My early years were lived on a council estate in Leeds, with my mother and two brothers. None of us really knew or had anything to do with our father. My sister was born some years later. My mother did the best she could to provide for us but it was extremely difficult for her.
As far back as I can remember I was in trouble with one authority or another – these really are my earliest childhood memories. I was in trouble at school, constantly facing suspensions, expulsions and child psychologists. I was eventually sent to a school for people with behavioural difficulties.
At the time I thought it a big joke but what it actually did was introduce me to the criminal fraternity.
People always said I would end up in prison, but on the other hand various teachers and authorities labelled me an ‘underachiever’ who was not reaching his full potential.
I got into real trouble with the police when I was about 13. I remember sitting in the police station and thinking it was all a big joke and nothing to worry about. The police inspector told me I was a very bad lad and that if I carried on that way I would find myself in prison – which wouldn’t be funny at all. But it didn’t deter me.
I would leave home to go to school but instead went off to commit burglaries. I was arrested several times and the magistrates finally had enough of me. They decided to see if a short spell in a prison would put me right. I was sent to Hull prison shortly after my fifteenth birthday. I had already spent time in children’s homes, so I had little fear of the prison environment.
There was a lot of animosity between the Yorkshire inmates and the Humberside inmates, and I ended up fighting all the time. I earned a kind of respect as someone who would not be messed around. But it was a ‘respect’ based on fear.
This was pretty much the way that I continued – always in and out of prison and fighting with everyone who got in my way or offended me. This was true of prison staff and prisoners alike.
Throughout my time in prison I attended the weekly church services. I did so primarily to meet up with people in different parts of the prison who you wouldn’t normally get the chance to see.
I found the preaching both interesting and puzzling. There was this man who had died for the sins of mankind and it was supposed somehow to relate to me. I found this very confusing, but it did give me a lasting interest in Christianity.
I would often find myself in the prison segregation unit and we were not allowed books or anything in our cells while we were undergoing punishment. The only exception was the Bible and, with nothing else to do all day, it was very easy to pick it up and read.
I gave it serious study – much as you might study a favourite novel rather than from any sort of faith.
I often questioned the prison chaplains about what the Bible says (they had to visit the segregation unit daily to make sure we were being treated fairly). They were all Catholic or Anglican ministers and none of them was ever able to answer my questions. So I used their own Bible against them to disprove what they were telling me!
Through these years I learnt quite a lot from the Bible. Though this was all head knowledge it was to prove useful later on in my life.
So from the age of fifteen until I was 28, I was in and out of prison all the time. My attitude never changed – I would do what I wanted and do it my way. If anyone didn’t like it, I would fight them. I was also drinking quite heavily and taking a variety of drugs. I was addicted to all manner of things, including substances, money and the lifestyle I was living.
I never worked; I got whatever I wanted by stealing. I never thought about the many victims of my crimes – you learn to block out all moral considerations. I looked on crime as a job.
When 2001 arrived I was pretty much in the same situation, drinking heavily, committing all manner of crimes and generally leading an amoral life.
But then something changed – I realised that what I was doing wasn’t right. It was as if the mental block I’d had for all these years had been removed and I knew that I couldn’t carry on this way.
These were strange thoughts and it really puzzled me. I was starting to have some sort of conscience concerning right and wrong.
It weighed on me until it reached a point where I had to do something. One night these thoughts had been keeping me awake and I did something totally out of character – I walked into the local police station at about 4.00am and told them I was wanted for a crime and wanted to hand myself in.
The police officer at the reception desk looked at me as if I was mad, but he went away and checked out what I was saying. When he came back he still thought I was mad, but none the less took me away to the cell area and started the process.
Normally a prisoner would apply for bail after being charged with a crime, but I didn’t do this. I knew I had to go to prison to get myself sorted out and I didn’t want my freedom to interfere. Exactly how I was going to manage this after failing previously I didn’t know. But I did know that I had to be in prison.
I got a sentence of four years from the Crown Court for burglary and theft from a jewellers. On to prison I went, thinking I would carry on as I had done on every other sentence.
But I was confused in my mind. I knew that I had to change, but I just didn’t know how to change. I remember looking at the older prisoners and hoping that I wouldn’t end up institutionalised like them.
Some months later I heard of a new initiative to teach inmates a skill they could use after their release from prison. Such ventures were always being announced but none had ever interested me before. This one did, however, as it was learning web design and related computer skills.
I have always had an avid interest in computing and this was something I would really like to do. But new ventures are normally reserved for model prisoners, certainly not ones with my sort of background, so I didn’t really expect to get a place.
But much to my surprise I received a letter saying they would like to have me on the team and that I would be moved to another prison where the venture was located. This was great news to me. Someone had actually looked at my record and had still given me a chance!
This threw me a bit, because I wasn’t used to being treated like this and it was a chance that I very much appreciated. I was transferred to the Wolds prison in East Yorkshire and put on the web design programme. I soon found myself really fitting in and learning a skill.
