I have been out of prison and clean for three years now. I work part time as a criminal justice liaison worker, and as a freelance trainer, designing and delivering training for SLAM, IMAGINE Community Options and others. I am a trained coach and mentor, and a member of various voluntary sector groups for BME communities. I’ve got my own flat, I enjoy reading, music, studying. My life is good with strong family relationships, a good social life with friends, and I am on top of my finances. I have ambitions to take this all further, so I am studying for a degree in therapeutic counselling.
It wasn’t always like this.
Although I had a good upbringing in Ghana and did well at school, shortly after I arrived in England aged 19, things started to go wrong and I spent the next 19 years in a life of drugs and crime. My life was chaotic. I was heavy on drugs – so heavy it could never be enough for me. I never hurt people and I always got past the law, but this time they got me and I got sent to prison. This all led to mental health problems. I had long-standing depression with psychosis and spent periods in mental health units on various medication. I felt isolated; family and friends gave up on me, I felt I had achieved nothing and there seemed to be nothing left for me in life.
My life was chaotic, I was heavy on drugs... This all led to mental health problems. I had long-standing depression with psychosis and spent periods in mental health units on various medication. I felt isolated; family and friends gave up on me, I felt I had achieved nothing and there seemed to be nothing left for me in life.
When things were at their worst, I received a letter from my daughter, the one person who has stood by me all along. She told me I had let everyone down and now she was pregnant and I would not be there for her, I might as well rot in jail. This was a wakeup call. I knew I needed to turn my life around. I was already clean because time on the medical wing had stabilised me. I thought "this is an opportunity to get my life straight". If I started using again it would mean I went through all that for nothing. I said to myself, “I can change my life”. There was a lot of temptation around me, but I knew the consequences.
When I had the opportunity to choose, I chose freedom.
I started to dream about a clean life where I could use my experience to help other people. This drove me to stay off drugs and take more courses. It felt good when I was recovering. I thought, “I'm not going back to this life”. When I had the opportunity to choose, I chose freedom. While I was in prison I heard about Southside*. I thought to myself this might be a place that could help me get my life together. I heard that there are ex-prisoners that worked there. It gave me hope that I could get a job.
A judge said I could go to rehab and have counselling and voluntary drug testing. I had to prove I could change. I was brought in front of the judge again, and he said I was a good example of rehabilitation. He told me, “You are a free man – go home”. I wept. He just told me I could go. And this is why I feel I owe something to the community.
In my work I go into prisons and meet the prisoners on release. For a lot of them it’s all a vicious cycle – you use drugs, and then you commit crime. Then you get sent to prison, you do your time there. Then you’re released, and you go straight back to using – and you commit crime again, go to court, go to prison - it goes on and on. When they’re released, I take them into the community and I help them with accommodation, register them with a GP and stuff. I genuinely feel I have got something to offer.
I know what it’s like to be in prison, know what addiction feels like and know what it is like to be a black man in a different culture. All these are things that many professionals need to get more of an understanding about.
I said to one, “Let’s break down what you need to do to get back into a life you want” and he was so amazed when I understood where he was coming from. I live a disciplined life, I look out for my kids, I’ve learnt to enjoy my own company and find ways of relaxing that don’t involve drugs, I take responsibility for myself and I know I can help other people. I know what it’s like to be in prison, know what addiction feels like and know what it is like to be a black man in a different culture. All these are things that many professionals need to get more of an understanding about.
I know I will never go back to my old life – I would never ever do that. I would rather die than go in front of that judge for crime – I don’t want to let him down. My advice to people in prison now would be to tell them there’s a better life out there, and even in the prison. There’s a lot of opportunity to do things in prison and you can actually structure your life. If you just sit back, then you won’t make it – but you can make it if you want to.
*Southside Partnership prison project works with offenders and ex-offenders with mental health needs to give emotional and practical support, both whilst in prison and after release. They currently work with 12 prisons across London and the South East and also provide support after release within any of the London boroughs.