Not surviving but thriving

29 Nov 2016

"... a guy literally pulled from the final stages of despair, began with something as simple as the hope found in an A4 prospectus."

I'm not what you'd call an academic person. Having been expelled from school and thrown out of two colleges before the age of 18, I gave up on education and pursued a career in sport. As a young lad I was ear-marked early on as a trouble-maker and told often I'd end up in jail.

Ironically, before being sentenced to five years in custody, I'd done the whole ‘bad-boy-turned-good’ and was a huge success in life. My career was going well - I ran several gyms - and I held British, European and World titles in a few sports. Then I went to prison and everything came crashing down.

Prison was a huge shock to my system. I went from training between three and five times a day, using well-equipped gyms and eating a healthy diet to getting maybe 90 minutes a week at a poor, overcrowded, HMP 'B' Cat local prison gymnasium, surviving on a diet that would barely keep a dog alive. On top of this, I was having to accept the loss of my career, the only one I'd had since the age of 18 and the only thing I really knew. It was a dark time for me, full of despair, and when the inevitable blows came in the form of a ‘Dear John’ letter and the long list of restrictions from probation I'd face upon release, I was rapidly abandoning all hope.

It was at this point that a kind English teacher reached out to me and suggested distance learning. He gave me a Stonebridge course prospectus and information about Prisoners' Education Trust. That night I sat reading about all the courses I could take. The following day, I sent off an application for a diploma in Sports Psychology, which I thought would tie in with my former career and open up new options for me once I was released. Within a very short space of time I received my first assignment and excitedly began to get educated!

The course couldn't have come at a better time, while I was at my lowest ebb. Doing this diploma and writing business plans kept my hopes and dreams alive at a time when they'd all but died.

The psychology aspect came in handy as I progressed through the prison system and eventually landed in a C Cat with a fantastic education department. I ended up working with Safer Custody, doing everything from running Tai Chi classes to supporting other inmates with self-harm issues. With no formal training or experience in social care or mental health, I fell back onto the two things I knew could help - fitness and education. One day I meet a young man who was fairly new to jail. This young lad was broken as they first bundled him into the meat wagon, by the time I met him he was an empty shell. He'd lost his home, career, girlfriend and his entire family had deserted him. When I first met him he'd pulled a bread bag over his head and tied it round his neck in an attempt to end his life. I think I'm pretty tough, but that hit me hard. Once the bag was forcibly removed and the tears were dry, I tried to use fitness to help, but his attitude was: "I have no future, what does it matter how healthy I am." At a loss, I spoke to him about his dreams as a boy and he let slip how much he'd loved gardening and how he'd always wanted to work outdoors. I took a Prisoners’ Education Trust prospectus round to his pad and we had a look together. With a little gentle persuasion, he enrolled on a horticulture course and got involved with the prison gardens.

Though it didn't happen overnight, the change when I left a year later was incredible - this broken young man was well into his course, writing business plans for his future career as a landscape gardener, helping other inmates out, building bridges with his family and almost always smiling. He had even become a keen gym enthusiast, much to my delight! All that: a guy literally pulled from the final stages of despair, began with something as simple as the hope found in an A4 prospectus. I didn't save his life and neither did an ACCT file - education saved his life. This was just one incident out of scores where I found education to be one of the strongest tools for helping prisoners not just survive but thrive.

Having been released from custody a few months ago, I am now carving out a career as a personal trainer, specialising in sports psychology. It isn't proving easy, with my tarnished reputation and criminal record holding me back, but I'm determined to rebuild my life and not settle for second best. The diploma is also benefitting me as I attempt to overcome the worst psychological barriers I've ever faced and compete again after release.

Education was a lifeline for me and others when we needed it most; it was a bright light in my darkest hours. They say that when one door closes another door opens - well for me Prisoners' Education Trust enabled me to not only see new doors but unlock new doors as well, and for that I will forever be grateful.