National School in Co. Wexford was presented with 10 refurbished computers much to the appreciation of students and staff.
The governor of the prison, Mr Brian Murphy, was there to present the computers himself, and described it as “a win for the prisoners, a win for the prison, and it’s a win for the school”. The principal of the school, Louisa O’Brien wrote to the governor on behalf of the pupils, teachers and board of management to express their gratitude at being part of the initiative.
In a conversation with this newspaper he said that “a prisoner who gives something back to society, tends to be a better-behaved prisoner”.
“Prisoners are saying they want to give back, so they put their heads down and they get stuck in” the governor said, “they’re ashamed of what they’ve done”.
“They’re not going to the yards, they want to get involved and they’re curious about computers: some of them take to it like a duck to water. I think there’s been 3-4 definitely who have got jobs in reputable companies like IBM and Microsoft.”
“It’s keeping people busy and teaching them new skills, all the trouble happens in the yards and there’s always some tension that kicks off.”
He added that there are not many prisons that get the opportunity to be involved in similar programmes, and that Mr Crone’s qualifications make it all possible.
“We’re gone from the days of the revolving door,” he said.
The latest statistics from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) charting the likelihood of convicts to re-offend in Ireland are now seven years old, but the figures are worrying. Out of a total of just under 9,400 prisoners, there was a recidivism rate of 45.1% within three years, with young men and women being the most likely to re-offend.
A report published by the Irish Penal Reform Trust in 2013 found the recidivism rate over a three-year period was as high as 62.3% and two-thirds of re-offences occurred within six months of release. Those who were convicted of burglary were found to be the most likely to re-offend within three years, at a whopping 79.5%.
Mr Murphy said that nowadays there’s more of an emphasis on community service and similar rehabilitative programmes.
“There’s a hard core that need to be locked up with serious crimes like assault, but that’s not to say that no matter what the crime, we’ll leave it at the front gates.”
Rehabilitation by connecting with communities through good deeds has been said to have a very positive effect on prisoners.