“I waited 21 years for a bus”

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.

Read part 2 here.

Read part 3 here.

Part 4: “I waited 21 years for a bus”

“This was the final straw. They were giving me false hope, so I went back to prison.” However, it had been five years since John had been in prison; it had changed a lot. “It was way more violent, more drugs, lots of synthetic drugs.” But John was a changed man; he instead landed himself a job as a mentor off the back of his volunteering experience. He would assist other inmates with issues around drugs, alcohol and mental health in particular.

In some respects, he felt he was treated like a regular member of staff:

“It showed me how far I’d come. Rather than wrestling me down, staff were now asking me for advice. I felt like a human being for once.”

He would attend staff meetings and help critique the prison’s processes and structures. John would also work directly with difficult prisoners;

“Sometimes, they would put me in a cell with another inmate. I’d go in, calm them down and sort them out. I felt like a psychologist without the qualifications.”

In April 2016, John was released from prison. However, this presented a host of new challenges. First, John had managed to secure a job in Manchester, where the prison was, but instead he was sent back to the West Midlands.

“I was put into a probation hostel with all the rapists and paedophiles. The place where I was staying was notorious. I remember going to a gym, being asked where I live and then looking at the stunned faces of people when I told them.”

John was finding that coming out of prison wasn’t the fresh start that most of us imagine; it is fraught with its own difficulties. Like many others, John struggled to align his past with his present situation in order to build a stable long-term future for himself.

He also needs to deal with the challenge of being institutionalised for so long; “I waited 21 years for a bus.” As he tells me about getting his first electric bill, he remarks “I still feel like I’ve just stepped off the moon.”

The challenge now is to normalise; to get used to paying rent, to navigate the benefit system and public services, to build and rebuild relationships.

Part 5 of 5 will be published next week.

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