Back in 2005 when I was about 16 years old my mum made the brave decision to move me and my younger brother from London to Wales. Although I’d never got into any serious trouble, I’d been hanging around with the ‘wrong-crowd’ and had started to get more and more involved in the whole gang scene. My mum could see that I was becoming more drawn in and was terrified that I’d either end up dead or in prison. When she was given the opportunity to relocate with her job, she grabbed it with both hands.
Although I worked hard at my new school and got 10 GCSE’s I still had that ‘gang mentality’ and was a magnet for local Welsh gangs who looked upon me as a ‘proper London gangster’. I’d started to study for my ‘A’ levels but when I wasn’t at college, I’d be selling drugs for my new Welsh ‘friends’.
In 2007, just after my 18th birthday, the inevitable happened and I was arrested and charged with possession with intent to supply. I wasn’t really surprised when the judge sentenced me to a 2 year 10 month sentence and took my punishment like a man. But I fell apart like a baby when I looked over to my mum and saw the tears and look of disappointment in her eyes. I knew immediately that I had to change, I had to make my mum proud of me, whatever happened.
Prison is prison and the worst part of it is the boredom. The prison education department arranged for me to sit my ‘A’ levels. There begun my interest in learning and gaining more knowledge and I was lucky enough to be able to study for a couple of Open University modules.
The prison education department were great. I think they could see how desperate I was to change my life around and they gave me all the help they could. As I started to think about release, I decided that what I wanted more than anything was to continue my education and study for a degree and with this in mind I started applying to different universities. After being rejected by several as a result of my criminal record, I was invited to attend an interview upon my release at a university in Wales. The interview couldn’t have gone better. I didn’t feel as though I was being judged I just got the impression that they wanted to offer me a place and wanted me to succeed.
In September 2009 I started a degree in sociology. A lot of the course was geared around human behaviours which totally fascinated me. I loved learning and was extremely motivated to do well. As well as studying I also started doing voluntary work with an organisation who worked with youth groups and in particular, those who were at risk of getting involved with gangs. Disclosing my conviction was no problem, if anything I used it as a positive rather than a negative and the organisation viewed it in the same way.
After 3 years of study I got a 2:1 in sociology. I’m not saying that I wasn’t happy with my result but I quickly realised that when I applied for jobs I’d be up against other graduates with a similar degree but lacking a criminal record. I knew I needed more and so weeks after leaving university I applied to study for a Masters in Criminology and I was accepted. I also started to look at other volunteering opportunities and came across a vacancy with my local probation service as a mentor. With my background, I didn’t think I stood much of a chance but I also took the view that I had nothing to lose and lo and behold I was invited to an interview and offered a voluntary mentoring role.
On completion of my Masters, I saw a Probation Officers job advertised at the Probation Trust where I volunteered. I’d formed a great working relationship with all the staff in the office and several of them encouraged me to apply for the job. I don’t know whether I’ve just been lucky but I’ve always been very upfront about my past and on the whole, this has served me well. I’ve tried to use my past in a positive way and in light of the type of work I’m doing I guess its been a bit easier.
Prison and education were my saviours and I’m not sure that I would have done one without the other. If I hadn’t been arrested and sent to prison when I was, I would have continued offending – I may well have ended up dead but more likely I’d have got a really long prison sentence. Prison gave me the time and motivation to learn and the rest, as they say, is history.
By Richard (name changed to protect identity)
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