Around nine years ago a violent crime took place in which the interviewee was responsible. In this interview we hear his side of the story and listen to a man who has come to understand not only the nature of his own violence, but that of the system that he entered into as a result. The same system that he assures he is now committed to working with to reform positively.
Why did you go to prison in 2008?
If we’re looking at the direct crime it’s because I stabbed someone and whether or not you believe it there was provocation, he glassed me, but I overstepped the mark.
Can you explain what happened at the time?
At the time I didn’t think that he [the victim] had glassed me I thought that he had stabbed me, because he told me that he was going to do this. That’s the tangible reason as to why I went to prison, but obviously there are also social-economic reasons behind it too. I am not trying to justify or reason with my violence or my thought process, but it was normalised, violence was normalised in my local area and not only that but it was seen to be a successful trait. You looked after yourself, you drug-dealt, you had nice cars, got nice women and that’s the life right there.
Can you elaborate on your confusion at the time of the crime?
I thought that I had been stabbed in the face because when I went downstairs [the incident took place inside of the interviewee’s home at the time] I looked in the mirror to see how much damage had been caused. I saw massive cuts on my face and my neck. The blood was squirting out of my neck in tandem with my heartbeat and I was really quite angry. After he did that there was only one thought in my mind, which is a real shame actually. I went upstairs with a knife and found him hiding. He had put his weapon away at this point and another altercation occurred in which I stabbed him.
After you pled guilty and were imprisoned for grievous bodily harm how did you spend those initial years?
I was indoctrinated into prison culture by my peers and that meant that it is you against them, i.e. prisoners versus prison offices. You make money and you extort, you don’t really have empathy with other peoples pain or plight because that’s showing vulnerability. I was indoctrinated into that culture and I carried that attitude through for the first four and a half years. I was violent, I extorted people, I drug dealt and had no real empathy. Well, obviously you have some empathy, were [prisoners] not monsters, there is a moral compass somewhere, but it is almost dog eat dog and for a young man to stand up and say “this is wrong” in that environment is very difficult.
Can you explain some of the pitfalls of being a prisoner in modern-day British prisons?
You are not taught any transferable life skills. You don’t cook for yourself, you don’t shop for yourself, your only social interactions are with people of the same economic backgrounds in general. There is no real room to grow as an individual or further yourself academically.
How did you come to understand the prison systems bias towards paid work over continued education?
When you go into the prison system there is something called The Prison Industrial Complex, which is very well known in America, but not as well known in the UK. You are rewarded for doing menial work in workshops (such as putting labels on bottles) for private industry. It’s monotonous, not rewarding and it doesn’t teach you any life skills. The prison profits, commercial companies profit and they will pay or reward a prisoner more than if that person was to educate themselves. Even if you were to try and educate yourself there is a limited access to resources, there really isn’t anything above or beyond maths or english, for example. Also, the teachers are pay-caped so this deters a lot of great teachers to want to teach in prisons and a lot of the teachers who do come in have a lower level of education themselves, they struggle to teach the lads to a higher level.
What is your view on prisoners who are generally viewed by society as having shunned formal education and traditional methods of working?
Education is almost like tertiary – if that is the right word to use – as in it is servicing the already existing education and work system, which is why, fundamentally speaking, a lot of prisoners from working class backgrounds are in prison in the first place. They don’t fit in with mainstream employment and they don’t want to work in Tesco’s or be cleaners. They can’t see themselves working in this way. A lot of people in prison are actually successful within their own communities, it’s trying to find their transferable skills – such as leadership for example – and apply them in a more beneficial way. There is often an intelligence attributed to these kinds of skills that is not accounted for via mainstream education.
What positives are there to be said for working class culture?
What I think we do get from working class culture in society is a sense of community, a sense of sharing, a sense of not always being about the individual and what you can get: a nicer car, home, life etc. I do feel sometimes that my working class heritage is vilified in Britain. You see it on television shows like Jeremy Kyle where people are not able to sort out their own personal issues privately, or educate themselves, which is a sad reflection of our society. Instead people like to sit there and laugh at these people when it doesn’t have to be like that.
