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Michaella McCollum: Manipulator or manipulated?

RTE's interview with convicted cocaine smuggler Michaella McCollum sparked widespread outrage, but does she deserve a second chance, asks Deirdre Reynolds, while, overleaf, former Ballygawley school classmate Eoin Donnelly finds her contrition literally incredible

Deidre Reynolds: Almost a week after the RTE interview that divided the country, Michaella McCollum has told how she’s now hoping to be forgotten — if not forgiven. In her only interview yet since being released from a Peruvian prison for attempting to smuggle almost £1.5m-worth of cocaine in 2013, the 23-year-old confessed to making a “mistake” — but insisted she was “not a bad person”.

Blasted by some viewers as being akin to an ‘X Factor-style sob story’, however, solicitors for the Tyrone woman this week confirmed that there would be no further revelations as she bids to move on from the scandal.

The statement read: “In the circumstances, both she and her family take the view that taking part in further interviews will not serve any purpose at this stage.

“They have asked that the media give them space and privacy to allow the next stages of the parole process to work through.”

Although he accepted that the interview was “soft”, with no “hard questions” asked, Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offenders (IASIO) chief executive Paddy Richardson agrees that Michaella should be given the opportunity to put the past behind her.

"There's a huge amount of people very anxious to put their offending behaviour behind them and the reason is most of them went into prison when they were very young," he says.

"Young people who - and I'm not making excuses for them - this was their culture, but who, as they're getting older, want to settle down, get married, have children; they want to do all the right things."

As rumours of everything from a book deal to a stint on Celebrity Big Brother swirl, the 'Peru Two' drugs mule was this week tipped by one celebrity agent to make up to £100,000 from her infamy.

For most, however, it's a very different story. Paddy Richardson adds: "There seems to be a tendency for employers to have preconceived notions about people who have been in prison - that they were bad and they'll always remain bad.

"Our experience has been where we have advocated for people on a one-to-one basis, we find employers have a better understanding of why somebody went into prison. If those kind of support systems aren't there for them, if society rejects them when they come out, well then unfortunately that could lead - and does lead - to people going back into prison."

New legislation on spent convictions is this year set to make it easier for former prisoners here to leave certain 'low-level' indiscretions behind.

But the majority could still find themselves serving 'a lifetime sentence', according to Fiona Ni Chinneide of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).

"The state of play today is that anybody who has ever received any conviction, ever, must disclose it when asked and this impacts on everything from getting a job to buying a house," she says. "There are people getting turned away from third-level colleges based on having these convictions - it doesn't matter how long ago they were.

"Most of the time it's when people are young - they're 18 or 19, they've a few jars on board, just stupid, immature behaviour - and they clock up a couple of convictions and they remain on their record. Half the time, they don't even realise it's on their record until they go to apply for a visa to Australia, or something.

"One man was in touch with us, he has a drugs possession conviction from 44 years ago and was recently refused car insurance. He didn't even realise that was still on his record. It amounts to lifetime punishment.

"On the one hand, we're assigning people to reform, to re-engage and to become active participants in society, and then on the other we're saying that they can never escape their record, ever. It's extremely frustrating for people and very upsetting, particularly when it was something that happened a very long time ago."

For women, it seems escaping the stigma of incarceration can be even more difficult.

"Quite often, there's a stigmatisation," says Kerry Anthony, of Tus Nua in Dublin, a transitional accommodation programme for women who have just been freed from prison. "Here, we talk about women with lower level offences, but if you think about women with higher level offences, they would be very demonised. This isn't to say that men who have offended don't see as big challenges - of course they do.

"But I think society has an image of women, particularly if they're mothers or carers, who have offended.

"Tus Nua stands for 'New Beginning' in Irish and you want to offer people an opportunity to have a new beginning and to leave that sort of stigma and label behind them.

"Empathy isn't always about imagining yourself in that situation, it's maybe imagining yourself with that person's life experience. Certainly if I think of some of the stories women tell me, I wonder where I would be in that situation. I think it's our duty to give people an opportunity to move forward."

Sporting newly blonde tresses and a crisp white blazer, McCollum certainly appeared to be putting her dark past behind her as she sat down with RTE last Sunday night. But her so-called "prison makeover" only irked some TV licence holders - who dubbed the programme as being like "an episode of Peru's Next Top Model" - even more.

Style psychologist Kate Nightingale says: "Change in personal image is often a necessary ingredient of any life change.

"Coming out of prison and starting a new life can already be hard. A new image can make it a little easier to be perceived less as a convict and more as an average person.

"People with blonde hair are often perceived as more innocent and helpless. The contrast of black and white clothing, worn during the interview, can be seen as confident and decisive, with red lipstick further accentuating this perception.

''However, her non-verbal communication is still quite timid, showing a certain level of emotional discomfort."

The IPRT's Fiona Ni Chinneide adds: "People associate serious punishment with serious crimes, but there are less serious offences, whereby just getting a conviction amounts to a serious punishment in terms of obstacles you're going to continue to meet indefinitely throughout your life."

In the meantime, Paddy Richardson says he's not expecting to see the freed drugs mule - who could face a six-year wait before she is allowed to return home - plead her case in the media again anytime soon.

"Michaella is in a very precarious situation at the moment, in terms of what she can say and can't say. She can't get out of the country (Peru), so until she gets home, there's no truth going to get out to anybody about what happened."

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