I was now just a few months from being released under home detention curfew (or ‘on tag’ as it’s more commonly known) which I’d been told I was well on track for. I’d managed to get on a 10 week RMF rail engineering course, which was only offered to a select number of enhanced prisoners towards the end of their sentence. I was really pleased about this as not only did it lead to a gaining an extra qualification, it also filled my time nicely during this final stretch, finishing just two weeks before my release date.
RMF group are a construction company based in the midlands who provide training and support to individuals who may have barriers into obtaining employment. As part of this, they work within the justice sector, running a range of courses within prisons for prisoners to gain skills and qualifications. In addition to this, they also provide ongoing support and work opportunities to people when they leave prison, something which I’m particularly passionate about after my own experiences of trying to obtain employment after my release. I don’t think it is spoken about enough how difficult life after prison is. The prison sentence is meant to be your ‘punishment’, however, you can end up being punished forever, being refused employment for jobs you may be well overqualified for, purely down to having a criminal record. Programmes such as the one provided by RMF offer support with resettlement and the transition back into the workplace, restoring confidence alongside teaching new skills, and have proven to be a significant factor in improving rehabilitation outcomes. There are a few companies who offer such programmes, one personal to me being Timpson who I now work for as a branch manager. The Timpson Foundation is amazing and offers in-house training to prisoners, help and support on leaving prison and looks past the criminal record tick box on an application form, giving chances to people which many other companies do not. I suggest reading up on the foundation if you get a chance to see the fantastic work they do!
Now I was on the rail course, my daily routine was slightly different. The course was full time, Monday-Friday 8am til 4pm, so my morning workout, coffee and monopoly time had stopped and I was back to getting my hands dirty like in the early days of my sentence. The difference this time was that I now had a clear view of that light at the end of the tunnel. I had 12 weeks left so I mentally broke it down…36 more gym sessions, 12 more visits etc and suddenly it all felt manageable. I sat in my cell one night around 8pm and looked out at a gloomy, dark sky and huge drops of rain as they pelted against the metal grate covering my window and I actually felt positive. It’s not the weather most people would be happy about but it was the time of the year I’d longed for. It reminded me that winter was coming (no whitewalkers though…sorry I had to) and all I could think about was spending Christmas at home. Those summer days sitting in my cell with the sun blazing through my window, thinking of my friends being on their holidays or in a beer garden were now only a memory. I had to get through these 12 weeks without any hiccups in order to get my tag, as it is only given for good behaviour. I’d got through so far though and I was determined to get through the rest.
The days passed quickly on the course and I was chuffed that Andy was on it with me so I was working alongside my best mate everyday. We’d spend around 4 hours of the day out in the rail yard lifting big steel train rails, digging tons of rubble and dragging heavy machinery. It was tough graft! I rarely felt like I needed night time gym session after such a work out in the day. The afternoons were mainly in the classroom, completing the theory side of things, not always the most interesting but it was a welcome rest!
During my time on the RMF course I met some some of the nicest, most hard working lads I’ve ever come across. It had been a while since I’d had a consistent role within a group, especially one with a mix of lads from different wings. In this group of 20 or so lads though, there were only Andy and I from my wing, the rest from various wings spread across the prison. By week 10 we were all mates and I had some of the best laughs of my sentence there with them. Being on the course we were paid roughly £3 per day including our daily allowance, so after a 40 hour week of hard graft, we were paid around £15. If you were to watch these lads work, you’d have thought they were working on commission, the harder you work, the more you get paid. Obviously that wasn’t the case but it just showed how much they wanted this qualification to better themselves and change their lives.
Outside of the course, life on the wing was much the same. New faces appeared and old faces left, some for the better, some not so much. One who stood out as a big loss was a guy who had been on the wing for a good few years and was a well known figure on there. He lived in the cell directly opposite me and, I’m not sure why, but he seemed to have a pretty cushy life out on the wing. He was only young, around my age, but he was an intimidating guy and people really seemed to look up to him. A few months earlier when I was mentoring, I’d helped him write a letter home and from on then he’d looked out for me. Most mornings I’d hear him shout across the landing ‘alright Twiggy lad, you sleep well?’. Not a huge deal but he didn’t talk to just anyone! I actually missed his presence when he’d gone and I think most of the others did too. It’s crazy how the dynamics in prison can change so easily from just one person leaving. Generally, the the little cliques that are formed all coexist quite calmly alongside each other and you can walk down the wing pretty confidently, sharing brief chats with the same faces and knowing who to avoid. Then someone leaves and that familiar atmosphere can drastically change, especially if it’s a well know authoritative figure as they leave a bit of a void. On top of that you’ll usually get people wanting to fill their role.
One weekend, close to the end of my sentence, I got a new neighbour and I could sense straight away that something was off with him. Firstly, to get a single cell you would usually need to be an enhanced prisoner or hold what would be regarded as a valued job – basically it’s a perk which you earn. The only other route into a single cell is when you’re deemed too dangerous to cell share and I assumed this was the case here as from the off I didn’t get good vibes from this guy. It was also pretty rare that a cell move would happen on a weekend so I was quite sure that he had been moved for reasons of safety. Whether that be for his safety or the safety of others I wasn’t sure, all I knew was he was now living next door to me.
Over the weekend all the general things were happening. As we were unlocked for most of the day, quite often there would be competitions going on on the wing – pool, table tennis and little football accumulators. These all came with exciting prizes if you won them, packets of noodles, bags of crisps, maybe even a choice of chocolate if you were lucky! I’d joined in an accumulator so as I was milling about on the wing doing my laundry, I’d dip in and out of my cell to keep my eye on football scores. At one point as I was in there my new neighbour appeared. “What are you on for dinner?” he asked. My first thought was, ‘shit’ – I didn’t know much about this guy but he seemed unstable and at this moment in time, was stood in my cell blocking the only exit. My next thought was that if he came in causing trouble I’d have to defend myself. Just as I’d learned early in my sentence, if someone comes in your cell asking for things, no matter how intimidating they are, you have to show that you’re not a pushover. If I was caught fighting though that could write off any chance of getting my tag and I’d be spending Christmas in this cell rather than at home like I’d been so excited for. All these thoughts were going round in my head as I stared up at the guy. So I replied bluntly ‘what does it matter to you what I’m having for dinner?’. To my surprise he didn’t start any trouble but he actually seemed scared. He started stumbling over his words but I got the gist of it, he was trying to see if he could swap any of his prison issued dinner for some of my canteen items. He’d use this to pay his debt or more likely to buy more spice and get in more debt. Not a cycle you want to get in and you obviously have sympathy for people who get themselves in that situation, but you also have to look after yourself and I didn’t want any involvement. I politely but firmly ushered him out of my cell.
My neighbour didn’t last too long on the wing but in his short time, there were a few instances where I really felt for him. It was quite obvious that he was unwell and would have benefitted from being in hospital rather than prison. Hearing screaming and crying from his cell in distress, it hit home over and over just how much my life had changed. This wasn’t my world. It was, however, a world I had lived in for 40 odd weeks and become hardened to in a way. I’d been exposed to things that had never even crossed my mind before and I’d survived it. I’d definitely come out of here a different person but I’d do everything in my power to ensure I’d never be in this position again. I just had to get through these last few weeks. I was so so close!