What were your turning points away from violence and towards self-education?
I was introduced to a nineteen year old boy and I indoctrinated him into the prison system the same way that I had been. I taught him to understand how to manipulate the system and people, and a while later he committed suicide. I used to sit in my cell and I would think that I potentially influenced his decisions and feelings of hopelessness. At that point I began to think that my natural ability to influence people could be instead used positivity.
There was also another incident when I was asked to have a prisoner who was drunk and self-harming at the time moved into the cell that I was sharing with a friend. My friend and the other prisoner didn’t get on and as alcohol was present violent fighting ensued. The prison guards were called to our cell and they didn’t want to be there at that time of the night. In the morning I was implemented in the violence from the night before, even though I was trying to break it up! Luckily, I got off with a caution and afterwards I got a job in the prison library. I was in charge of organising and delivering education and this gave me an outlet to express my want to help other people. I also feel that I changed, in time, down to maturity, the way that I could articulate myself and the education that I taught myself.
How did you educate yourself?
My education came through reading a lot of fact based books from the likes of Churchill, Stalin and Marx. I also read a lot of encyclopaedias because the best way of learning about the future is to learn from the past.
What do you think, as a former prisoner, you are able to bring to the table in terms of teaching that other teachers perhaps can’t?
Having a good social standing in prison gave me an opportunity to be able to talk to prisoners who I could relate to and try and help change their mentality. You have got to be strong to stand there and tell other prisoners that education is going to help them. You can’t say to a prisoner “do this course and you will never commit crime again”, you have to be realistic and come at it from a realistic angle.
If a person came to me and he has made money in the past, through dealing say, I would say to him that he needs to improve his ways of managing that money. If he’s making money, but then spending it all on nice things, he will find himself in financial trouble that can lead else where. I would advise that person on how to manage their money and their business, as well as how business works commercially in industry. If that person did decide to turn back to crime then they would have a better understanding of how to manage their situation at least, but let’s hope that whilst they are learning, educating and improving their lives that they find opportunities elsewhere.
What knock-on effects did your work in the prison education system have?
Because of the work that I did within prison I won a national award: The Festival of Learning Award for the biggest social impact in the South West of England, in terms of having the biggest impact in a community or cause. However, my award wasn’t without controversy and I wasn’t going to accept it at first. I won the main award outright but the organisation couldn’t promote my face publicly, which flies in the face of positive rehabilitation for prisoners. My award was demoted because they did not feel that it was right for the victim of my crime to know about it, which I understand. I thought about it and ultimately I accepted the award. I have also spoken publicly in London regarding prison reform, which is my passion now. I have a slight advantage over other people from my socio-economic background in that I can actually express what I want to say! A lot of other guys that I know might have the same exact thoughts, feelings and emotions as I do, but they find it difficult to express themselves.
What does life look like for you in 2017?
I have been out of prison for a year, I am working for a couple of national charities alongside a paid day job. I have my own rented flat and a relationship. I am about to interview future candidates for potential prison guard positions. I feel that institutions can become old and stale and that change comes from passionate young people who have innovative thoughts and ideas. I will interview individuals from privileged backgrounds and see their core values, why they want to work within the prison system and have they really got what it takes to do so. I am also starting my own business because I want to support my family in the future. I also want to be able to go back into prisons one day and give prisoners real hope that actually with focus and dedication, when put into practice, you can accomplish great things.
Lastly, bonus question: what is your impression of middle and upper class people in Britain?
It’s strange because I only really understood what middle class meant when I went out with a girl. I sat round the dinner table with her and her family and they were talking about homework. Even though I couldn’t tell why me and my family were working class and could definitely tell why they were middle class.
My personal impression of middle and upper class people is that they are better educated and from more stable backgrounds, fundamentally these are the only differences. However, the knock-on effects are huge and it often means that they have the resources to find greater opportunities and navigate society easier, without making wrong choices.