Doomed to a life of crime: The reality of rehabilitation in England

Some names have been changed.

A woman is trying to set fire to a car and sets alight bins and public property. In her mania, she robs an elderly man at knife point for money to score heroin. She makes her way to Shoreditch police station, in a haze. Once there, she holds a knife to her stomach and threatens to kill herself. She’s blinded by a deadly concoction of Mirtazapine – to help with her manic depression – and cheap vodka – to suppress years of abuse.
Megan Smith* remembers nothing. But the CCTV footage doesn’t lie. She says, “I’d never hurt anyone. I was lighting things up and I didn’t even know. It was only when I got to the police station that they showed me CCTV of what I had done.”

She was charged with arson and attempted robbery in 2013 after pleading guilty for her offences. Since she was so heavily under the influence and she pleaded guilty, she served two out of a four year sentence at HM Prison Holloway.

What she does recall from that night, however, is an all-consuming compulsion to get high and ‘forget it all’ – as she had been doing for 13 years. Forgetting it all had only been achievable by drinking herself into oblivion, smoking crack and shooting up heroin.

“My mum abused me when I was a child. She was mentally unstable, had her own problems and my dad walked out when I was about 5-years-old. She locked me in a cupboard for days and I’d go hungry. She used to beat me up, which is part of the reason I was such a violent person.

“A few years after my dad left home, she got a new boyfriend and he’d sexually abuse me too. And there were a few times that I got clean, but then I’d remember it all. I couldn’t cope so I started using again,” says Smith.

These years of abuse which led 35-year-old Smith to her crack and heroin addiction and – eventually – carrying out heinous crimes. Before going to prison, she had reached out to her doctor in an attempt to try get rehabilitation; her GP gave her a methadone prescription to wean her off heroin. Determined to get herself clean, Smith had one short success which ended swiftly and unhappily.

“I was on a methadone prescription and had to go into the clinic every week to be tested – the doctor had to make sure I wasn’t using and I was taking the methadone. I got clean once, for five days while I was staying at my mother-in-law’s house.

“The doctor detected no drugs or methadone in my urine sample and stopped my prescription which was my life-line at that point. Without the methadone, I couldn’t hack not using so I started smoking crack again,” says Smith.

She was failed, too, by mental health support services. A month before Smith committed her offences, she tried to section herself at the City and Hackney Centre For Mental Health, but was refused care and turned away.

Addressing multiple needs.

More than four London boroughs – including Hammersmith and Newham – have lost vital drug and alcohol treatment services. While the supply of rehabilitation services are dying out, the need for it continues to grow.

Tamsin Gregory has worked for the St.Giles Trust for over 10 years; the trust carries out crucial work with ex-offenders in helping them resettle into society through rehabilitation and employment.  An overwhelming number of the ex-offenders that St. Giles works with have struggled with addiction, according to Gregory.

“If someone has nowhere to live or have an addiction they can’t finance, they are much more likely to commit crime. Sometimes out of sheer desperation to get a roof over their heads or get their fix,” says Gregory.

Mental health issues, addiction and homelessness are factors which play a huge part in the lives of repeat offenders. Many offenders will be overwhelmed with a mixture of these issues which makes their offending cycle harder to nip in the bud.

Research from the Prison Reform Trust reveals that in 2015, 24% of newly sentenced offenders were either homeless or had been sleeping rough and a massive 70% committed their offence whilst under the influence of alcohol.

Fundraising Manager Amy Williams, from RAPt, believes that a holistic approach is key to making sure that addicted prisoners don’t get caught up in the ‘revolving door’ prison system. RAPt offer treatment to both banged-up prisoners to those who still need assistance after serving a sentence.

All our frontline workers are trained in complex needs. This involves learning how to recognise the signs of mental health issues and addiction. Staff also learn how to respond to each of these issues, including adapting their treatment for substance misuse to accommodate the client’s’ needs, if necessary.  

“Intensive programmes are essential to finding out if our clients have mental health issues before they start the programme, in order to understand what other issues they may be facing that will affect their treatment for substance misuse. It is fair to say that no one client will experience the exact same treatment,” says Williams.

