“A lot of young people go to prison thinking it’s cool. After about a year, when people can’t visit you anymore, maybe once you’ve been transferred from a prison near where you lived, it hits you: you’re in there alone and it’s not cool at all.”
Prison. We hear about it all the time in films and hear about celebrities going away for a few months before being let out on bail. However, what do we know about the reality of life in prison? Aminat Abari and Fiona Nam interviewed 34-year-old Gary who has recently come out of jail after a seven year sentence.
When Gary went to prison, he missed his family and friends. Before he went, he used to live with his two-year-old old son and five-year-old daughter, and got to do stuff with them. “Going to prison changed everything.” He thought his relationship with them was cool but when he got out, he didn’t know them. It was harder for them to accept him as their dad after so many years without him.
“I couldn’t just call them,” Gary explained. Sometimes he didn’t talk to them for days because each prisoner is only given a certain amount of time to make a call so if he didn’t get to a phone, he just have to wait for the next chance.
Even his relationship with his wife became stretched to breaking point. When he was sentenced, she said she wanted to stick by her husband. Sadly, a while later he wrote to her and said that they should separate. “A relationship is made up of a lot of things and I couldn’t provide them from jail.” They couldn’t keep the relationship together so, they went their own ways.
“You can have everything in prison, the money, the drugs, but you miss the people.”
Prison life was difficult. There was so much tension. “You can tell when something is wrong immediately when you’re on a wing. Everyone is quiet. When something happens, you’re just relieved that it wasn’t you. You see the ambulance carrying away a man covered in blood.”
Life in prison is different from the way the media portrays it. Gary talked of the different types of people he met and how some people go to prison and came out worse. “You may go to prison for something small and come out as a professional.”
He met people who had committed terrible crimes like arson, murder and rape. People would compare their crimes, and whose was worse, he said. Gary himself went to prison for theft and violence, which he did to fund a gambling addiction.
Gary’s earlier life had been good.
He was born in Africa and grew up with his Grandmother in a household of cousins. He was clever and did well in school. “I was a boarder during secondary school and loved the freedom.”
He passed his ‘O’ Levels at the age of 17, came to London and lived with his mother while he started his A levels. He went to secondary school and college in North London for a year, passed his exams and then attended University to study Aerospace – his mother’s choice.
He achieved an HND in Space Engineering Basics and needed to complete another year to get a degree. He was working, and had a great interest in football which he played on Sunday.
But he had begun hanging around with a friend who was into gambling to avoid his problems at home. Gary himself slowly became more involved and it became a habit. “I was willing to do anything to get the money.”
At the age of 28, he began to steal with violence to pay for his gambling addiction. Yet he continued life as normal. People didn’t suspect him, as he had never been in trouble with the police. He was finally caught and sentenced to seven years in prison.
“I feel I wasted my potential. If I had stayed with the right people and kept my head down, I could have made it. ”
Despite this, he feels there is still time. He’s a qualified personal trainer and if he could, he would do anything around sport.
While in prison Gary saw the frequency with which young black boys were entering the adult prison system. When we met him, he was giving his time to speak to young people at Kori in Turnpike Lane, Haringey, (see www.kori.org.uk) about his experience. His advice to youth is that education is important.
“In prison, they can take all sorts of stuff away from you but not your knowledge.”
He’s heard people say when am I ever going to need maths or science? But feels ‘it’s better to have something and not need it than to not have it at all’.
After his time in prison Gary is not allowed to work yet, and his mother is having to support him. It’s not easy, but he is trying to get his life back on track.
“I knew people who were in there for life. They had given up. If I was in for life, I don’t know if I could do it.”
- Between 1998 and 2002, the proportion of Black and Minority Ethnic people entering jail rose at eight times the rate of white people. (1)
- Black British people now make up 12% of the prison population and only 2% of the population as a whole. (2)
1: Home Office Figures
2: Hollis et al (2003) Prison Population Brief England and Wales October 2003, London:
Gary visited Kori Arts in Turnpike Lane to answer questions from their young people