‘Bird’ just went plural with Kendra Houseman and Dave Breakspear. Dave appeared on our very first episode of Bird ‘Mental Health Behind Bars | Can Lessons be learnt?’ and Kendra came into our lives at episode 3 ‘UK Street Gangs | A Look Inside’. The links to both these podcasts are available at the end of this blog.
We couldn’t resist the opportunity to interview them for a second time, and better yet together on the same blog. You get two for the price of one with this read. We wanted to delve even deeper and have the opportunity to compare Dave & Kendra’s different paths through life. We’ve been so inspired by the stories these two have shared so far and we hope readers of this blog will be too.
1. Tell us about yourself?
I’m a, nearly, 50-year-old father of one daughter and two sons, along with being a grandfather to my two gorgeous granddaughters. I live in Kent, with my partner Kelly. Kelly manages the Twitter account for the world’s longest serving transgender prisoner, who is located here in the UK, Sarah Jane Baker. We live with our two dogs, Bonnie, she’s a Westie, and Frankie, he’s a Staffie, plus our cat, Millie.
I am also a former prisoner with extensive experience of the criminal justice system, which I hope to put to good use. I wish to use my negative, and positive, experiences to promote and influence change within our prison and criminal justice systems.
I’m a very private person. Even though I blog and tell everyone things that have happened in my past or my views on things I don’t let many people “In”. People often think I am a party animal or love being out but that could not be further from the truth. I am happiest when I am alone or its just me and the children. I spent a long time trying to understand who I am, and now I kind of do, I like being alone.
2. Top three things we need to know about you?
In May 2007, I was on the BBC2 quiz programme ‘The Weakest Link’. I only went and won, picked up just over £2,000 in prize money.
Whilst in prison, this time, I was nominated for and received, two prisoner recognition awards for the work I was doing in helping others and the prison itself.
When I’m not researching, writing or talking about the criminal justice system, I use my spare time to: research, write and talk about organised crime. I write for two online journals, ‘National Crime Syndicate’ (www.nationalcrimesyndicate.com) and ‘London Crime’ (www.londoncrime.co.uk). Check them out, you can find all my articles for the National Crime Syndicate on my blog, or of course online, as with London Crime.
3 things you need to know…interesting…. Ok 1, Once I am done with someone that’s it. If you cross me there is no going back. If they must be part of my life, I will almost become robotic in their presence. I think it’s a coping mechanism from way back. 2, No living person comes even close to the love I have for my children. Not even a fraction. I would be as bold to say that the only people I truly love are my children. I may have “Love” for people, but that’s it. 3, I like cats a lot more than I like people. There is a high possibility that I will become the “Crazy cat lady” that people speak of.
3. Every journey is different – what makes yours unique?
Although not viewable via Google Maps, I would say the criminal justice journey, for many, is very similar. I call it ‘from detention to incarceration’. I don’t believe all youngsters on detention will follow the path, but you’ll have a good idea of which ones will, especially after factoring in the other criteria: broken home, poverty, environment and so on. I feel, it is because of that similarity, we can actually spot a high percentage of those at the paths entrance and redirect them to another path, unfortunately, not one made with yellow bricks though. I think the uniqueness comes from the individuals: perspective, potential and outcome. There’s what, 70,000 or so, people released from our prisons each year? Not many are doing what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, I suppose that is my uniqueness, along with the fact I went back to prison in order to be who I am now. I was always a better person in prison, so I kept that character and personality as my default. The fact I am about to successfully disengage from the criminal justice system, for the first time in nearly 40 years, I believe, is justification I did the right thing.
I have re-written this answer 5 times. It’s a hard question because I am not sure that my story is unique. I am going to say what makes mine a bit different from some is the fire in my belly. I have been a fighter of life from a young age and that flame has never gone. Its been darkened a few times and almost extinguished once or twice but it has always stayed burning, the desire to get away from the ghetto and make a better life for my family.
