Steve Dagworthy’s story: Prison as opportunity

This is the third 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 Steve Dagworthy tells how his prison experience seemed like a dead-end, but turned into a new beginning.

My prison experience

On November 25th 2009 I was convicted and remanded in custody. On December 23rd 2009 I was sentenced to prison for 6 years.

I had been convicted of fraud.

I was going to prison.

Nothing in my life had prepared me for this. I had earned a decent living as a business consultant. I lived in a nice house, drove a nice car and lived a life of quiet respectability.

Was I frightened by the thought of prison? Of course not- I was utterly terrified.

The following weeks did nothing to allay my terror.

What hits you first is the simmering undercurrent of violence, and I don’t just mean from the other prisoners. Yes, many of them looked like stereotypical hard men, but the officers looked hard and uncompromising too.

What hits you second is the squalor and filth. Everything, from floors to ceilings, is dirty, broken or decrepit.

What hits you third is the despair. You are sharing a cramped and dirty cell. You are locked up for 23 hours a day. You receive three meals of indescribable unpleasantness. Some of your fellow prisoners are obviously suffering from severe mental health issues. Others are clearly receiving inadequate medical treatment.

This certainly wasn’t the holiday camp I had read about.

You hope you will find a friendly prisoner who will show you the ropes, explain the prison jargon to you, help you out with the arcane rules, explain how visits work, when you can visit the library, when you can post a letter or make a phone call, how you can get a change of prison clothes.

No rehabilitation

Now here’s what prison is supposed to be: it is not supposed to be a punishment. Deprivation of your liberty is the punishment. No, prison is supposed to be about progression, about rehabilitation. About stopping people from offending again (because each year re-offending costs the UK £15 billion).

None of that happened to me or anyone I met in prison. Too many Government cuts. Spending money on educating and rehabilitating  offenders is not a vote winner, even though a staggering proportion of prisoners can’t read or write.

A prison sentence is in fact 3 sentences in one, the first is the one that a prisoner serves, the second is the one that the prisoner’s family endures and the third is the never-ending life sentence once back into society.

The term ex offender never leaves you. Google won’t allow it. Try getting a job if you’ve got a record. Try holding on to your bank account. Believe it or not, Barclays Bank , that beacon of banking rectitude, routinely closes the accounts of their customers who have served prison sentences, even if they have banked with Barclays for all their adult lives.

The greater fear, strangely enough, is the fear of coming out of prison. The feeling of “how will society treat me”, “will I ever get work”, “will I ever be able to support my family”…real fear. Gate fever is real, it is something all prisoners suffer as they move to release, pure stress, simple as that.

The day of your release they give you £46 and that’s it. You’re on your own.

A new idea…

I was no different. I had no skills other than my ability to communicate and, I would like to think, an entrepreneurial flair. One day I was passed a copy of The Times. In it was a small article about Herbert Hoelter and his company described as “Prison Consultants” in America. Herbert had advised Bernie Madoff on how to prepare for and survive prison. Prison Consultants, advising people like me on how to prepare, cope and flourish in prison, helping those left behind. Up until then I had never experienced a true “Light Bulb” moment quite as strong as the one I was now experiencing.

All prisoners believe in fate, they have to, it’s all they have to believe in. They all believe that prison is for a reason and generally it is, this was my reason and this was going to be my life on release, a Prison Consultant. Bingo!

A quick bit of research concluded that, remarkably, there was no such industry in the UK, double bingo? Well maybe.

…And a new company

The problem with forming a new company is gaining acceptance in an industry, however forming a new industry is a whole different ball game and one which is largely impossible to plan for. Especially an industry which immerses itself in the Criminal Justice System steeped in tradition and set in its own ways. My initial thoughts were that we would easily be accepted by the legal fraternity, we should be part of their care package, they need us, don’t they?

I am afraid that the bulk of the legal profession didn’t quite see it in the same way. The phrase “nice idea lads it will never catch on” rang in my ears more times than I wish to admit, however a handful of younger, progressive advocates together with a few seasoned lawyers confident enough not to view us as a threat in any way saw the opportunity and gave us the energy and belief to carry on.

The one thing that we could rely on was a metaphorical and literal captive audience. Our ability to empathise and not judge our client was our golden ticket. Advising someone is easy, understanding and feeling their pain puts us on another level, head and shoulders above those who haven’t “walked the walk”.

4 years later, here we are. A successful business with a 6 figure turn over employing ex offenders and delivering a service nationally. No longer ignored and no longer patted on the head and sent on our way. Quite the opposite in fact, we managed to refer legal turnover to law firms which equated to around 4 times our own turnover last year, so we are actually feted by the legal profession.

The one thing I always say to clients about to embark on a journey through prison is:

“Don’t let this define you. Draw strength from the experience and if you can (as I did), turn it into something creative.”

As one prison door clangs shut the next may provide a golden opportunity.

 

You can read about the work of Steve’s company: Prison Consultants here

And follow them on Twitter here: @prisonconsultuk

 

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