It’s now more than thirty-three years since I was released from prison. I thought then, naively, that the worst was over. I had served two years of a three and a half year sentence. But I didn’t realise then that the real punishment hadn’t even begun.
I’m not complaining about being sent to prison; I deserved it. I was just eighteen and had done something terrible when I was wild-drunk and running with a gang; so I’d got my just desserts. What I didn’t understand at the time was that I had actually been sentenced to eighty-two years as a near-unemployable pariah. Under current laws, I will have a criminal record until I’m one hundred years old.
The sentence didn’t begin to take effect immediately. Once released on parole I went straight back to work in an engineering factory, but my apprenticeship was ruined. I wasn’t allowed to continue it because of union rules. I would have been over twenty-one by the time it was completed and that wasn’t allowed. So the first stage of the life-long punishment was to restrict me to semi-skilled work. But I didn’t let that happen.
At twenty, still on parole, and at the encouragement of my Probation Officer, I became a Probation Volunteer. I’d learned to my cost how easy it is to go out on the raz with some mates, load up on drink and drugs and, if things get out of hand, end up in prison. So I was encouraged to use that experience for the benefit of others; and I did. I ran a small group for young men on probation using my engineering skills to teach motor mechanics. It went well, and I learned that I loved teaching and helping others. My parole expired with no further problems. I was officially a free man. But that was an illusion.
Still determined to reach my potential, I left the production line, went to college and qualified as a technician. I got good grades and found work in the entertainment industry in London. It was the mid-eighties and there was plenty of work and money. But I’d become disenchanted with the depth of relationship a man can have with machines, and I still wasn’t satisfied by manual labour so, after travelling extensively across Europe and Asia, I returned to education. I’ve always loved to study so I planned to take two A levels over two years during the day, and another over one year in the evenings. I worked the rest of the time as a barman, a pot-washer and a decorator. By the end of the first year my grades were so good that my tutor encouraged me to go straight to university; so I applied.
I still wanted to continue my work with young offenders, drinkers and drug users to help others avoid the pit I’d fallen into. In the summer before the university term began, I trained and started work as a volunteer alcohol counsellor, and I got some work as relief worker in a hostel. When it became apparent I was just as bright and committed as the paid staff, I decided to make a career of it. With my shiny new A level and my engineering qualification I was accepted onto a social work course as a mature student. Then, on the first day, the true extent of my sentence started to become clear. Although it was now was ten years since my conviction, I had to fill out a form disclosing my offence – and was promptly dismissed from the course. One of the lecturers, someone very committed to the ethos of rehabilitation, was sympathetic to my situation. He offered me a place on a psychology course, but he also advised me to tell the staff at the counselling agency and the hostel about my record – up until that point I’d never been asked – so I disclosed; they both sacked me on the spot. There was a clear ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction to be made. I was clearly labelled as one of ‘them’ and so could not become one of ‘us’ for fear that the reputation of their agencies would be tarnished. I was clearly too bad to become good.
Nevertheless, I continued my degree and I loved it. I gained first-class marks for my dissertation and only missed an overall ‘first’ by three marks. I became committed to the idea of education as a way out of unhealthy and unhelpful lifestyles. With good grades and references, I applied for a place in clinical psychology, and I was offered interviews for two prestigious courses. I accepted – and then told them about my record. The offers were immediately withdrawn. Fourteen years on; and still too bad to be good.
After graduating, I got some part-time sessional work teaching A levels at the local college; no questions asked. Then I got a full time job with the Probation Service – full disclosure notwithstanding – and I did well. After a few months my manager suggested I go for a master’s in social work. I attended an interview and was offered a place on the course. You can probably guess the next bit – so, instead, I took a job with the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders; they had a specific policy of not excluding ex-offenders. I worked hard and did well running training courses for health and criminal justice professionals. But, after four years, the funding ran out and I was made redundant so I went to work part-time in a prison assessing drug use and offering harm reduction advice. The Governor knew about my record and was enlightened about reformed characters helping others. Then one of my NHS contacts suggested I apply for a full-time job with them. As it was now eighteen years since my offence, I was considered rehabilitated enough and got a great job in the NHS. I did well for the next seven years, and worked my way up to being a commissioning manager – even after disclosing my record. Things seemed to be looking up, and my past was well behind me.
However, over the next two years, scandals of child abuse in care homes started to emerge, Dr. Harold Shipman was convicted of mass murder, the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) was launched and Ian Huntley murdered Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Everyone in health and social care was twitchy, and employers started covering their backs. Policies on employing ex-offenders were rapidly redrawn. My manager came to me and said that I was going to have to leave; it was nothing personal, just a matter of policy. It was now twenty-five years since my conviction.
I could have fought it at a tribunal, but that would have meant going public about my past and would have been wholly counterproductive. The only way out was to become self-employed; so I did. At that time, limited companies weren’t subjected to the same kind of scrutiny as employees because everyone was too busy purging their existing workforce and vetting new appointments. Limited companies offering consultancy had an air of legitimacy about them that job-seeking individuals did not. That tactic lasted for a couple of years until the care industry caught up with the changes in legislation and effectively ended the rehabilitative culture by screening everyone for everything. A friend of mine even lost his job in a fence-building company when his employer won a contract to install fences around schools – even though his record had nothing to do with kids, no-one was taking any chances. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ was now more clearly defined and supported in law. No more could one-time poachers become worthwhile gamekeepers.
