Time was flying by and I was now into the final third of my sentence. Although my tag hadn’t yet been officially granted, I was quite confident I’d get it as I’d proven myself to be a trustworthy character over the past few months. My personal officer had also assured me that if I maintained my good behaviour, I was well on track to be home a few weeks before Christmas.
I had been mentoring and helping out with wing jobs for quite some time now and although I’d enjoyed my time doing this, I decided it was now a good time to take on some new challenges and apply for some courses.I still had at least 12 weeks or so left and what better way to spend them than to broaden my knowledge and learn some new skills. I’m not sure how other prisons compare but Oakwood offered a wide range of courses to enrol on, from gardening to personal training. I’d recently been interested in applying for a barbering course but for the dates I wanted to do it was booked up and so I was only able to complete the induction. As I couldn’t continue with the rest of the course, I instead spent some time watching the wing ‘barber’ doing his haircuts and learning some skills and tips from him. The wing barber isn’t an official job title given by the prison, the wing actually had it’s own barber shop with workers in. However, some lads who had completed the extensive barbering course would buy some hairdressing clippers on their canteen and offer their services at a weekend, obviously at a cost. This could be anything from a vape cartridge to a packet of biscuits so it’s not a bad little side job. If you have the skills and offer the service then you become known as the wing barber.
With Oakwood being a big prison, there is plenty of space for outbuildings and open areas for courses to take place, whereas smaller prisons may not have the space or facilities available to enable them to provide as many options. I’m aware that this presents some unavoidable barriers but I really believe that all prisons, especially cat C, should provide as many courses as possible for prisoners. They give those serving sentences a focus and an opportunity to gain new skills and qualifications in subjects they may not have been able to access previously.
Furthermore, the apprenticeship schemes which are offered in some prisons are invaluable and can provide prisoners with the opportunity to completely turn their lives around. Other courses provide a qualification upon completion, such as an NVQ, which is amazing and something which I’m certainly not knocking. However, in my experience and of many people I’ve spoken to, upon release from prison any education, skills or previous work experience seems to be overlooked once that tick box declaring a criminal conviction is ticked. This was something I found soul destroying and was actually the reason I first joined twitter and began my blog. I spent hours upon hours applying for jobs I was more than qualified to do, only to be rejected or, even worse, ignored. I will discuss this in more detail in a later post but I can’t stress enough how beneficial the apprenticeship schemes can be in helping prisoners move on with their lives once they are released. Struggling to obtain employment and not being offered a second chance can unfortunately lead to people reoffending but that cycle can be broken with these apprenticeship programs where the induction is completed in prison and, if passed, you’re offered employment upon your release.
One company who do amazing work with people serving prison sentences and who I can speak very highly of (alongside my employer Timpson of course!) is RMF, a training and construction company based in the midlands. They began their Fresh Start employment program in 2014, with the aim of assisting disadvantaged people through training and into employment, including those in prison. Currently, they have links with 17 prisons nationwide and provide training and support to prisoners both pre and post release, helping them to secure employment within the construction and rail industries. This is beneficial for both the employers and employees and has proven to be successful in unemployment and crime rates. It’s actually unbelievable to me that more companies haven’t followed suit after seeing the benefits of being a socially inclusive employer.
One Friday afternoon I went to the kiosk and opened up the courses menu to see what would be available to me. I had heard about an RMF rail track course throughout my sentence but it hadn’t been available to me due to having too long left of my sentence. By this point I had around 12 weeks left and I was pleased to see that it was now available! I instantly got my name down and, along with Andy, we were enrolled to begin at 8:30am on Monday!
I was up early that Monday, showered and sat waiting with a coffee, anticipating unlock and movement to work for the first day of my rail course. Unlock arrived with the smash of the bolt on my door and the voices of lads leaving their cells filled the wing. For the first time in a long time I had to leave my cell instantly and follow the crowd of lads moving off the wing. After months of sauntering out of my cell at 8:30 ready for a game of cards and a coffee with the other wing workers, this was quite a change! Myself and Andy had been told we were to head to the ground floor of a big building we’d previously attended the library in and as we arrived at the green gates of the building, were met by a line of officers doing rub down searches. Once we were cleared, we headed in and walked to the room we had been allocated. As we reached it we saw around 10 lads stood along the white wall of the corridor and realised the door to the room was locked behind an iron gate. Nobody spoke a word as we all stood and waited, but a few glances and nods went between us all as we realised we’d all be on the course together. It wasn’t long before a friendly looking lad with a bag and clipboard began walking up the corridor towards us. He wasn’t an officer but clearly not a prisoner either and wore a blue tracksuit with RMF on the shoulder. As he approached us, he smiled widely and introduced himself as our course tutor whilst he unlocked the gate. I couldn’t help feeling slightly anxious as this was the first time I’d been in a group environment with lads I didn’t know for months, but I knew it was just because it was another new experience and it would soon settle once I’d got stuck in.
The room was small with bright white walls and tables were positioned in an arch facing a white board on the back wall with a desk underneath it. I chose a seat next to Andy and the tutor asked us all to take turns standing up and introducing ourselves to the rest of the room stating our name, age and job history. For me this meant my name, age and a big fat lie! There were some brilliant job histories that came out, from a Chemist (drug dealer) to executive driver (drug runner) with some legit jobs thrown in and I stuck to my story of joiner. I was so glad I had used a job I was knowledgable in as when we got further round the room one lad said he was also a self employed joiner and of course he began asking questions about it! It really panicked me knowing I was lying but thankfully, as my title wasn’t exciting, I went under the radar.
The introductions helped ease the tension and awkwardness in the room and we were all ready to get started. The tutor began explaining the premise of the course, what would be expected of us, what we would gain from it and also the prospects after completion. It all seemed very interesting and promising and I felt like I’d really enjoy it, I just really hoped I’d pass! We were also told that RMF accepted lads on the course who, 1. have passed mandatory drug tests, 2. have enhanced status and 3. have between 12 and 20 weeks left of their sentence. So, in my mind, I was in here with decent lads who had chosen to attend and so would hopefully take it seriously and not mess around. The next 10 weeks would involve me spending each morning in this classroom and each afternoon on the on-site prison rail yard being taught the practical skills. This was the first of many interesting days on the rail track course!