Masters graduate

Employment reform advocate


Damien’s story

I grew up in Manchester, but all my family were originally from Ireland. My childhood was good, but I struggled sometimes with being bullied at school for being Irish. When I was about 14, my parents split up and the family unit broke down. My brother and I moved back to Ireland with our mother.

Before then, I’d been very good at school – I kept to myself and I enjoyed learning. Although we’d visited Ireland often throughout our lives, moving back full time was a big adjustment, as was coming to terms with everything that had happened with my family and missing the friends we had left behind. We struggled to fit in – both in the local community and in school where they tried to bully me for being English, ironically! I got into trouble quite often and was kicked out not long after. Shortly afterwards, I had to take on a lot of new responsibilities as it became just me and my younger brother living together. It was hard and he was only a year younger than me. I managed to secure full-time employment, and this enabled me to shield us from social services because I could keep the house going and the bills paid.

I was 15 when tried my first drug. It soon became a serious habit.

Before long, the money I was earning was largely going towards feeding my drug-taking. I then started dealing drugs, as my weekly wage could not cover the cost of my habit. Even with both sources of income, I didn’t manage my money well – I was too into taking my own product for it to be very lucrative.

I always managed to hold down jobs, despite my drug-taking, but because I had left school with no qualifications – none of them were that skilled or well paid. This was made even harder a few years after when Ireland had a huge influx of skilled and qualified people that came to the country to find work. It became harder to compete with all of these qualified people as – on top of a lack of qualifications – my drug-taking was getting out of control.

Things got bad around the Christmas of the millennium. I was taking ecstasy pretty much every day, as well as cocaine at the weekends, and I was in a terrible physical state, weighing just 6 ½ stone. I collapsed for the first time that year.
After that, I managed to get my drug-taking slightly more under control and laid off the class A’s for a while, although I was still both using (to some extent) and dealing drugs. Things carried on a similar fashion for a couple of years – dealing, using and trying to get whatever other work I could.

At 23, work had completely dried up, so I applied to a probation service project to go back into education and get my junior certificate (roughly the equivalent to GCSEs). Getting qualifications was the only way to be able to compete with others in the job market, as having none to speak of made it hard to get any sort of decent work. The sad thing was that, rather than using this time and the support available to me in the project, I was still dealing and taking drugs. Not long after, I got caught and was sentenced to three years in prison. Once they found out what I had been doing, my family and friends did not want to know, and this led to deeper addiction, alcoholism, and homelessness.

Being convicted was a bit of a wakeup call for me and, indeed, a blessing.

Drug taking and dealing were normal to me and my peers, but not seen as such by the law and wider community. This made me realise the gravity of my behaviour and the impact that it had. I accepted that I was going to get a long sentence and I saw prison as a way for me to sort myself out – to stop doing drugs and hanging around with the people I had been associating with and to get a few more qualifications that I could use when I was released.

When I got to prison, I signed up for a drug awareness course as well as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. I also went straight to the education unit to make good use of my time. I stopped doing drugs and focussed on keeping busy with bettering myself. I enrolled on loads of courses, determined to improve my prospects when I left. I was proud of how much I’d achieved whilst inside. I got my ‘Highers’ level of education attainment (equivalent to English A-levels) in prison, as well as completing an ‘Introduction to Business Studies’ course through the Open University.

I decided that when I got out I was going to relocate and start afresh somewhere I wasn’t known. Unfortunately, this was a huge mistake.

When I was released, it didn’t take long to find out that all of the qualifications in the world didn’t matter. My convictions kept getting in the way. It was always the same – I would get to a certain point in the employment application process, but when they found out about my background, they would suddenly lose all interest in taking things any further. I lost count of the number of times it happened and it was so disheartening.

It was at this point that I really hit rock bottom and I started using again. Things came to a head when I went on a four-week binge, taking everything I could get my hands on – illegal, prescribed or otherwise – before collapsing on a country road in the middle of winter. Miraculously, two ladies who were walking by happened to find me and call an ambulance – they saved my life. It was freezing outside and who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t found me.

From that moment on, I have not touched a single drug.

It was 11 years ago. I started to get my life back on track and reconnect with friends and family. I got clean after spending time in an addiction treatment centre and then decided to go back to my hometown which was key to making a permanent change – unlike any random place where nobody knew me, here I was accountable to people that I had let down in the past. If I went back to my old ways, they would know. I just wish I’d made this decision sooner as my journey to recovery would not have been half as bumpy!

Not long after getting home and resigning myself to the fact that I may never get employment because of my convictions, I found out about an organisation called EQUAL Ireland. They’re a community-based not-for-profit charitable trust that seeks to provide a second chance in learning for people who – for whatever reason – missed out on earlier educational opportunities. I enrolled on a part-time Level 6 Business and Community Development course, and it was a huge turning point for me. The course gave me purpose, and it was also something impressive to tell potential employers I was studying for.

