Reflection – What can be!

Regular followers of my blog and Twitter account will be aware of what an incredible year I have had. There have been some fine highlights along the way: A guest of Dr Lewis Owens’ at two events. One was at the residence of the Lebanese Ambassador; where I not only met Terry Waite but also John McCarthy and former captain of England, the legend and all-round top bloke Tony Adams.

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Then the second was at the Royal Academy of Music where I was invited to collect a St. Martin’s Lifetime achievement award on behalf of former Colombian presidential hopeful Ingrid Betancourt. I would happily bump into Tony Adams once again as he collected his own St. Martin’s Award for his excellent service to mental health and addiction.

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And, we were also joined at the Royal Academy by my good friend Jose Aguiar, a man of inspiration within the education department of HMP Pentonville.

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Jose is also responsible for a few highlights as he invited me into Pentonville to speak to the guys at their celebration of success event. This event Jose and his team put on for those who have achieved within education.

There was the recording of ‘The Secret Life of Prisons’ where 4 episodes of the prison process were recorded as podcasts by the Prison Radio Association and Prison Reform Trust. I was involved with episode 2 ‘The Cell’. Episode 1 is ‘The Arrival’, episode 3 is ‘The Visit’ and episode 4 is ‘The Release’. The link above takes you to episode 2, you’ll also find the other episodes within. I was shocked when I was asked if I would take part in a Radio 4 programme, Law in Action, presented by Joshua Rozenberg to be a guest on his show along with Paula Harriot, Phil Maguire and Brenda aka Lady P from Unchained Poetry. I mean, me, on Radio 4. Who’d have thought it?

Right at the beginning of the year, I had the pleasure of joining up with Kate and Nina at Bird Podcast but this time at a live event that they successfully put on. I am also proud to say that Kate and Nina were recently the winners for ‘Outstanding digital media ‘ at the criminal justice alliance awards last month (November 2019).

Another, surreal, this time, highlight came when I was asked to speak at the Magistrate’s Association AGM. Felt quite strange speaking to those I once spoke to on a stage with a screen and microphone, rather than from the dock where I affirmed my lies and not by swearing on the bible. In fact, I even began my talk with “I wasn’t sure whether to write a speech or prepare a defence statement”.

And of course, there was the publication of ‘A Father’s Son’ what I hope to be my first of many books. A former prisoner, kicked out of school, now a published author.

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The only way to separate the next from being my ultimate years’ highlight is by chronologically separating them. They have different reasons. I mean, how could speaking at the House of Commons not be right up there, plus the fact it was for Shannon Trust. My experience that day can be read here A Day to Remember. Then, there was my appearance at the home of The Open University in Milton Keynes on the red dot of the Tedx stage. It was a difficult day to enjoy at the time, but looking back it was such an incredible experience. Fortunately, the video of my talk has now been uploaded to YouTube.

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If you like, my final gig of the year was actually a set of three. The More Than Words conferences 2019 for Shannon Trust. We began in Leeds, then Birmingham and the final conference was in London on the 3rd of December. I have to admit that the first one in Leeds being my real first opportunity of publically thanking Shannon Trust was more akin to Olivia Coleman’s speech at the Oscars. A few tissues were needed, by me that is. My main picture with this blog was taken at the Conference in Birmingham. By the time we got to London, I had everything I needed and wanted to say. I would like to share my full speech from the London conference, as it also contained a special message written by my good friend Mark Leech.

I would like to begin by paying respect to Jack Merritt, Jack very much understood the importance of learning together.

I’m going to read a poem that was written by Mark Leech. I had asked Mark if I could use it here today, Mark replied saying he would be honoured and added: “perhaps it speaks for many and not just me”.

I can’t say I knew you Jack

but I wish so much I had,

We shared the same unpopular beliefs

seeing good in those, others brand as bad.

Now you’re gone my chance has passed,

but your reputation still stands tall

I really wish I’d met you, Jack

Such a shining example to us all.

RIP Jack.

For those of you who wish to read or locate it later, Mark is on Twitter, where the poem is published, as @prisonsorguk.

So, my section is called ‘What Can be’, however, there is also ‘what was’ and ‘what became’. And it’s at ‘what became’ where I wish to start.

Before I do though, I would like to read another poem, this time one of my own.

‘Listen’ relates to a few transactions that take place in prison, but none more so than the one that takes place between mentor and mentee.

One to one… They meet, maybe across a table.

A soul-less room, wet with tears, thick with pain.

STOP!!!

Please… Just listen, before you fail me.

For a poem is not just sound it is silence as well.

We fail to listen to understand whilst providing rapid response.

The empathetic listening ear changes ways of thinking.

We listen… We learn… of others, hopes, failures, fears and dreams.

Unselfish connections in this absorbed and troubled world.

Unconditional listening, an art form… not achieved by all.

Creating a deeper bond of empathy, the trade begins.

Come quietly into my world and allow me to be me.

Failure comes when ears are closed.

Becoming a Shannon Trust mentor helped me rediscover purpose and led to ‘what become’.

In March 2016 I was nominated for and received a prisoner excellence award for excellent contribution and a positive attitude.

