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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Sunny’s story: Building on user experience

In the latest turnaround story, Sunny Dhadley tells how me changes from being a problem drug user to lead a service user involvement team - and much more.

The blog’s most popular content last year was 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. Although the series finished in September 2017, it seemed a shame not to publish a late contribution from Sunny Dhadley, well-known to many in the substance misuse field as the manager of SUIT.

Early days

From an early age of drug use, it was apparent that law enforcement would be ‘after us’. This added to the excitement of finding new and exciting locations to use drugs, with one eye always on the prospective sign of blue flashing lights.

My drug using career started in my early teens, when drugs would be purchased through friends from school. As I got older, I started hanging out with other circles, who had access to more elaborate drugs and ones that are seen in society as being very harmful. This did not deter me, as the ‘high’ that I was experiencing outshined any societal prejudices that I would experience. I was arrested for possession of a class b substance in 1998, here I realised that even an articulate and bright young person could be classed in the same light as hardened criminals.

At its height, my drug use was problematic and soul destroying. This had an impact upon not just me, but those that loved and cared for me – as well as its ability to disinhibit personal and professional growth. I was lucky, my family had connections with well-regarded legal representatives, as well as the ability to pay the relevant extortionate fees that they would expect. This kept me away from the penal system, whilst many of my comrades did not suffer the same fate. Were they hardened criminals? Not by any stretch of the imagination – but they did not have the connections or financial backing that would have given them a greater chance of escaping incarceration.

I undertook a community medical detoxification on 10th September 2007 which I completed successfully on 20th September 2007, I then got married on the 30th September 2007. What a month! I then travelled to Indonesia for our honeymoon and immediately experienced ‘instant gratification’ for the hell that I had experienced a couple of weeks previously and the many years leading up to it.

Service User Involvement

The next phase of my journey consisted of soul searching and trying to establish myself within mainstream society. Shortly after returning from honeymoon, I commenced a volunteer role at a newly formed organisation (SUIT – Service User Involvement Team) which had been set up to promote the rights of those that use drugs. Within 5 months of volunteering, I found myself in a position of leadership! My learning curve was steep, but my desire to develop & learn was greater.

The volunteer programme that I started on and then went on to develop was awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service, I was handed the 2015 (CMI) Chartered Manager of the Year award, in 2017 the Senior Executive Board of Wolverhampton City Council awarded me a ‘Dedication to the City’ award – I wonder if I was incarcerated because of my drug use, whether any of this would have happened? Probably not!

As well as leading SUIT, I am the founder and director of a training and consultancy community interest company – ‘The Recovery Foundation CIC’.

A decade later, I have had so many wonderful experiences and met lots of wonderful people, e.g. recently presenting an abstract of our work at an international addictions conference in Lisbon – LxAddictions17. I work alongside many systems (criminal justice, health, employment, education etc. etc.) as a critical friend. I have learned that people are human first and we do not decide where/how/why we are born. I believe where we come from has a massive impact upon how we are treated, or what demand or expectations society has of us.

In 2016/17, SUIT worked with 1072 individuals on 4266 occasions – we delivered 5283 interventions that spanned 72 areas of need/vulnerability (addiction, mental health problems, unemployment, immigration, bereavement, indebtedness, homelessness etc.) – many systems that we traverse on behalf of our peers are overly-complicated and bureaucratic. To meet our peers’ needs, we worked with 486 separate organisations, companies and departments to meet the needs of our peers. Each intervention that we delivered cost just £24.74. We also attended and were involved in 139 training sessions, events, meetings and conferences.

We need a change in drug policy

I would like to see a shift in drug policy – from a prohibitionist approach, to one that sits in health and human rights. Having worked with thousands of drug users since being in recovery, it is obvious that criminalising those that use drugs and incarnating those with social & economic needs is not effective or indeed ethical. Not only does this show a cold shoulder to those that need help, it also decreases the chances of them being able to fulfil their potential & contribute positively to society/economy/communities etc.

I would also like to witness an increase in ‘out of court’ orders and community sentencing – such as drug rehabilitation requirements, alcohol treatment requirements and mental health requirements. If we were to truly embrace rehabilitation, then no longer should anyone leaving the prison estate be released with ‘No Fixed Abode’ – something that we see at SUIT regularly. There needs also to be an end to Friday evening releasing, and even further, critical examination of the impact of disclosing criminal records in relation to obtaining employment/insurance/credit etc.

The annual income of SUIT is less than the cost of incarcerating an adult male in a category b prison for 12 months. We demonstrate that there are alternative approaches that work and that by adopting a non-judgemental, person-centred and solution focused approach – within a structured, yet adaptable environment, that we can help to create the sort of world that we all deserve.

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