Ashling Golden is sitting down at her kitchen table to do something she has little experience in – writing a letter to a pen pal.
Golden’s letter doesn’t have far to go. The recipient is a prisoner based in Mountjoy or Wheatfield prison in Dublin, who is expected to write back in due course.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought many prison outreach programmes to a halt, so youth workers like Golden are corresponding with prisoners via handwritten letters.
“Nearly 50 percent of the letters start with, ‘Thank you so much for writing to me,’” she says, over the phone.
Golden is a team leader in the Solas Project, an organisation based in Dublin 8 that works with disadvantaged young people.
Compass is a prison programme that’s run as part of the Solas Project, working with young people in prison by offering support services, educational training, sports programmes and podcast workshops.
“We work with the under 24-year-olds in prison with the aim of building a relationship in the prison. When they get released we are ready to work with them on the outside,” says Golden.
Eanna Rutherford also works with Compass. He worked in Houston, Texas coaching athletes before deciding to return to Dublin. The last time he wrote a handwritten letter before this was to his 15-year-old sweetheart, he says.
“It is a bit of fresh air for the lads. They sometimes forget that they are in prison,” he says.
When all the services that Compass provided stopped, it was tough on the inmates, says Rutherford. Now the only contact many youth workers have with their prisoner is through these letter-writing projects.
Not Forgotten About
Before the restrictions on outside services coming into prison were put in place, these programmes and schooling hours were all that a lot of young men in prison had, says Golden.
“They don’t have a lot of friends in the prison and they’re not a part of groups,” Golden says. “We were hammering our heads saying, what are we going to do?”
Originally they just started writing to the inmates that they knew the best.
“We just sent in letters to say, ‘Guys, we can’t come in at the moment but as soon as this is over we will be back,’” Golden says.
Letting the inmates know that they have not been forgotten about was important to them, she says.
The letter writing grew as the team started to get a much bigger response than expected.
Prison officers began to identify inmates who were missing the outside services and asked the Compass team if they could start writing to them.
“We’re now doing our best to get to as many [people] as possible,” says Golden.
A Shared Love of History
Through his letters, one inmate revealed an interest in Irish history that Golden hadn’t known about. “We had no idea that he had any interest in anything more than the loud person he pretends to be in the prison,” she says.
“Looks like we have similar interests. I love history too. I loved it when I was in school learning about the Ardagh Chalice,” the inmate wrote.
The Ardagh Chalice is a piece of early Christian metalwork that dates back to the eighth century. It was discovered in 1868 by two boys, Jim Quinn and Paddy Flanagan, who were digging in a field in Ardagh, in Co. Limerick.
The Sam Maguire Cup was modelled on the Ardagh Chalice. Intricate Celtic designs decorate the outside of it.
Now this inmate discusses Irish history with his Compass pen pal through letters.
“Anyways thanks for writing to me,” he writes at the very bottom of his letter, using all available space to squeeze in as much information as possible.
Fear of Failure
In another letter, a different inmate revealed that he was afraid of failing his Leaving Certificate, prior to its cancellation last month.
“Can you voice for us that there are prisoners in here like me that don’t have access to the internet for online tutoring,” this inmate wrote.
His handwriting is neat, the words evenly spaced-out, the tails of the Ys and Gs stylishly flicking across the page.
Golden was surprised when she received this letter.
“I rang one of my colleagues and asked, ‘Did you know he was doing the Leaving Cert?’” says Golden.
Conversations like this would not normally come up in the prison, says Golden.
This inmate is normally cracking jokes and would be quite an “in-your-face character”, she says.
“Prisons have a very macho culture and there are rules such as you can’t hang around in the corridors chatting for too long,” she says.
It’s very rare that inmates get time to speak one-on-one with the youth workers from Compass, she says.
“It’s mainly group conversations and everything seems to be dominated by that one person who is particularly louder,” Golden says.
“Letter writing is much simpler, it can be personal,” says the CEO of Release, Phillip Larkin.
Release is a charity that works with inmates and ex-offenders.
Larkin was also looking for a way to maintain the relationships that he built up with inmates prior to Covid-19. The only other option, besides letter writing, is phone calls, he says.
But phone calls are not that convenient, according to Larkin, as they are limited to three minutes and there is a lack of privacy during them, so prisoners become self-conscious, he says.
Asking Important Questions
Rutherford from Compass says that letter writing challenges prisoners to express themselves in a different way.
“We’re not used to saying some of the stuff that we are more comfortable writing down,” he says.
“Think about diaries … People are much more forthcoming with what they write in a diary than how they verbally communicate with people,” he says.
Rutherford and one inmate are using the letters as an opportunity to discuss philosophical questions.
“There’s one guy who is really into philosophy so I looked up some philosophical questions and sent it onto him,” says Rutherford.
He put it to the inmate: is the most important purpose in life to find happiness?
“I think the most important thing in life is to find happiness. But what about the struggle?” the inmate writes in delicate handwriting on thin wispy paper.
People can waste years of their lives trying to find happiness and yet they might never find it, he writes.
“I think that happiness will find you. Take it one day at time and happiness will come to you,” the inmate writes.
Happiness should be embraced if it is found, he says: “Because you don’t know when it will go.”
At the moment it is just Solas employees and Release volunteers who are writing to the inmates. But both organisations are both looking to get more people involved.
“We are looking at expanding it, but we would want to do a little bit of training with anybody who isn’t used to the prison setting,” Golden says.