This is the fourth in the turnaround 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.
Today Peter Yarwood tells how, after 20 years trapped in a life of drugs and crime, he eventually found a part-time job and worked his way up to be Chief Executive of Red Rose Recovery.
Beyond my wildest dreams
If you asked me to describe what my life is like now, I’d say it’s Life beyond my wildest dreams. I didn’t believe it could be like this, but that is what I have ended up with.
I come from a good home. I’ve not got that excuse. I was not born into a family of addiction and was in all the top classes in school. But it all started to go wrong when my parents split up. I would never use that as an excuse for my behaviour but it did have an effect on how I was thinking and feeling. I take full responsibility for where I went wrong.
I was 13 or 14 when my Mum & Dad split up, life was very different without my dad around to guide me and that was the first time I’d ever experienced rejection by someone who I loved and loved me. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. I had lost one of my main male role models, an upstanding member of the community so I started to look around for other role models instead. But these role models were members of my wider family and were involved in the criminal fraternity. Had my Dad still been around these family members would not have been able to influence me to the extent that they did, the lifestyle was painted to me as being very glamorous. The people I was looking to as role models would just walk right to the front of the queue in the Hacienda and places like that. They were from the Manchester ganglands and I’d been embraced by them. This was great as a 14 year old child.
They had high powered BMWs and they’d let me drive them and I started drinking and started smoking cannabis. This very soon gave way to taking harder drugs.
Addicted and in prison
I ended up in HMP Armley prison in Leeds just after my 15th Birthday. I’d been committing crime to fund my addiction all over the county so it wasn’t a surprise that I was sentenced to 18 months.
When I arrived I was vulnerable and scared but I had been conditioned to believe that this was my path, it was part of my education! I somehow knew that I was always going to end up in prison, looking back now I find it incredible that I could be ok with that. I saw it as a training ground and I was going to go there to meet people, make contacts and learn.
It turned out to be the rudest awakening I had had in my life and that prison was going to be my home for the next year and a half.
Detoxing in the seg
When I arrived I reached out to a prison officer and told him that because I was addicted to alcohol and heroin and I was going to start withdrawing that I’d need help. I was assured that I would be looked after, I was separated from the other prisoners awaiting induction, the prison officer said he’d take me to a hospital and I’d be able to get my head together.
I was taken somewhere that they called a hospital but in reality looked more like a dungeon from the middle ages, I questioned the officer and was told in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t walk into the cell I would be carried into it. There was just a wooden plank for a bed and a wooden pillow because I was seen as a suicide risk. I went in. I later found out this was the segregation unit and I was placed into a strip cell to do my detox.
The following day the cleaner came to my door and looked through the spy hole. He told me that the first chance he got he was going to rip my head of and paint the recess with my blood and brains. When I enquired as to the reason for this verbal volley he told me it was because I was a dirty Bastard. Unbeknown to me the staff had written on the other side of my cell door on white A4 paper in big red felt tip pen the word VIRUS. Because I was a heroin user they thought I might have AIDS they put me in isolation. Immediately I stood out from everyone else. I just wanted to blend in and hide.
I went in to see the doctor and managed to I convince him I’d had a miraculous withdrawal so he’d let me up on the wing and into a normal cell.
As I was stood on the landing waiting for the staff to allocate a cell for me to go to I was attacked and knocked unconscious. I still have the scar underneath my eye as a reminder of the stigma attached to people with a substance misuse problem to this very day.
This was a new environment and I knew I had to adapt, and adapt I did. For the next year I swore I’d never commit another offence.
The revolving door
But when I got out I felt like I had a spring attached to me, it was drawing me to the local off-licence and then very soon I was on a mission to buy heroin. I used them both and felt guilty and ashamed so hid from my friends and family, it wasn’t long before I ended up back in Prison, in fact it was less than 1 week!….. This turned out to be a perpetual cycle for the next 20 years. It was a way of life. My family and friends questioned my commitment. I was told I’d always be a failure and would always be on drugs.
