From prison to project leader
After a short spell in prison, Justice, 25, realised it was time to change her ways. Here's her open account of what prison was like and her commitment to changing her life and those of others.
Caught up in crime
I had a very strict upbringing - I grew up in a middle class suburban area on the outskirts of Birmingham and went to an all-girls' school. When I left school at 17 I started hanging around with people who were into drugs and crime. We got involved in petty shoplifting and fraud and got away with it time and time again. It wasn't like I woke up one day and thought, "I'm going to get involved in crime," it was more about the social environment I was in. When I look back at it now, I think it was a backlash against my family and my strict upbringing, and it just spiralled out of control.
In 2001, I got arrested three times. On the third arrest, in November, my friend and I were put on bail and had to go to magistrates' court in January. We spent Christmas worrying about what would happen. I had to see a probation officer to do a pre-sentence report; she considered my background and put me down as 'low risk'. She was convinced we'd get away with 20-40 hours' community punishment.
We stood in court for what seemed like forever while the judge went to think over our punishment. The door to the court opened and something just told me we were going to prison. The judge told us they were clamping down and she wasn't happy to see two young ladies in front of her, so we were going to prison for 28 days. It felt like they were just trying to make an example of us.
Being 'sent down'
At the time, my main concern was that my car was parked outside the courts and that my family would find it! We were taken on the van from Birmingham to Brockhill prison in Redditch, where we were taken into a holding room. I was put on the adult wing because I was 21 and my friend, who was 19, was in the young offenders' wing. They give you a little starter bag like the ones they give new mums in hospital. Mine had a toothbrush, toothpaste, an orange, a phone card, a piece of paper, one stamp and one envelope. My friend's had crisps, chocolate and drinks and she got a PlayStation and DVDs, all because she was a young offender! She had dorms with four to six people and I was on my own. But it got worse; the prison was overcrowded so they put me on a suicide wing - it really wasn't nice.
The whole experience was just really weird - I was more bored than anything else. By the last few days my family had found out and my sister came to see me. That was a real shock as my younger brother and sister really looked up to me. It made me want to step up my game and change. I felt very ashamed of what I'd done and I knew there was no excuse for it.
We stood in court for what seemed like forever while the judge went to think over our punishment. The door to the court opened and something just told me we were going to prison.
Piecing my life back together
I'd always wanted to study law but with a criminal record I had to forget it. I felt quite depressed for a few months but I thought, "I can't sink down, I've got no one to blame but myself." My friend had started working for a youth group and she asked me to come along. At first I couldn't be bothered but I'd just got a job with a company that help young people get into TV presenting, modelling and footballing. I ended up going to the youth group to see if I could scout for any talent and I got caught up in what was going on there.
The group was based in Aston, one of the most deprived areas in Birmingham. I started volunteering at the group and then I applied for a job as a trainee youth worker. It was within six months of me coming out of prison so I had to be supervised at first, but they thought it was good that I'd been through similar experiences to the people in the group. If I hadn't done any voluntary work there first, there would've been no way that I'd have got the paid work.
After the six-week job was over I was back unemployed, but I'd loved the work, so I went back to the organisation on a voluntary basis. It was crap money but the satisfaction was more important. I did that for six months and did loads of training during that time. By the end of it I could do my own budgets and bids. We put in application for £30,000 and got it. I was ecstatic - £18,500 was for my salary and it was the highest paid job I'd ever had! Over the next 12 months we grew the project, but I felt that I'd done as much as I could in an admin role, so I ended up taking redundancy.
Setting up on my own
A month later I set up my own organisation because I wanted to carry on working with young people. We put in a bid to Connexions and they gave us about £11,000 for an 11-week programme. My friend and I didn't have enough money to pay ourselves, so we employed other people and stayed on as volunteers. We ran about five programmes where young people could come in and take part in activities like dance or drama workshops. It was great to have the satisfaction of changing young people's lives.
Around Christmas I began to realise that all these little projects don't make a difference unless they're long term. So I started to research social enterprise and that's when we decided to set up Inner City Creative Media Group, which is what I'm doing at the moment. It's all about income generation, where the young people generate income to put back into the organisation and they understand the whole ethos of social enterprise. Now we're getting contracts with people like Connexions. Rather than rely on their funding to run projects, they're paying us. We've also got a magazine coming out in a few weeks, which we'll be selling to make money and pay our staff. I'm still volunteering rather than being paid, but it looks like I'll get funding for my wage soon. Luckily, I've managed to make some money from all the skills I've learned. I've done freelance workshops, consultancy and research for other organisations.
I definitely think that volunteering is good for young people, but the real problem is that organisations often treat young volunteers as skivvies. The ones I know want to learn new skills, gain qualifications and do something that's of interest to them. It's brilliant for young people to set up on their own. I know five people in Birmingham who have been given Big Boost funding to do their own projects. They're realising that they can get involved in their community, give back, volunteer for a period of time, but reap the benefits in the long term. The Government should do more to encourage volunteering and see it as a two-way process. If we took all the volunteers out of this country, it would collapse.
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