Service manager, Forward Trust

On-call Firefighter

Ex-offender in Recovery

Andy Jackson’s story

Growing up I found it hard to fit in, particularly at school. I always felt like I was different.

My way of coping was to become the joker of the class. But this meant that I didn’t do too well in lessons, and by the time I was 16 I’d left school with few qualifications. Around this age, I also started going out a lot and experimenting with cannabis and alcohol.

Feeling lost, I applied for an apprenticeship to become a gas service engineer. But I didn’t enjoy the job as much as I thought I would. My job paid weekly which meant I was never short of money to go out with my friends, and most nights I’d go to the pub after work, where my friends and I would drink and sometimes take a cocktail of substances. I soon started using harder drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy.

Eventually, these drugs stopped doing anything for me, and I moved onto taking ketamine and smoking cocaine. I enjoyed the out-of-body experience these drugs gave me but my relationship with drugs was slowly getting out of control.

I felt like I had no off-switch – once I had a substance in my hands I wouldn’t stop until I was completely out of it or until I couldn’t get anymore.

My drug-taking had a huge impact on my relationships. I became paranoid and would disappear for days at a time, becoming isolated from my friends and family. Things continued to spiral for two or three years. Somehow, I was managing to hold down my job, which enabled me to believe I didn’t have a problem with substances.

They offered me what I saw as a chance of a lifetime – a free all-inclusive holiday to St. Lucia… But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I also began to mix with a new crowd of people. They offered me what I saw as a chance of a lifetime – a free all-inclusive holiday to St. Lucia. I felt so lucky that they had asked me, and I believed I was just in the right place at the right time. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I flew to St. Lucia but soon realised why I had been offered the holiday: I was expected to bring drugs back to the UK. I’d always found it hard to say no to peer pressure, and this was no different.

I got arrested at Gatwick with three and a half kilos of cocaine in my suitcase. I was scared about what would happen to me, but I was mostly disappointed in myself for letting my relationship with drugs get this bad and worried that I would ever get a job again with a criminal record.

I was granted six months bail whilst awaiting my court hearing. I moved up to Manchester to stay with family and decided that in the meantime I needed to carry on with my life. I began looking for jobs, but because I was on bail for such a serious offence no one was willing to employ me. I tried a different route and managed to secure a grant to start up a business and open an independent music recording studio and label. I started successfully producing all different kinds of music and managing artists.

However, my main focus was on young people at risk of anti-social behaviour, with the hope of getting them engaged in positive activities. I began working with the local youth offending teams and did some really positive work within the community. I provided young people with a safe environment to engage in their passion and assist them in learning more about the music industry. I received positive feedback from everyone I worked with as they found the project was motivating and inspiring to turn away from destructive behaviours.

As part of my sentence, I decided to do The Forward Trust’s programme for substance misuse.

Six months later I was found guilty of the offences and sentenced to ten years. This meant all my hard work put into creating this company had to come to an end, and the business I had successfully developed despite all the odds against me had to be shut down. As part of my sentence, I decided to do The Forward Trust’s programme for substance misuse.

I’d never looked at myself as having a drug problem, but Forward gave me all the answers I never knew I needed. It helped me understand I was an addict and that this was at the root of the trouble I’d been getting into.

From then on things have completely changed for the better. I found a passion for mentoring, becoming a Forward peer supporter and completing a counselling qualification. I liked being able to help others the same way Forward had helped me. When I moved to an open prison, I began volunteering for Forward on day release, helping other clients who were leaving prison by meeting them at the prison gate and signposting them to local services.

The trainee scheme meant that I finished my sentence with a sense of security and stability, knowing I had a job to go to.

Forward were advertising for a place on their trainee scheme. I applied, but the process was trickier than normal because Forward had never employed a serving offender before. But they took a chance on me and I began the traineeship in 2015 – their first-ever employee to still be serving a prison sentence.

Being on the traineeship scheme meant that I finished my sentence with a sense of security and stability, knowing I had a job to go to.

After working at Forward for a few years I got a job with another organisation called Porchlight as a youth worker, supporting homeless people in Kent. But I’d always wanted to go back and work for Forward so when I spotted a new role closer to where I lived in Kent it seemed like a perfect opportunity. I now run Forward’s community drug and alcohol service in Canterbury and Swale in Kent, ensuring people get help for their addictions.

I always wanted to be a firefighter in my youth, and I discovered you can do it part-time. I found an on-call vacancy and applied, but I was worried about being declined for the role because of my convictions. It was a long wait while they ran a criminal background check on me. Eventually, however, I was offered the position after they acknowledged all the positive changes I’d made to my life. I’m now able to carry out both jobs that I have a real passion for. I’ve come so far, it’s really humbling.

It might sound odd, but I have no regrets, because without my mistakes I wouldn’t be where I am today. I needed a wake-up call to realise that life could be different.

I now have two amazing kids and a successful career in a job I love. It’s so important that people are given the chance to show that they are more than their past. Everyone makes mistakes, but if they’re willing to put in the work to turn things around, they should be given a second chance.

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