I loved my job. It was never boring and incredibly varied. One day I could be in the office avoiding phoning people, the next I’d be lugging film equipment across London, then I’d be at a meeting going red when I had to introduce myself and the next I’d be at a conference taking notes on what employers are doing to engage offenders and ex-offenders (not enough). I wrote articles and speeches, copied DVDs for distribution and printed labels on to them, I did so much. For the first time in my life I had a job I looked forward to going to every day and didn’t watch the clock all day long.
I arrived at work every day at about 8am, at least an hour before everyone else and I usually used the time to catch up with my friends back home by sending emails. My account was still active so for a week or two I was going through the backlog of mostly rubbish I had received over the course of 9 or 10 months. There was a spam filter so very few of them offered me viagra or the opportunity to extend my manhood but there were a hell of a lot of emails from companies I’d subscribed to: CD WOW, the Book People and Tesco and, well, anyone you can think of. So with all this rubbish coming in it took me a good while to notice that I had a genuine email from an old friend from college who’d sent me a message through Friends Reunited. This was great, I hadn’t seen Adam since just after I’d had number 1 son when I was 21 and I’m not convinced he was particularly interested in my tiny baby. Not many 19 year old blokes would be. After that we may have spoken a couple of times on the phone but eventually lost touch as he was at university in Norwich and I was still in Portsmouth popping out babies. When we were at college Adam was my best friend. We sat together in Maths and Physics and were usually rather naughty, a bit silly and very cheeky. We had a great laugh. Of course, it was obvious to all and sundry that young 17 year old Adam had a bit of a thing about me, after all I was always catching him looking down my top, but as I was 19 that was NEVER going to happen. And indeed it never did. I was chuffed to bits that I’d had a message from him after all this time (9 years!) and couldn’t believe he didn’t seem to know if I’d remember him or not. Silly boy. I replied with an apology that I hadn’t responded immediately as I had been somewhat indisposed and that he’d NEVER guess what I’d been doing for the last year or so. I was right, he didn’t.
Once he’d got over the initial shock and I stopped him doing the sympathetic stuff I’m not so keen on we eased back into the old banter we’d had in college days. It seemed he’d moved to Exeter with work, bought a knackered old house with his girlfriend and spent ages doing it up. He liked his job and appeared to have gone from being a bit of a nerd to a full on complete one. And apparently if I saw him I’d point and laugh at his beer belly. Well of course I would, that’s the kind of girl I am. We sent loads of amusing messages to each other and it felt like we’d just picked up from where we left off all those years ago. He mentioned that he might come and visit me in prison some time, which is crazy because Exeter’s a very very very long way from Sutton but I was touched that he was considering it. In the end we arranged to meet up at Christmas when I was planning on going back to Portsmouth for a home visit, shortly before my release, and he would be staying with his family who were still in Portsmouth. That was still a fair way off so we kept in touch regularly by email and occasional texts (day release prisoners are allowed mobile phones which are kept in lockers near the prison entrance and aren’t allowed to be brought in, they’re important in case you need to get in touch with the prison if, for example, you’re going to be late back).
One of the projects I was working on in the meantime was to create a booklet to accompany a DVD Inside Job had made for HMP Downview Resettlement. The aim was to send them out to employers in the Sutton area in order to raise awareness of the work Downview was doing and to hopefully interest them enough to offer placements to some of the women in Resettlement. I was working with a prison based company, Barbed, in HMP Coldingley, who designed the booklet and I was really pleased that we got it to be something that looked really good, even if I say so myself. I had to do a great deal of research because I needed to include an article that I hoped would cause people to sit up and take notice, I needed them to know that there is in fact a business case for employing offenders and ex-offenders. I gathered a number of statistics too that would hopefully shock them into doing what I think is the right thing. Things like: crime by ex-offenders costs the economy £11 billion a year but that those who get and keep a job are half as likely to re-offend; 25% of the working population has a criminal record yet it is 8 times more difficult for someone with a criminal record to get a job. It’s all very worrying. I must say, I really enjoyed this particular project, for most of it I was left to my own devices and I was really pleased with the result. As was resettlement officer who had commissioned it. Hurrah!
