18 personal stories
Over the last four months this blog has shared the stories of 18 people who were sent to prison then managed to turn around their lives and now work, in one way or another, the criminal justice sector.
I hope that you, like me, have been inspired by the 12 men and six women who have successfully made this transition.
The series (titled Turnaround) has now come to a natural end (although I’m sure there may be occasional future contributions from time to time) and I wanted to mark its ending, by reflecting on what I’ve learnt from these stories.
Everyone’s story was, obviously, distinct and individual.
While some were inspired change by prison staff (Peter Yarwood) or fellow prisoners (Richie Ellis); others were actively hampered by the system (@thetartancon and Tracey McMahon) and drew their motivation from a determination to prove their detractors wrong.
Nevertheless, there were a number of commonalities.
Since the series was about people with convictions who have gone on to work in the criminal justice system, it’s no surprise that almost all of them share that desire which is often highlighted in the desistance literature, of wanting to pay back, to redeem themselves through dedicating their work life to meaningful activity which gave back to others, typically those who have been in the same situation as themselves.
Another theme, was how far people exceeded the expectations of others. Debbie Cox was told by prison staff to look for a job as a cleaner on her release. In the end she founded her own business and is now a team leader for User Voice.
Gethin Jones was in care in custody as a young teenager when he was continually told that he would never be successful and would spend his whole life in prison. He too now runs his own business as a motivational speaker.
A third commonality is the huge reserves of determination that almost every one of our storytellers had to find in order to become successful. Imran Shabbir came out of prison, found a job and became the top salesman in his company in the Midlands before being reconvicted and sent to prison for a further 2 ½ years, before bouncing back once more to start a new career helping other ex-offenders for Offploy.
LJ Flanders spent five years trying to be allowed back into prison to run his Cell Workshop programme until the Governor of Wandsworth (Ian Bickers) was persuaded to give him a chance.
Forging a new identity
But more than anything, the turnaround series made me realise much more deeply just how difficult the process of living with a criminal past can be. For individuals who have committed very serious crimes (three of our contributors have served life sentences) or spent many of their formative years in prison, it’s no simple thing to forge a new identity.
For those who have committed serious crimes. It’s not even simply a matter of how they find a personal way forward that balances their past, present and future. They must be mindful that any public pronouncements (conferences, on work websites or personal social media) has an impact on their past victims and their families as well as their own family members.
Simon writes movingly about the challenge of living a double life with some people knowing about his prison past and others not. Many face the dilemma of not wanting to deny their earlier lives which forged part of their identity, while at the same time not wanting to be labelled as an “ex offender” and continually face the prejudice and discrimination that that term brings.
Natalie Atkinson knows that her own experiences in care in custody have informed her work with vulnerable young people in contact with the justice system for the better. At the same time, she’s reticent about disclosing her background. The way in which she describes her dilemma have remained with me:
This is something which I struggle with to this day, worried that I will be judged for my background if I were to disclose it and on the other hand judged as being someone who would never be able to understand some of the challenges that young people and young adults face. My experience does not define who I am, it contributes to who I am!
It’s no surprise that three turnaround contributors chose to write anonymously and that a further two very successful individuals wrote their stories and then reluctantly decided not to share them because they were concerned about adverse consequences in their work lives.
I’d like to end these reflections by expressing my sincere thanks to everyone of the 18 contributors who were brave and honest enough to share their innermost thoughts and feelings and expose to public view what were frequently the worst parts of their lives as well as their undoubted eventual triumphs over adversity.
I’ll leave the final words of this post to Paula Harriott who describes how her LinkedIn profile doesn’t tell her whole story:
What that Linked in profile doesn’t explicitly tell you though is that 2004-2012 I was serving an eight year sentence ; 4 years in prison and 4 on license in the community and that it wasn’t my first contact with the system either.
It doesn’t let you into the personal world of the semi-dysfunctionality that is my normal, the sadness, guilt and regret that is also part of my personal and professional story.
It doesn’t tell you about the deep pain of being an imprisoned mother of five children , it doesn’t tell you of the trauma of incarceration and the lifelong sentence of trying to make anew, faced with the debris and the struggle to make sense of good and the bad consequences.
It doesn’t tell you of the disappointments, the discrimination, the stigma, the judgements and the plain cruelty I have had to battle to reach here either.
But then neither does it tell you of the fabulous people who have extended their hearts to help and to support.