As well as meticulously catering their programmes to each individual, organisations like RAPt are implementing ‘peer-led’ programmes by which ex-prisoners are mentored by reformed addicts and prisoners. Such programmes carry a simple message – “If I can do it, so can you.”

Megan Smith* has now been clean for over a year. She’s been re-united with her son and is a peer advisor for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

“It keeps me focused, without voluntary work I think it would be really hard to keep myself on the straight and narrow. And I’ve been where these people are now and I feel a duty to help them. Addicts do have motivation to do things. It’s just getting them to get that motivation together because they won’t motivate themselves at first,” says Smith.

She has come out on the other side of her addiction and prison sentence and the grass is much greener. Through being put back on the methadone, attending drug support meetings and given art therapy, Smith went from strength to strength at HM Prison Holloway. She now believes that anyone can break their cycle of offending and overcome addiction if they truly want it.

“I got to where I am now through determination and by showing my probation officer and prison governor that I did want the help. You have to want it. You can’t just sit there and expect people to throw things on your lap, you have to put in something,” she says.

Dire prison conditions and over crowding – a recipe for disaster. 

However, the ever-worsening prison conditions in this country may be worsening the lives and attitudes of prisoners. Any offender hoping for the chance to better themselves in prison receives a sharp shock upon entering a cell in one of Her Majesty’s prisons.

The Howard League works with the Ministry of Justice and parliament in order to make crucial changes to prisons. Despite their best efforts, things seem to be getting worse. Policy Advisor of the Howard League For Penal Reform, Eleanor Butt, says:

“Prisons aren’t great at reforming people. Conditions have become so poor over the last five years or so, they really are atrocious, we need to be putting money and time into making them better. Taking someone out of the community and putting them in isolating prison conditions will only make things worse.

“All the prison system can really do is solve the problems it causes and that is what creates a revolving door effect. We would favour rehabilitation which is done in the community rather than in prison.”

Recently, undetectable psychoactive substances – known as ‘spice’ and ‘green crack’ – have been sweeping through prisons and are becoming more accessible than drug treatments.

RAPt reported that (in 2014) 87 prisoners sought help for their use of legal highs.In 2015 the figure rocketed to 622. Recovered addict and ex-offender Pete Roberts* recalls his experience with drugs in prison:

“We were almost left to our own devices, packed into cells and wings. Eventually the wardens took breaks or weren’t there anymore and that’s usually when the guys would bring out wraps of crack, black mumba, valium and whatever else. How else were we supposed to pass the time?

“Yeah, it’s a choice to get clean but think about it, you have a bunch of criminals and addicts bunched up together – we were hardly going to sit around singing campfire songs.”

Growing up in East London, 58-year-old Roberts was surrounded by gangsters, drug gangs and criminals. He was a master of fraud by age 20 – until he was caught and jailed – and was in and out of prison for things like theft and armed robbery until he was 54-years-old. Most of his crimes were carried out to sustain his drug addiction which was spiraling out of control.

“It started with cocaine. I was DJing almost every night and it was the culture, I suppose I needed something to keep me going. Then I fell in with some guys, hanging around crack houses and smoking heroine. I was committing fraud, not necessarily ruining lives but then I started robbing people to get money,” says Roberts.

The final straw for Roberts was when in 2005 he was sentenced to four years in prison for armed robbery. Though determined to get clean, he immediately succumbed to the seductive lure of drugs whilst in jail. Roberts found himself using again – injecting heroin and smoking cannabis – and for much of his time in prison the intention of getting clean became a hazy afterthought.

“I begged for help. I went to therapy, meetings, took a course in IT. I did everything that I possibly could to just lift that burden. I became spiritual and I think that’s what’s carried me forward to today,” says Roberts.

Once he found his feet in prison, Roberts  began chairing AA meetings and supporting others through their addiction. Flash forward to now and Roberts is a new man. He practises Christianity, never touches so much as a cigarette and now works for at a rehabilitation facility which supports recovering addicts.

