This is the first in a new 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.
The series starts with one of the country’s best known ex-cons and prison reformers, John “Ben” Gunn who was released from prison in 2012 after serving 32 years (more than 20 years longer than his tariff) for the murder of his friend when they were both just 14 years old.
What do I do?
Having to sit down and ponder the question, “What do I do…?” may be a little more complicated than expected. My career in freedom being less than 5 years, this has been a swift, brutal and exciting foray to the world of work (which obviously bears no relation to prison work).
I was fortunate, in that my politics and studies open avenues of possible employment that most prisoners can’t explore. Whilst regular work was an option, a vista of shelf stacking didn’t appeal to me. And prison had been my whole adult life; I not only served my sentence, I tried to change the prison, and studied it. The idea that I could wash prison off my shoes on leaving the Gate was never really realistic. Prison seems to be in my bones.
With no obvious criminal justice job around, I opted for Consultancy. And I ran smack bang into my Life License. Being prohibited from taking a job without permission, and having a client company that wanted our connection obscured for political reasons, I found myself breaking my license. And I make no apologies or excuses. I took the job, produced my output, and moved on.
The Howard League, recipient of an occasional barb thrown from my cell, took the interesting decision to take me on for a while. It was then I was hit with a realisation that here I stood, aged 47, and never having worked in an office. It was a learning curve, and I will always regret that I couldn’t quite get my mojo for the League. I continue to campaign for them, years after my contract ended.
During these initial months after release, I was drawn into a part of life that was unusual. One with different mores, expectations, rules, and structures of power. Coupled with my innate inability to live life smoothly, it could have been predicted that this transition would be far more difficult. In reality, after 32 years of imprisonment, I had two good jobs within weeks of release.
Some four years on, and I have experienced a fascinating range of work. Inside Justice, which investigates miscarriages of justice, had me as a caseworker. Where else can you chat with the Mets Head of Intelligence, meet Nick the Greek in a London suburb over a murder, then find yourself at the BBC holding a castrated man’s bloody jeans? The work was fascinating. My ability to deal with being managed, how I adapt new approaches, became an issue. To think I could rework learned attitudes from prison quickly was my error that some others bore the brunt of!
The long term psychological effects of incarceration
Enough time had passed for me to briefly pause and reflect. Something wasn’t right. I began to appreciate the profound psychological effects of so many years in prison, and how they effect my work. The small talk of relationships, the gestures that weave us together in any setting, is something that often escapes me. I lived a life where Mr X would be ten feet away for the next few years. But in freedom, Mr X isn’t merely sitting still waiting for me to reappear. This matters when communication and professional relationships are at the centre of what I do, and something I continually address.
Similarly, I am not best placed in a relatively controlled structure. Many aren’t, but I have the increased resistance that is essentially a prison response to power. Telling me to sit there, do that… It’s not something that sits well. You may call these things quirks, or disabilities, but they are factors that shape my decisions.
For two years I’ve avoided long term contracts, embedded in a structure, closely managed. Rather, shorter and more eclectic work has suited me better. I play a small part in some media kerfuffles and more often exist as a background resource for media researchers and documentary makers. Universities are kind enough to ask me to lecture sporadically on penology and related areas. Smaller charities often don’t have specific expertise and it is particularly pleasing to see some input of mine having a quick effect. Somewhere along the line I found myself advising some extremely unlikely people, and chairing improbable discussions.
Which reminds me. There is a lot I can’t actually tell you. The job of criminal justice consultant ranges from high offices to very grubby alleys, with the only shared characteristic being the insistence on privacy. And this itself always has the potential to cause difficulties with my supervision. I don’t recommend it to the faint hearted!
The end of last year saw me having to deal with long neglected medical issues, which inevitably led to much reduced activity. As normality reasserts itself, I look forward to continuing to move mysteriously through the penal reform community…and beyond.
You can follow Ben on Twitter @PrisonerBen1
Read a full Guardian profile of him here
And contact him about his consulting and campaigning work here.
Next week: Find our how @thetartancon found work on release despite the best efforts of the public and voluntary criminal justice sectors.