In 1993 I drove the ‘get away’ vehicle in a robbery. It goes without question that this is a crime that I am deeply ashamed of and one I regret every day.
I had grown up on council estates and seen friends make mistakes and get in serious trouble. I really hoped I would not suffer a similar fate However, in my teens my life became afflicted with an addition to gambling that I simply could not control. It got worse and worse and I got myself heavily in debt. Understandably no one would lend me money. It was in these circumstances that I decided to involve myself in a robbery in a bid to clear my debt. This is by no means an excuse, its just what happened.
Thankfully I was caught and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. I say thankfully as it was in prison that I managed to turn my life around.
I distinctly recall a moment in prison (HMP Parkhurst) after about 18 months or so when I’d reached absolutely rock bottom. My parents were suffering greatly, particularly my mother. She had such high hopes for me and always pushed me to study hard and make something of my life. She was simply devastated by my incarceration – the sad and frightened look on her face whenever she visited me still burns me now.
At the time I was still gambling in prison, only the currency was tobacco and phone cards rather than cash. That didn’t stop me getting heavily in debt again.
I was surrounded by examples of what I would become in 10 years, 20 years or 30 years time if I didn’t find a way out. So I just decided that enough was enough and that I had to do something to change my life’s direction. My dear mother and family right behind me.
So I enrolled on an offending behaviour course and it soon became obvious to me that despite my constant denials and protestations that I could control my gambling, it was indeed gambling that was the root cause of all my problems. This led me to get in touch with Gamblers Anonymous and I received literature from them that changed my life forever.
I’d tried giving up gambling before, but always got bored and ended up convincing myself that I could control my habit only to fail miserably. The literature advised me to fill the gap that inevitably follows after giving up gambling (you spend so much time gambling and finding money to gamble when you’re an addict that you have little time for anything other than sleep) with positive things.
I decided to fill my gap with education in the main and rekindling my love of basketball. I was always interested in law so got myself a job as a student orderly, helping inmates with basic English and Maths along with studying a correspondence course in A level law. I’d written to various organisations and managed to get funding to do the A level.
Whilst doing the course, I applied to the University of Southampton to study for a degree in law. I disclosed my conviction for robbery and I was lucky enough to be invited to sit an internal exam and go through a rigorous interview. The prison I was in was good enough to give me a licence to attend and I managed to pass the exam and persuade the university to offer me a place contingent upon me getting a grade A in my A level law exam.
I remember my exam was 2 days after my release and being worried sick that I would get out and be so distracted by the euphoria of being released after three and a half years in prison that I might mess up my exam. I therefore asked the Prison Governor if I could remain a further two days, sit my exam and then be released so I could focus on what would be the biggest exam of my life. The governor agreed and I managed to secure my grade A.
I excelled at university getting a high 2.1 and being amongst the top 10% in my year group. I then obtained a distinction on the Legal Practice Course at Guildford’s College of Law.
In order to qualify as a solicitor, I had to convince the Law Society that I was now a fit and proper person to become a solicitor. I had spent a tremendous amount of time since my release doing as many positive things in the community as possible. As a consequence, I was able to produce a number of references from people such as my law tutor, careers advisor, employers, voluntary work supervisors and friends. I have no doubt that this enabled me to convince the Law Society that I was now a fit and proper person to become a solicitor.
My only hurdle then was to convince a firm of solicitors to give me a training contract. This was not easy and I was turned down 100’s of times. It eventually became obvious that the smaller high street legal aid practices would be more willing to take a chance on me.
I eventually managed to secure an interview with one of these practices and was given a chance to complete my training contract. I qualified as a solicitor and gained a further qualification which enabled me to conduct jury trials and appear in courts as high as the Supreme Court. I spent 7 very happy years with this organisation until I decided to set up my own practice specialising in criminal defence work.
I can’t say it has all been plain sailing, there have been very difficult moments throughout my journey. I have experienced people, including those in the criminal justice system. that have made negative comments about myself being allowed to practice and about my achievements. This was a big shock to me, as I assumed that everyone would view my rehabilitation and achievements positively.
However, I soon understood and came to realise that it was a healthy reminder of the fact that I committed a very serious crime indeed that will never leave me no matter what I achieve. That is the real punishment, but I have not allowed it for one second to deviate me from my pursuit of doing the best I can to be an active and positive role model in the community. That is the least I can do for the victims of my crime.
By Thomas (name changed to protect identity)
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