Overcrowded prisons and fewer staff are leading to multiple problems in prisons; most institutions find it hard to carry out basic tasks, such as organising meetings and meal times, so rehabilitation is even harder to give. There are currently 12,980 fewer staff working within prisons, the over all staff employed to work in prisons has fallen by 29% since 2011 – according to the Prison Reform Trust. At the same time, the number of prisoners behind bars has risen by a dramatic 43%. Without enough hands on deck, it’s clear to see why prison facilities and conditions are failing inmates.

Dire prison conditions are leading to unrest and disruption and inmates often end up engaging in violence. Roberts recalls, “Prison was rough. I’d never want to go back, obviously because no one wants to go to jail, but it’s a nasty place. You have guys spotting out the weakest links and kicking the living daylights out of them just to pass the time. Wardens would take a while to step in.”

Out of all prisoners in England and Wales, 45% on average are reconvicted within one year of release; for those serving shorter sentence, the figure increases to 58%. Not only is prison not working, its failures are costing the economy nearly £13 billion each year, according to the Prison Reform Trust.

The grass isn’t greener on the other side.

It only gets harder once they’re on the outside and are more open to temptations. Though many have done it, it’s by no means an easy feat. Motivation no doubt plays an important role, but even the strongest willpower can be crushed by a lack of support and available resources.

Revolving Doors are an agency who work with offenders with multiple needs in order to improve the workings of the criminal justice system. As it stands, the criminal justice system is failing to intervene with multiple-needs offenders and address the source of their problems. Revolving Doors recognise that an overwhelming number of prisoners go on to offend again due to a lack of support when released.

Researcher at Revolving Doors, Lucy Terry, says: “The support is a lot harder to come by and they are open to temptations. Perhaps they haven’t been provided with accommodation and end up living with an abusive ex-partner, they might have friends knocking at their door looking asking them to take drugs again. They are presented with all the opportunities for things to go wrong.

“And the services and systems are still not set up well enough to capture people and help them all the way through. It’s hard enough for someone who is educated to gain access to mental health, housing or drug and alcohol services – let alone for someone who has a more chaotic lifestyle.”

Riley Burns* was in and out of prison due to the same restrictions in public services. He had been in and out of care until he was 18-years-old by which point he began living on the streets and taking ecstasy, smoking cannabis and doing cocaine. His crimes ranged from graffiti and public damage to robbery.

“I took drugs for fun, I wasn’t necessarily addicted but of course it made me act in ways I’m not proud of, but I never committed crimes to hurt anyone. I was living on the streets, I would mug people or rob them just so that I could get enough money to buy a sandwich,” says Burns.

Magistrates and crown courts in England see a huge number of homeless or addicted offenders who have committed summary offences as a result of their circumstances. Pakistan-born Sunil Sing* has been a solicitor representing these types of offenders in the courts for over 20 years. When he entered his profession, he wanted to help everyone. Nowadays, he is deeply cynical.

“I came to this country looking for justice and I’m still looking. The courts rarely care about whether or not a person is homeless or if they have an addiction. From a solicitor’s point of view, the clients who are in and out of court the most make us the most money,” says Sing.

It’s not the job of the courts to provide rehabilitation but they are seen as the go-between in finding a criminal the support they may need. However, this rarely happens and many multiple-needs offenders are frequently fined and released without being referred to be rehabilitated or housed.

“My wife tells me I’m cold now. And it’s true, I don’t care about people as much as I did when I started [being a solicitor]. I’ve become desensitised to injustices. It’s not the job of a solicitor, it’s not the job of the courts to provide rehabilitation. We are supposed to work with local services to help that person, but this often doesn’t happen. Hence the revolving door system,” says Sing.

Having been given no access to therapy or rehabilitation or housing when he was released Burns struggled to get himself together. He was in and out of jail a total of eight times, upon each release he spent a couple of months at a hostel while under poorly supervised probation. Each time, Burns went back onto the streets to carry out the same crimes in order to, like so many, survive.

Rising rents and homelessness affect even the most sober people in the country. Whether you’re an ex-prisoner, recovering addict or a public servant, finding somewhere to live can be an arduous struggle.

“I was homeless and the hostel was only temporary. Apart from that, I wasn’t helped with housing. My family couldn’t trust me enough to let me live with them and so I just found myself in prison, homeless and in prison again,” says Burns.