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Almost a year later, January 2017, I was once again nominated for and received a prisoner excellence award. This time for excellent contribution and excellent team performance. I had created and was editor, with a team, of a prison magazine.

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I have the nomination form from 2016 and would like to share what was said.

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On the back of becoming a Shannon Trust mentor, way back when, I also became a listener. In 2016, whilst as a listener once again, a prisoner gave me these two pictures.

A few nights previously he had called me out as a listener and was close to taking his own life. He allowed me to speak, which I did the next day, with a wonderful mental health nurse at HMP Norwich. During a meeting, between the three of us, we drew up a mental health first aid kit. I was honoured he placed me at the top of the list, second on the list was colouring-in, 3rd was fishing and 4th was space. The nurse came back later with some colouring pencils and some pictures taken from a colouring book.

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That night he called me out again. However, the following night I heard nothing from him, not the best night’s sleep I’ve had. My worry was unnecessary. At unlock the next morning, he was at my door to give me the pictures. I said to him that he didn’t have to do that, he said he did, because had he not coloured in these two pictures, he doubted if he’d be standing in front of me.

I want to share a case study with you of my very first mentee as a Shannon Trust mentor, but before I do, I would like to share ‘what was’ with you all.

At the age of 8, a period of sexual abuse began. I would never be a victim.

At the age of ten, I contracted meningitis. I would never be a victim.

Also, at the age of ten, I received my first police caution. And so, began my 40-year relationship with the criminal justice system. Already in possession of labels. Some I played up to, some I ignored. I would never be a victim.

I was the youngest of six, three sisters and two brothers.

We shared our parents. We shared the home. I even shared their clothes; However, my experience was an individual one. I would never be a victim.

Just as Mark Twain said, I didn’t let school get in the way of my education, although, being kicked out of the education system at 14 didn’t help.

I soon then found myself on a journey most of you that work in prison will be familiar with.

One from secure unit to prison. From child to adult. I would never be a victim.

It makes you wonder if it takes a village to raise a child, where the hell everyone goes.

My first sentence was 4 months detention centre, HMDC Blantyre House in Kent, it was 1985, I was 15.

I saw in my 16th birthday at HMDC Eastwood Park, near Bristol.

My 17th would be my real coming of age, as a YP on the 4’s B wing HMP Canterbury.

Having said that, I saw in my 18th with a night clockie at HMYCC Dover, 1987 the year of the great hurricane. He had brought me in a little cake with a candle in it. The locked door prevented me from blowing out my candle and having my cake and eating it.

I tried to grow up. In 1990 I got married, had a mortgage. Six months after my marriage, three weeks after my 21st, my mum passed away aged 59 two days before her 60th.

In 2002, I woke up on my 33rd birthday in Runwell psychiatric hospital, Essex.

Anyone getting the sense I don’t like birthdays.

Early 2004, the courts had unknowingly given me my last chance with a combination order which I never saw out before ending up back in prison.

Between 2004 and 2015 I hardly spent time out of prison.

I spent many years taking, then in 2005 I learnt the art of giving back in such a profound, but simple way.

January 2005, I had arrived at HMP Blundeston, a prison I called home on more than one occasion. Once again, I had fitted in. After a few months, I was approached by a prison officer, Dave Banks, who explained this new reading programme to me, where prisoners who can read teach prisoners who can’t read. I was immediately taken with how simple an idea it was, and what a powerful commodity that people who can read held.

So, my life with Shannon Trust began, not just as a mentor but also as a co-ordinator. And as you heard from Debbie earlier, it can change your life. It’s not just about the learners.

Talking of which, I’d now like to share with you what happened with my first mentee, Billy, or Billy the broom as we called him. Only because he kept the wing spotless, best wing cleaner ever our Billy.

One thing I learnt, being a Shannon Trust mentor isn’t just about teaching someone to read. Billy was making great progress, not only was I teaching Billy to read, but I also listened to him, when he wanted to talk that is. Are we not both student and teacher?

“creating a deeper bond of empathy, the trade begins”

“come quietly into my world and allow me to be me”

I was on a visit one day, as was Billy, who had his mum and dad visiting. I noticed his mum get up and speak to an officer. They were both looking in my direction. I saw the prison officer nod and the lady made her way over to me.

As she got closer, I could see tears welling up in her eyes.

“David,” she said, “I’m Billy’s mum and I wanted to come over to say thank you and to give you a hug for helping my son”. I stood and hugged her. She went on to tell me how much receiving a letter from Billy had meant to them. It’s not just about learning to read.

For all I know Billy could’ve written the instructions for changing a plug, but do you know what, to his mum. It was ‘More Than Words’.

You can only imagine how I felt.

I also had an identity, okay, it didn’t help with being institutionalised but it was certainly the catalyst for this reforming man.

It wasn’t until I was homeless, addicted to crack and heroin, that I realised the man I was in prison could be the man I wanted to be in society. I then set about making it happen and stand in front of you today sharing my experiences.

And just think ladies and gentlemen. It all began with a broom, a little red book and aah, bah, ca.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

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