This is the seventeenth 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. Brendan Doyle talks about how the willingness of a probation leader to change policy helped him develop a career helping others.
What does an offender look like?
“You’ve not been to prison, I’d never of thought that of you”. People have been saying this to me ever since I started working in the criminal justice sector in 2010.
The public’s perception of “an offender”, which is fuelled by the mainstream media, obviously doesn’t look anything like me. I dread to think what people conjure up in their mind when they think about somebody who has been to prison.
I have struggled for some years now with my gambling addiction. It robbed me of a university education, a promising career as an award winning publican, the relationship with my first son and put me into prison twice for stealing from my employers.
During my second sentence in 2009 I began to accept I had a real issue with gambling and knew my life had to take a new direction upon release. It was while I was working with a charity as a Learning Support Assistant in open prison, supporting people with their vocational needs, that I began to get a real sense of reward from helping others. It was also where I began to get a picture of the number of people in prison that didn’t have the basic life skills that are needed to survive in the real world.
Working alongside like-minded people who saw past convictions, reaching out a hand of friendship, really left a lasting impression. I found my own experiences helped me to connect easily to others and I was able to offer both support and empathy. I quickly became very busy and never really stopped working. I was constantly writing, reading letters, applying for housing, grants and offering advice even back in the unit. What I didn’t know then, was that I was laying the foundations for the career path I am now on.
A responsive probation service
I volunteered with the FTC for 14 months after I was released at an alternative to custody project, The Bridge, commissioned by the Essex Probation Service, which offered people the opportunity to side-step away from the cycle of re-offending and get tailored support, training and guidance.
This was only possible by writing to the Chief Executive, Mary Archer, asking if they would consider changing their “you must be 2 years free from license” policy to enable me to volunteer. To my surprise she wrote back personally and was pleased that I had written to her, informing me they would change their stance and look at everybody on an individual basis. This paved the way for others to get involved too.
I was pleased to see that there were people working at the decision making level that had the foresight to see the value of ex-offenders working within services provided by probation. Some of the probation staff I had encountered had not been so positive about me getting involved.
Developing a career helping others
I eventually went on to work full-time as a Programme Tutor at The Bridge; I was encouraged by the staff to apply for the position. I had the privilege of working with some really special people, both colleagues and clients. The kindness and generosity that my colleagues showed me allowed me to grow in confidence and really develop into somebody who could use their experiences to help others.
I now work for a small, but rapidly growing charity, User Voice. We are at the forefront of service user engagement in the criminal justice system, and have a workforce made up of over 85% ex-offenders. People like me who have turned a corner in their life and want to help others achieve the same. I had the privilege of coordinating a peer mentoring project across Essex, commissioned by the probation service and was able to build upon my relationships with probation staff to ensure the success of the project.
I now currently work as Training Lead at User Voice and am beginning to cut my teeth within the learning and development environment and am lucky enough to work closely with our CEO Mark Johnson, who has been an inspiration to me throughout my time at User Voice. I am reminded on a daily basis that change is possible, it’s all around me. My colleagues all have their own stories, which we are all open about, something which is refreshing to say the least.
All of these experiences, especially working with people with “lived experience” has shown me that the criminal justice system can change, but the change has to come from within. It’s not going to be policy or legislation change that breaks the cycle of offending for people stuck in the system.
It’s about having the right opportunities for the right people and having the right mix of the right people working in criminal justice services. Yes, there is a part, a big part for ex-offenders, but equally the attitude and the way that staff engage with offenders needs to change. Nobody wants to be in prison, and yes some people deserve to be in prison, but I believe that getting to know the person and not the record will go a long way to breaking the cycle.
I met my wife in 2007, who I love dearly. She supported me through my last sentence and has stood by me ever since. We now have two beautiful young boys who I adore. It’s not been all plain sailing, as an addict in recovery there has been quite a few times where I have lost nearly everything. I am grateful for the support of my family and for the opportunities that have shaped my life thus far, and I hope that I can continue to make a difference to others lives for a long time to come.