Around the same time as this my boss and I were invited to HMP High Down (the men’s prison literally next door to Downview) to attend a conference about reducing re-offending through offering employment to offenders and ex-offenders (sound familiar?). Some local employers had been invited as had several people who were there to present the case for why this is a good idea. Hmmm, that sounds familiar too. I was there to chat about my experience and met a number of people who seemed surprised by me. But….you’re not dragging your knuckles…and you have a good grasp of the English language, how can this be? Sad to say the Daily Mail mentality (all prisoners are ignorant knuckle draggers so lock ‘em up and throw away the key!) is alive and well. I met this kind of reaction all the time. I enjoyed it, I liked seeing peoples’ misconceptions and prejudice called into question. I spoke to one employer who said that obviously they’d take on someone like me but that they’d be very unlikely to take on someone with a fraud conviction. Hmmm. Violence is fine but fraud, not so much. I realise I’ve simplified that ever so slightly, I am not by nature a violent person and what happened was an extreme one off, but still, it seemed an odd opinion to have.
A few weeks after that event I received a phone call from someone in the High Down kitchens on behalf of the catering manager. They wanted to invite my boss and I to a gourmet lunch. Bloody rah! It seems that the catering manager has won awards for the catering course that prisoners working in the kitchens complete and every time they graduate they hold a “Gourmet Lunch for Jobs”, inviting in local restaurateurs, journalists and anyone else who might have an interest in what they do. I’d noticed at the previous function that the food they had laid out for us (apparently the same as the prisoners’ food) was very nice indeed. In fact I was rather put out about this because the food at Downview was pretty grim unless you are a fan of large amounts of fat and carbohydrate. It really wasn’t fair. Bastards. But the gourmet lunch. It was fabulous. By describing it I wouldn’t really be doing it justice for I am no foodie but the quality of the food was amazing. There was a starter, a fish course (I hate fish sadly and plumped for a lobster thing as I wanted to try it. Big mistake), a main course (guinea fowl, cue Homer type drooling…mmmmmm guinea fowl) and a delicious pudding. We had a great time. The catering manager told us that he had hopes of opening a restaurant within the prison and that it would be open to the public by prior arrangement of course. This seemed a fantastic idea, especially as many people have a morbid curiosity about what prison is really like. That’s why some of you are reading this, isn’t it? I really hope that happens, it would be a great way to continue funding an excellent project.
As time went on I had to start thinking to my future. I was hoping to be able to secure some kind of job before I left prison in January 2007. I had been lucky enough to be granted the home detention curfew (which you will know as tagging) meaning that by the time I went home I would have served 13 and a half months and would complete a further 4 and a half on tag. There were a couple of possible jobs in the pipeline but nothing was by any means guaranteed so I decided to apply for a university place and study what would essentially be a continuation of the BTEC in digital media I had done. I found a course at the University of Portsmouth that was very similar to what I had already done and contained all of the elements I was really interested in, it was a good, practical course. So I applied. I had an excellent reference from one of my tutors, good qualifications (as well as the BTEC I already had 4 A Levels and 12 GCSEs. I didn’t include my gym qualifications despite my laminated certificates) and I could envisage having studying as an option should none of the potential jobs work out. As part of the application form there is a question about having a criminal record and as I am a good, honest girl, I ticked the box and explained a little about my circumstances in the personal statement. I am well aware of the importance of disclosure about my criminal conviction and would never keep it from anyone, be it a potential employer or a university to whom I am applying for a place. When the application process was closed I received a letter from the university requesting further details of my conviction in my own words and was told that my case would go to a board who would consider it and decide if I would be offered a place or not. A further few weeks later I received another letter stating that they would write to my probation officer essentially to find out if I was safe to be around other people and if she would recommend me for a place. She replied explaining that my offence had happened only in the context of a relationship and that I was not a violent person. As far as we were concerned that would be the clincher, the support of a professional who knew about these kind of things. But they rejected me. Their reason was that “on the balance of probabilities” I would pose too great a risk to their staff and students. I was very upset. I had naively believed that they would see past how a violent offence looks on paper, take into account my previous good character and see the person I am. But since they didn’t even invite me in for an interview how on earth could they even begin to attempt it? And this despite an excellent reference and the support of my probation officer. I just supposed I would have to get used to prejudice wherever I went in future.
So a degree was out. I really hoped a job came up instead. Because I knew the statistics and they were pretty bleak.