It’s hard to avoid the obvious metaphor in the project led by Pat Clark, who helps a team of people to restore unwanted furniture. The notable thing is that they comprise serious criminal offenders, some of whom are serving time for murder.
Now 66, Pat can identify with them, having spent the first half of his life in and out of prison. He’s open and honest about his past and the decades he spent on the wrong side of the law.
Today, he runs Open Gates, a Glasgow-based organisation that makes a real difference to the lives of the offenders. Pat and his team put these men and women to work, give them a purpose and hopefully a glimpse of another life – one with a future.
“I’ll take anyone. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got experience. Very seldom do we get a tradesman. We get the wee problem gangsters, which suits me as I was never out the jail from when I was nine until I was 33. Then I became a Christian and it changed my life. This is something I’ve been led into doing and I love it with a passion.”
On September 27, the Open Gates team plans to unveil to the public the project that they’ve been quietly and diligently working on for the past six years: a multi-purpose factory and furniture showroom with IT and seminar centre.
The initiative was gifted a former industrial bakery building by Scottish Canals and they have made the most of that generosity. The building itself is huge and the venture expansive.
“What you need to know is that it’s a team effort in here. I’m not daft, I had a vision for in here but every single person that’s come through here has done just as much work as I’ve done in the time that they were here. So we’re totally dependant on the people who come through our door.”
The restoration of the furniture that will be sold to the public directly parallels the futures of those doing the restoring. Instead of a piece of damaged furniture which might ordinarily be deemed worthless and forgotten about in landfill, Open Gates will invest in it, fix it, clean it up and send it back out into the world, giving it a second chance to be useful.
Often society looks at many of the men and women who come to Pat Clark in the very same way. What Open Gates does by putting them to work is to give them an opportunity to see themselves in a different way, and hopefully, like Pat, turn their lives around for the better.
In the last year alone the project has had 42 offenders through their door. Some are ‘community payback’ offenders, those who have committed the sort of crime where they can work off their sentence instead of going to prison. Some are National Top End offenders who are serving life sentences, often for murder.
Many of these Top End offenders served their sentences at a young age and are often still fit for work so, in the last two years of their stretch, they will work at Open Gates in the morning before being taken back to their cell at night.
One of these is G, 48, who was convicted of murdering friend, J, with a shovel in 1998. Gillie, as he’s known in the workshop, has served 19 years for what he considers to be a drunken fight gone wrong, yet he is also acutely aware of how his actions have affected his life and his family.
He feels that Open Gates has offered him the opportunity to show that he is more than that relatively young man who committed a terrible crime.
Asked about his experience at the project, he said: “It took a little while to adjust but I’m a grafter, I always have been. I appreciate what Pat’s doing here. This place helps people like me and gives us a chance at a life.”
Giving people a chance is at the centre of what Pat and his team aim to do at Open Gates. He’s been irritated in the past that he hasn’t been able to do more.
For example, often it’s decided by a parole board that instead of releasing a prisoner into the project’s care and tutelage, they are sent to an open prison. Not only does this cost the taxpayer double than it would if they were under the supervision of Open Gates, it also creates what pastor and Open Gates board member, Alex Gillies, calls “the snake and ladder effect”.
Pat and team have had numerous instances where a prisoner released to them will begin climbing the ladder to outside life possibilities, only to be removed and taken to an open prison, where they often slip back into their old routine of crime or drugs.
Asked whether this wouldn’t be a huge responsibility on Open Gates, Pat responds defiantly: “No, don’t forget that what happens when someone has done their placement then they have completed all their courses. He/she is due to get out, the law says they’re due out and when they are in the National Top End for four years they are insulated in their cell and geared to be getting out.
“What they do then is take them out and put them in a mainstream jail, such as Castle Huntly near Dundee, where there’s drugs, phones, a new placement, temptation is all there. That’s the wrong way. We’re trying to change that.”
Each day that a former offender stays out of prison is a success for Open Gates and proves that their model works. Brian Donnelly is one such success story, someone who Pat describes as a “real asset” to the project. Now 37, he has made a lasting change to his life since his release. He spent 14 months with the organisation and since then has taken every opportunity that has come his way to improve his life and stay out of prison.
He said of Open Gates: “Pat’s great. A genuine and nice guy who’s very good at getting people to buy into what Open Gates wants to do. It was a place to go where I could be treated normally. When you tell people where you’ve come from they tend to look at you like you’ve got horns coming out of your head but there was none of that at Open Gates. They made you feel like you were part of the team.”
Pat repeatedly maintains that making offenders feel like people again is the key to them seeing a future for themselves. The memory of prison can become like a poisonous snake bite you never quite recover from.
Many don’t, and many will struggle yet. But as someone who’s been there, Pat Clark thinks he might just have the antidote.