“Prison saved me,” says Colm Healy, aged 39, whose life seemed to be over when he was a jail-bird six years ago.
“I really believe that. Prison gave me the chance to re-set.”
Things were bleak before Colm got his act and his life together.
“There seemed to be no hope for me,” says Colm who has since achieved a degree in Social Science from CIT and who works with the homeless in the city.
“Prison saved my life if you can believe that. I was lucky I got there at all,” says Colm.
“When I was in the depths of despair, I had made three attempts to take my own life. The pain and torment that I was feeling was immense,” says Colm.
“I used to self-harm to create pain to distract from the pain I felt inside of me.”
After Colm resorted to petty crime and stealing to fund his addictive gambling habit he found himself behind bars.
“After being three weeks inside prison, I got into a routine slowly and I began to get used to the structure within the prison,” says Colm.
“I got a good job in the prisoner’s mess which took me out of the cell and I began to make good contacts that helped me to get integrated back into society after I was out of prison.” How did this personable young man end up doing time in prison?
“When I was younger I never felt normal,” says Colm.
“I always felt weird or different. I had issues with my body image and I never felt accepted. I never accepted myself. In school I felt stupid. I had no confidence. Anxiety and depression surfaced. As a young man I was in a lot of pain and I felt isolated. Hiding my feelings was the hardest part.” He felt at home in the bookies.
“A pal introduced me to the football pools,” says Colm.
“Then I started going to the bookies. I felt comfortable in the betting shop, loving the atmosphere and the buzz there.” Even when he lost he felt like a winner.
“I loved the risk involved in gambling,” says Colm.
But it brought the worst side out in him.
“The lies, the deceit, they were all part of the gambling. I began to drink to give me a numbing effect.” He was on the road to nowhere which eventually led to jail.
“I got totally addicted to the gambling environment,” says Colm.
“It was a release for me and a distraction from reality.” He needed to fund his addiction.
“I began stealing,” says Colm.
“Small stuff at first like coinage.” He escaped the long arm of the law on more than one occasion.
“I was perceived as a country boy and I had an air of innocence about me,” says Colm.
“In court the judges gave me a couple of chances. I was remorseful and I knew what I was doing was wrong. I held my hands up. But after 15 years of petty crime; it was inevitable that I would end up in prison. It was plain to be seen.” Colm could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes.
“I still can’t!” says Colm.
“I was her blue-eyed boy, her only boy and I could do no wrong. Even though I lost some of my family ties, my mother stood by me through thick and thin.” He got flash-backs of his mother when he was in prison.
“I remembered the final time the guards knocked on the door of the house,” says Colm.
“I was being driven away to prison and I saw my mother looking out the back window in despair. I got flash-backs of when I was small boy when she was looking out the window waiting for me to come home.” Colm badly missed his mother when he was incarcerated in Cork prison.
“I knew my mother was unwell,” says Colm.
“I didn’t know then if she was still at home or in hospital, or even in a nursing home. I had no contact with the outside world or no access to phones. I lost touch with my mother,” says Colm.
“The last time I saw my mother before I went to prison was from the back of a squad car.” He remembers something else.
“I remember watching the pain in my mother’s eyes when I disappointed her.” Colm says prison is like a scene from the movies.
“I heard the clink and clank of keys, and also the silence,” says Colm.
“I saw the bucket in the corner that I was supposed to slop out. I was afraid to use it.” The first night inside was the worst.
“It was horrific being in a cell on my own,” say Colm.
“I had an empty feeling. In a cold small cell all on your own you imagine and hear all sorts of sounds and noises. You hear the slot of the peep-hole sliding open and closing at regular intervals.” Those nights in the lonely cell gave Colm time to re- think and to re-assess his life.
“I thought that there was no way out. I felt powerless,” says Colm.
But there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I got to visit the hospital where my mother was,” says Colm.
Was that a turning point for Colm?
“It was a low point,” he says.
“I was accompanied there by two prison officers which wasn’t a nice thing for my mother to see. But you know, it was a turning point for me too.” Colm got a light bulb moment in prison.
“I realised I had been trapped in my own prison for years,” he says.
“I had been running from myself and from other people for years.” He got a new sense of freedom.
“I set new values for myself. Prison was a chance to change my life.” He got help to change his life; to re-start a new life.
“I gained the trust of people while in prison,” says Colm.
“Trusting other people gave me the first step in advancement in my life to change my life. I accepted help to get going again when I got out of prison,” says Colm.
“I got the contacts for amazing people, like the Cork Alliance Centre and Focus Ireland who supported me and helped me get an apartment.” He helped himself.
“I went back to education to do my Leaving Cert, then a PLC course,” says Colm.
It wasn’t all plain sailing.
“I had tough decisions to make and I felt isolated still.” But he had people in his corner to help him pick himself up and dust himself down.
“There were loads of supports in place for me to access,” says Colm.
“The Cork Alliance Centre were fantastic and I made new friends there.” Colm feels all his birthdays came together.
“The biggest gift is a listening ear,” says Colm.
“It is a kindness thing, especially for people who think they don’t matter. It gives them a boost to be listened to.” Colm, armed with good advice and people who supported him, advanced his education.
“I enrolled in CIT for a Social Care course,” says Colm.
“I was accepted for the degree course and I got on really well in my placements, giving me lots of opportunities. I’m now planning on studying Criminology.” Colm, who acted as class representative and who received awards from the CIT Students’ Union including the Presidential Citation, is a role model for his peers.
“I started a charity for the homeless with the students on Wednesday nights,” says Colm.
Education was Colm’s ‘get out of jail’ card.
“CIT is an amazing college,” says Colm.
“I got a job and I got an apartment. Education gave me a new life.
“I have more friends than I can count.” His apartment is impressive.
“It is a two-bed roomed apartment,” says Colm.
It doesn’t at all resemble his former abode in prison.
“I have three toilets!” he jokes.
Colm says everyone deserves a second chance.
“I had hundreds of chances to move forward,” says Colm.
“I took the one that mattered. My life today is in total contrast to the existence I had before. If you’re open to change; then that will happen. Don’t give up on yourself.” Colm’s mother never gave up on her blue-eyed boy.
“She never gave up on me even in the worst of times,” says Colm.
He doesn’t see disappointment in his mother’s eyes any more.