Prisons are not nice places. Bullying and fear goes with the territory. I am a big lad, and could look after myself, but it was not the same for everyone. I was a criminal — there is no other way of putting it. I’d had a couple of short spells in prison for antique dealing and theft. Then I was arrested for importing cannabis and was sentenced to 12½ years. I think someone informed on me. This was 14 years ago.
My dad was a contemporary of the Kray brothers and others. I don’t remember them, but my parents certainly wanted to try and change us, and we moved out to New Malden in Surrey. It worked for my brother and sister, but not for me: as a teenager, I started drinking and taking drugs. I suppose it was a cycle I couldn’t get out of, and I was soon taking cocaine; then began smuggling drugs.
My personal life was rather complicated when I was arrested. I had a partner and three young daughters, and was really concerned for them. But I was actually with another girl. I was arrested in Devon but lived in London, so felt a long way away. I remember a deep feeling of despair when I was sentenced. To make it worse, my dad was sentenced with me: it’s odd going to prison with your dad.
My girlfriend started sending me prayers. She was Italian, and Roman Catholic by background, and started going to a lively Anglican church in London. It was the first time I had ever really thought about Christianity. I believed in God, but certainly had no time for what people called “born-again” Christians.
Prisoners often went to the prison chapel. Where I was in Exeter Prison, it meant you got a free phone call. I started going for no other reason. But the chaplain, Bill Birdwood, was a decent bloke: he wasn’t pious or anything: he was just there. Then I was reading a paper in my cell, and there was this article about this thing called Alpha. I realised it was hap-pening at the same church my girlfriend was at.
In prison, you learn to be manipulative; so I’m not sure what motives I had — scoring Brownie points can lead to early parole. But I went to the chaplain and asked him to ring the church [Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB)] about this Alpha course.
To cut a long story short, it ended up with a team coming down from the church, and it inspired both Bill and the local vicar, David Saunders, to run a course in the prison.
My real problem was that it didn’t fit with my street cred. I am a loud-mouth cockney with scars on my face. There were 11 of us, and we were known as the God Squad. In one way it was really hard for me, as actually I think God had already been touching my life before, but this was public and for real. I still hate the term “religious”. I always say I have a relationship with God.
It was the start of a journey. I had to change. I stopped the drugs overnight. (It’s amazing what you can get in prison.) But it’s a gradual process, really. I’ve always had real problems with women, money, and drugs, and it’s not been easy to sort. There have been some white-knuckle moments.
The hardest thing for any prisoner is when you come out. For me, Alpha in prison was brilliant: it helped me through and helped me change. But then I had to face the real world. For the first six months,
I really backslid, and even touched drugs for a while; but my faith was real, and, with a lot of help, I pulled myself together.
Anything like Prisons Week, which highlights what is going on for prisoners, has to be a good thing. HTB runs a course for newly released prisoners; and then there is the national Caring for Ex-Offenders scheme, and others. This is brilliant, as it helps ex-prisoners find a job, and provides them with a mentor — basically, it helps prisoners back on their feet when they come out. There is no easy answer at that stage. I should know.
I got my life back on track after I got clean from drugs, shortly after I came home from prison — although every year I have struggled with different issues. I now run a flower business, and am just starting something else. I am back with my original partner, Tracey, the mother of my children. We finally married. It was funny, because some of my ex-prisoner friends came to the wedding, and were really touched, even if they didn’t admit it.
If I could give a word of encouragement to anyone who feels they are failing, it would be: “Don’t worry how far you fall: you can always get up again.” Sometimes we can be in danger of raising the bar too high as Christians. None of us is perfect.
The family are everything to me now. I am about to become a grandfather for the first time, and my parents are both still alive and well. We get together when we can.
I’ve never been a great reader, but I always read something from the Bible every day. A friend has just given me a biography about Keats the poet: it’s fascinating.
As a child, I wanted to be a football player. I am a mad Chelsea fan.
In the Bible, I love the book of Haggai. God really does want to bless us. I don’t think we always believe him. I also like Isaiah 45, about the hidden treasures of darkness that God gives us.
To inspire me, God has always given me good men — from the chaplain Bill at Exeter to the leaders now at my church.
I would like to be remembered for doing something for those children affected by drugs because of addiction in the family. I would like to set up a Christian holiday camp that would tackle this issue.
I get angry with traffic wardens. I am happiest when I am worshipping or with my family.
Spiritually, I like to retreat to Epsom Downs. It is where my brother is buried. It is a very special place.
I would like to get locked in a church with Raquel Welch — or, failing that, Sandy Millar [former Rector of Holy Trinity, Brompton]. I would like to receive the spirit of his wisdom.
Michael Emmett was talking to Rachel Harden.