Speech by President Michael D Higgins at the Gaisce-Irish Prison Service Joint Meeting & Workshop
Áras an Uachtaráin, Monday 24 June 2019
I am delighted to welcome you all here today to the Áras as we mark this important Gaisce joint initiative with the Irish Prison Service. May I pay a particular welcome to Caron McCaffrey, Director-General of the Irish Prison Services, Yvonne McKenna, Marion Irwin-Gowran and Marc Tuffy of Gaisce.
Gaisce, the President’s Award, is a programme for young people between the ages of 15 and 25 aimed at personal development and has been in existence for some 34 years. The Awards began under the patronage of then President Patrick J. Hillery and have been supported by each succeeding President since then. Over 377,000 young people have by now participated in the Gaisce programme. Gaisce’s strength is sourced in the enthusiasm, ability and resilience of its young participants. Through the Gaisce programme, young people are encouraged and offered guidance to develop their talents and enhance their abilities and, above all, to realise their full potential, their sense of citizenship and of social agency.
Gaisce is aimed at turning values that are socially aimed and inspired into shared behaviours and achievement. These values include the achievement of empowerment, inclusion and equality, respect, social responsibility and excellence for self and others.
As President of Ireland, I have had the pleasure of working closely with Gaisce, particularly in its efforts to reach those young people who, because of their circumstances, may not have been in a position to fully engage with the Awards programme. Several years ago, I asked Yvonne McKenna the Chief Executive Officer of Gaisce, to place a particular emphasis on engaging with those disadvantaged young men and women who would particularly benefit from the scheme.
I had in mind those from disadvantaged backgrounds, those in Direct Provision, prisoners, and those identified as being at risk of offending. I was anxious to extend the reach of Gaisce to where the contribution might be most influential, where it might help blunt the effects of exclusion and structural inequality. I am encouraged by what I have seen since then, and today’s meeting, with all of you engaging together, is another encouraging sign.
Gaisce and the Irish Prison Service began working together in 2002, and in 2019 the relationship continues to grow. To date, over 190 Gaisce Awards have been achieved across the prison estate, including 60 Silver and 7 Gold Awards.
In 2018 Gaisce secured additional resources to direct towards its work with young people involved in youth/justice and, as part of this, organised a symposium to explore the levers and barriers to delivering the Gaisce programme within Irish prisons. A member of staff from the Áras attended that symposium, which aimed at highlighting the particular benefits that the programme might bring for youngsters who have found themselves at a low point in their lives and whose sense of self-worth is also at a low ebb.
The workshops identified a number of themes which are common to both Ireland’s experience, and also to prisons in the UK where similar initiatives have been developed, in relation to the value of the programme, challenges associated with its delivery and opportunities to address barriers.
With regard to the values of the Award, it was identified that it builds confidence and trust between staff and prisoners, teaches flexibility and adaptability, provides additional structure and routine, supports progression through the Award and also in other areas, for example; education, training and employment, and improves attitudes, positivity and engagement.
I have a long-standing interest in the issue of prisoner support and in helping re-integration into society of men and women who have been incarcerated. I served on the McBride Commission on Prisons, submitted to the Whitaker Commission, and for many years taught a module on the history and practice of prisons.
As President of Ireland, I have made, and continue to make, many visits to prisons around the country, meeting inmates and staff alike, and it has been a privilege for me to personally present Gaisce Awards to prisoners who have met the challenges involved in completing the Bronze, Silver or Gold levels.
One of my lasting recollections of presenting such awards in Mountjoy Prison some years ago, was seeing the great importance that the presence of the recipients’ families at the ceremony had. The point was made to me by the Governor that, for these prisoners, it was a unique event in their adult lives that their families were gathered to celebrate a positive achievement by these young men. That observation has stayed with me and has given me confidence that Gaisce and the other initiatives being undertaken in our prisons can have such a positive potential.
There are approximately 700 young people aged 25 and under in prisons at any one time, excluding Oberstown Children’s Detention Centre. Young people involved in the justice system are some of the most disadvantaged young people in the State. We know that levels of educational attainment and literacy are both low amongst those young people who will end up in prison. The majority will have never sat a State examination. This raises serious issues as to our whole approach to eliminating inequality of access to education. Is it any wonder that these young people are more likely to misuse alcohol or drugs and to suffer mental health issues? A conviction adds status within a culture of rationalised exclusion, but of course adds further disadvantage in terms of personal and social prospects.
Gaisce’s Youth Justice Programme seeks to address this disadvantage that such young people experience by assisting them in developing the vital ‘building blocks’ that are identified as central to employability, making positive life choices and flourishing. However, recovering a sense of self-worth and identity, and, above all, transcending labelling is what I believe is most important.
As Gaisce embarks on a new strategic plan for the period 2020 and beyond, an emerging objective is to ensure that every young person under the age of 25 who finds themselves in prison is provided with the opportunity to undertake and achieve the Gaisce Award.
This was discussed with the Director General of the Irish Prison Service at a meeting between Gaisce and the Irish Prison Service in May 2018, and it was agreed to progress advancing the proposal through organising a workshop of key personnel from within the Prison Service and supporting agencies. And here we are today!
It is a challenge. Can we go forward with a Gaisce that removes class obstacles, is empathetic to the experience and values from below? After all, if we fail in this, we will simply reinforce our class assumptions while wearing the mask of concern. Currently, Gaisce has a presence in eight adult prisons: Castlerea, Cork, Limerick, Loughan House Open Prison, Midlands, Mountjoy, Mountjoy West and Shelton Abbey Open Prison, with a view to Wheatfield and Portlaoise Prisons operating the programme before the end of 2019.
Since the beginning of 2018, 59 young people have registered to pursue a Gaisce Award from within the Irish prison population, with 77 Awards achieved in the same period. I want to thank sincerely those who made this possible.
At the symposium held in Mountjoy last year, a number of challenges to further uptake of the scheme were identified. The workshop to be held this afternoon will provide an opportunity to explore these in greater detail and to identify appropriate practical and institutional interventions and supports required to ensure that every young person under the age of 25 who finds themselves in prison will be offered the opportunity and be attracted to participate in the Gaisce programme.
There will, of course, be a role for the Young People’s Probation Service as a vital link in the work of Gaisce with young people. It is essential that the intervention and custodial services are both in a position to support participants that undertake the Gaisce Award and who wish to continue or progress within or outside prison.
The challenge for Gaisce within the Young People’s Probation service is to grow the numbers of projects that value the Award programme as a positive intervention tool. Since early 2018, nine President’s Award Leaders from two Probation projects have been trained, resulting in 22 registrations and two completions.
So, may I wish you well, encourage you to be radical and forthcoming on your views, but in such a way we can proceed to deliver the new initiative. Today’s meeting and workshop is an opportunity to discuss some of the barriers identified, overcoming them and finding new ways of working together in both the Irish Prison Service and Probation Service that will ultimately provide more young people in both instances with the opportunity to achieve a Gaisce Award.
I am so happy that the crucial importance of having numbers of appropriate supporting staff across the prisons to deliver the programme (whether prison officers, teachers, psychologists or chaplains) is being recognised, and I also wish, if I may, to recognise the commitment of the various support staff present here today and others not present who have transcended difficulties in terms of resources, human and otherwise, to achieve what we have, staff who will play a critical role in the success of this programme.
As President, I acknowledge and give my appreciation to all of you for the work you do within our prison communities and with young people who we know are vulnerable and in need of support.
I wish you all the very best in delivering this potentially transformative programme across the Irish Prison Service. I look forward to hearing of your progress, and I thank you all for your dedication and participation in the programme.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.