Whether you’re applying to university or for a job, as a person with a criminal record there will be a point in the process when you’re asked about your conviction(s). James has likened this to a judge passing sentence, the feeling that somebody else is making a decision which will potentially affect the rest of your life.

The two words all prisoners hear, and most fear. These two words happen at the same time every day/week during their stay behind the walls. It is the time when they are left alone with their thoughts and realise that life goes on without them. It is then, and only then, that they can commit to taking action upon release. There were times during my own experiences that I started to formulate in my head what I needed to do when released. Once you hear the keys rattle and the gates close behind you, it’s time for those thoughts to start taking action.

Returning to society can be one of the most difficult challenges you will ever face. You have to navigate all the vices which you will have access to again; alcohol, medication, drugs and risk taking behaviours. Furthermore, the peer group you left behind will all want to come back into your life again which can put you in situations you need to avoid, or guess what, you’re back behind the walls again.

Leaving the prison behind at aged 19, I wasn’t aware of how my criminal record would affect me when applying for a job. When I left school I had no formal education but while behind the walls I accessed a range of vocational courses that gave me the motivation to start over. After rummaging through newspapers, going to the job centre and researching online, I saw a course at the local college which was of great interest. After being accepted to the course (no criminal record check was needed at that time) I spent 3 years attaining a foundation degree which was a pathway into university (the real end goal).

The university application was a lot more robust to complete and as I worked my way through each page with anticipation and excitement I almost missed the question that ex-offenders all fear

Do you have any criminal convictions spent or unspent?

Now here I am aged 23 with a feeling of real dread in my stomach, asking myself the question “what do I do with this box?”

The emotions overcame me and I felt sick. Where do I go from here, after the journey it took to get here? It was clear I needed assistance so I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and asked them what I should do. In my head I wanted to tick the box that said ‘unspent’ as this was transparent. However, I knew that by doing this it might also mean I wasn’t accepted which was hard to digest. The guidance from the CAB, leave the box blank and let the university decide once they receive the criminal record check.

The course started in September 2001 and I was having an unbelievable time, meeting new people, learning new skills and going for the odd beer or two! Not 3 weeks into the course I got a letter requesting I attend a meeting at the university with the Admissions Panel. At that moment I felt like I was back in court with the judge passing the custodial sentence. Waiting outside the room I knew this could only go two ways; you stay on the course, or your days at university are over. I opened the door and there was a panel of 6 people. I sat down knowing the question they were going to ask me.

Why didn’t you tick the box?

After explaining how I felt about the process up to the box and how I had turned my life around full circle since leaving prison, they asked me to wait outside. It was during this time in the hall that I reflected on what had gone before and what rejection would mean for my career opportunities moving forward. If they said no, how would any other university say “yes”? (this wasn’t Dragons Den). The door opened and they asked me to take a seat and communicated their decision based on what I had told them. It was an acceptance to continue on the course.

What a result! I felt like Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happiness.

So you see, you can start over, you just need people to believe in you.

By James (name changed to protect identity)

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