Despite serving his 6-month custodial sentence, Alistair feels that the prejudice and stigma he continues to experience will be a life sentence.
Prior to finding myself on the wrong side of the law, I was a highly skilled, tax-paying member of society.
On release from prison in August 2014, I knew life was going to be hard, but I had no idea it would be this hard. The prejudice, stigma and ignorance I kind of expected, however, the lack of structure, support or framework to get skilled people back into work has been the most surprising part of the journey so far. I don’t expect help or to have things handed to me on a plate. However, when I see the money and support offered to chronic offenders and I then compare that to the support I’ve received, I cannot help but wonder why more help is not provided to try and get people who are highly employable, skilled and passionate back into work? Arguably I should be easier to help get back into work, however perhaps that’s why I’m slipping through the cracks?
There is still a huge problem with how ex-offenders are perceived by hiring managers and also with the support services available to help people with my skill-set re-join the workforce.
Five years ago I was found guilty of domestic assault (in relation to allegations that had apparently occurred years before this). It was my word against his, and the law found in his favour, in spite of a lack of evidence. While I still maintain my innocence, I have come to terms now with the fact that it is what it is. I spent 6 months in prison. I lost my high-powered job of over ten years – I was dismissed on the grounds of misconduct. I daresay I would have lost my job anyway, however something inside me thought I might not. I think it’s called hope? My good pay and comfortable pension were gone. My house was gone. My belongings had to be sold. Any savings I had were quickly eaten up to pay legal fees and I accrued thousands of pounds worth of debt to try and make sure I could afford my legal representation. Everything I had worked for was gone the only things I kept were my family and now ex-partner who have all stood beside me throughout. I’m not saying this for sympathy at all, I’m just trying to understand the facts as I see them.
Whilst I was in prison I was disappointed to discover that there was one Citizen’s Advice officer for the biggest prison in Scotland. She worked part-time – one day per week for a couple of hours. I had to ask to see her more times than I care to remember. I eventually got to see her, over three months in to my sentence. I asked her for advice on how to manage my debt on leaving prison. She was clearly overworked, underpaid and too stretched to help me. I had one cursory appointment at the CAB which bore no fruit whatsoever. I received no careers or job advice the whole time I was inside – nothing. I saw the housing officer one week before I was due to be released. His only advice was that I would have to enlist at a homeless hostel on my release. My mental health was at a low and has suffered severely since. I was on prescription medication, I was vulnerable and for the most part, alone other than my friends and family.
For the most part, the answers I needed could not be provided by the services currently on offer by the Scottish Prison Service. I wasn’t under 25 years old, alcoholic, a drug addict or homeless. I wasn’t a priority case for any sort of peer work, education support or indeed any support whatsoever while I was in prison and this has very much been the case since my release. I understand about re-offending rates and trying to assuage the risks of that happening amongst people classed as chronic offenders. However, the support on offer in Scotland is entirely weighted towards this section of ex-offenders. As far as I can see, there is no consideration or thought, programmes, services or support, either in the public or private sector, to help skilled workers re-join the workforce on departure from prison. The funding available to charities is predicted towards giving support to the aforementioned categories of offender. No links between the job centre and big organisations who might be interested in my skill-set. This meant I had to rely on myself, my own abilities and strengths to try and find a job however, once I found one, I realised that a new battle was just beginning that of endemic prejudice about people with criminal records.
Three months after leaving prison I secured a job conducting clinical trials. The salary was less than half of my old job but I was so pleased to be back in work. I disclosed my criminal record at interview and was overjoyed when they hired me in spite of it. I stayed for nearly a year and thought my life was back on track.
A vacancy arose at an employment law consultancy and I thought I’d apply. I got a phone interview and disclosed that I had an unspent conviction. I was asked to disclose this to the hiring manager at interview and when I did, again it made no difference and I was offered the job.
However, a couple of months into the job I was asked to attend a meeting with HR and told that I’d lied at interview and not disclosed my criminal record. I had a voicemail from the recruitment manager which proved they were fully aware of the conviction and that I had fully disclosed. However, I was sacked on the spot. The minute people hear that you have a criminal record they don’t want to hear the nuances and explanations. The doors just close.
Criminal records are person specific, incredibly nuanced and complex and if you’re having to constantly justify your character to someone who is not willing to take any of that into account, then you will forever be fighting a losing and depressing battle.
By Alistair (name changed to protect identity)
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