Since its inception in 2002, at least 150,000 ‘unsuitable people’ have been prevented from working with children and vulnerable adults as a direct result of a CRB check; and I’m one of them. Even though I have never harmed a child or a vulnerable person – or even hit a healthy adult – I became labelled as ‘unsuitable’, and the breadth with which the terms of CRB checks were applied is staggering. Because local authorities, the NHS and charities look after vulnerable people, and were all falling over themselves to demonstrate their commitment to protecting the young and vulnerable, doors were slamming shut all around me. As a result, I no longer qualified even to be a dustman in the town where I was working as an interim manager in local government. The menial, manual labouring jobs usually available to ex-cons – parks workers, cleaners, road-sweepers etc. – were suddenly locked behind a screen of suspicion, and the chance to work in an office with the respectable people became completely unattainable.
To find work I found myself having to download my record onto websites at the application stage, without knowing who was reading it or what would happen to it next. In the real world – and despite the rhetoric – if you have a criminal record you don’t actually qualify for confidentiality or privacy. Your past is considered public business – and people love to gossip. Even the agencies funded by the taxpayer to support the rehabilitation of offenders lurched into the fray. They would all print nice little blurbs saying that having a record wasn’t “necessarily a barrier to employment,” but they still had the right to know about it and discriminate against people because of it. The well-intentioned Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) had been torpedoed as effectively as the General Belgrano, and ex-offenders everywhere were drowning in the raging waters of a moral backlash.
Every society seems to need an ‘out-group’, a bunch of people we can all point at to feel good about ourselves by claiming we are better than they are; ex-offenders were now, definitely, that group. After nearly two years on the dole, and in grave danger of losing my home and not being able to support my teenager, I went to my MP. His response was chilling: “It’s a tough life, get used to it.”
Then, at last, and after making a full disclosure at the application stage, I got a job with one of the country’s biggest rehabilitation charities famed for “turning lives around”. My background, skills and experience made me ideally suited to the role and my presentation at the interview went very well. But the managers hadn’t read my application form thoroughly; they hadn’t read my disclosure. So, after two weeks in the job, and having been introduced to nearly one hundred colleagues, I was dismissed when the CRB check came back. But it wasn’t as simple as that. First I had to go through a risk assessment. What happened in this session was that I was dragged back through the most difficult and shameful period of my life by someone who was still in primary school at the time. The risk assessment used was the same as the one the Probation Service use with people very recently convicted, and I was treated as if I had committed my offence just the day before. It was a truly gruesome experience; like having your soul scorched with a magnifying glass for the sadistic sense of power it brought to my employer. Then the results were phoned through to one of the agency’s directors; I was never told their name. The decision to fire me was made on policy alone and delivered over the phone the next day. The results of the assessment weren’t even relevant; there was no evidence of risk to either clients or colleagues, just the reputation of the employer. There had been no need to put me through that at all. Oh, and would I “be a love” and drop the keys off.
It was obvious to all my suddenly ex-colleagues why I had had to leave – so no confidentiality for me. Bumping into them at social events afterwards was excruciating. And long-gone was the right to rehabilitation that the charity earned its £50+ million per year from. My family and I were devastated; my child had been overjoyed when I finally got work and had been looking forward to the first proper holiday together for two years. Never underestimate the toll that parental unemployment takes on the kids. And then I had to explain why it had happened. It’s tough explaining to a thirteen year old why everyone hates their dad.
My career for the last twenty-six years has been in health, social care and education. Employment agencies in those fields now use “a clean CRB/DBS within the last 12 months” as a form of qualification; a qualification I can never obtain in this lifetime – and not the way such vetting procedures were intended to be used. CRB and DBS checks have shut me out, and no-one is taking on inexperienced beginners in their fifties – no matter what the trade or profession. Imagine you are over fifty, and applying for work. Think about how you’d feel if you had to be risk-assessed based on how you behaved during your worst five minutes on one wild night out when you were just eighteen. That’s how the system works.
Now, it’s easy to say “There are other ways of earning a living.” But, if you actually read job adverts, you’ll see they all demand previous experience of the role on offer; either that, or you have to be twenty-one and fresh out of college. The notion of ‘transferable skills’ is no more meaningful than most buzzwords. The last full-time job I applied for, reverting to my engineering background, was as a surveyor for a solar panel installation firm. I passed the interview and they offered me the job on the spot. Then they asked for a CRB check – not previously mentioned in the advert or the person spec. I showed them the one I had from the charity job a couple of years previously, and that was that; there’s the door.
And it’s even easier to say “Well, you shouldn’t have done it, should you.” And you’d be right. I’ve got no argument with that, or with the concept of a criminal record as a deterrent, or with the police and courts keeping records of crimes committed to be taken into account in any future sentencing. But deterrents only work for premeditated crimes, and mine wasn’t. And the whole point of punishment is to bring about a correction to behaviour, which I achieved over thirty years ago. So, how long should a punishment continue? How long should the state, its institutions and its charities punish someone for a teenage crime with such ruthless, systematic social exclusion? Eighty-two years? That’s a life sentence.
In the last four years, I’ve applied for over four hundred jobs, and now I’ve lost my home. I’m trying to survive on £150 pw as a part-time unskilled worker with no benefits or state support of any kind – and I’m taking another degree. Maybe, this year, my offence will finally become spent, but only if I don’t want to work to help or educate others. That kind of work is now permanently ring-fenced for the saintly; enhanced DBS searches reveal everything to almost anyone who asks. Everyone is treated as a potential paedophile, and that is the justification used for the removal of the right to privacy – just as the prevention of terrorism is used to justify mass surveillance.
At the last election my previous MP was replaced by a man who summed up the situation very nicely. He said “You’ve been caught in a net never intended for you.” It was good to have that recognised, but I still can’t pursue my profession, and there are still hundreds of thousands of us trapped in that net.