Switchback received funding through the ESDF Save London Lives initiative towards staff salaries to deliver targeted mentoring and support to prisoner-leavers over two years. This will support young people like Oliver, who shares his story.
Oliver left HMP Isis prison aged 21, after serving three years of a six-year sentence. Through Switchback, he landed a job as a kitchen porter and made fast progress - already taking on some of the responsibilities of a sous-chef means he is happy to stay in this role, his first ever full-time job, until he feels ready to take the next step towards his long-term goal, of electrical engineering.
‘Before prison and Switchback things were completely different to how they are now. I was just getting up to no good, being places I shouldn’t be’.
Growing up on an estate in Peckham, the only job he could find was a zero-hours contract paying significantly below the London living wage. ‘I wouldn’t have cared what anyone thought of me working at a high street shop if it had been good pay and good hours. But I was working there the whole week and barely coming out with £100’.
‘I didn’t know anyone on the estate who was working. Where I lived most of the teenagers and my friends had moved onto selling drugs. I just kind of jumped into what they were doing as well. I was just thinking… I could go and sell drugs and get way more than I was from working’.
‘So when I was about 15, 16, I started selling cannabis, then gradually moved on to selling hard drugs, class A drugs, crack and heroin. I was up all night, all day, outside, up and down, every minute. It’s not a good life to live. You’re always paranoid, always looking over your shoulder, are the police gonna get you, is someone gonna rob you, stab you?’
Being sentenced to prison felt unreal, I was 18. I just thought, wow I’m going in a boy, I’m gonna come out an adult.
Like many young men, Oliver was determined to live differently upon release. But one critical thing, unlike most of the 49% of people who are re-convicted each a year, meant he was able stick to his resolve:
Oliver met his Switchback Mentor in prison and together they planned for his release and life after prison. He seized Switchback’s offer to help him change. ‘It was a life-changing decision, although my plan was always to get a job and not associate with certain people, I don’t know if I could have stuck with it. If I didn’t have Switchback the chances of me jumping back into doing things that I did before would have been so much higher.
‘My friend was released from prison a few months ago. He’s back inside already. It’s easier to go back to what you were doing before than it is to make a change. There are a lot of guys who want to do stuff differently but who need the support Switchback gives. If they were pushed a little bit more it could be done.’
‘Switchback gave me practical stuff, like training in the café. They taught me how to register my Oyster-card, set up Jobseekers allowance, helped me look for jobs and apprenticeships, helped me with my travel, gave me vouchers for groceries and essentials. And when I first came out, one of the main things that helped was that they kept me busy coming in for appointments, offered me opportunities and different experiences. Just keeping me occupied meant I wasn’t idle and at home - able to meet with people I shouldn’t have’.
‘But it was more than that. I’ve never had someone like my Mentor before. It was a new experience for me. It’s cool. It’s nice to have someone to talk to, someone who’s not family. Someone to help me set goals for myself, plan out my week. Make sure I do what I say I’m going to do!’
‘I couldn’t have done it without Switchback.’
How does Oliver see his future now?
So good, my parents are happy with what I’m doing. Everything is better now. I still feel like money is up there as one of the things I want in life, but now so is achieving goals and enjoying my life. In 10 years’ time? I’d like to own a house. Have a wife and kids. Enjoy my life.
Switchback is an award-winning charity supporting 18-30 year-old men to live life differently after prison. Operating across London, Switchback provides intensive one-to-one support either side of the prison gate alongside work-based training with partner employers to enable prison-leavers to make real, lasting change. For further information visit www.switchback.org.uk