It was announced today that Tipperary man John Lonergan will be honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Irish Red Cross, for his contribution to Irish society through his work in Irish prisons which spans four decades.
When John Lonergan walked into his first day of work in Limerick on 8 March 1968, he couldn’t have known he was embarking on a 42-year-long career in the Irish Prison Service. There were 47 people in Limerick Prison on that first day and 660 across the whole island, compared to 4,000 today.
After three years in Limerick, John moved to Shanganagh Castle in Dublin which was an open detention centre for boys ages between 16 and 21. Following this, John worked in a number of prisons and institutions including Loughan House in Co Cavan when it accommodated teenagers aged 12-18. In 1984, he was appointed Governor of Mountjoy Prison and four years after that, in 1988, he was transferred to the high-security prison in Portlaoise to deal with the complexities arising there from the incarceration of people involved in the Troubles. John served as Governor of Portlaoise Prison until 1992 when he moved back to Mountjoy, where he again served as Governor until he retired in 2010.
In the words of Irish Red Cross Chairman Pat Carey, “John Lonergan brought humanity into the prison system and had a profound effect on Irish society in terms of its understanding of who was in prison - and why.”
While Governor of Mountjoy, John’s analysis revealed that 75% of Dublin-born prisoners were from six small communities in Dublin city. He was one of the first people to draw the public’s attention to the origins of crime in Ireland, and the connection between criminality and the social, economic and educational circumstances of prisoners and their families: this was a wake-up call for Irish society and Government.
John was avant-garde in his rehabilitative approach to managing prisons. He recognised the importance which mental health and having hope for a better future played in prison life and he set about making the regime more humanitarian for those in prison by enhancing and promoting opportunities for education, training and building self-esteem. John opened up Mountjoy to facilitate contact with the outside world, through career development, football, music and theatre. This enabled outside groups begin their development work in Irish prisons which has continued to this day.
One of these was the Irish Red Cross, which in 2009 began its work within prisons by assisting in the development of health, first aid and non-violence programmes which are now in all Irish prisons. These have enabled prisoners take control of their own lives, and have helped transform the environment of Irish prisons for staff and prisoners.
John paved the way for many changes in the prison service, and was instrumental in lobbying for the development of a new women’s prison, the Dóchas Centre. He also oversaw the development of a prisoner visitor centre at Mountjoy which was later replicated across the country.
“We are recognising John Lonergan with the Lifetime Achievement Award for the stand he took, and the noise he made to make the everyday lives of people in prison more bearable,” said Pat Carey. “John saw the opportunity to help others in a real, practical and meaningful way and he made it his mission to overcome whatever obstacles stood in his way. He did something not because it was popular, but because it the right thing to do and this, surely, summarises the true spirit of humanitarianism.”
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