Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Out of Prison and Trying to go Straight – an ex-inmate records his attempts to put his criminal past behind him

Paul outside Wandsworth prison/photo by Caroline Irby

Can you really change after a life of crime? How easy is it to escape an addiction? And if you are trying to go straight, what help is available? These were the questions that prompted photographer Caroline Irby and I to follow Paul Johnston’s progress after his release from prison, where he had served eight years of a ten-year sentence for aggravated burglary. 

We first met Paul in September 2008 inside London’s Wandsworth prison, then at the prison's gates on his release and continued to track his journey as the weeks, months and finally years passed: in a greasy-spoon in Clapham Junction, at St Pancras, the Tate Modern - in cafes, on buses and on the street - then back in prison, in Hull, where he was in secondary rehab after his re-release, and finally now back in London. 

Now 48, Paul grew up in Fulham, London. His mother was a school dinner lady, his father a truck driver. Many members of his family and friends are involved in crime and drugs. Two of his brothers are currently in prison, one for life. Paul has been addicted to alcohol and drugs since he was 17, and has spent most of his life in prison. He is separated from his wife and has three children: a son, 27, who was in prison with him and now lives in Spain, a daughter, 18, and another son, 16.

Towards the end of his sentence, Paul decided to turn his life around and enter a rehabilitation programme run by Rapt (the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust). "I’ve been in jail all over the country for all these years, dealing and using drugs. At some point, I decided I had enough. I got desperate. I wanted my life to be more than this. It sounds flowery, but I want to be a better person."  In prison, Paul worked with St Giles Trust, a charity training prisoners and gained professional qualifications. He now wants to do a counseling degree, and then open a boxing/counseling centre for at risk youths with a friend, a former professional boxer.

But as with many of the 95,000 inmates released every year, Paul’s journey was not going to be easy.   Our piece (selected extracts from copious notebooks) chronicling his attempts to put his criminal past behind him over the past two years was published in the Guardian (G2) on August 5.  The piece is constructed as a diary in which Paul talks openly about his regrets, his fear of leaving behind the only life he has ever known, his worries about his lack of money and a place to stay, and his anger and frustration at all the administrative hurdles he has to jump over. Looking back at his life, he talks about his childhood, what makes him trip, what gives him hope and strength.

The piece ends on a depressing note: Paul is pretty desperate – he has no job, no money and no idea how to live a normal life. But the article shows how important RAPt and other drug rehabilitation and reinsertion programmes are, and how without sustained help to find a job and housing, ex-offenders have little hope to succeed outside. Considering that keeping an inmate behind bars costs  about £44,000 a year, investing in good, consistent rehabilitation/resettlement programmes would be money well spent.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Haiti - Bigotry and the fight for survival six months after the quake

Three years ago, photographer Caroline Irby and I went to Haiti to follow a group of poor, uneducated, but feisty and courageous HIV-positive women who were leading the fight against AIDS and its stigma in Cite Soleil and some of the other poor and volatile slums of Port-au-Prince.  (Read our piece in the Telegraph Magazine.)

Calling themselves the Delegate Mothers, the women brought medical care, material assistance, psychological support and education to some 250 families affected by HIV/AIDS – including 500 children.  They stepped in when foreign aid workers were forced to flee the country in 2004 and Haitians from outside the slums wouldn’t venture there. They volunteered for Rainbow House, a local support centre for people with HIV or AIDS, backed by Plan International, a children humanitarian charity.

Most people in Haiti, especially in the countryside, believe AIDS is caused by a curse, so they shun HIV-positive people for fear of attracting the evil eye on to themselves. If infected, they believe that only a voodoo priest can help them.

The general situation in Haiti was already pretty desperate when we were there, but now six months after the January 12 earthquake that killed more than 210,000 people and injured up to 300,000, it is a living hell. Over 1.5 million people are still surviving in tents. The infrastructure, already very poor, is still heavily damaged (including water, electricity, health services and roads), the risk of crime - looting, kidnapping and gun violence - is high and the security situation is extremely volatile.

Insecurity, overcrowding, sexual violence and lack of sanitary facilities are making life in the camps a misery, especially for women and girls. But for the Delegate Mothers and people with HIV, there is an extra challenge.  Bigotry and fear of HIV have forced the Delegate Mothers and their families and other people with HIV/AIDS out of camps and some are now sleeping in front of the rubble that was once were their homes.
                                    Delegate Mother helping with cleaning

“I avoid the camps because there is a lot of discrimination”, says Marie-Lucienne Milotes, a 40-year-old Delegate Mother whom I interviewed in 2007. “People refuse to sleep next to us.”

“Neighbours point their fingers at the children and say, they are from the AIDS family”, says Rosala Persona, a 67-year-old grandmother who looks after eight grandchildren after two of her own children died of AIDS-related causes.

Despite their circumstances, Rosala, Marie-Lucienne and the other Delegate Mothers have been working every day since the earthquake to help other families affected by AIDS in their communities.  

With 2.5 to 5% of its population infected,  Haiti has the highest number of people living with HIV and AIDS outside sub-Saharan Africa.

Coping with the aftermath of the earthquake is a huge challenge for almost everyone in Port-au-Prince.  But for those living with HIV/AIDS, every day is a struggle to survive.

Rosala and Marie Lucienne never doubt for a second that they would continue with their work after the earthquake.

“God has allowed us to survive the earthquake,” says Rosala. “To show our gratitude we will continue to visit the families in our communities.”

I am hoping to return to Haiti in the autumn to meet the Delegate Mothers again for a one-year after the earthquake story.