4. At what point did you decide you wanted to get your voices heard and create change?
Good question. I’d like to think, over the years, I have always been an advocate for change, if only in the system and not myself. However, and as I mentioned in the previous question, I found I was always a better person in prison and knew that I could make a difference. If I was to put my finger on when that was, I’d say it was back in 2005. I had spent part of the previous year in HMP Pentonville, on remand then sentenced. In January 2005, I was, thankfully, transferred to HMP Blundeston. It was here that I took up my first mentor role, as a ‘Toe-By-Toe’ reading mentor for Shannon Trust. In fact, it was a fellow prisoner, along with an officer and I, that introduced the scheme into Blundeston, not only was I a mentor, I was also a Co-ordinator for the scheme. It was being a Shannon Trust mentor that influenced me into becoming a ‘Listener’. The rest as they say is history.
I think it was when I realised that nothing had changed from when I was a kid. When I saw that kids were still going country, that gangs were sill 10 paces ahead of the police and services. When I had a girl sit down in front of me and tell me what was happening to her and it was like she had picked my brain of my deepest memories and she was reading them to me, but this was her life just my story being repeated over and over.
5. What’s been the struggle or challenge about doing this?
I cannot tell you how many times it was the last time, or how many times I told people it was the last time. Being released in June 2017 I was apprehensive that I would not be accepted. I wouldn’t be taken seriously this time. So many false starts and promises, I wouldn’t have blamed anyone for sneering at me, this occasion was different though. Another fantastic proverb for those the other side of that grey veil is: ‘Actions speak louder than words’. I didn’t just talk a good game this time, I walked the talk. Those important to me could see the progress I was making, the commitment I was showing and the determination I had. I showed enough to be given another, other, other, other, other, other second chance and I have grabbed it with both hands.
Denial. Denial from the police, from services and professionals. Denial from schools and education providers. Denial from parents and care givers. The only people not denying it is the children and young people who are living it. Sadly, they may not deny it they are also to scared to speak out first.
6. In terms of people you’ve met and worked with, can you tell us someone else’s story you’ve found inspiring?
For me, this is the easiest question to answer, and could be the longest. However, it is also very surreal, especially when taken video calls from this person (although the novelty has worn off over time. Hahaha) and even if I say so myself, bloody interesting.
Due to the life I had been living, I found internet access extremely difficult, and could say, also risky. So, social media, although aware of it, as a platform was new to me. As someone that hasn’t exactly been a stickler for the rules, while I was in the two AP’s, for three months following release, as part of my licence, I was in possession of a smart phone – it was only recently I knew that smart phone and android was the same thing – this is against the rules of AP’s, due to some of the other residents that I found myself having to share a hostel with. A situation I struggled with. So, I was able to stay in contact with people via social media, which in a way made the strict licence conditions that little bit more bearable, and is probably how I negotiated those first 3 months of restricted liberty after being punished once and paying my dues.
I had caught a story on the book that is face, about this guy, a couple of years younger than me. I read on, I was so impressed by what was written that I felt compelled to send a private message in admiration to this person. Alan Gunner Lindbloom was once described by the FBI as “an enforcer for elements of the Detroit Mafia”. Not only is Alan a colleague of mine at the National Crime Syndicate, he has also, along with his amazing wife Maria, become an extremely close friend. It doesn’t end there, Alan, along with being the author of what a lot of people are saying will be the next “Godfather”, with his fictional books, based on real events, volumes 1 and 2 of ‘To Be A King’, also owns an apparel company called ‘Our Thing’ – the English translation of La Cosa Nostra – a company in which I decided to invest and am proud to say I part own with a fantastic group of people.
Alan’s life eventually saw him with a prison sentence of 13-50 years, but rather than waste that time, Alan discovered a love for writing, and set about writing nine complete novels over the thirteen years he subsequently served.
Although Alan lives in America, we stay in constant contact, mainly as friends, but we do have business discussions as well, as we both look to build on the strong foundations we dug and filled whilst serving prisoners, on opposite sides of the pond. I love Alan and Maria as closely as any family member.
There are a few. The most inspiring person I have ever know is my Mother. Apart from my Mother I will have to say Fiona Broadfoot. I have only met her in person once, at a Filia Feminist conference, but she is truly amazing. She Is also a survivor of CSE and was forced into prostitution for many years until she was able to leave. She is now an activist and leads a project called Build a Girl that works with young women at risk of exploitation.
