A few weeks ago, I was approached by Rebecca Richens from Fedcap Employment who asked me if I would speak and share my story at a Thought Leadership session as part of their Local Engagement Network. A quick bit of research and I read the following from their website
“At Fedcap, we are all about changing the circumstances and changing the story—and the reality—of the lives of people we serve. We believe that with precise innovations and interventions, we can and will affect change that supports our people to achieve their greatest potential. We are propelled by the belief in our core value – the Power of Possible.”
After reading the above, I could not say yes quick enough. The session took place yesterday (19/10/22), so today I thought I would share the words I spoke.
The problem isn’t the problem, how you react to it is the problem; and how we talk to ourselves is equally important, if not more so, as how we talk to others are two lessons, I wish I had learnt a long time ago.
Having said that I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today and I would not change it for the world.
However, I would not want to live my life all over again as it includes a journey I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
By the age of ten I had experienced sexual abuse, meningitis and my first of too many to count, police arrests.
By the age of fourteen I had been excluded from school and within a month I was being taught the basics by the probation service. I didn’t learn much, nor was I able to sit any exams.
English and maths in the morning, followed by an activity in the afternoon. Swimming, ten-pin bowling, and snooker were the main activities. Fortunately, although my relationship with education was a disaster I still loved to learn.
I still do.
Just like Mark Twain, I didn’t let my schooling get in the way of my education.
At fifteen I was placed into the care of the local authorities and then my first real taste of custody, four months short, sharp, shock, as it was known, in Blantyre House Detention Centre.
Anything less than yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir and you were in trouble, and more likely in pain. Discipline wasn’t delivered in half measures. A theme that followed my life. It was wrong of me to assault someone but teachers, care staff and prison officers weren’t slow in handing out discipline. A rose is still a rose.
The saying goes, sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
How wrong is that?
I have lost count of the number of labels I’ve had attached to me over the years.
Challenging and disruptive, now those two I heard, and read, so many times I took it as a challenge to be disruptive. The school won, of course. Along with being permanently excluded and along with the names which comes with that, failure being one, I could add another label, posh one this time, antisocial personality disorder.
I take full responsibility for my actions, or I do now as back then I did not have a clue what I was experiencing. I’m a lot more understanding of who I was and have a lot more empathy for being so.
Following detention centre, I then experienced youth custody, and not just once. To complete the journey there was a mental health hospital, once, and then prison, many times.
I hope you’re keeping count of the labels I was wearing by that stage.
Prison, unbelievably, became my comfort zone, my safe place. And although I gathered more labels than London fashion week, I started to become a better person. Prison made me a better person. My love of learning had given me a head start and talking of giving, it was by giving back as to why I am in the position I am today.
It was March 2005 on G wing in HMP Blundeston in Lowestoft, Suffolk, things had been going well for me there following my transfer in the January from HMP Pentonville in London and I was approached by a prison officer who had been tasked with this new initiative that had entered prison. It was a scheme to help people in prison who couldn’t read, to read.
Toe-by-Toe it was called and had been introduced by a charity called Shannon Trust. I was asked, along with one other, if I would be willing to help the officer in getting the scheme off the ground and to become a mentor. Shannon Trust train people who can read to mentor those who can’t using the Toe-By-Toe format. I saw the benefits immediately. Prison is a wordy environment, and I cannot imagine what prison must be like for people who can’t read.
What I didn’t realise when agreeing were the benefits it gave to me. Becoming a mentor was one of the best decisions I’d ever made in my life, and when it came to good decisions, I didn’t make many. I started to learn that those with whom I was working with, and I had far much more in common than being in prison together. Things which happened to me, had happened to others. Being kicked out of school was something I shared with many, and not just those I worked with. Abuse as a child, struggling for an identity, a feeling of being better off in prison and many other similar commonalities.
By sharing my story with others and others sharing their story with me, I knew I wasn’t the only one. I cannot explain how that made me feel.
I then became a listener. Listeners, who receive training from the Samaritans, is a peer-support scheme within prisons to reduce suicide and self-harm by providing confidential emotional support to their peers who are struggling to cope or feeling suicidal.
My patience towards others began to grow, also my tolerance as did my compassion for others. However, those were only towards people who were with me in prison, staff as well, but for some reason as soon as I walked out that prison gate. Goodbye prison Dave and hello crazy Dave.
In January of 2009, and to cut a long story short, on B wing of HMP Norwich, B1-11, for several reasons, I had had enough. I was convinced everybody would be better off without me and I tried to take my own life. That was a trying time.
In 2010, I received several diagnoses, yay me, more labels, however, and for want of a better phrase, I now had something tangible I could work on. I wasn’t concerned about the labels, far too used to them by now but I was empowered by the answers I now had.
Along with becoming a mentor back in 05, I had also become somewhat of an internal prison reformist. I didn’t want special treatment for everyone or a PlayStation for all but what I did want was fairness. It wasn’t their fault I was in prison and what came with it, however, on the other side, it wasn’t my fault they worked in prison and what came with that.
We all had to spend a lot of time together and who wants spending Christmas Day with the in-laws on repeat, so getting on and finding the middle ground made life easier for everyone.
If the rules stated we were entitled to something and as the prison disciplined us over rule infractions then it was only fair, we had what the rules said we could have, or do.
It took me until, what is my final prison sentence, going to prison in 2015 to realise that I could do so much more regarding campaigning for reform on this side of the wall than I ever could from in prison.
I was released from that sentence on the ninth of June 2017 and since then I have been putting my realisation into action.
My life now is chalk and cheese to what it once was, and my lived experience of the criminal justice system has delivered me to places I could not have dreamed about sitting in my cell.
A few of my highlights so far have been meeting Terry Waite and John McCarthy, who were both held captive in Beirut, at an event at the residence of the Lebanese Ambassador, and along with Shannon Trust I have spoken at the House of Commons. With Revolving Doors, I have been a guest speaker at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, and hosted an event for NHS England, again through my work with Revolving Doors.
Sitting at the top of the things I am most proud of since my release from prison are the current and ongoing work I am involved in as a member of Revolving Doors’ neurodiversity forum where we are working with the ministry of justice on improving the situation for people with neurodiversity who end up in the criminal justice system. I’m equally as proud of my invitation to the house of commons last year to give oral evidence to the Education Select Committee on prison education.
One of my favourite achievements was when I appeared at HMP Pentonville, via Teams, as a human book and shared a part of my life called Prison, The Open University and me.
As proud as I am of the person, I have become, I am still left with a feeling of what could have been had I were understood a little more when still at school, and rather than be punished for how I was reacting, angrily asked what the hell is wrong with you I was supported and asked what has happened to you.
I’ll finish now with a call to action which is to see school exclusions abolished, but if not then they should be used as a final, final, final resort and not used out of habit.
Oh! By the way, I’m no longer prison Dave or crazy Dave. I’m just David.
2 thoughts on “What’s Your Story?”
I not only find your story inspiring David but also find it superb that you share it with so many to encourage them to take inspiration from it and move forwards with their lives; And so pleased that you are so overworked because it shows that many groups and organisations realise that too. (Not really happy you are overworked but you know what I mean I think!)
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I do Ray and thank you. I may be busy at times but I don’t see it as work so it’s always a pleasure.