This story of an ex-convict who served multiple prison sentences as a consequence of his violent crimes and went on to turn his life around is proof that prisoners can be rehabilitated, writes author and film-maker CHRIS ATKINS
I gave Marc Conway a wide berth when he arrived at Spring Hill open prison. He was an intimidating figure – late 30s, heavyset, with thick black hair and a growling, sarf London accent.
This was Marc’s tenth sentence, but he told me it would be his last, following a remarkable experience at HMP Grendon, which looks like a Soviet gulag – surrounded by towers, fences and searchlights – but is the only prison in Europe operating as a wholly therapeutic community.
Grendon in Buckinghamshire shows what it really takes to turn an offender around.
Marc went on to work for the Prison Reform Trust. By the time I met him, he had spent five years in intensive therapy at Grendon, examining every painful aspect of his upbringing and the consequences of his violent crimes.
It was tough – and highly personal. Not some pointless, boilerplate reoffending course that is expected to transform people in a few weeks and so spectacularly failed with Plymouth mass killer Jake Davison.
Marc had taken part in his first armed robbery when he was 14 and got his first big prison sentence at 21. When he was released, five years later, he made half-hearted attempts to go straight, but deep down, still saw himself as a criminal.
Before long, he was involved in another violent robbery. This time, he was given an indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence and feared he’d never get out.
He’d heard that Grendon had helped lifers and IPP prisoners get released, so he signed up. He had no idea what he was in for: inmates undergo daily therapy sessions in groups, digging into the most painful aspects of childhood experiences, relationships and what motivates violent behaviour.
‘I held out against it for months,’ Marc told me. ‘I was rude to staff. In a normal prison it’s all about bravado but in Grendon, you open up, you cry. It was the hardest bit of prison I’ve ever done. Psychologically, it’s crushing.’
In therapy, he spoke about things from his childhood that he’d never told anyone before. He became a peer leader of the therapy sessions, learning to remain calm while delving into the depths.
On one level, Marc hated every minute of Grendon, but as time went on, he could feel himself changing and slowly shedding his criminal identity. ‘There’s a grieving process for your old life. There were things I really missed. It’s f***ing exciting doing an armed robbery. I lost the camaraderie.’
The two-year reoffending rate for Grendon prisoners who stay for more than 18 months is 20 per cent, less than half of the rate for those serving time in conventional prisons. Yet, despite its success rate, the programme has never been replicated in any other prison.
The authorities’ excuse for this seems to be that it is ‘expensive’, but that is misleading. As of 2010, a place at Grendon cost approximately £48,000 per year, about £10,000 more than other Category B prisons. But Grendon takes the most damaged inmates in the system – who might otherwise be at Cat A prisons, which cost well over £100,000 per inmate each year.
To Marc’s surprise, the governor suggested he study for a degree in criminology.
While doing so, he joined Learning Together, a scheme run by Cambridge University. And while at one of its conferences at London’s Fishmongers’ Hall, he was among other ex-prisoners who overpowered Islamic extremist Usman Khan during a terror attack.
The next day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised the ‘have-a-go heroes’, neglecting to mention five of them were convicted criminals.
Khan may have believed the convicts at the conference would look the other way when he attacked, but he was flattened by a posse of reformed offenders who stunned the world with their selflessness. Sad to think our system so often keeps people in the gutter, rather than helping them pull themselves out.