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Experience: the insider

September 07 2017
 Prison bars © FiatLux, Flickr Prison bars © FiatLux, Flickr
Surviving and thriving inside, by someone who's done just that

Jerry* spent over two years at Wandsworth Prison before finishing his sentence at the Isle of Sheppey. But while prison can be hard to deal with, he claims there are things you can do to help you avoid homelessness and get back on track after release.

• We agreed to change the writer’s name to protect his identity.

Prison can be a tough ride but mostly it’s grotty and boring. I witnessed my fair share of violence, threats and riots. But depending on how you handle it, the experience can be a productive one.

While I was in jail, I got involved in everything I could: education for IT classes, employability, and I spent nearly 18 months working on the prison radio at Wandsworth. There are no guarantees, but when I got stuck in and contributed, great things happened. After a year, I was promoted to senior broadcast producer.

I learned so much and kept my brain engaged, which kept me optimistic for the future.

Prison isn’t just full of junkies and armed robbers. There are also white-collar criminals, people convicted of tax frauds, film credit fraud, and people who did not expect to end up in prison for things they did at work. I talked to all sorts of guys. I’m friendly, and I met a lot of people from all walks of life.

When it comes time to leave prison, you need to make contact with the people in your whole life’s network of friends to find someone and somewhere that has an extra room where you’ll be happiest.

If you’re homeless leaving jail, your options are a council flat, a hostel or the street. But in all honesty, it’s difficult enough in the current climate for single mothers with kids to find social housing, so really don’t count on that.

When I was sentenced, I effectively disappeared from society. I couldn’t pay my rent and lost the flat I had a lease on. Even my bank account was closed, despite efforts to contact them, and I had no savings.

I did, however, have the good fortune to be offered a stable, secure and long-term home to go to after I left jail, courtesy of a long-time friend who happened to have a spare room in the house she owns. It was an amazing ray of hope, and it gave me such confidence and peace of mind. Without her, I would have been homeless on release.

Not everyone is so lucky. If you have no support from family or friends, you will need to go and see the prison’s resettlement department for help with benefits and housing in the months leading up to your release. Help them help you because they are far more likely to contribute more when they see you making the effort.

Even though I had a place to stay, I still had to get my benefits sorted.

It’s paramount that you get your application sorted before you leave prison as there can be a uncomfortable wait for Universal Credit. It’s paid in arrears, so expect to wait a few weeks for an appointment and another couple of weeks for payment. Seriously, just get this sorted before you leave jail: it will save you a lot of pain and stress.

Persevere and don’t let small setbacks put you off your stride. Listen: they don’t hate prisoners – they just don’t like bitterness and being barked at. So just be nice, stay cool and keep asking for the appointment or whatever else it is that you need.

Some regions have houses of multiple occupancy, decent houses where you can find a single room in a shared home. Benefits will cover your rent, so why not find somewhere that you want to live by going on or Gumtree, or just search ‘rent a room’ in wherever it may be. If, for some reason you can’t do this before you leave jail, ask a friend or family member to help you.

If you cannot find a security deposit, ask for the Prison Funders Directory, where you will find a number of organisations willing to help. Make the applications yourself. I know many guys that were successful at getting grants and contributions for a variety of needs, including a security deposit.

On release, the relief soon gave way to anxiety, and with £47 in my pocket I felt powerless and bewildered. I hadn’t managed to deal with my benefits in prison and as a result I had to get online and complete an application for the new ‘Universal Credit.’ I really regretted not doing it while I had the time on the inside.

Probation will help you with anything NOMS- or sentence-related. They helped me with the miraculous speeding ticket I managed to get while I was inside. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help. That’s what they are there for.

Don’t expect any miracles from the job centre, but be proactive. Send out CVs and tap into whatever network you have, both personal and professional. I contacted the people that ran the radio at Wandsworth, and to my surprise, they’re keen to hire me.

It's important to apply some guerrilla tactics to your job search. Some companies happily employ ex-offenders – seek them out. Or get involved in a voluntary project that may connect you to further opportunity. The options you have are limited, but use your imagination and creativity to make connections.

Persevere. Don’t give in to depression or self doubt. Just click ‘NEXT!’ in your mind.

I realised straightaway how ‘alive’ I felt without alcohol whilst in jail. Now, I wake up earlier with lots more energy, and feel more motivated to act on my goals. The sooner you get over the temptation to ‘party’ and manage to crack on without a hangover the better &endash; you will notice the benefits.

I volunteered to write this article and it’s liberating to share my story and get stuck in to something constructive. Try writing for something, talk to people, find a vocation and start contributing, because when you share yourself with others you’ll become motivated and connected. That’s when good things will start to come back to you.

There’s a book I read in jail called The Go-Giver by Bob Burg & John David Mann. It’s a fast read, and a wonderful little parable that espouses an upbeat philosophy in life and work. I recommend it.

Read between the lines and you’ll find a powerful message that imparts wisdom and guidance. I wish you the very best on your journey, and hope that you find the success that you deserve.

Go forth.