I was very pleased to find out that the reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) will apply from 10th March. I was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment in March 2004, and thought that I would have to declare my criminal conviction for life but, given the changes, my conviction will now become ‘spent’ – 7 years after my Sentence Expiry Date.
I’ll outline some of the mixed experiences I’ve had, and reactions I’ve faced, when declaring my conviction. Some will resonate with you and some might help prepare others for the challenges ahead.
Initially, I was lucky and did not encounter many barriers to resettlement. A friend offered me labouring work during the day and my old school, who were aware of my imprisonment, gave me cleaning work in the evenings. Seen together, these opportunities – and that’s how they had to be viewed – helped both financially and by providing a routine that kept me busy. Crucially, though, this meant that I didn’t have to run the gauntlet of potential rejection from employers. I wondered how, with such a fragile self-esteem, and having just left prison, I would have coped with further alienation.
After about 18 months my friend could no longer provide any work and the evening job became too much, so I found myself seeking other employment. I went for a ‘front of house’ position in a local café. As I filled the application form out with the manager sat opposite, I saw the dreaded ‘Do you have a criminal record?’ question. I lied and put ‘no.’ I reasoned that it was just a cafe job, and ‘they wouldn’t even begin to understand, if I told them.’ I needed that job.
This lie did not come back and bite me, but that is not the point. My family brought me up to be open and honest – and those are values that I hold dear in principle – but, in practice, and in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t face what I assumed would be a rejection, so I did not tell the truth.
Whilst I would always advocate honesty about a criminal past, I now have an insight and an understanding into why some people decide not to declare. Is it a dishonest nature, an assumption of a bad outcome or a fear of the hurt caused by yet another rejection that can drive certain behaviours?
I left the cafe with my dark secret undiscovered and, luckily, another friend then provided work in a warehouse in Northamptonshire. As with the previous building and cleaning roles, this bypassed the need for a criminal record check and so, by the time I had finished at the warehouse in August 2008, I had held four jobs since prison and had only faced one criminal record check. I wonder whether most people are as fortunate as this?
The ideal exchange between potential employer and employee did occur, however, when I decided to return to University and I would advocate this approach, rather than the method that I adopted with the cafe. I wrote a personal statement outlining my past, in support of my application. I outlined mitigating factors to the offence, but also emphasised the positives prior to and after my imprisonment. Emphasising the good and making the bad appear smaller worked because every University that I applied to offered a place. It was re-assuring to think that people were prepared to give an ex-prisoner a second chance and that an open, upfront letter had won plaudits. It confirmed my suspicions that many people respond to a positive approach in kind.
Life has run reasonably smoothly over the last few years, but I’ve twice needed to ring UNLOCK for advice over two other CRB related incidents. In the first example, I declared my conviction on an application form for a criminology research role in the East of England. I was offered the job, despite my conviction but, later, the human resources people wanted to know more about the offence. So, I attended a second interview, which was incredibly stressful. Thankfully, the charity continued with their offer of employment but, because of the sensitive location and nature of the project, they attached certain conditions: I must not tell my colleague about my past and, for the first month, I had to sit in a separate part of the building, away from the rest of the team.
My line manager and the senior managers were, on balance, very supportive throughout and even they were not sure whether what they were doing was appropriate. I was treated differently because of my conviction and that not only hurt, it re-enforced the sense of ‘difference’ that many people with convictions feel.
In my mind, I had to take a mature approach: ‘play the game;’ be ‘squeaky clean;’ do a good job and learn from my experience.
Things worked out, but only because I communicated how I was feeling and staff kept supporting me. Not every employer and employee dynamic works like this. I feel for those who are not great communicators, feel unsupported or have poor employers. I wonder what the costs are, in psychological terms, of feeling under scrutiny because of your past, and why some people with convictions still have to go the ‘extra mile’?
The second incident is perhaps more commonplace. I signed up at a local recruitment agency, declared my conviction on the application form and was taken onto the books. However, later that day I received a phone call from the recruitment consultant who apologised stating that, at first glance, she had not noticed the tick in the convictions box. She had phoned head office and was sorry to say that I could not be employed. Company policy would not register anyone with convictions regardless of their offence. The consultant, who admittedly was toeing the party line, even said that ‘it doesn’t matter whether you are a murderer or have stolen a pack of sweets, we treat everyone the same.’ UNLOCK said that they had not broken the law but this misguided attempt at equal opportunity, or lack of it, by ‘treating everyone equally’ is not common sense or logical and is obviously an example of the attitudes that some employers hold.
Now that the reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act are a reality, it feels like all the heartache was worth it. I believe if you do the right things, eventually society will do right by you – even if it hasn’t in the past. It’s important to be upfront and honest – at least you maintain your integrity, even if you don’t get that particular job.
I understand taking the moral high ground is little comfort if you’re unemployed, but definitely focus on the positives and try to make the bad stuff appear smaller and less important. Keep going and believe that someone will give you a break somewhere. Research, seek out and network with user-friendly organisations that support people with convictions and always emphasise that you are far more than an offence on a piece of paper.