Damien Quinn always wanted to work in community development. And now he does, but it was a long journey, with many unnecessary barriers. 

He says there has to be a cut off point for people who have served time, himself included.

Now he is campaigning through a project he began in UCC – Spéire Nua – which wants to recognise ex-prisoners who have reformed.

By Allen Meagher 

Guess the first thing I wanted to ask when Galway Rural Development CEO, Steve Dolan, suggested – out of the blue – that I interview a community worker called Damien Quinn who had spent three years in prison was. I wanted to ask: “What was he in prison for?”

Throughout the interview, I wondered, but held back because I felt it wasn’t fair to ask. 

The ‘Connacht Tribune’ out that week told a wide audience what Damien did time for. I’ve read it since. An interview he conducted with ‘The Two Norries’ covered his past. I’ve listened carefully. It’s an utterly absorbing hour-long podcast that 10,000 people have watched on Youtube. 

But for our interview, I knew his wish in meeting me was to get across to readers that the past shouldn’t matter if people are striving to make a new start. He had set up a new project to help ex-prisoners move on with their lives. It was not easy when he came out. Whenever he went for a job, he was always asked first: What did you do?

Despite being a model prisoner and availing of all the education he could while behind bars, he was denied an opportunity (house / job / etc) for so long that he relapsed into drugs and fled the country, wandering the streets of England, Germany and France (two weeks homeless on the continent while on drugs were “horrific”, he said). 

He dearly wished to work in community – and while it was a long road, he now wants others to get a fresh start and not hit the walls he did. 

“I hate to think other people going to come up against the barriers I did.”

Damien began our interview by talking about his project, Spéire Nua.

“It started as a college project (in UCC) when I was doing a masters in social enterprise and co-operatives,” said Damien, explaining how it evolved:

“I went to a UCC open day and heard about a former student of the Centre for Co-operative Studies – Siobhán Cafferty – who wrote a paper about integrating violent ex-offenders into the workforce. It was called ‘New Way Forward’. 

“I said to myself, ‘I need to speak to her and tell her what I’ve been experiencing here in the west.’

“So, I signed up for the course and my dissertation led to ‘Spéire Nua’. My paper was called ‘Life After Prison for Reformed Individuals – Barriers and Opportunities’ – and I’ve experienced many barriers due to my offending behaviour when I was looking for opportunities.

“Dr Carol Power and Dr Bridget Carroll supervised my dissertation and it was completely alien to them, but they were brilliant – and Noreen Byrne. I heard about yourselves through Noreen and I’ve been reading and following ye ever since.”

While at UCC, Damien’s research brought him in contact with many in the prison sector.

“All of them could see the merit in what I was saying,” he said.

His research led him to meet and connect with Governor Eddie Mullins, the Probation Service, the Irish Association for Social Inclusion Opportunities (IASIO), and The Pathways Centre in Dublin city centre. Pathways is an outreach educational service run by the City of Dublin Education and Training Board (CDETB) for former prisoners, their families and the wider community.

While some dissertations – most – gather dust, Damien’s project, based as it was on personal experience on the inside of the Irish prison system, attracted interest.

“When I saw Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) were advertising for their ‘Ideas Academy’ for 2021, I pitched the idea to them. They gave us seed funding to develop a website and to get the project up and running.”

Lucky break after 10 years

“And the very same week that the SEI announced the funding, I got the job here with Galway Rural Development (GRD) as the social enterprise regeneration project co-ordinator. That had me organising online training around HR management, procurement, digital marketing and so on across Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. It was a Covid support and has come to an end now.

“It’s a decade since I was in prison. I always wanted to work in community development and now I’m in and I’m busy!”

Halfway through his Covid-related contract, Damien was taken on as GRD’s community education and disability officer. 

“Now I help people from the ages of 25 and over to get into community education and I’m the disability officer for the entire county.”

Garda vetting is everywhere 

Why couldn’t Damien – who excelled in education while in prison – just walk into a job on leaving prison? Therein lies the problem.

“I used my three years [in prison] to the best of my abilities. I said I’d get an education I could use to get started as soon as I was left out.

“The reality was: going for a house – there was Garda vetting. Volunteering – Garda vetting. Applying for a job – Garda vetting. Education – Garda vetting. Every time.

“I say it all the time – prison was the easy part,” he said. 

If life after prison was hard, life before prison was also tough.. 

He speaks at length about his early years and his family life then and now in the podcast with ‘The Two Norries’ (really worth watching).

Growing up Irish in England, he was picked on. Then, in his early teens, the family home broke up and he returned to Ireland only to face reverse-racism for being seen as English in Ireland.

Aged 14, he took drugs for the first time, left school early, and – while enjoying work – he found it harder and harder to hold down a regular job. He couldn’t compete with immigrants with much higher education than he had. He tried returning to education – and was going well – but despite his best efforts, a life tainted by drug-related activities took him on a precarious journey.

“My life before prison was chaos,” he said, “whereas in prison you have a structure, routine, school, work programmes, shelter. You don’t have to worry about bills. You can reflect on and work on yourself. Some people use it that way. I did. Some people don’t obviously,” he said.

