“My cell wasn’t a cell - it was an office”: Expelled at 13 to a degree inside: Jermaine's story

"I’ve always had a FTSE 500 mind, this drive and obsession, but my environment didn’t nurture it."

When people call me a criminal, they fail to remember that at one stage I was just a child with innocence in me. Initially I committed crimes to overcome poverty – I wasn’t old enough to work, my mum was a single parent and I thought it would help her pay the bills. You saw the same thing in a lot of people I grew up with - you become the alpha male, whereby we hustle out of an act of desperation, this desperation then becomes an addiction as you become entrenched in that way of life. The negative influences are too overwhelming for young who reside there.

I was expelled from school at 13 and from aged 12 I was on the road. At school I was always told I would never amount to anything. I was admittedly quite a bad kid - I got into things that boys get into, oblivious that the probability of success was stacked against me.


"I was conscious that education was the lowest paid jobs but also conscious that it had the most prospects."

When I got to prison [aged 19] I could barely read or write. I always laugh at myself because initially I did a course just to please people in authority – it was just doing the dance. As I realised that my capacity was greater than I thought my self-esteem and my ambitions grew. I knew when I came out the momentum of negative influences would be so strong I might not withstand them. I decided to build up a momentum that was stronger than the one I was going to be exposed to.

When I applied for my first distance-learning course through Prisoners’ Education Trust really I was searching for hope, as we lived in an environment where there’s no hope – in a cesspit of despondency. When I applied I actually thought I would be told ‘no’ because of where I was from, but I got a positive response. The positive response led to ripple-effect - PET invested in my self-esteem, aspirations and momentum. I found a work ethic I’d never had in my life. It’s been a gateway to where I am now.

My [prison] jobs were always in education. I was conscious that education was the lowest paid jobs but also conscious that it had the most prospects. My cell wasn’t a cell, not for one minute – it was an office. It’s like when you read – what happens in your imagination has the capacity to exceed the cell. I believed in seeking stimulus in an environment when you don’t get any stimulation. On a daily basis I would go to the library to chat to the librarian an hour, then I’d go to the chaplain for an hour. I abstained from TV. When I got up in the morning I would listen to Radio 4. I learnt the emphasis, the tone, the pauses, the gestures. I worked until 2’o clock in the morning, got up at 7 o’clock and started working again, went to the gym in between. A lot of my friends, although they are criminals and we defame their characteristics, they were the ones who pushed me to go and show the world what I could do. My friend had me writing until 6 in the morning, going “finish that”, “write that up” – he was kind of like an older brother to me which is why I succumbed to it.

Sometimes when I’d tell prison staff and probation about my ambitions they’d waft me away. But when people tell me something is impossible it makes me want to do it even more. It’s a gift and a curse. I did so many courses over the years: Business studies, GCSE English, Spanish, music theory, bookkeeping, mentoring, sports psychology, music technology, football coaching, developing research skills, introduction to guitar playing, history, fine arts, up to an Open University degree in criminology….  I never slept! 


"The criminal justice system is a game of linguistics [...] Now I understood this and I understood I needed to make a transition in my articulation."

The lack of opportunity for those from our most disadvantaged communities is apparent throughout society, including in prisons. An example of this is that despite me being the most decorated academic in prison and having done all these courses I remained in a Category A prison for 13-and-a-half years and never progressed.

I became obsessed with masterminding my own freedom. After 13 years I applied for parole. After seeing my dossier my barrister told me it was an impossible case. After that I decided to represent myself – why rely on someone who thought it was impossible when I knew it was possible? I used the material I learnt from my courses, stimulation from discussions with academics and a new way of carrying myself. The criminal justice system is a game of linguistics. What happens is that you are not able to comprehend your own case – the barrister will defame your characteristics from linguistics, and you can’t argue because everyone in the court room speaks the language and comes from the same class. Now I understood this and I understood I needed to make a transition in my articulation.

When I went into the board room and I got two instant refusals from internal and external probation. But I told them that I’d done all the courses and exceeded national curriculum and so me remaining in a high-security prison without any chance of progression was counterproductive.

I kind of broke it down, taking them back to the time my grandparents came to England in the 1940s, the laws that have hit black and ethnic minority people the hardest. “How are we ever going to have any prospects with no opportunities?” I asked. After I finished my barrister leant over to me and whispered: “Excellent” and the internal probation officer then said – “I’d like to amend my decision - I followed the herd - I haven’t known Mr James long enough to say he should be released, but having heard him today it’s clear that this man has changed.” I got my downgrade. I was sent to a Category B prison and 13 days later I was released.


"What would happen if the deprived beat the more fortunate - what does that do to people?"

Outside academia, in prison I focused my attention on a concept that would explore my experience of how social deprivation contributes to incarceration.  My concept takes two opposing groups in the social ladder – the fortunate versus deprived. It puts them on level playing field, asking who is more suited for positions on the social hierarchy  – is it the 1 per cent or working-class people like myself? What would happen if the deprived beat the more fortunate - what does that do to people? People would start to believe in themselves and their opportunities and prospects.

Working for £8 a week, I saved up to register my concept in 169 countries. Over the 13 years I wrote to everyone you could think of - HBO Entertainment, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, JayZ. I got a response from HBO Entertainment who said they believed my concept was so exceptional it would be placed somewhere. It was so empowering under my circumstances. Since being released I’ve spoken about it on numerous occasions – to Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, in round-table debates, to the Dalai Lama. I’ve worked with my local council to develop how it could apply to schools where there is gang rivalry. I’m currently working on a television series with Channel 4 which explores my understanding of systemic trappings, the things that deprive people like me from opportunity.

Everyone’s been totally hospitable. I’m starting to be supported now; I’m being accepted.


"... a rose growing out of concrete - it defies all logic. I saw myself in as that in the prison environment."

I’m still the same person I always was. I’ve always had a FTSE 500 mind, this drive and obsession, but my environment didn’t nurture it. I always accept culpability for my crimes, but the fact that the statistics continue to prove people who grow up in deprived environments are more likely to commit crimes suggest there was something in this environment that made me what I was. There are factors that contribute to people’s successes and their prospects, and there are mitigating factors that deprive people of opportunities and prospects. If you look at a mile radius of where I was from – Marsh Farm in Luton – there were 10 off licences and seven betting shops. What are the social outcomes of these? Alcoholism, debt, depression, suicide. If you put statistics like these together you can see how they lead to crime.

I went to my estate to do a trailer for the BBC recently. We turned up unannounced and my whole estate came out in support. I know that what I’ve done is against all odds - no one’s made it from my estate since then and I go back and there is the mind-set that no one will make it unless there’s some change. They’ve not been strong enough to withstand the influence of the environment.  

During the my 13 years I set myself a task - to explore what it takes that makes the greats, who have been to prison, great. All of them have come out with this creative energy.

Malcolm X went to prison and mastered the whole dictionary. Mandela came out humbled and went on to be president not just of South Africa but of the world. They’ve all done the impossible. In order for me to make this come alive I needed to believe in the impossible and pursue it. One of the books I read was 2Pac’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete. When you look at that analogy – a rose growing out of concrete - it defies all logic. I saw myself in as that in the prison environment. This is an environment designed to repress but I asked “how about if I continue to grow in that environment?”

I believe there are no exceptional human beings; I think you’re capable of doing what I’m doing, it’s just finding your genius. I believe obsession and drive has the ability to override my past and that’s what I’ve done with my freedom. You have to do it with your whole being and believe in the impossible. And I believe that hard work is the bridge between reality and the impossible.

Jermaine's Twitter handle is @Truecityhearts