From as far back as I can remember, drugs and alcohol were a problem in my household. I remember first trying cannabis when I was 12 years old after my mum’s partner shared it with me. I’d already started smoking cigarettes at 11 with the permission of my mum and other adults – I now see that it was a problem, but at the time, it never was for any of us. Adults always allowed me, even encouraged me, to do it and I think that’s what started the process of my addiction.
My mum had a tough upbringing herself as she was a care leaver and got pregnant with me at the age of 16. Her partner, my father, was also 16 at the time but his family guided him away from us. I can imagine that she was highly stressed throughout her pregnancy, which I believe had an impact on me – I’ve since learnt that mothers can pass stress onto their unborn children, which can negatively affect the baby’s development. It’s one of the many links we are discovering between childhood trauma and substance misuse.
At school, I could never focus on my work and it caused me to fall behind badly, and fast. By 14, I was using drugs heavily and at 15, instead of sitting my GCSEs, I was excluded. At the time, it felt so liberating to be out of school, but I now see that the way I was dealt with was flawed in so many ways. I was left in a completely vulnerable situation and I wasn’t provided with any kind of structure. My substance misuse then moved onto heroin and I was a drug addict before I officially left school.
I found comfort in the company of drug dealers. They’d put their arms around me and for the first time ever, I felt safe and accepted.
With the lack of support, I soon found comfort in the company of drug dealers. They’d put their arms around me and for the first time ever, I felt safe and accepted, in what was a very unsafe environment. Little did I know that these drug dealers perceived me as a money-making scheme and, soon after, I got pressured into drug-dealing and smuggling myself – eventually becoming their mule. My mother turned a blind eye to what was going on because she just didn’t know how to tackle it.
I was caught and sentenced to prison in May 1999 just after I turned 17. The judge decided to make an example of me because of the drug problem in my town. I felt that I was a victim of that problem, but they didn’t see it that way. They didn’t care about the length of my sentence or my role in the crime and how I could have been supported – only about punishing me. While I have never shied away from the fact that I committed the crime and understand that there needed to be consequences, the thing that bothers me most is that I never felt that I was in control of my own decisions when I was selling for adult dealers as a child. I believe that the best way they could have deterred me from further offending would have been to help me with my drug addiction, rather than just sending me to prison. I now know that I was a victim of child criminal exploitation and that the sentence might have been different today.
One day, I walked into work with a positive attitude, promised to not be off sick again and that was it – I never went back to drugs.
When I got out of prison at the age of 23, after serving four sentences for drug-related matters, I had little belief in myself. At a low point, I returned to my default position – seeking substances – and I bought some heroin. As I began using it again, I told myself that I knew where this would go, and that I didn’t want to go down the path of addiction again. I also noticed that using was affecting my productivity, as I couldn’t even turn up to work sometimes and I started to worry that I was going to lose my job. One day, I walked into work with a positive attitude, promised to not be off sick again and that was it – I never went back to drugs. I was always too ashamed to address my substance misuse in the community so I never accepted support from anybody. I was offered support whilst in prison but I felt that I needed to get clean by myself, so I did it on my own.
In 2007, I started volunteering with Leeds City Council (Child Friendly Leeds) as a Youth Justice Worker and developed a role to help reduce the number of looked-after children coming into the Criminal Justice System. I have been instrumental in supporting children in care in Leeds. Since then, I have been to university and earned a degree in Youth Justice. When I started my degree, I couldn’t even form a paragraph properly, but thankfully I had a lot of positive support around me, including from a friend who helped me to improve my writing. This is the type of support I believe all prisoners need on leaving custody, if we want to see a reduction in reoffending rates.
It is really important that we let children know that they can speak to someone and that they can be kept safe.
Today, I am a qualified practitioner working with different services and children’s homes on how they work with looked-after children, as well as one-to-one work with young people. My lived experience gives them the confidence to speak to me and open up. I feel that it is really important that we let children know that they can speak to someone and that they can be kept safe. I never felt that I could be kept safe by the system after being excluded from school. I was raised in a toxic environment, made toxic decisions as a result, and went to prison. At a time where austerity has led to the closure of many youth clubs, we need people who are ready to stand up to exploiters of children – when I was exploited, nobody was there for me. I have also learnt that it’s not just about taking the drugs away from young people – we also need to instil self-belief that they deserve more than a life of crime and drugs.
The best description of me today is probably ‘family man’. I am happily married, I have a daughter and I spend most of my free time with my family, coaching football or eating delicious food. I love being there for my daughter and being a dad means everything to me; so much so, that I’d rather spend my weekends at home sometimes just to be with her.
I have recently written and published a book called ‘Your honour, can I tell you my story?’, which is all about the challenges I faced as a young person going through the care and prison systems to where I am today as a Youth Justice Specialist. In the future, I would really love to be a motivational speaker to share my experiences with others. I hope to inspire others who are living through the things I experienced and to send out the message that if you believe in yourself, change is possible.