After his last prison sentence which ended in 2009, Burn set up an art gallery in London with some friends and has gotten himself qualifications and is in a happier place.

“I still struggle to find employment because of my history. But I have a little girl and a wife now, life isn’t bad, I’m a motivated person. I look at where I’ve been and where I am now and I feel blessed.” says Reon.

Nabbing a job in the current economic climate is tough even for people who have qualifications and experiences coming out of their eyeballs. It gets tougher for people who are fresh out of prison and hoping to land themselves a job; most will find their offending history is too hard to overcome.

Lucy Terry says, “There are certain jobs for which you certainly should do a criminal record check. But I think, as much as possible we should avoid doing criminal records checks where they aren’t needed. It think it’s a really important principal for rehabilitation.

“If a person has served their time and their probation officer has decided a person is safe to work in the community then there’s no reason why an employer should be able to ban that person on the grounds that they have a previous conviction.”



Life after prison looks bleak. No support for addiction, unable to get a job, possible homelessness – once they’ve offended, these people seem even further outcast from society.

Amelia Barber, is a recovered addict and a nurse in Guys & St. Thomas’ rehabilitation centre. Every day she works with addicts with previous convictions and often sees the same faces leaving and re-entering the facility.

“Some of the people I help tell me that, although they’ve been allowed treatment for their addiction, there are other things going wrong. They can’t find jobs, they aren’t well enough to ask for help with mental illness and so you do feel as though the drug treatment is their only hope.”

“A lot of them say to me, ‘if this is sober then I want to start using again’ and that just speaks volumes. There’s no doubt that people need help” says Barber.

According to Barber, a number of people who come to her treatment centre are turned away because there are simply not enough spaces.

“We do turn a lot of people away but try not to. I think it’s important that, before seeking help, a person has to ask themselves if they’re ready. A lot of people aren’t,” says Barber.

According to a report by Recovery Partnership UK, over the last five years community drug and alcohol services have been cut by 50% in the last five years. The same report shows that, in the UK, 38% of community drug services and 58% of residential services have had their funding slashed.

Labour Councillor for Haringey Adam Jogee says, “Local councils are having to reduce the funding to mental health and drug treatment services. Are we doing it intentionally? No. It’s just that the government won’t fund us. We are seeing side effects of that, of course, increased crime and what have you.”

“The future is bleak.”

Nicholas Pomphrey has been working as a project manager with NACRO, a social justice charity, and runs a residential offender project in Lambeth where ex-prisoners can stay and are referred onto the rehabilitative service that they need. Pomphrey has worked with NACRO for over 10 years now and has seen rehabilitation services go from bad to worse.

“Over the last four years the government have severely reduced the funding of public services that we rely on. So for the people coming out of prison, there’s hardly anything left. We try and pass on the people we work with to housing services, detoxing services and the like. And a lot of our work and some of the fantastic things we’re doing, it’s all having to be reduced because there isn’t enough to give people,” says Pomphrey.

The answer to the problems surrounding rehabilitation, Pomphrey believes, is innovation. The system is clearly broken and so it’s time to fix it.

“We need to ultimately provide a mixture of community projects which are designed to provide rehabilitation. Some charities are coming up with new exciting project ideas and that’s what we need. Be it in the community, in prisons, provided by charities and that give people the individual support that they need,” says Pomphrey.

Community projects like BrewBird and Change Please are helping to provide rehabilitation and employment to ex-prisoners. Both projects are cafes run by people who have a history of offending and is designed to help them get back on their feet.

“I think these projects always have to have a money-making element to them. As funding is so poor at the moment, the projects we facilitate have to have a money-making element to them. I think projects like BrewBird and Change Please do that and they are innovative strategies in rehabilitation,” says Pomphrey.

Are these new strategies enough to add even a glimmer of hope into the depressing black hole through which many offenders are looking at? Pomphrey is pessimistic.

“Everything’s cyclical. Probably five years’ time there will be all this need and something will just have to happen. Either voluntary services, like the church, will pick up rehabilitation and we’ll have an American system in that respect. Or things will change politically and more money will be pumped into rehabilitative services. Maybe more riots, who knows? The future is bleak.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s