No one to explain
I was reading my Bible again, but was often frustrated that there was no one to explain it to me – at least not with the sort of explanation that made sense.
Also at this time I was looking at several other faiths. I knew that only a faith could save me from the life I had lived, but I was having a real struggle finding the faith that could make the change.
I didn’t know then where this understanding came from. All I knew was that I had to look at all these faiths and that the one that was real would become apparent to me. I found this from no person or organisation.
On this training programme I was allowed to use the internet and was increasingly drawn to a major Christian message-board. It was Christian only in a loose sense and many things I read there were contrary to what I was reading in the Bible.
However, I noticed that one person on the message boards spoke the truth as I found it in the Bible. Here was what I had been looking for – someone who wasn’t afraid to declare what the Bible says.
I ended up getting in touch with this person by post and we had some very interesting correspondence.
Awe and wonder
Around this time I started to attend the prison chapel and was asking earnest questions. Again I got no satisfactory answers but I continued to attend as it was the only form of fellowship available.
In my cell at night, however, I often sat reading the Bible with awe and wonder at its message. I knew this precious book had what I wanted and I was hungry for more of the book to be unlocked.
One night I sat there and thought, ‘Right, I am ready for this. I have looked at everything else and I know that the only place I have found any sort of truth is within this Bible.’
I knew I was a sinner and that within myself there was no power to set me free. There was nothing I could do. I got on my hands and knees and asked the Lord into my life, praying, ‘Lord help me’.
Immediately I had a total conviction of sin. I knew I was a sinner from birth and that the only way to escape from this was through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. I gave myself to him that very moment.
I don’t know how long I prayed that night, but I do know that I was crying with joy at the release that I felt. It was the most beautiful moment I have ever known.
I longed for genuine fellowship. The lady that ran the computer course said she was a Christian but bemoaned the fact that I was spending too much time in the prison chapel. This is just one example of the confusing behaviour I found among the wide variety of ‘Christians’ I met in the prison setting.
I was joyful, though, and pleased that all my head-knowledge of the Bible had become real faith. I knew from the beginning that the only one that I could totally rely on with this faith was the Lord Jesus Christ. I had so much time just to sit down and fellowship with the Lord and to sit and study his Word without outside interference.
This was a most precious gift from God and it enabled me to get my own understanding of him and what it means to be a Christian. The process I was going through was very thorough. The Lord was really stripping me down and building me up.
All the bad attitudes to those around me went away and other people started to notice that I was a changed person. At first they thought I was mad but this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was really happy, trusting the Lord to bring me through the difficult times that lay ahead.
Shortly after my conversion I was attacked by another inmate. In the past I would have retaliated. As he was quite a large man I would have hit him with a table leg or even stabbed him. Instead, I was given my first real experience of being able to forgive someone. Later we became friends and I was able to talk to him about my conversion.
I was a Christian in the prison system for two years before my release. It was a blessed time for me. The Lord removed so many wrong things from me and I counted every step a blessing. I knew that when I was released I would try as much as I was able to live to his glory and not to my own selfish desires as I had done in the past.
It was difficult to be a Christian in prison. There is a distinct lack of biblical teaching. One of the reasons is that the prison system is erring towards multi-faith religion, which leaves no room for the exclusiveness of the Christian faith. Because prison ministers are expected to be part of a multi-faith team, it really does deter genuine Christians from getting access to prisoners.
A few months before I was released I had a short letter published in Evangelical Times and many Christian people wrote to me. I made some precious friendships, through which the Lord provided me with the fellowship I lacked – by way of letters, telephone calls and visits.
One person I met in this way was a lovely Christian lady called Wendy. It was as if the Lord was just waiting to introduce us to each other. The relationship progressed and we are due to be married shortly.
Strangely, I found the Christian life outside more difficult than within the prison walls. Even finding an acceptable Bible-teaching church to join proved a struggle. Eventually I moved to Kent where my fiancée lives and joined her church – and am finding it very good and profitable. The welcome I received there has been wonderful – just what you would expect from people who really know the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.
Not long after my release I was baptised. This took place in a river and was something I had been looking forward to since my conversion. I also had my first ‘communion’ with fellow believers. It is possible to take these sacraments for granted, but as a Christian in prison I yearned for the day when I could do such things.
When I look around me I see much confusion in the world and this greatly saddens me. The gospel of our Lord does not need great intellect to understand. It is a clear and simple message, and it is a sad shame that it is so perverted in this day and age. Any number of errors slip into the gospel message and take away the basic truth that it contains.
The gospel did not come to me by man but through the living word of the living God. I am ever prayerful that I shall guard the precious truth I have received.
One scripture from which I am always able to draw strength is Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’. In myself I can achieve nothing but with the Lord I am able to press towards the prize that is waiting for me – eternal life with Christ, ‘who loves me and gave himself for me’.