“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been someone’s project” [Part 2/5: A downward spiral]

John’s life has been one of violence, abuse and institutions – but scratch the surface and you see resilience, recovery and the chance of a new life. 

By Richard Dawson

I met John in Birmingham’s quaint Victorian Tea Rooms, where over coffee he told me his life story – a story dominated by trauma, violence and navigating Britain’s prison system.

The setting is important, because it’s such a far cry from any of the places you’d associate with John’s story – and an indication of the considerable progress he has made over the last few years, as he builds a new identity and life for himself.

Read part 1 here.

Part 2: A Downward Spiral

After a complicated legal process, John was given a life sentence due to being a threat to the general public, with a minimum sentence of 4 years. He told me he was on an overbearing “downward spiral” and felt less and less in control – particularly when it came to aggression and violence.

Within several weeks of his sentence he had seriously assaulted a member of the prison staff. What had triggered him, I asked, assuming it must have been for the sake of violence. But John touched on a much deeper feeling of hopelessness:

“The night before, I overheard a conversation between two ‘lifers’. I was 25 and I remember thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s what I’m going to be like. Nothing to talk about, no life, nothing. If I’m going to go down, I’ll go down fighting.’”

John was at a point where he was communicating and expressing himself through violence. Something had to give – “That incident was my wake-up call. I had serious psychological issues. I was angry and aggressive whenever I was challenged about something.” He began therapy in prison, but after a short period was deemed too volatile to work with.

He had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorder and told me he was ranked in the top 10% of the UK’s prison population for levels of psychopathy. “I was frightened actually. I didn’t realise I was so bad. I had a serious issue and I didn’t know how to deal with it.” But he agreed to more therapy, albeit reluctantly; “I felt like their project. I’ve always felt that – everywhere I’ve gone I’ve been someone’s project.”

In 2005, a decade after going to prison – and after being passed around several institutions – John was informed that his psychological treatment was complete and he was to face a parole board.His solicitor had told him that this would be a formality; he was six years ‘over tariff’.

But he was about to experience another huge setback; the Home Office had intervened, questioning whether John’s risk to the public was genuinely reduced. One expert had predicted that John would kill someone within 6 months of being released; there was little option but to reverse the decision.

John returned back to prison, to square one, until 2009 when he was transferred to a secure mental health unit. This is where we’ll pick the story back up.


Look out for part 3 – “Rehabilitation – or false hope?” – next week!

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