Photos by Caroline McNally

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This year, spring might look a bit different from the windows of O’Carroll Villas on Cuffe Street in the south inner-city. On a patch of land below, work will soon be underway on a new vegetable garden.

Last summer, residents of the council flats met with local city councillor Sonya Stapleton, who at the time was with People Before Profit but is now independent, and members of the Dublin-based charity Care After Prison (CAP), which helps rehabilitate ex-offenders.

Stephen Doyle, founder and director of services at CAP, had come up with the idea of creating a community garden in the grounds to brighten them up.

“I was walking by that piece of land everyday going towards the Department of Justice. I saw it was overgrown and shabby,” he says. “It was a dull piece of un-cared-for land, and I just thought we could do something with that.”

He thought a garden would benefit residents and passers-by, and would be the perfect project for ex-offenders to give back to the community. At the meeting with residents of the council flats, he spoke about who he was and the work he did – some already knew him from the project.

After residents at the open-air meeting voted unanimously in favour of the idea, Stapleton brought a motion to the city council, which also supported it. “Everybody was very happy to go ahead with it,” she says.

A Fresh Look

Work on the vegetable patch stalled for a while due to winter’s arrival. But before the weather got too bad, participants from the CAP programme managed to add some greenery to the front of the buildings.

They freshened up the area with new plants, new pots and some general clearing and cleaning. “It’s pretty,” says Doyle.

Colourful plants break up the jungle of concrete and bricks. The heavy cement planters lining the fence of the old council flats are now painted white, and the soil is sprinkled with vibrant buds awaiting warmer temperatures.

They feature pink, yellow, red and white pansies, primroses and cyclamen. As do the smaller terracotta pots placed between homes’ doorways.

In the grass, a centrepiece contains more plants, with a tree in the middle. “Before that there was nothing there but muck really,” says Stapleton.

Betty O’Raw, a resident of O’Carroll Villas, is glad to see someone is finally caring for the space. Residents and ex-offenders maintain it together.

“It brightens the place up, and I think [the flowers] really enhance it,” she says. “It was wild and overgrown.”

She thinks it’s beneficial for residents, as well as the public domain, as a lot of tourists pass through this street.

Though there were calls for something to be done about the space becoming rundown, for years no one took action, says Stapleton. She’s delighted with what’s been done so far, but says there’s plenty more plants and work to come.

Experts in the Field

Strawberries in waiting.

To the right of the main centrepiece, a flower bed is filled with strawberry plants, though there’s no sign of fruit yet. This is just the start of what will be a food-producing community garden.

Behind the flats, some hilly grass-covered ground is closed off from the public. In the next couple of weeks CAP’s service users will be digging it up to create a private vegetable garden solely for use by residents.

Already, the look of the garden has been transformed, says Doyle. The next phase is to start growing veg.

CAP has experience in this area because it’s had the contract for the horticultural project at Thornton Hall in North County Dublin since 2013. There, offenders learn how to grow crops on a nine-acre site.

Some offenders have even been released from their sentences under the condition that they would work for free at the Thornton Hall complex. And, last year, CAP employed two new members for the project, including an ex-offender.

All the vegetables grown are donated to charities around the city.

“The lads over there will come over to give a hand,” says Doyle. “By summer we’re going to have a nice garden growing over there at O’Carroll Villas, it’s going to be really positive.”

A New Approach to Rehabilitation

Based behind the Carmelite Community Centre on Aungier Street, CAP is Ireland’s first peer-led charity for ex-offenders.

It aims to rehabilitate people coming out of prison and to stop them from re-offending. It also works with victims of crime and the families of offenders.

Many of the people involved in the organisation spent time in jail, including Doyle himself. They’ve managed to change their lives and lead by example for new people coming to use the service.

Doyle believes this peer-led structure is an advantage, because ex-offenders will be honest with peers about the issues they face and their re-offending habits.

“Often it’s very different to what you’d read on their rap sheet,” says Doyle. That might say addiction is the problem, but addiction can be a symptom of homelessness, he says.

Once they know what issues a person is facing, CAP will link them in with the other services they need.

As he sees it, if peers can influence a person to do something negative, why can’t they also foster positive, mindful habits too?

Back in 2011, CAP received enough funding to support 40 people coming from prison. Since then, 3,500 people have availed of its services. There are users in every county, and even one based in London.

Gardening as Coping

Doyle founded CAP because he saw that people who left prison wanting to turn their lives around couldn’t. The reality facing those who come out of prison is stark, he says.

Very few people will consider employing an ex-offender, so unemployment is a big issue for them. So is displacement, and so are people’s attitudes towards ex-offenders.

Mental illness creeps in on those who have been imprisoned for a long time. This could be in the form of post-traumatic stress or long-term anxiety.

“The realities of being in a prison environment for so long become real,” says Doyle.

For those who want to stay on the straight-and-narrow, Doyle tries to counter the negative effects prison has had. “But the fear is other people won’t get behind them,” he says.

It’s hard to ask those who have been affected by criminality to be open-minded about offenders coming back into the community, he says. But this is where community projects like the garden in O’Carroll Villas play a role.

“It’s something coming back to the area from offenders to the community that has been affected by re-offending,” says Doyle.

Says Stapleton: “Coming out [of prison] and there’s so many obstacles in their way. It’s nice to be able to give back and to get communities’ support.”

A Community Good

“I would say that most people that come through the door are always willing to give something back,” says Doyle.

A lot of the people interacting with CAP have skills and experience. As part of the programme, they often put these to use voluntarily, whether they are a builder or a fitness instructor. “That’s a way that they give back to the organisation,” says Doyle.

As well as benefiting CAP, this benefits the ex-offenders by keeping them motivated and away from criminality.

Education is key to rehabilitation, says Doyle, and he encourages anyone about to go into custody to get in touch with the organisation. That way, they can learn about the workshops available in prison and not waste any time getting started.

A Pilot Project?

On a chilly Monday morning, Dennis Dowling, an elderly man, leaves his council flat with an energetic little dog. He’s happy to hear that work on the vegetable patch will begin soon.

“I’d be delighted with it,” he says. He sees it as an opportunity to spend some time out in the fresh air with his dog.

O’Raw, another resident, says more projects like this one should be done around the city.

Stapleton agrees. “There’s so many places all over the city that you could do it for,” she says.

Many communities are doing work like this, says Stapleton, giving a nod towards the work of the Our Town initiative in Ringsend. “Any group looking to help is always a good thing.”

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1 Comment

  1. Thw worst think they ever done was cut down the blossom trees , it’s a disgrace they were beautiful , and to see wat we have no , theirs no comparison

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