Offenders carrying out work for charities, religious organisations and environmental projects as an alternative to prison have clocked up one million hours on good causes in Northern Ireland in since 2010.
At any one time, almost 1,000 offenders are engaged on a diverse range of group schemes or individual placements – some getting their first ever experience of working life.
Graffiti clean-ups and grass cutting are typical of how community service projects can be mutually beneficial to both those involved and the general public, but new opportunities to rehabilitate offenders are constantly being sought.
The News Letter visited the perfectly manicured Victoria Garden at Downshire Hospital in Downpatrick to see how supervised work is being carried out for the benefit of all concerned.
Two offenders were happy to speak about their experiences but did not wish to use their real names.
‘David’ is serving 100 hours while ‘Sean’ has been sentenced to 80 hours.
Sean, 41, said he had learned many new skills and would be seeking work based on what he had achieved. He has never been in prison before.
“I do one day a week for eight hours. We do gardening, but if it’s raining we’ll go inside to paint. Just whatever we can ... hedge cutting, lawn cutting, weeding, but it’s all stuff I haven’t done before. It’s different for me but it’s enjoyable. It’s better than being in a prison cell.”
David, 28, has served a previous prison sentence. He said: “I do get a lot out of it and I’ve learned some skills. At least with [community service] you can go home at the end of the day.”
Probation Service officer Fergal McCann said every care was taken to ensure that offenders working on the various projects – mainly for charities and not-for-profit organisations – posed no risk to the public.
“There is a huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes before anyone actually goes out on to community service,” he said.
“Risk assessments have to be carried out and insurance has to be covered.”
Mr McCann said the plight of refugees was one area where offenders can get involved in worthwhile projects.
“We were contacted by the Extern refugee project and they wanted us to paint a house that was being handed over to a refugee family. We did another house for them, for a young lady from north Africa, and that seems to be working well. They [offenders] see the positive impact their work is making.”
He said the main aim of the work is to ensure the offenders see the error of their ways.
“What I like to hear at the end of it is ‘I hope I never see you again’, and if they don’t then it means that the programme is working and that it is making an impact on their lives.”
Clare McCawley of the South Eastern Trust is proud of the work going on at Downshire Hospital’s Victoria Garden project.
“There was nowhere else like this in the area for anybody to do community service. It was the brainwave of a man called Colin Patton (the trust’s former chief executive). He wanted to open the walls to let the community come in. It is now a garden for the community, and for mental health services.”
Probation’s chief executive, Cheryl Lamont, said: “Probation works by changing lives for safer communities and community service is a key element in our work. Community service is one of the most successful court sentences in terms of preventing reoffending. Three out of four people who complete community service do not reoffend within one year.”
Ms Lamont added: “If any community group or member of the public has an idea for a project that offenders could work on for the benefit of your community, they can nominate a project for offenders to undertake at www.pbni.org.uk or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org ”
Aisling Reynolds is the Belfast area manager for community service.
She said new opportunities for community improvement work are constantly being explored.
“There is work taking place with Translink in relation to the grass on lay-bys, so it’s all about communication with the other agencies to see what we can offer.
“If there is an offender who is skilled in building, or in gardening, we can match their skills with a project. For example, we did a project in Queen Street in Belfast as part of the Extern project where they opened a ‘one-stop shop’ for young people. We needed painters and decorators for that project, so people were assessed as to who was appropriate.”