This is the fourteenth 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. Richie Ellis talks about how a conversation with a fellow lifer moved him on from hating the prison system to working alongside it.
Most of my friends think that it’s a bit crazy I work in prison. Not just because of where I work, but how the journey took me here.
My journey here began in March of 2000 when something happened that would change my life forever. I think it is important that I give a little background of how my journey started to explain my change properly. I had some experience and knowledge of the criminal justice system, having spent my eighteenth and twenty first birthdays in custody.
When released at twenty one, I decided that I’d had enough of prison life and vowed that I would never go back. I’m not saying that I became an angel, but I stopped putting myself in the situations I used to and went kind of straight. I had been in the party business since before illegal raves and that pretty much became my full time job.
Within the next ten years I would get become a part own a few businesses, get married, have a couple of kids and a hit record, life was good.
In March of 2000, while running one of my club nights, there was an altercation and I was attacked. The same people who started to fight a crowd from the club, were chased and one of the men was killed. Well, to cut a long story short, even though it was accepted that I myself had not attacked the victim, I alone out of 20-30 people was charged and convicted of joint enterprise and sentenced to life with a twelve year tariff.
From hating the system…
As you may guess, I hated the system with a vengeance. It was the system that had put me where I was. I felt that my life was over, branded a murderer and looking down the barrel of a twelve year sentence. I spent two and a half years of the twelve doing everything I could to fight against the system, until while in HMP Swaleside, I was sitting with a lifer that had served 18 years already and he told me that he had seen me mediate a problem on the wing and suggested that I become the wing rep because I could not beat the system, but maybe I try fixing it for us in Swaleside.
That was the first step on the route to where I am now. I started as wing rep and while doing that started to see that the “us and them” attitude shared by inmates and staff alike was one of the biggest obstacles to changing or improving the system.
I decided to try and improve the system from the inside if I could and ended up the representative for ten different committee, the chairman of six of them and managed to improve many things in the prison by getting the inmates and the prison staff to see beyond the us and them tag, and working together to improve the system for both sides.
This experience changed me as a person, and also managed to change the attitudes of many of the inmates and prison officers that could see how we had changed things together.
…To working alongside it
From doing all I could to disrupt the system, I was now working side by side with it. But that was inside the prison walls, what would I do when released, branded a murderer and on life license. I was released 28 days after my tariff was finished, and on release got myself stuck in a rut, until my probation officer introduced me to an Engagement Worker from a charity called User Voice.
The Engagement Worker told that it was 85% ex-offender run and invited me to join their community council, which was working with the probation service to try to improve the system. I became a volunteer, something I had never done before, working for free, and haven’t looked back since
I went from community councils to teaching Toe by Toe in the community, meeting newly released prisoners at the prison gates and mentoring them, and before i knew it 18 months had passed. I was then lucky enough to be offered a contract working on the youth projects.
Choosing to go back to prison
Now it feels as if I’ve gone full circle because I am back walking the wings of prisons, but this time I have got the keys to the gates and doors that locked me in before. I am now a facilitator for prison councils and am back trying to overcome the very same us and them attitude I was facing before, and using all the experience I got while serving my life sentence and absolutely loving my job.
My friends cannot believe that after what I went through, I voluntarily walk back into prison every week. I think that people like me with lived experience are essential to making a change to a system that is in dire need of improvement. Our lived in experience can make an authentic link to show offenders if they really want to make a change to their lives, it can be done and that there is life after prison.
My biggest wish for a change to the system is that people see past a person’s criminal record and recognize that given a chance, ex-offenders have a lot to offer society.