Simon’s story: Life after life

This is the eighth 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 Simon tells his story of looking for a role after release which enabled him to look forwards while not denying his past.

Life after Life?

“He’s such a talented artist,” she said, admiring the painting, “he deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves a second chance,”

I was guiding a group around the Koestler Trust Art exhibition, discussing the benefits of (and barriers to) creating art in prison and feeling comforted that they were open to the idea of rehabilitation.

“Unless he’s a murderer,” she continued.

She looked at me, questioning.

After a second’s panic, I realised she was just wondering which painting we should look at next, not asking what I’d been in prison for. She knew, of course, that I couldn’t be a murderer, that they rarely get released and that they certainly don’t show visitors around London art galleries.

Being a Koestler Trust exhibition host was my first paid position after leaving prison, the first job I’d seen advertised which positively encouraged people like me to apply. Previously I’d been interviewed for jobs before disclosing my conviction and had believed that it was one reason I’d been rejected.

On our first morning of training I’d walked into the group of new Koestler hosts and asked one of my colleagues: “You been out long?” Her horrified look told me – we don’t talk about things like that. I’d felt quite good on the bus to work that day thinking how refreshing it would be have a job where I could be open about being newly free, dispensing with a dual existence and letting people know me, including my past.

Inside

Finding an identity and space within society without living a dual existence was important to me on release. For three years of the 16 I spent inside I’d been in open prison and had worked in the local community for a training company. All the staff knew I was “from the prison” but none of the customers did. Everyone was great with me, but I did wonder how the customers would have felt if they knew I caught a bus back home to HMP North Sea Camp every evening after work.

My second job from open prison was as a Maths Lecturer at a Further Education College. I was fully qualified for this, having completed a Maths degree studying with the Open University in custody. The college principal and HR department were aware of my offence, the prison was extremely supportive and an Enhanced DBS check showed there was no bar to me taking the role. My colleagues though were not to be told. I thought this would be okay, I’d just keep myself a little removed. The trouble is people are quite friendly and ask questions like Where do you live? What did you do last night? Do you fancy a beer after work? Being a serving prisoner makes all those pretty tough to answer without lying. And I wasn’t prepared to do that.

I lived a double life as a successful businessman and a drug addict for over a decade before committing my offence. I spent a long time in prison learning to face the truth. Now, on the edge of release and hoping to build a new life around this job, I realised I couldn’t live a lie. So I resigned.

And out

Released without a job, the best route towards a new life seemed to be working within the criminal justice sector. Following on from my employment by the Koestler Trust that’s pretty much what I have done. Some people I work with don’t know I’ve served a life sentence, some do. Some of the opinions I hear from people that don’t know about my past are perhaps silently shared by those that do. Sometimes it still feels like I’m living a double life.

Not long after my release Clare McGregor, the Managing Director of Coaching Inside and Out, coached me through some challenging times and in return I volunteered for the charity, helping to plan their service delivery. The organisation was coaching men in an open prison for the first time and valued my knowledge of the environment. Clare and the other coaches were patient and supportive of me in those early days and when a paid position became available I was encouraged to apply. I’m now their Head of Support.

As a result of meeting Clare I spoke at an event about what it was like to be coached as a lifer, standing up in front of strangers and explaining where I had been for the past 16 years. I’ve done some more of that since, speaking to groups of university students, members of the police force at the College of Policing and even re-enacting an oral hearing for the Parole Board Annual Conference. Public speaking is a challenge, sometimes I doubt the wisdom of sharing my story. Others have very different experiences of the criminal justice system to me and I worry about how my offence impacts them.

At one event I was asked what I really want to do. “Go back into prison and help lifers get through it”, I said.

Life after life

It was so hard in prison to maintain a belief that there was life after life and that any of us could get through the system. Even getting to the half way point of my tariff seemed impossible. At each stage there seemed to be nothing but negativity, bad advice and unclear information. I only saw those people who’d been recalled, never hearing success stories and gaining what little knowledge I had about Cat D or release from people who’d been there and then been returned to closed conditions.

I’ve been invited back into a few prisons since my release to speak to others. Each time there has been positive feedback from the staff and the men and I hope to do this more but wonder sometimes why I am holding onto my prison past so much.

I struggle to recapture the self-belief I had prior to prison: to sell myself to others and encourage them to believe that some of those who have lived through prison are ideally placed to help those still inside. Offending behaviour courses and a therapeutic community helped me understand the awful consequences of my drug use, impulsivity and risk-taking, but that same understanding constrains me now. It leaves me with doubts and a less than useful belief that doing nothing is better than doing something wrong.

Most of my struggles then are internal, a result of my offence and the sentence I deserved and served. The journey into and then out of prison wasn’t a quick one and similarly the process of fitting back into society is a gentle evolution.

There is hope and help from organisations which engage me as a whole person, my past included.  I sit on the Arts Steering Group of the Koestler Trust, am a Trustee of the Prisoners’ Education Trust and have responsibility and purpose as part of Coaching Inside and Out. These roles allow me to use my current strengths alongside my experience, they give me a chance to develop a single identity, a place to be and to grow. A second chance.

If you would like to discuss how we can create more second chances for life after life please get in touch:

on Twitter @SRefil

or: Email.

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