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Opinion: I want to change the way society sees ex-offenders so I organised a TEDx Talk in Mountjoy

Ex prisoners took to the stage to deliver talks to an audience of prisoners, senior policymakers, politicians, activists, education-providers, and employers, writes Nikki Gallagher.

Nikki Gallagher

I GREW UP in a family where my parents instilled social justice values in me and my siblings. Of course, they never used that term – I’m not sure they’d even understand what it means today.

But it’s not surprising that my sister now manages an advocacy service for people with disabilities, my brother is a probation officer, and I have spent much of my career promoting human rights and trying to positively influence public policy and laws. 
 
My interest in prisoners’ rights was sparked both by my brother’s career and my own experiences eight years ago, when, as the Communications Manager at the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, I worked on a ground-breaking project with a group of teenage boys incarcerated in St. Patrick’s Institution.  

In Ireland, anyone under 18 years of age is legally considered a child. These 16 and 17-year-old children were incarcerated in an adult prison and denied access to the complaints process of the Children’s Ombudsman.

However, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office was established under a very powerful piece of legislation that obliged the Office to ask children and young people their views on issues that mattered to them. Emily Logan, the first Ombudsman for Children was incredibly progressive and tenacious in the promotion of children’s rights and welfare.

Because of both these things, we were able to negotiate with St. Patrick’s Institution and the Irish Prison Service to specifically talk to the boys about their experience of being in St. Pat’s. What we heard was really profound.

The boys told us, with humour and honesty, what daily life was like for them; their hopes; their dreams and, most poignantly, their fears.

We saw them for what they were: scared kids who acted out and hurt others, and often themselves too.

I knew we needed to find a way to communicate their stories and vulnerability to policymakers, legislators and the wider public. In addition to a policy report, we produced a DVD using drawings by the boys themselves and got actors to narrate their actual words.

The impact was unprecedented: the then Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, changed the law to allow the Ombudsman for Children investigate complaints from the boys in St. Pat’s, and newly detained boys were sent to Oberstown Children Detention Campus. Eventually, St. Pat’s as an institution was shut down.
 
In 2015 I became the Communications Director at SOLAS, the Further Education and Training Authority. SOLAS is a progressive public body, where we’re encouraged to be innovative and explore creative approaches to tackling issues.

My job is to promote an appreciation of further education and training as a great post-secondary option.  This is how I discovered TED.

The first TEDx (independently organised TED talks) event I managed was all about re-imagining Further Education and Training. It was a great success and I got the TEDx bug.

At an event for TEDx organisers in London 18 months ago, I was fascinated to hear about a TEDx event that was held in a prison in Leicester. It tapped back into my experiences with the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, and St. Patrick’s Institution. 

I decided at that moment that I would help facilitate the first TEDx Talk in an Irish Prison. 

Back in Ireland, I approached the Dóchas Centre – and subsequently the Irish Prison Service – with trepidation: I assumed we would be met with a conservative response. 

I was completely wrong.  The Irish Prison Service and Mountjoy Prison welcomed the idea with open arms.  

We agreed that the event would be held in the chapel in Mountjoy with its amazing acoustics and stunning stained-glass window.  

The theme was re-integration: ‘Beyond Walls, from Custody to Community’. 

SOLAS, through Education and Training Boards, helps fund prison education in Ireland, offering over 700 courses annually. Education is important, but without the prospect of meaningful employment on release – it’s hard to see how ex-offenders can successfully transition back into society. 

We wanted our TEDx talk to challenge prevailing attitudes and spark a conversation about what society can do to support offenders beyond the prison walls.
 
The speakers were handpicked and included an ex-offender, a probation officer, the Mountjoy Governor and Dublin GAA star Philly McMahon. We were thrilled when the inspiring Norah Casey agreed to be our MC.

After weeks of working with speaking coaches, and hours of practices and rewrites, the eight speakers were ready to stand on the famous TED red dot and present to a packed chapel.

Each of the 100-odd guests was handpicked too.

Prisoners, senior policymakers, politicians, activists, education-providers and employers sat shoulder to shoulder in rows of wooden pews.

Hairs stood on end as the SOLAS workplace choir joined the Mountjoy choir on stage at the half-time interval.

As the poignant chorus of ‘The Auld Triangle’ reverberated around the chapel, it was hard not to become emotional: at that moment, we all felt the incredible privilege of witnessing a ground-breaking event; and something shifted in the room.

We suddenly saw the humanity, not just the crimes of the prisoners on stage, singing in harmony with the SOLAS staff choir.

When it was the turn of ex-offender Wayne Harte to speak, he delivered some hard-hitting messages for all of us.

For the first time that evening, people became uncomfortable in their seats as this bright, high academic achiever told us that – despite his impressive list of qualifications, work and life experience – he struggled to get even a job interview because of his criminal past.

Phones weren’t allowed in the prison, but we trended on Twitter later that night anyway. That was the first hint of the impact we think this very special event has had.

I have spent the days since Tuesday talking to many employers and policymakers about the changes we would like to see as well as exploring the next steps.

I am extremely grateful to the Irish Prison Service and the Governors of Dóchas and Mountjoy for humouring a woman who wanted to talk to them about an idea she heard in London.

Nikki Gallagher is Director of Communications and Secretariat at SOLAS where she is responsible for governance, public affairs and communications.

Prior to this, she spent over a decade at the Ombudsman for Children’s Office promoting children’s rights and welfare.

She is the Chair of BeLonGTo, Ireland’s largest LGBTI+ youth organisation. She also played a key role in the Together for Yes campaign.

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Nikki Gallagher

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