THE CENTRAL Statistics Office recently reported that in Ireland the re-offending rates for former prison inmates within one year of release from prison stood at 45%.
In the United States, according to Sydney Page in The Washington Post, “more than 44% of former inmates end up returning to prison within one year of their release.
Ms Page related the stories of two former prisoners who managed the not inconsiderable feat of turning their lives around. One is Mike Carter. The other is Sarah Gad. The two could hardly be more different.
Gad is white, university educated, and a brilliant academic.

Carter is black, lived as a teenager with his grandmother in West Philadelphia, and financially fended for himself from the age of 14. When he had difficulty making money, he became a criminal.
That involved spending seven years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Incarcerated, he worked in the prison kitchen. When released he decided that he was finished with the streets.
He’d always wanted to become a chef. His grandmother taught him how to make yams, greens, stewed chicken and peas, and he did a course at the Restaurant School at Walnut College in Philadelphia. Afterwards he worked at a catering company for a few months, saving hard. He accumulated $15,000 towards his ambition of opening his own food truck.

But, as with those who are said to be a marked for tragedy, or greatness, Carter seemed marked for trouble with the law.
The police pulled over a friend’s car he was travelling in, and found an unregistered handgun. They charged Carter with gun possession, and he was locked up for 27 months. He blew the entire $15,000 on legal fees. His case was dismissed, and he was released.

That was when he encountered Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, the founder of Down North Pizza, a mission-led restaurant that exclusively employs formerly incarcerated individuals. “They have been dehumanized for so long,” the founder says, “we focus on allowing people to see that they should not be defined by mistakes they made.”

Mike Carter is now one of America’s top pizza chefs, recognised and lauded by influential food experts. “I want to help the guys that have been through what I’ve been through,” he says… “We deserve a second chance… We are not our worst mistakes…There is redemption for everybody.”

Sarah Gad, on a full scholarship at medical school, was studying to become a doctor when she was seriously injured in a car crash — broken ribs, ankle fracture, leg injury, excruciating pain. To alleviate the pain her doctors prescribed her several medicines, including oxycodone, a synthetic analgesic drug that is similar to morphine in its effects. They didn’t warn her that she could become addicted.
She did became addicted, started forging prescriptions, and was repeatedly arrested for non-violent drug offences.
She dropped out of medical school, was in and out of jail and rehab, but kept going back to drugs whenever she got out. At one stage she faced 90 felony charges.
She was taking 1,000 milligrams of oxycodone a day — adults were typically prescribed between five and 15 milligrams every four hours.

Sarah Spiralled into hopelessness, felt as if her life was over. In Cook County Jail in Chicago during a 27-day stay in 2013 she was badly beaten by other inmates, and was sexually assaulted. She went through intense opioid withdrawal — cold sweats, vomiting, delirium, and severe anxiety.

A Chicago Lawyer named Kathleen Zelner represented her when she successfully sued Cook County Jail in 2017. In a settlement the county paid Sarah Gad $380,000. Zelner offered her a job to work with her on medical malpractice lawsuits.

The work, and the beneficial effects of medication-assisted treatment that weaned her off opioids, acted as triggers for Sarah in deciding to study law at the University of Chicago.
She passed the bar exam in 2022 and was sworn in to the Minnesota Bar. She is now an attorney in Minneapolis, specializing in criminal defence, including non-violent drug convictions. So far, Sydney Page wrote, none of her cases have gone to trial, as she works to get them dismissed, or diverted before that point.
“My personal story is what drives me to be the best possible advocate that I can,” Gad says. “I don’t want my clients to have to live through what I lived through.”

She is now 38; Mike Carter is 37 — two extraordinary ordinary people who have turned their lives around, the epitome of what Carter said: “There is redemption for everybody.”

Read Dan Conway’s Corner every week in Ireland’s Own