The experiences of people involved with substances, crime and the justice system are complicated. Drug offences accounted for 16% of all prison sentences in the UK in 2021 and this figure does not account for the number of violent or acquisitive crimes where substances were involved. There is also growing concern for people exposed to substances during a custodial sentence, with UK government statistics showing that between 2014 and 2019 the proportion of people who developed a drug problem whilst in custody doubled from 8% to 15%.
At Phoenix Futures our residential treatment services welcome residents directly from prison and many more who have had lived experience of the justice system in their past. To even talk about crime can feed into a stigmatising narrative that some people in society use against our residents, and so some of our current residents were kind enough to share their personal experiences to help us explore these complex issues.
Chelsea began taking drugs at 15, and by age 19 had received her first prison sentence. The following twenty years she described as a ‘revolving door’, only staying out of prison for a few months at a time before returning. She spoke of the complicated relationship she had with prison.
“Sometimes it was a relief to go back” she said “because I couldn’t get to rehab, I treated prison like a rehab. I knew I could get drugs in there if I wanted to, but I never chased it. I was actually clean when I was in there, I did well. Whenever I came out, my life was chaos.”
I asked whether prison had helped prepare Chelsea for rehab in any way, but she was keen to emphasise the vast difference between the two settings.
“I thrived on the structure, the routine, the discipline in jail but in there nothing is expected of you. It’s not like being in rehab, where from the moment you wake up you have to think about how you feel and how you act.”
“In jail, you have to put up a front and not let your guard down in order to protect yourself.”
Kelly too had a similar experience, using heroin at 14 and continuing until the day her son was born. Her first prison sentence came at age 17, and a further thirteen periods of imprisonment followed.
“In prison, I had walls and defences up. I wouldn’t stop and think.” she said “in there you’re surrounded by people who don’t want to change. I wasn’t happy in that life, but you end up just accepting it.”
Many of the behaviours Kelly had adopted in prison were carried into her life after release, and despite her desire to access rehab with her son, it took some time for her to adjust.
“When I first came to rehab, I would kick off straight away if I didn’t like the answers from staff, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.” she said “but once you’ve built the trust, it is massive. In here you’re encouraged to change and challenge your behaviours, and you don’t realise they change until its done.”
Kelly continued, reflecting on how fortunate she felt that help was there at the right time in her life.
“Without my son I’d still be on the same path, using and going in and out of prison. Time is big, you don’t realise it’s running out. If I could do it over again, I would have surrounded myself with people who were better for me.”
Andy had spent several years in prison prior to coming to rehab.
“By age 40, I’d spent 20 years of my life in prison” he told me.
“There were times when I got out and I wanted to be back inside. I found the outside world alien and hostile. In prison there was a sense of belonging because people thought like me and had a similar lifestyle.”
Andy explained how his childhood experiences contributed to the intertwining of drugs and prison in his life.
“I lost my mum to a heroin overdose. The year after that I went into the care system.” he said “I didn’t use drugs up to being 15, but there was a situation where I smoked heroin with an older friend. Addiction set in straight away, then I got my first prison sentence for stealing.”
Andy’s life from this point onwards was a repetition of the same cycle of drug use, crime and prison time.
“When I was clean, I felt like I couldn’t cope. I had no skills to be a productive member of society. I had no responsibility. Prison was my parent in a way.”
Andy spoke at length about the circumstances that led to his final prison sentence before coming to rehab. He lost someone close to him, and through an ill-fated error of judgement became involved in a murder enquiry after helping an acquaintance avoid the police.
“I went to prison, but I was found not guilty during the trial. Whilst awaiting the trial I started working with a drugs worker in prison. For the first time in my life, I became honest. I would always tell lies, cheat, steal, but something changed within me.”
“When I got to rehab, I was determined. I adhered myself to the programme. I put 100% in. I wasn’t going back to that life. I couldn’t say I wanted my life back. I never had a life. I wanted to start again.”
As our conversations drew to a close, I asked what next for the three of them.
“I just want to be a mum to my little boy. I want to do the school run, take him to his hobbies, enjoy life” said Chelsea “I hate the word normal, but I want a bit of normality. I want to be a mummy!”
Kelly too echoed that same word.
“I want a normal life. Go on holidays, make a business, hold my head up high as I walk down the street. I feel free.”
“I always say I’m one of the lucky ones. I really mean that.” said Andy “now I have goals, I have aspirations, a belief system, integrity, morals.”
“I look at my story and what I’ve been through emotionally, mentally and physically and my goals now are to help people who suffer with addiction.” he said.
“I want to have a beautiful family, earn my own money. I want to use my experience, my story to help people.”
Read the Making Rehab Work report here