“It’s when you get out though – that’s the punishment. Barriers pop up every time you try to make progress. That’s counter-productive.”

“A lot of people get out and have nowhere to go,” he said. “They go around in circles, even though they want to progess and make amends.”

Giving back

“Giving back is huge. A lot of people I met in prison wanted to give back. They were planning to rebuild family relationships, give back to the community, make amends, to be somebody. Unfortunately some of them are now dead or back where they started, because they couldn’t get any opportunity – because of who they are, where they’re from and what they did.”

He quoted from a study which found that 82% of ex-offenders believe that their past will prevent them from securing opportunities. 

“If they already believe that they won’t even try to change,” he said.

Damien on a visit to Mountjoy Prison as part of a Common Purpose Project

Thousands of rejections

His own experience was brutal.

“I’ve had thousands of ‘nos’ based on Garda vetting. 

“Employers should think about how having a criminal conviction can impact on the job at hand. 

“If I was a sex offender and going driving an ice-cream van – obviously Garda vetting must apply.

“If I was involved in financial crime, obviously Garda vetting should apply if I’m going for a job in a bank. 

“It’s about getting the balance right. I remember going for a job assembling car parts in a factory at night-time. It was a large factory floor with cameras everywhere and I was very unlikely to come into contact with children or vulnerable adults. That’s what the [vetting] Act is there to protect. 

“I passed the aptitude and other tests and then I had to disclose my convictions. I didn’t get the job.

“I’ve seen cleaning jobs look for vetting. Garda vetting applies everywhere.

“Luckily I caught the break to work in community development and I grabbed it with both hands. I’m in a good space now, but it bothers me to think of anyone else with a similar background.”

Damien’s Spéire Nua project is attracting support across the criminal justice sectors, not just in the ROI, but in Northern Ireland and in Britain. Damien believes we must take the lead from best practice in other countries. At present, the model is being trialled in Co. Galway.

“Spéire Nua seeks to recognise someone’s steps away from a life of crime. 

“It’s a brand new approach to reducing repeat offending. We’ve never had anything like this in the country. 

“In America, they have expungements and certificates of rehabilitation. 

“Norway has certificates of good conduct and their repeat offending rates are 20 per cent, whereas ours are 50 per cent. Currently, in Ireland, it’s  purely negative.

“We want to change that and Spéire Nua has developed an ongoing assessment model that looks to ‘validate your commitment to change’.

“We seek an up-to-date balanced view rather than a historic and purely negative view of the person. Expungment would be the ultimate goal. 

“And if we can help the person to fix themselves, it will benefit everyone around them. Everybody wins when someone can turn their life around. I know everyone in my life is a lot happier with me now than when I was doing what I was doing. 

“And when you’ve made a decision to change and you’ve done all the right things, you should get credit for it,” said Damien.

Good things happening in the criminal justice sector

He is optimistic. “There are a lot of good things happening in the criminal justice sector,” said Damien.

As a Kickstart awardee and in partnership with a local group in Athenry, he applied for funding for a feasibility study.

“All going well, we’ll hold an employers’ forum, to get it right from their point of view. We would also like the benchmarking system developed by the gardaí so they can comfortably sign off on an ex-prisoner’s current behavour.”

If this happens and the benchmarking takes off, it would be revolutionary in smashing through barriers that have held back generations of people. 

“Crime occurs in the most deprived areas. Unfortunately, it’s normal in a lot of places. It’s deemed necessary. I’m not excusing it, but it’s a way of life in in certain pockets of our community. Not everyone gets going from the same starting point in life,” he said. 

Should community groups take on more ex-prisoners? 

“Absolutely, they should give people a go.” He spoke about a few great business people and employers in Tuam who gave jobs to people after prison. He was hired himself by an auctioneer and later by a distribution company. In the latter job, he was promoted and was able to give work to others needing a break.

Applying to be a volunteer was a worry for Damien. Unnecessarily so. 

“The late Tony Lee was vice-president of community games. I wanted to volunteer and we had a discussion about Garda vetting. He sat back for a second, then he leaned into me and asked ‘What have you done since getting out?’

“No employer asked me that. All they wanted to know was what happened with the crime. I’d tell them and then I never heard from them again.”

Spéire Nua is piloting in Galway

‘Spéire Nua’ is Irish for new horizon, or new beginning. Based in Athenry, Spéire Nua is a volunteer-led project that has developed a process (partly adapted from abroad) that validates a former prisoner’s commitment to change.

Although a few ex-prisoners have benefited from Spéire Nua’s support, it is early days. Google has lent support and the scheme is currently being piloted in Co. Galway, in partnership with an Athenry-based organisation called Amicitia. Peer mentoring forms a core part of Spéire Nua’s approach.

With a feasibility study underway, Spéire Nua may possibly be ready to go national next year. Ultimately, with the co-operation of business networks and the criminal justice system, it could see former prisoners awarded certificates that demonstrate their commitment to change, thereby opening up opportunities denied to them at present.

For more, see speirenua.org/

Damien Quinn on The Two Norries Podcast

So, what did he do? Nothing out of the ordinary. The best way to find out is to watch Damien on ‘The Two Norries’. Join over 10,000 people who have already viewed the interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrV_XNkTqCc