Shortly after finishing the course, I managed to get a job through a friend in an overnight distribution company. Having the course on my CV helped hugely because it showed I was doing something to improve my education. But the other key difference was that I heard about this job through a friend who worked there. Because he vouched for me, I did not have to go through the normal vetting process and disclose my criminal background. Finally, after a tonne of rejections, I had a job.

I gave it my all, determined to do well and prove my worth. Once I’d been there for a while, I told them about my background. But by that point I’d shown them what a good worker I was and they said that it did not matter. I gradually worked my way up through the ranks and became the Night Manager. One of the best things about securing that role was that I was able to hire other people like me that I knew needed to get a break too, and many of those people remain employed today.

After being with the company for several years, I decided to make the move to another company. Whilst I enjoyed my job and was so grateful to them for the loyalty they’d shown me and for employing me when nobody else did. Working nights made it difficult to have a normal routine at home and there weren’t any roles of the same level during the day. My partner and I wanted to start a family, so I was keen to get a day job where I could be around more during normal hours.

I applied for lots of new roles, but again – even though I had demonstrable proof that I had been a good, reliable worker for several years – vetting got in the way every time I got close to a role. Eventually, I secured employment with an auctioneer.

A week after he hired me, my boss found out about my history and called me in for a chat.

We discussed my past and I told him it was a long time ago; I had proved that I had changed and had been a good worker. He appreciated my honesty and recognised the fact that we all have things from our past that we would like to forget about and move on from, and said he was still willing to give it a go. I have worked there now for a couple of years and never looked back. I appreciated him taking a chance on me after that chat – some people would not have been as open-minded. It has made me so loyal to him and the company and he is not just my employer, he is a great friend too.

I continued my studies through Level’s 7 and 8 with EQUAL Ireland and they helped me progress onto a Master’s course in Cooperatives and Social Enterprise at University College Cork. I also got a Special Purpose Award at Level 7 in Recognition of Prior Learning (Mentoring and Facilitation) from the Athlone Institute of Technology – again because of the support of EQUAL Ireland. On top of this, I secured a second job during that time, editing a local community bi-monthly magazine.

Things now are great. I have a 15-month-old son with my partner and I am also back in touch with my 18-year-old son from a previous relationship, who I lost touch with while I was struggling after getting out of prison. I am doing well in my career and I have even been featured on national news stories. To top it off, I have spoken at the request of the Irish Government’s Department of Justice and Equality at their launch of the ‘Working to Change’ Social Enterprise and Employment Strategy 2021 – 2023, which highlights the importance of employment opportunities for people with convictions and the role that employment can play as a protective factor for someone that wants to move on from criminality. The strategy offers 46 different supports to employers and to ex-offenders that want to create their own employment opportunities.

My dream is to start up a mentoring scheme for young people at risk of going down the same path as me, to show them that things can be different if they take another road but also to mentor others leaving prison, so they don’t struggle the way I did when I got out. I am passionate about changing the narrative around employing ex-offenders. I want to see the vetting procedures in Ireland change so that it is not solely about what convictions you have, but there is also a process that recognises the positive changes people have made since their convictions to turn their life around.

People see prison as a punishment, but it also has a corrective element to it. I know that the education I got inside helped me to find purpose and determination to not go down the same path I had been before. It’s extremely demotivating that people leaving prison are so often unable to use the education and training picked up inside because people aren’t willing to give them a chance.

For me, the key issue is what happens after you leave prison. There is absolutely no point in offering prisoners all that training and education inside if they are not going to be allowed to use it to contribute to society when they leave. There needs to be a level of continuity from prison to the community to give those that really want a fresh start a fighting chance.

When you give someone an opportunity when they have previously been rejected at every turn, they will be your most loyal, hardworking employee.

I know that I give 110% to the companies that have given me a chance and that they have seen the benefits of that. Employers just need to know and realise that it is very unlikely that someone who does not want to change will be out there knocking on their doors looking for work. So when that person comes looking for work, hear them out because they are trying to make a positive change to their circumstances, and you could play a significant part in transforming someone’s life.

Securing employment can change a person’s circumstances dramatically. Providing employment opportunities to people with convictions is a huge way that employers can play a part in reducing criminality and repeat offending in their communities.

There is nothing worse for me than encountering someone with bags of potential and for them not to be able to realise it because of their convictions.
Criminality is wrong and it must be punished – I accept that and that it is not up for debate. But when someone has been punished, served their time, and realised that they need to change, they should not be punished secondarily in the community for having a criminal record and prevented from progressing because of the mistakes that they are, most likely, deeply ashamed of.

For me, education saved me from going back to a very dark place and employment was the key to sustaining and making a permanent, positive change. It gave me a purpose, something to work towards and to focus on and – crucially – a source of income that meant I did not need to resort back to criminality.

Whilst I understand that employers might be nervous about employing people with criminal records, I think much more needs to be done to educate them that that the majority of people who have been in prison want to change, they just need an opportunity to prove themselves. I am living proof of that.

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