Who knew that volunteering to be a mentor for Shannon Trust back in 2005 would be right up there with some of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and considering the list only counts three, it was indeed a rare occasion.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but not as wonderful as accidental foresight.
In 2005, I was unaware of how many times I would return to prison. They released me from that sentence in 2006 and I would return to prison 5 more times. Two of those were recall’s where I went back and saw out the rest of my sentence in prison. Each time I returned to prison, my sentence would have purpose, unlike my life outside, and I was gaining skills which made my time in prison have value.
When I became a mentor, I became a better person.
I grew more patience, tolerance, kindness, understanding and empathy towards my peers, but I could never quite work out how to be who I was in prison in society.
Following on from this person I was becoming in prison, I applied to be a listener, trained by the Samaritans, which I’m proud to say I was successful with. Being a listener gave me a deeper understanding and more depth of the feelings I mentioned a few moments ago. But again, only to my peers and the staff.
You could say that in prison I had no needs. My Maslow’s pyramid of needs was almost complete. By volunteering to be a mentor, and then as a listener, completed my pyramid. I had my self-actualisation; I loved the work I did in prison. The immense sense of fulfilment it gave me, the growth in self-esteem and a change in my attitude and mind-set.
I believe there are some environments which bring out the best in people, and for me that environment was prison. I grew up in prison; I received my education in prison. I gained respect in prison for what I did and who I was.
In some aspects, prison saved me.
Why would I not have a certain affinity for life in prison?
In 2010, I received a mental health diagnosis which included a few personality disorders. It didn’t provide me with excuses for my behaviour, but it gave ME answers. I knew what I was working with. Where I went wrong was trying to fix me in society, and I’d end up just trying to run away from me.
You can’t run away from yourself in prison. However, I could also be myself in prison.
I knew the only thing that would fulfil me in society was the work I did in prison. I had to transfer who I was in prison to who I wanted to be in society. I was getting too old for the prison game anyway, a point proven to me when I was referred to as ‘pops’ one day by a fellow but younger prisoner.
I cannot lie and say my last sentence all went according to plan, but it did all come good in the end.
It wasn’t easy at first. I still had my licence to get through, and my relationship with probation had not been great for several years. Having lived experience of the criminal justice system is one thing, having a voice and the passion to use it are others, using them in the right way and for the right purpose are something completely different.
I had a lot to learn.
So, where has that decision to volunteer in 2005 taken me?
Well, I am a valued member of the lived experience team at Revolving Doors Agency.
I am a non-executive director of two social enterprises with a purpose, Starting Step and New Beginnings North.
I have spoken at several events and had an article published in the latest edition of Probation Quarterly.
I’m a volunteer enterprise adviser, with a slight difference, rather than be linked with mainstream schools providing careers advice, I instead work with pupil referral units where my experiences of life, as well as the obstacles and barriers to employment, have more of an impact.
And of course, here I am today writing about the incredible sense of purpose my life now has because of volunteering.
I mentioned earlier that hindsight is a wonderful thing. I believe lived experience can provide that hindsight as long as others are willing to listen and learn.
More and more opportunities are becoming available for people with lived experience, especially within the criminal justice system.
I understand not everyone may want to be a peer support worker in the community, however, our prisons here in the UK, across Europe and around the globe, can become centres of excellence for volunteers whilst providing purposeful employability skills and experience to the individuals involved.
Through the gate transferable skills and experience.
By giving back I am now in a position where I can be proud of who I am rather than be ashamed of who I was.