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I thought “offenders” were different to me until my friend received a criminal record

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Annie found it hard to empathise with anybody that had a criminal record until her friend received a conviction and went to prison.

I’ve been running my own hairdressing business for approximately 25 years now and, I’m happy to say that it’s very successful. I’m based in a town which is close to a men’s open prison and over the years several men have been in touch with me asking whether I have any vacancies for paid work – the prison apparently offers a barbering course.

Whenever I received one of those letters, I’d always make it clear that I didn’t run a barbers shop and therefore wouldn’t be able to offer them a job. This was a fact but it was actually only half the story.

In fact, I didn’t want anybody working for me that had a criminal record. Why would I? I’d got my reputation to keep and I didn’t want my customers knowing that I employed ‘wrong-un’s’. What if these people were dangerous? – hairdressers shops have scissors, bleach etc, all sorts of things that could inflict serious injury if they fell into the wrong hands. I didn’t want one of my customers getting their throats cut just because they complained about a dodgy blow-dry.

I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am when I re-read that paragraph now, but at the time I was ignorant. I was convinced that somebody like me had never met “somebody like that” – how could I have done? Well the fact is that I had “met somebody like that”, I’d known them for 20 years. We were good friends and for a large amount of that time they were breaking the law.

I’d never have known had they not been caught, convicted and sent to prison for 5 years. I’m not going to go into the details of their offence, that’s their story not mine. All I’ll say is that it was related to drugs. I knew nothing about the arrest until I picked up the local newspaper and saw the headlines and a photograph of my friend leaving court. I was shocked beyond belief.

Stacey (that’s not her real name) wrote to me from prison trying to explain what had led to her conviction but I just threw the letters in the bin. She wasn’t the person I’d thought she was; the person I’d shared dinner and wine with and who I’d shared some of my deepest, darkest secrets with. I remember saying to myself:

Well we all go through hard times but we don’t all end up in prison.”

I never wrote to her, never visited her and wouldn’t speak about her to mutual acquaintances. I totally abandoned her – what a fantastic friend I proved to be! That’s not to say I didn’t miss her, I did and that’s partly why I felt so angry with her.

But then 2.5 years after her conviction she turned up in my shop. She’d made an appointment, booking in with a different name – she told me it was the only way she knew she’d get my full attention for 1 hour. She looked the same but different; thinner but older and lacking all self-confidence. We didn’t talk about the conviction at that appointment, but she spent a lot of it apologising and asking if we could meet (just once) so that she could try to explain what had happened. I agreed.

I can’t say we became best mates again after that one meeting but it was just the first of many. I started to understand a bit more about her life and the front she’d always put on to protect not only herself but those around her. And, as time went on, I began to see that with or without a criminal record, she was exactly the same person, my mate.

Stacey wasn’t dangerous, she wasn’t the sort of person that would throw bleach over somebody or slit their throat with a pair of scissors – she was probably just the same as a lot of people with a criminal record. I met up with a couple of the girls that she’d been to prison with and I had to face up to the fact that they were all much nicer people than I was. They didn’t judge me when I explained my previous attitude towards people with a criminal record, they didn’t tell me what a rotten friend I’d been.

All I knew about people with a criminal record is what I’d leant from the TV but that was drama not real life. But, that’s no excuse for the way I treated Stacey or the guys from prison that had contacted me in the past and I knew that I wanted to try and make amends.

After we’d been meeting for a while, Stacey started to tell me more and more about her experiences in prison especially the number of women who enrolled onto hairdressing courses in the hope that it would be something they can continue with upon release. Realistically of course, they’re probably going to struggle to find employment and with very little savings will find it hard to buy the necessary equipment to start up their own business. Stacey had never been interested in being a hairdresser but I could see that it meant a lot to her to help women get back into work and I started to think that by helping some of these women I may be able to put right some of the wrongs.

I have to go back to what I said right at the start of this article, I’m a hairdresser, not a barber and I didn’t think I had the necessary skills to support a man doing a barbering course so for now, I’m concentrating on helping women.

Making contact with the prisons has been extremely difficult and incredibly time consuming and if it wasn’t for Stacey telling me to “hang on in there”, I might have given up. However, after almost 6 months I’ve just had a meeting with the Business Development Manager at one of the prisons and I’m hopeful that I’ll soon have a couple of women from the prison come to work for me whilst they’re still in prison. This will give them the opportunity to put what they’ve learnt on the course into practice and get a better idea as to whether hairdressing really is the job for them. I’ve committed to having two girls from the prison each on a six month placement. Obviously I can’t offer every one of them a job at the end of it but I’ve been speaking at several local employer networking events trying to encourage other salons to do something similar.

I know that I’m not going to change the world on my own and I also know that the reason for doing this is in some way to assuage the guilt I feel over letting Stacey down. But, as she said to me recently:

People in prison only need one person to believe in them. They don’t care how you got to where you’re at, just that you’re doing what you’re doing for the right reasons.”

By Annie  (name changed to protect identity)

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