I realise now, we’ve all got the power to live a good life. In the past I felt helpless, I felt like I had no choice. But now I see we all have choices – that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned.
Western Europe’s biggest incarcerator
Britain has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, locking people up at twice the rate of Germany. 92,400 people are imprisoned in Britain, 9000 more than there is officially space for. This is twice the prison population it was 25 years ago, an upward trend that – according to the National Audit Office – has no link to crime levels.
Prison should be designed for release because nearly everyone in prison will be released at some point. And yet almost half of people released from prison reoffend within a year. It seems custodial sentences often fail to rehabilitate, while costing taxpayers about £15 billion per year (one place in a British prison costs just over £40,000) and trapping people in the margins of society.
In the wake of another tragic terror attack committed by a former convict, Britain is forced to urgently examine the conditions in its prisons— what works and what doesn’t when it comes to reform. As part of this conversation, People Who Do Things spoke to a prison veteran named Tommy, who recently served his longest sentence of 14 years.
Tommy has struggled to break free from crime. And while he isn’t coy about his own culpability, his turbulent experiences call on the whole of society – and not just the criminal justice system – to support people striving to close the gates on their criminal pasts.
It was about changing habits I suppose – old habits for new habits, and it took years.
By the prison system’s own assessment, it is has been dealt too many prisoners and too little funding to keep facilities humane and secure.
- 49% of women and 23% of men in prison suffer from anxiety and depression
- Suicide is nearly 9 times more common that inside prisons than outside them
- Rates of death have almost doubled over the last decade
- Rates of self-harm are at the highest level ever recorded
In May last year, a Dutch judge blocked the extradition of a drug smuggler to the UK, on the grounds that conditions in British jails were so dire that allowing extradition constitute a human rights breach. In Tommy’s experience, these living conditions can be a barrier to personal development.
They tend to be very negative places, prisons. It poisons your mindset. If you feel like you’re being treated unjustly, if you’re constantly being looked down on, your first thought is to fight fire with fire. You try to kick against the system. You can’t win, you just lock horns. It’s very difficult to change for the better in that environment.
But there are mitigating features. Education and reform programmes are seen to significantly reduce reoffending. The one-year reoffending rate for prison learners is 34%, compared to 43% for for their unengaged peers.
I took part in quite a few offending behaviour courses – at the end I could practically run them. They helped me to discipline myself in growing new habits and staying positive, rather than sinking into a spiral.
I still practice today. I’m always looking inwards and regulating myself. If I find myself thinking negatively, I say: ‘Come on Tommy, you know what’s going on here, you know where it goes.’ I won’t follow my old habits.
Like many long-term prisoners coming to the end of their sentence, Tommy was eventually moved into open conditions. Open conditions involve minimal supervision and can even come with employment rights. Tommy – who worked as a driver for three years in open conditions – credits this transition with helping him lay a stable groundwork for life after release, and statistics show he is not alone.
Many people don’t realise how terrifying it can be coming out of prison. The adjustment is monumental. Open conditions take away that fear. I was used to being out and I was used to working, there were two less things I had to worry about.
A sentence isn’t over when its server leaves prison. Many people suffer from isolation on release, old relationships corroded by their time inside; new relationships by the stigma of a sentence. Tommy slipped back into lawlessness after his multiple short-term sentences.
I kept thinking I’m not part of society. I didn’t want to stay in crime, but it was all I knew. And there was no help from anywhere else. There was no mentor, no one saying, ‘look at me, this is how I did it’. The only people I had around me were in the criminal world.
Employment is key to breaking the cycle of reoffending, but criminal records can be a barrier to this. Only around a quarter of prisoners enter employment after release. For women, the situation is three times worse. Those without strong personal support systems are left to go it alone: approximately one in seven people leave prison homeless.
While 50% of employers would “not consider” hiring former offender, others – great and small – are combatting alienation. From Virgin Train to Made of Dough, businesses are opting out of criminal background checks, and even actively recruiting from ex-offender networks.
To prospective employers, what I’d like to say is ‘listen’. If somebody has come to you for a job, it’s because they’re making the effort to change their life and become normal members of society. You’ve got to look at them through that lens, and not just as an ex-criminal. What that person is doing and trying to achieve is exactly the same as you.
The Hardman Trust
Many times over, Tommy has failed to escape the cycle of reoffending. But he insists this time is different thanks to a charity called the Hardman Trust. While in prison, he applied for one of their awards, earning sponsorship for Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) training that has helped him to find work as a driver. Since Tommy’s release, The Hardman Trust has funded further ADR training, enabling him to move up in his field.
For me, this was a crucial part of my change. I was able to use this money for my future, to train up and start earning a legal living, rather than relying on crime. It marked the transition from thinking about and planning my future, to actually doing it.
The Hardman Trust helps long-sentence prisoners who show a determination to turn their life around. The focus is on finding employment, tapping into an overlooked wealth of economic potential, while consolidating the process of reform which custodial sentences are designed for.
LISTEN: Former prisoners speak of the immense struggles they have overcome
Tommy says money is just the surface of their work.
What I liked about the Hardman Trust, was that they got personally involved. They sent someone to listen to my story face-to-face. That meant something. It made me more determined to succeed if I was given this reward.
“I can’t forget what the Hardman has done for us. Its real, its tangible. I’ll be forever grateful.”
Tommy is now driving tankers full-time while looking for higher-paid ADR work. He still lives with the woman who married him 13 years ago in a prison chapel.
I’m at home, I’m working, I’m keeping touch with everybody. All the normal things. Just walking the walk. And so I’m living a life without crime.
To long-termers inside, my message is ‘don’t give up’. There are people out there that want to help, that want to see you succeed. They can’t change you, only you can change yourself. But they know that and they’re willing to give you a lot of support.