Allan Weaver, who began offending aged 12, spending several years behind bars in Scotland, was speaking at a conference yesterday for the 10th anniversary of the Cork Alliance Centre.
The centre has helped over 1,000 people go straight after being released from prison.
“Projects like this are vitally important in engaging young offenders and diverting them away from a life of crime,” Mr Weaver said. “Without projects like this, there would no intervention, no constructive work in helping young offenders.
“I’m fortunate I had the chance and I’ve moved on in my life. I’m grateful for the chance I got and I can now give something back.”
Mr Weaver, who works as a criminal justice social worker with North Ayrshire Council, grew up in a violent home and saw his father physically abuse his mother — a violent mentality which shaped his thinking for about 10 years.
By the time he was 12, he was involved with gangs, engaging in territorial street violence, violent disorder, and robberies.
He served six custodial sentences, and was in and out of young offenders’ institutes and prisons until he was 24.
After his release from his last sentence, he was introduced by a social worker to a diversion project which transformed his life.
“I could see a lot in these young offenders and could see the way their lives were going — basically the same route that I was on.
“That gave me the hunger and appetite to be involved and I thought maybe I have something to offer here — offer them an alternative.”
But he said moving away from offending was an extremely difficult process.
“I was up against a lot of factors — labelling, stigma, and this reputation that you’re a trouble maker.
“People didn’t want to know me, they didn’t want to give me a chance to prove that I could change.
“We’ve got to accept that everybody has the capacity to change and we as a society have got to give people the opportunity.”
Kathleen Lynch, the junior health minister, opened the Cork Alliance Centre conference, called ‘The Journey of Desistance’.
“People go to prison for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s a moment of madness, getting in with the wrong crowd, alcohol or drugs might be involved,” she said. “And most people regret it and this project ensures that that regret is translated into something very positive as they are released.”
She said frontline groups like the alliance centre, rather than advocacy services, will be prioritised in terms of funding decisions.
Centre manager Sheila Connolly urged people recently released from prison and who want to change to contact them. “Our message is that when people want to change society has a role and responsibility to facilitate that,” she said.
* If you live in Cork on your release from prison, and want support to stay away from crime, contact Sheila, Emma, Vicky, or Áine on 021 4557878, 087 6890210, or check out corkalliancecentre.com for free support.