I’ll start this with the following statement:
If someone had told me I’d have a criminal record and get a prison term three years ago, I’d have laughed.
However, the reality of this journey has been eye-opening and frightening! The pre-prison journey was horrendous and my lack of knowledge concerning the working of the law cost me dearly. Legal aid means only the basics are covered and it’s very true that without money to defend yourself you’re in a very poor position to fight. Prior to this experience, I had absolute respect for the criminal justice system; this I’m afraid is no longer the case. Perhaps I’ll write about that some other time.
From my own perspective, post prison is where the true sentence begun. Regardless of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, a criminal record causes a significant impact on the simple things in life! For those with a life licence, you have my absolute sympathy. Thankfully in time, I will no longer have to ‘disclose’ and matters will improve, that’s not to say I’m naive enough to think things will be perfect. If you leave prison and they offer you hostel accommodation, take it! In my case they opened the prison door and left me to it. Probation couldn’t help with accommodation or work – it’s not their responsibility. Writing to housing associations didn’t achieve great results and the council were less than helpful. Therefore, if you have a hostel place be grateful for it because it will give you the opportunity and time to sort your life out. It might compromise your life for a while but it’s better than being homeless as I’ve discovered.
Life on licence is bearable. I’ve found my probation officer to be very supportive and feel that in many cases, they only come down hard on you if you give them reason to. Finding work with a criminal record has proved to be a journey in itself. If you prepare yourself for a lot of rejection, then you’ll be OK. The Job Centre should and will work with any restrictions that you have. Initially my work coach asked me to apply for every job under the sun which really wasn’t appropriate. I had to be very clear about what my options were. Job Seekers Allowance or Universal Credit requires active seeking of work but you shouldn’t be penalised if you can only apply for two jobs a week. You may find that a lot will depend on the relationship you develop with your work coach so try hard to get them on board.
I was placed on the Mandatory Work Programme. This consisted of 5 hours a day of hot housing on the job hunting front. My work coach thankfully had a lot of experience of working with ex-offenders and, with a bit of prompting, was able to quickly understand what I could and couldn’t do. Initially they asked me to join every recruitment agency in the local area and as I soon discovered, this wasn’t the most helpful piece of advice I was given.
In my experience, it’s best to concentrate on joining agencies that specialise in getting ex-offenders back into work – they do exist. Talking to my work coach enabled me to find out which ones in the area were the best to join. I was prepared to work anywhere and was realistic about what I could achieve but was horrified to find that I was having problems applying for shift work in a factory. I got the feeling that agencies were sometimes loath to put me forward for jobs and sell me to employers and I got very depressed with the constant rejections.
Talking with employers face to face was much more successful as I was able to speak for myself, sell my strengths and explain how I’d come to be convicted. I’d certainly recommend this to anybody looking for a job and it did achieve more positive results for me. ‘Banning the Box’ is something I definitely support as I really believe that there were times when having ticked the ‘yes’ box on a form, my application was taken no further despite having the relevant skills and experience required.
It’s been necessary for me to take a long hard look at my CV and sadly, I’ve had to remove the majority of my qualifications. My degree and post-graduate qualifications are at this time no longer relevant and in fact, proved to be a hindrance in achieving work as I was deemed ‘over qualified’. If you have any professional qualifications then dumbing down you CV will improve your chances of getting a job. I’m now employed as a car valeter – it’s not glamorous but it’s 40-45 hours of regular work and regular pay. My current employer never asked anything about my past. All he wanted to know was that I was reliable and committed to the job. I was able to sell myself without having to tick a box. My employer isn’t silly by any means, he probably realises that there might be a ‘skeleton in my cupboard’ but as far as he’s concerned I contribute to his company – I’m hard working, never let him down and I make him money – and that’s all he wants.
Remember, if an employer doesn’t ask you about convictions, you don’t need to disclose. Unless you have restrictions on your licence, don’t let your probation officer force you into disclosure. The law is clear on this, if you’re not asked then you do not need to say anything. The same applies to car and house insurance although do check out the small print to make sure you’re not missing a question somewhere!
The future moves on for me and I know that there will be other difficult occasions to overcome. Patience and resolve will allow you to make progress you’ve just got to hang on in there. I haven’t enjoyed the constant ‘black-listing’ and perhaps this will continue, but I’ll not give up. It can feel as though the system is designed to set you up to fail but don’t let it.
We’re all worth something and I believe that if a company says ‘no’ then it was their loss. When you walk into an interview, its in your hands to prove that you have the skills and experience to do the job and that you’re worth the faith and trust they’ll be placing in you.
By Adam (name changed to protect identity)
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