The following article was taken from The Sunday Times on 23 September 2012.
We would like to issue a big thank you to The Sunday Times and reporter Peter O’Reilly for the story about our very own Graham Jones and the work being done through Solas Project’s prison programme.
‘Rugby lends itself to teaching the life skills that they are missing’
Graham Jones is reaching out to offenders with his prison rugby programme
On seeing the assortment of adolescents gathered outside St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders, the initial thought is: Belvedere haven’t sent their strongest team. Gangly limbs, croaking voices, random sportswear.
Of the eight transition year students, three admit that they’re not playing any organised sport at the moment. Yet here they are, to play rugby against 18 and 19-year-olds who’ve been convicted of violent crimes against society.
At least we can be sure that these boys are brave, and curious, and committed to the social justice programme so central to a fee-paying school in Dublin’s inner city.
They are not skipping class. About 40 boys had volunteered to take part. Parents filled out consent forms — though one concerned mother had demanded a guarantee that her boy wouldn’t be stabbed before she would sign.
The boys and their teacher, Mr Colohan, are greeted warmly by Graham Jones, whose unlikely idea it was to set up a rugby programme in St Pat’s — known as the ‘Baby Joy’ because of its proximity to Mountjoy Prison.
Graham is a reassuring presence, a born communicator with a kind, bearded face but also the physical solidity of a former back-rower. After a nod from the prison officer, he takes us through security.
The Institution’s main buildings are part of a Victorian prison complex. As far back as 1985, the Whitaker Committee’s Report of Inquiry into the Penal System condemned it as “an environment that would contribute to further delinquency. . . rather than any rehabilitative function.”
In 2008, the prison chaplains’ annual report characterised St Pat’s as ‘a monument to the failure of the state’.
We are due in B wing, which houses prisoners from Dublin between the ages of 18 and 21, mostly in tiny single cells for 17 hours a day, though some have to double up when capacity is exceeded. Those ‘on protection’ on the third storey are locked up for 23 hours of every day.
The cells are quiet because most of their inhabitants are in the canteen. No accidental timing, this. Last year, the first time Graham brought a team through here, the inmates banged on bars and shouted at the visitors about the fate that awaited them.
Through more security doors, the yard is all tarmac, brick, iron and coils of barbed wire, sealed off by a net, 15 feet high, to prevent illicit deliveries.
Beyond the far wall is a Dickensian red-brick chimney, as if for cinematic effect. But what grabs immediate attention is the opposition, who already occupy the centre of the yard.
They look intimidating, with tight haircuts, long shorts and sleeveless vests, all the better to show off the weight-lifting they’ve been doing in the prison gym (regular gym attendance is what has earned them selection for today’s game). They already have a ball and are passing and kicking it at each other, darting and barking. The Belvo boys shuffle uncertainly while Graham lays out some cones.
Earlier, he had pleaded that the story would not be about him. But without him, there would be no story. He may not be first middle-class south-side lawyer to chuck it all in for a life helping those less fortunate than he, but he is surely the first to use rugby as an agent of hope.
Now in his mid-30s, he is from classic rugby stock — educated in High School, Rathgar, and at UCD, where he qualified in Business and Legal Studies and won his rugby colours.
For seven years, he led a double life of sorts, working in conveyance law in the IFSC during the week, then helping the underprivileged of Dublin 8 through a Saturday club, and setting up a rugby club, the Liberty Saints, in 2006/07.
He had always had an interest in social justice, one he shared with his wife Louise. They had got engaged during one of several outreach programmes he did in Romania. With the collapse of the property market, he sensed an opportunity.
“I worked seven years as a solicitor and there were quite a lot of times when I felt frustrated with never being fully satisfied with how I was spending the majority of my time,” he says. “When conveyancing started to crumble, there was a reason to stop and think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ We had to make some very tough decisions, and I couldn’t have done this without Louise’s backing. People say I’m very brave to do what I do but I don’t consider myself brave at all. It’s a calling.”