You are a risk to the community, you will never amount to anything, you will always be a junkie in and out of prison. These were the messages and labels that were consistently spoken over me and soon became a core belief. Magistrates saw me as a risk to society so I wasn’t ever going to get bail. The offences I was committing were quite serious. I was causing harm and upset to people.
Turning it around
In 2005 I met a prison officer who helped me in the therapeutic environment in HMP Wymott. I first thought I’d take part to manipulate the system, however for the first time in my life I witnessed those mythical unicorns, people who were actually triumphing over the same adversity as me!
Up to this point professionals would tell me it was possible to change if I sat on such a course or took part in a particular intervention, I sat through them all, but all I ever saw was people failing, people coming back to prison, people dying. So yes to me the people who recovered were like mythical unicorns!
However for the first time in my life I was up close and personal with the very people who I knew and we were all learning how to live in a community with new values, I was given responsibility, I was trusted. This was all new to me and I was up for it, I now knew it was possible I could see it with my own eyes!
John Ashton sat on my bed and offered me a cigarette, screws don’t normally roll like this so later on that night when I was reflecting on the conversation I had with him earlier on in the day where I thought it was intimidating, I realised it wasn’t intimidation, it was the first time in my whole life that some one treated me with unconditional positive regard and it was a prison officer!…. wow what a mind fuck! These were the enemy? John believed in me, he treated me like a human being and wasn’t there to intimidate me.
No one had ever believed in me until I met this prison officer. I wanted to show him I could change. I designed an induction package and rolled it out to the new prisoners as they entered the prison, within 3 months we had filled the programme to full capacity and there was a waiting list from the main prison to do the programme. I now realised I was good at something and had the evidence to prove it.
There were people on that wing who had changed their life so I could see that it was possible. If they could do it, then I could do it. I wanted to know how they had done it, I wanted to share the secrets and I quickly found that I got a great feeling by being altruistic. It was a better feeling than any drug on the planet. I felt that this was where my journey began and started focussing on those around me.
I started looking for other people on the wing who were going through the same and started up a chess club and set some standards – no drugs and no talking about drugs. In return we provided mutual aid, peer support and helping each other find a solution. This taught me the most valuable lesson and was to stand me in good stead for the future.
When I got out of prison I wanted to carry on learning and wanted to do a degree.
As a single parent I was running house and had a teenager daughter. I needed to get a job and I’d worked through my past and wasn’t ashamed of it but I didn’t want it to dictate the things I did in the future. I wasn’t that person any more but as soon as employers found out about my past I couldn’t get a job. It was very disheartening to approach the job market with a true and honest heart about my past being well versed in the skills that were transferable, I was optimistic, time and time again employers rejected my applications.
An opportunity came up at Lancashire Drug and Alcohol team. It was a six hour part time temporary job, after a few months they asked me if I would consider a permanent full time roll. I wanted to finish my degree but knew I’d struggle to get a job afterwards and here I had a fantastic opportunity.
My job was to be responsible for the Lancashire User Forum (LUF). I started by researching service user involvement. The forum had a focus on what the current treatment system was like, after a consultation was done the modernised treatment system was rolled out in Lancashire and the forum then took a different turn.
Red Rose Recovery
I opened it to the community and business and made sure I hadn’t built the forum around an individual but instead on a system. I asked “what are our principles, what do we stand for?” and I put together a constitution.
We want people to see that there is enlightenment and recovery. And from the report I prepared, Red Rose Recovery was born. We want to mobilise and help organise the recovery community in Lancashire and show the community that we are here to make a positive difference. It is a partnership and a lot of people have played a key role in building it up to what it is today.
Red Rose Recovery now employ 26 staff, in the last quarter our community coaches and volunteers have contributed a total of 16,486 volunteer hours that has an economic value at living wage of £135,185 returning into the economy.
Building Communities by believing in people isn’t just a strap line, it’s a reality!
You can find out all about Red Rose Recovery here
And follow them on Twitter @RRR_LUF