Against A Brick Wall business concept of hardship and difficult restrictions faced on a journey focused on success represented by a yellow traffic sign warning of a future challenging obstacle that will obstruct the planned strategy.
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Debbie’s story: from cleaner to CEO

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Prison officers said all Debbie Cox could aspire to on release was to be a cleaner, but she founded her own business and is now a team leader for User Voice.

This is the tenth in a series of guest posts written by ex-offenders who have turned their lives around and now work, in one way or another, in the criminal justice sector. Debbie Cox explains how the constant low expectations of the prison service drove her on to succeed.

Low expectations

Accept you’re in prison now, you may be able to do cleaning when you get out but forget anything else.

That’s a statement I’ll never forget.

Since this statement I have been CEO of Rebuilders, and now work as an Engagement Team Leader for User Voice, something if you had asked me 5 years ago I would have said would never happen.

In 2012, I was sentenced to 4 years for committing fraud, of which I served 2 years in prison and 2 years under probation, it was the first time I had been in trouble and had no idea what to expect, I also believed that my life was over, who was going to employ me now, I was in prison, something that echoed from the prison.

I spent the first 9 months of my sentence in Holloway, an experience I will never forget, working as a listener I heard so many women saying they didn’t want to come back to prison and they were going to stay out of trouble then within weeks would see them back, so many times I would hear officers laugh and say “knew they would never change, they’ll always be in prison”.

Surely there had to be another way, surely if the women had somewhere safe to live, the right support then they would stay away from the system?

Persistence pays off

In February 2013, I was transferred to an open prison, within a few weeks of arriving I was asked what I wanted to do for my voluntary placement, “I want to work with people, I want to help support them and keep them out of the system”

It was when I was told to accept I was in prison and this would not happen and I should lower my sights, something in me decided to fight back against this and went back with an advert I had found in the local paper asking for volunteers, firstly I was told no, because the prison had never worked with the organisation, every day for 3 weeks I went to the office asking for them to contact the organisation, finally they did and after being interviewed was offered a voluntary position.

A few months later after receiving feedback from work, and returning to the prison, on speaking to a member of staff and telling them, they laughed at me and said, “You need to remember where you are, you’re in prison”

How was I ever going to forget that I was in prison, but I was determined I would turn my life around, and I would help people stay out of the system.

High achievements

In June 2014, I left prison and since then have worked with people effected by the criminal justice system, firstly with Rebuilders an organisation that was set up by myself, supporting women who had been effected by the system and now User Voice providing people with a voice.

The system doesn’t expect you to change, sometimes it feels they don’t want you to change, but every day there is evidence that people can change and can leave the system for good, I believe I am one of them people.

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