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.

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