have you thought about being a cleaner?’
Now, I’m not so high and mighty that I believe cleaning is beneath me, but the advice of the prison Careers Advisor left my vision of my future smeared like a dirty window.
University had always been something I aspired to. I wanted to test myself at the highest level possible and extract every drop of my potential. I undoubtedly had the academic ability, but like the Careers Advisor, many people struggled to straddle over the obstacle of my criminal convictions. It’s strange how in prison you’re encouraged to study, yet once the thirst for learning grows you find your choices inhibited by a lack of resources, support and the cynicism of agencies that are responsible for assisting offenders.
I found my face firmly pressed against the glass ceiling. I had reached the pinnacle of prison education at level 3. With too little time left to serve to undertake a distance learning course with the Open University, but too much time just to accept the situation and stand still, I decided to apply for university in advance of my release.
With the support of my teachers, I was able to apply through UCAS for my chosen courses at my selected universities. This was a feat in itself, as with no Internet access it was hard work getting the relevant course information, disclosing my convictions and providing the required references. At the end of the application process I felt I deserved a degree in perseverance. Again, throughout this period, my teachers cajoled, encouraged and gave me the proverbial size 5 up my rear end when I needed it.
I had heard of the Longford Trust through word of mouth. I knew they supported ex offenders to pursue degree level study at university upon their release. I thought nothing ventured, nothing gained and decided to apply for a Longford scholarship. The scholarship consisted of financial assistance in the form of a grant and personal and academic support from a mentor. What appealed to me most was the chance to receive help, guidance and also the comfort that there was somebody, an organisation, willing me to succeed.
In a whirlwind six weeks, I received an unconditional place at university and to top it all I was awarded a scholarship from the Longford Trust. I’m more accustomed to bad news, such as ‘I’m sentencing you to 3 years’ or ‘He’s a bit mad and smelly, but there’s no more space and you’ll have to put up with him for the night’. All my good fortune seemed to come at once and I allowed myself a moment to congratulate myself. The window looking out to my future had Windolene shine and clarity – I had something to look forward to.
Peter Stanford, the director of the Longford Trust, took the time to come and see me before my release. I was struck by the consideration he had given my personal circumstances. He had a clear insight into the potholes that make the path going forward after release precarious for the least vigilant. Peter was able to communicate a message of optimism but attached it to the reality that the transition from custody to the community will throw up challenges. He then reassured me that the Longford Trust and partners would support me in dealing with these challenges. At last, I felt optimistic about life outside.