Back in June last year, after almost nine years in prison, I finally made it to open conditions. Wow, at long last, I could start to imagine a life for myself away from prison.
Soon after arriving at my new abode, I met with my offender supervisor who told me that in order to complete one final piece of offending behaviour work, I needed to attend a series of meeting with the local Fire Service. She didn’t expand on this and foolishly, I expected it to be a bit like one of those fire talks you get when you’re at school. You know the ones, a fireman comes into assembly and after a chat you get the chance to have a go in a fire engine.
How wrong could I be? During that first one hour session, my life seemed to spin away from me as I was told each and every barrier that I would face as I was tested for release, upon release and then for the rest of my life. Work (paid or voluntary), insurance, housing – all were going to be impossible for me to achieve.
To say I was a bit of a mess after that first meeting was an understatement. In fact, the Prison Governor suspended any further meetings until I was in a fit state to deal with them again.
I’m not going to lie or beat around the bush – I was in a seriously bad way and turned again to self-harming, the first time in over a year. I had a list of things that I needed to achieve prior to my parole for release and they all seemed to be lost to me. How could I possibly reduce my risk if I couldn’t fulfil all the aspects of doing so, such as securing a voluntary position?
Things didn’t turn around over-night. Instead, I had to focus on staying safe and doing what I could do fairly easily. This included accompanied town visits and abstaining from drugs and alcohol in what was still a very new and quite scary environment.
Then I had a life changer – my brother passed away at the age of just 40 and my mother needed me more than ever before. It was time to chance my arm, knuckle down, try to really move on and get somewhere.
Off I went to the peer-led working-out team who assisted us in finding work. I’d already seen an advertisement for volunteers to work on Unlock’s helpline and, having gained an NVQ Level 3 in Advice and Guidance, and having worked within different prisons in one peer mentoring job or another, I submitted my application and waited with bated breath.
I got an interview. Not only that, I got a job. It was a feeling so strong that it totally encapsulated me – I did have a future after all.
This is really where the story begins.
I’ve learnt so much in such a short space of time – for instance, insurers will give people with convictions insurance, companies will give people with convictions a job. It might not be easy, but it can happen.
But that’s not all. I’m working with new people now, new colleagues and a huge range of service users. This has really helped to rebuild my shattered confidence. I leave the prison twice a week to do a normal job and in those two days I feel like a normal part of society again. The things that last June seemed impossible, were not only possible but they’re happening to me right now.
In January, the sessions with the Fire Officer recommenced. I can tell you now that I walked in there much taller and stronger than before. I thanked the Fire Officer for his previous honesty but told him how I had been able to not only challenge, but also overcome the stigma of my conviction since our first meeting. I’m working, I’ve had my first home-leave to approved premises that will initially be my home upon release. I’m soaking up every bit of new information I can to help me now and in the future.
The Fire Officer didn’t say too much to me at the time. However, he’s been in touch with me since and told me that I’m not the only one that’s learnt something new. After listening to my story he’s completed changed his perspective – he’s told me that in the future when he deals with somebody in my situation, he’ll be happy to use me as an example of what can be achieved with a little determination and hard work.
So, what has volunteering done for me? It’s opened closed doors and given me the belief that life doesn’t have to end the day you’re convicted. It can just be the start of a different life.
By Frankie (name changed to protect identity)
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