Its easy to make assumptions but until you meet someone whos been inside, its unlikely you have any real understanding of just how difficult it is to get your life together when youre released from prison.
As part of our Prisons Week focus, we spoke totwo ex-offenders, Aaron and Pete, who are both training to be mentors with the MentorMe initiative, to find out what challenges face people when they leave prison, and how much a mentor can help simply walk alongside you.
I got into drugs at 16. I was injecting amphetamines. And I was in and out of prison, short and long sentences.
Looking back, thats probably what saved my life. I gave myself a rest from the drugs. My life was chaos for about 18 years. Im lucky to be alive. I know so many people who have died through drugs and suicide and all sorts.
And then I came to Hope Chapel. I feel like God meant me to come down here and find this place. This is where Im meant to be.
Five years ago I was in the dry house and my key worker Johnny brought me to Hope - kicking and screaming. I didnt want to do it. I had to do 10 hours productive time as they called it. I didnt believe in Christ or nothing. He said I could get a certificate doing a voluntary course, so I started doing that.
I got a flat and moved in but I had nothing. I mentioned it someone at church and next minute the pastor was taking me to buy a bed and giving me bits of furniture just to see me OK. Their kindness blew me away. I hadnt seen this before. The people I associated with, theyre all on drugs and would rob you as soon as look at you. Same as I would back then. So it made a big impact on me.
It felt really strange at first, like charity. I didnt want to take it but I had to. But then I thought, I like these people and Im going to volunteer for the church and I kept on volunteering even when I no longer had to for the bit of paper.
But Id never come here on a Sunday, even though I was working behind the scenes. I thought, nah thats not for me. But then one Sunday I came. I remember waiting outside; it took me about half an hour to get the courage up to walk through the door. I only knew the staff you see. I didnt know the rest of the people. And Sundays are very different. It was a big step what am I doing? But I did it. I came in and thats when things started changing really.
Its good coming to church on a Sunday but I want to do more. I want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
So Ive been doing the training for MentorMe. I want to become a mentor because Ive got experience, I can relate to people coming out of jail and with the drugs and the drink. I feel like Ive got something to give back to them.
When you get out of jail, back into society, its just mad.
Its not knowing whats coming next. Youre still in the system even though youre not. You go into a hostel and theyre basically giving you a leash to hang yourself with. Its hard not to because the slightest thing you do wrong, in their eyes, and you've breached your licence. Even if its just getting back five minutes late.
Most people go back to prison. Some deserve it. Theyre using when theyre not supposed to, but then there are others Like you've been to a meeting and youre late back because of traffic... Its a terrible system. Petes story
I ended up in prison 18 months ago through a moment of madness caused by alcohol. I was doing alcohol same as Aaron was doing drugs for a long time. And again, that was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. There was help inside, so I took it full on and did as much as I could.
It was when I was inside that God found me.
I met a guy and a lady who were coming in to do mentoring. These people came over and sat with me. I thought they were fantastic and I went back to my cell and I prayed to God: these people are good people - can you bring them back to me?
I got moved from Horfield down to Portland in Dorset and saw a flyer about getting a mentor. I applied and the lady came down. Funnily enough it was the same lady who I met in Horfield all those months ago. She couldnt believe it either. I prayed then. So then I had a mentor lined up for when I came out - Lindsay.
I was still terrified though when I was released. And I was only inside for nine months. I got down the station and my focus at the time was that theyd given me a pair of trousers that were falling down. So I was walking around Weymouth holding my trousers up, with no self esteem, thinking Im going to be done for flashing and get thrown straight back in. So my focus was on getting a belt, which I got in a charity shop and I thought, I feel a bit better now. So right, what am I going to do now, Pete? I was still scared. My focus had gone.
I had to get to Bristol. Theyd arranged me a hostel, which I didnt want to go to. Id heard so many stories about it so Lindsay said as soon as youre out, get to the station, give me a call. Lindsay is an angel. I was so terrified. They always put off licences just where... But I thought no Pete, phone Lindsay. It was ringing and ringing and I thought shes not going to answer. But she did. Get a train up, she said, well meet you at the other end. I had an hour to kill so I just sat on the beach and prayed for an hour. I got to the station and had a massive panic attack. It was the uncertainty about what was coming next.
That was February. Lindsay helped line me up with a church and brought me to Hope. The name hope sounded good to me. So I came and thought, yeah, its full on up here! What I used to call happy clappers many years ago but now I suppose Im one of them! I got talking to a lady here who runs the recovery group and she said come along and Ive been doing that ever since, which has been fantastic. Its been a really interesting journey.
Ive just myself a flat. It pushes all the right buttons. I phoned them this morning after praying on it last night. Ive got to get to the bank for the deposit and sort out a guarantor. Thats no problem. What will be a problem is getting a reference from where Im living. I saw the manager at the probation hostel this morning and asked him for a reference. And he said no; they dont do that. But I need a reference to get somewhere to stay. Theyre kicking me out in two weeks time. If I cant get this place Ill be homeless. So Ive put in a call to my probation officer and waiting to hear back. Theyre still doing it; theyre still holding me back. Thats what they do.
But the Spirit keeps me going and I want to go on and I want to do as much as I can. I feel the Spirit. Sometimes I just cry with joy because its so good, you know? Ive got so much to give and so much I can do. But the people who are supposed to help you... they dont.
So thats why Ive trained as a mentor with MentorMe. Ive seen how much its helped me.
If you can just give someone some encouragement, it goes a long way.
Could you be a mentor?
Mentors with MentorMe aren't only ex-offenders.The project is looking for Christian volunteers who, driven by their faith, can help offer the unique services of friendship, hospitality, encouragement, support, care and a patient listening ear to those leaving prison or who have already done so and who wish to make positive changes to their lives.