This woman has some passion running through her let me tell you. Watching her speak on the day of the conference made me realise that that there are others out there just like me, fighting for change whilst also dealing with their own lives. She made me feel like I was not alone. Her story inspires me on many levels.
7. Tell us about a time when you felt like you were making a difference?
Sorry to repeat myself, but it was again, whilst as a mentor for Shannon Trust. I have discussed this story many times and do not ever bore of doing so. One of my first mentees was a lad called ‘Billy’. Billy had quite a low level of literacy skills. ‘Toe-by-Toe’ was a scheme where using a process of techniques, mentor’s on a one-to-one basis with the learner would spend a maximum of twenty minutes a session with each learner, that figure, I believe, is based on studied concentration levels, building up their reading skills. In a lot of occasions, it would also improve the written skills of the learner. Whilst on a social visit, a few months after beginning with Billy, his Mum, who was also visiting Billy at the same time as my visit, approached my table after she had spoken with an officer, told me the officer had given her permission to come and speak to me because she wanted to say a massive thank you to me for the first ever letter she had received from her son, in which he also expressed his love for his mum, also for the first time. That was when I knew.
There have been many times I have questioned myself if I am making a difference. I will try to make this short as I can. I can sometimes “sense” that something is not OK with a young person without them speaking a word. I can’t tell you how or why just that I think I have only ever been wrong once. I had that feeling with a 11-year-old girl but was told by all professionals involved that she does not disclose to anyone. After meeting her mother, I knew that things were beyond bad for this child so decided to give it a shot. I can’t ever really explain what happened in my office that day. It was like the world stopped for a whore and me and this little girl were the only ones in existence. It is quite noisy where I work but they whole time she disclosed to me it was silent. She said that there was no point in telling me because no one could help her. I said that I never make promises that I can’t keep such as I can help her, because sometimes it doesn’t work like that. But I promised her that I would belie what ever she told me and that I would fight for her as if she was my own child. And she told me everything. And boy did I fight. She was removed from mum and I never hardly spoke to the child again. A few months later there was a planning meeting to keep her and siblings in care. They read out a load of questions they had asked the children like “Do you feel safe” and “Are you eating well”. I was just taking notes and then they said that they had asked her “Who keeps you safe?” I started typing “mum” because that is the usual answer, even when abuse has taken place. But they read out “Kendra, Kendra keeps me safe”. Took every inch of my being to not break down there and then and could feel myself physically holding the sobs in. That’s the day I knew I am making a difference. I think I would also put this girl in the list for question 6.
8. What are your hopes for the future in terms of your own projects?
This, for me, is easy to answer. CHANGE and REFORM in the system. Those are my driving forces. Not fame and fortune.
I want to be able to reach as many people as I can and get them to understand what exploitation looks like through the eyes of a child. I would like to have several facilitators going around the country educating people and I would also like to create a central hub in east Kent where children, young people and families can access 247 if they need support around gangs and exploitation (I have created a plan for this and one day I hope I can use it)
9. Any advice for others looking to do the same?
Again, one thing I’ve mentioned previously, ‘actions speak louder than words’ is the best piece of advice I can give, along with being positive. It’s incredible how lucky you get, and how many doors open, when you put in hard work and do things using the points on a moral compass.
Always remember why you are doing what you are doing and don’t forget who you are or where you have come from.
10. If you could wave a magic wand, what might you have done differently?
Sorry, but not sorry, because I wouldn’t change anything. I really wouldn’t. Look! I’m nearly 50, I’ve had some wonderful times in the past, at certain points in my life. But! when all is said and done, I have never been so proud of who, and where I am, or as continuously happy, as I am right now. All because of what my previous life was like.
I would do it all again, the same. Why would I not? There is no way I would want to risk losing the feelings I have these days.
Self-care is the only thing I would change. I have never been kind to myself or looked after myself. Everything else…… Made me who I am today.
So, Kendra, what advice would you give a 14-year old me?
Things happen to us that are not our fault. It’s not OK but it’s the truth. Just don’t let them things define who you are. Never be to proud to cry. Crying is good for the soul.
This was my advice to a 14-year-old Kendra: Don’t forget to participate in your own life. It’s OK to be the thing you want to be in life, and not what everyone else wants you to be.