Johnny Ward: Irish racing can be proud of new horse welfare programme for prisoners

The first sod has been turned to begin work on a new facility in Castlerea.

Jonathan Irwin, founder the Jack and Jill Foundation, is behind the idea for Castlerea Prison.
Jonathan Irwin, founder the Jack and Jill Foundation, is behind the idea for Castlerea Prison.
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

INFLUENCED BY MY hard-working father as a kid, my attitude was pretty right-wing on prisons and punishment.

“This bloody civil liberties mob,” he’d say. “What about the rights of the victims?”

He had a point but, as I got older, the more I began to comprehend that inequality was at the root of most of society’s ills. An ex-girlfriend taught kids at a rough school in Dublin and one day a four-year-old arrived into class with methodone in his schoolbag.

It could have killed him. His parents were too strung out to realise it was in his bag. Is he less or more likely to have a prosperous adulthood than you or I?

Blacks comfortably outnumber whites in US prisons, even though there are roughly six times as many white people in the country than African-Americans. Astonishingly, one in three black male kids is statistically expected to end up as a convict in the land of the free.

We disregard prisoners as society cast-offs, forever wedded to a career of crime or punishment. Most of us ruminate little on the lives of the Irish incarcerated, who are generally treated really well by international standards, but I was compelled to think a little more about them last year when I spoke to Shane Supple and Oscar Brennan, both then playing for Bohemian FC.

Bohs have been conducting regular training sessions for prisoners in Mountjoy since 2012, culminating in matches against teams from other prisons and even trips abroad. Brennan, who hails from the relatively plush suburb of Sandyford, was manifestly moved by the joy the initiative brought to people struggling for hope.

The bond was so real that it is said that the biggest cheer you hear outside of the ground itself when Bohs score against Shamrock Rovers is in Mountjoy.

I asked Brennan of the benefits for prisoners. “Firstly, it breaks barriers between prisoners, prisoners and staff as well as prisoners and the outside population,” said the Shelbourne midfielder.

“It gives them self-respect, a feeling of purpose; a sense of responsibility and ownership. And there is reward too: a feeling of achievement, accomplishment when completing tasks, the opportunity to express oneself and be creative.”

Towers_9892 The inmates involved in the Bohemian Foundation initiative at Mountjoy Prison.

Brennan was struck by the “improvement in overall mental well-being. On a practical level it prepares them for re-integration: prison is or should be about rehabilitation rather than punishment. Skills they will learn include having to get up and be on time, be responsible for, and complete tasks: teamwork and communication.”

There is a correlation between the plight of the black community in the US and Travellers here. I have been involved in numerous arguments, usually in some tavern or other, about Travellers being barred from pubs in Ireland purely on the basis of race, something with obvious parallels with the sorry history of the United States.

The rate of suicide among Travellers is around ten times that of the settled population in Ireland. This should be a national scandal, yet few of us care.

Travellers form almost a third of the population at Castlerea Prison. In light of all this, horseracing can be proud of an initiative launched at Castlerea, not far from where I was born, which will illustrate the joy animals can bring to the lives of us all.

David Stanton, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, today “turned the sod” to mark the commencement of the development of a new Horse Welfare Centre located at the County Roscommon facility.

The centre will see the introduction of a new prisoner programme, where prisoners will learn practical skills that will assist in securing employment as stable hands and other such positions in the equine industry post release.

The new centre, which originated from an idea by the ever-innovative Jonathan Irwin, founder of the Jack & Jill charity, will be run in collaboration with a partner from within the equine industry, likely the Irish Horse Welfare Trust.

Minster Stanton said: “A key objective of the programme is to provide offenders with practical skills while also teaching compassion through the care of animals. This project will benefit many offenders and will make our communities safer in the future.

“Prisoner face many barriers to successful reintegration back into society and their communities. One of the final barriers or fences to be climbed is finding employment post release. This project, will give participants many positive benefits in terms of self–development, preparation for employment, positive impact and physical and mental wellbeing and these will be vital as they seek to turn their lives around after release.”

Irwin reportedly tried his luck with various Ministers for Justice and had none until Frances Fitzgerald bought into his idea. The project which will take approximately six months to complete, entailing the construction of a single structure ‘American Stable’ which will include stables for 10 horses.

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robert-hall Robert Hall. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

For Robert Hall, the face of RTE Racing for so many years, playing a small part in the project was deeply rewarding. “It’s a hugely exciting project that should have real benefits for so many.

“There’ve been wonderful results in America and in Australia but we are first in Europe to introduce the horse into the prison rehab system.

Castlerea was deemed ideal because it has a halfway house, ample land outside the prison walls and it is understood that Travellers have a special affinity with the horse. We need to harness that. We want them to be ready to get a job in a yard when released from prison.”

It is very easy to knock politicians, knock the government and easier still to look down on people locked up in jail.

This is a proud day for Irish racing, another opportunity to appreciate sport’s ability to be much more than a game. And be you the prisoner down on your luck or the Minister turning the sod today, the horse will see no difference.

They split the seven-furlong handicap at Dundalk this evening, Fascinating Spirit making plenty of each-way appeal in the latter half (7.45), while I quite like the chance of Pairc Na Ngael in Cork’s 3.40 Sunday, a handicap hurdle.

Hopefully in the very near future this column will tip a winner looked after every day by a man or woman whose life was changed by Irwin, Hall et al and the staff at Castlerea Prison.

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