Together with a friend, Salla Heron, he set up the Solas Project, to tackle early school leaving and youth crime, using after-school intervention programmes and sport. With three full-time staff, two part-time and about 70 volunteers, they rely on trust funds, government grants and donations.
But at present there is no funding for the prison and probation programme, beyond some welcome assistance from the St Stephen’s Green Trust.
But how rugby? “The two anchors in my own life are family and rugby,” he says. “So many of the skills I have now I learnt through rugby, whether it be teamwork, hard work, keeping your mouth shut, discipline, that whole idea of ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’, pulling together with people. My first love was soccer but I just know that rugby lends itself to teaching certain life skills.
“I see those life skills missing in a lot of young people and because of that they’ll end up in very serious and sad circumstances. I can coach rugby and I’m quite good at it. At the same time I’ve a great heart to reach out to people on the margins of society. I wanted to put those two things together.”
He admits it can be difficult to explain the concept of controlled aggression to kids hardened by violence. Seconds before the start of one game involving the Liberty Saints, the referee took him aside to tell him one of his Saints had a wheel-brace up his sleeve.
But Graham backs his ability to communicate and connect. On arrival at his first training session in St Pat’s, 12 months ago, half of his ‘players’ had their backs to him, sullen and uncooperative. “You’ll last 10 seconds with this lot,” said the assistant governor. Forty-five minutes later, they went back to their cells lathered in sweat.
Last Tuesday, what struck you about the Pat’s lads was their raw energy but also their athletic ability. For the warm-up game, teams are mixed as a gesture towards integration. But for the game proper, it is Belvo v Pat’s in a game of tag rugby — pink tags against yellow. “We’re good at ripping tags from stealing mobile phones,” jokes one of the inmates.
Graham needs a quick wit to handle all the back-chat but never raises his voice. He takes quick breaks to explain the benefit of a flat defensive line, no matter how slow-moving it may be. There are tumbles on the tarmac, grazed knees, but any violence is accidental. Conor, the tallest of the Belvedere boys, gets a bloody lip as an opponent swings at the ball with his foot. A prison officer suggests a stitch in Temple Street Hospital but Conor says no, he’s fine. His dad is a doctor. He just wants to get on with the game.
Final whistle. 7-6 to Pat’s. “Of course we f*****g won! And we’re a f******g institution!” Jones gets the teams to shake hands, then asks the Belvedere boys for their assessment. All positive. “Ah, youse are just saying that to be nice.”
Camaraderie might be too strong a word but there has been a connection. On the way back through B Wing, the hosts show their visitors the inside of a cell — maybe 8ft by 5ft, with a single tiny window and a poster of The Godfather on the wall. Back on the corridor, they point upwards through the steel mesh, mocking, at an inmate ‘on protection’. “There he is. The granny-basher.”
There is tea, sandwiches and Coke in the gym, some chit-chat, but no hanging around. After handshakes, we are through security and back out on the street. The visitors enjoyed their time inside, and ask about the re-match. The teams might be different, says Graham. One of the Pat’s team is due out next Friday.
And what happens then? Graham offers himself as a support, someone to keep in touch with, give advice, help. He reckons 50% will take him up on the offer. He just wishes he had more men to act as mentors.
“The only reason I’m doing this is that there’s a problem with young men getting caught up in crime and victims suffering as a result,” he says.
“It’s repetitive, the same people caught up in the system, and we need to find a solution. There is a great potential in relations being built up with young men while in prison for them then to be supported on the outside, by their choice, not mine.
“An example? One of the young men I hooked up with a year ago got out during the summer and started his work experience in a coffee shop.
He can’t understand that someone is giving this opportunity because it hasn’t happened for him before but he’s moving forward slowly. And there he was yesterday, scrubbing pots in the kitchen with this massive smile on his face. I was blown away by that.”
A Blackrock College team is due to play in B Wing next Wednesday.
More information on Solas Project is available at www.solasproject.ie