Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Following a string of recent reports demonizing our youth and questioning the effectiveness of our Criminal Justice System, James Dwyer tells his story as to how his life changed from crime and violence to that of happiness and success.

It’s My Life -
Thanks to C-FAR and Life Change UK

My name is James Dwyer. I am 22 years old and currently working as a carpenter in the Medway towns. This is the story of how a charity called C-FAR made it possible for me to turn my life around from that of crime and violence to one of happiness and success.

Up until 10 years of age I was a happy normal schoolboy. Unfortunately, around this time my home life started to go wrong as I realised my step-father was physically and mentally abusing my mother. It was at this time that he also started to do the same towards me. When I tried to protect my mother from what he was doing he took his frustration out on me. This started to affect my schooling as I was constantly worried about what was happening to my mother. I began running away from school to go home and check that my mum was ok. This is when I believe I also started to become very angry and aggressive towards other pupils and friends. I soon lost friends, was looked upon as a bully and became an out cast.

As I started secondary school I got into a lot of trouble and started bunking off from lessons, all of which led to me being expelled. Not being at school I was wondering the streets and met with new and older friends who had already left school. Most had been regular visitors to prison and they began to introduce me to crime. We stole cars and broke into sheds to get money for cannabis and other drugs which led to me smoking cannabis from a very young age. This cycle of activity went on for the next 4 years. I was in and out of court, attending probation and having to undertake reparation orders etc.

I then found out that my real father had died. This hit me very hard and I became very aggressive and violent which led to further crimes such as GBH and street robbery. It was not long after this that my mother got the courage to leave my step father and we moved to the Medway towns where we lived in Rochester. This was another real problem for me as I did not know anybody. Having left all I knew behind I started to go out stealing and fighting. I soon received my first ever custodial sentence which was 18 months in H.M. Y.O.I Feltham.

On release from Feltham I had nothing whatsoever and resorted to getting money to survive by the only way I knew, more crime. I was soon back in prison. The same thing happened to me over and over again. It was like I was trapped in a circle and I did not know how to break out.

It was during my last prison sentence that I learned I was to be a father myself. I did not want to have anything to do with my son as I felt I would be a bad influence on him and did not want to ruin his life the way my step father had ruined mine. I was then approached by a prison officer and asked if I would be interested in speaking to some people from a charity organisation called C-FAR based in Devon. He said that they helped offenders. I spoke to a lady called Tracie from Moving Forward; an organisation in Chatham that I later found out was a partner of C-FAR. Tracy interviewed me and described what C-FAR was all about.

After the interview I was accepted on to the C-FAR course and at the end of my sentence left for Burdon Grange in Devon. The C-FAR Life Change programme consisted of an 11-week residential course where I undertook a tough structured regime of education, life skills training and one to one mentoring with a designated trainer. We also tried out new things that I had never thought possible before, such as camping expeditions on Dartmoor, caving, kayaking and much more, all of which taught us team work, how to communicate, leadership and trust. It was also great fun and a really good life experience. All the trainers and mentors at C-FAR treated the other ex-offenders me like real people and not just like criminals. This taught us to believe in ourselves so that we could change our lives. All we needed to do was learn how to do it and put this into practice. For the first time since I was 10 years old, I was happy with myself and how I was changing and thinking.

After returning from Devon with my new skills and qualifications I was supported by a community mentor and helped to gain employment as a trainee carpenter with a local builder. This was another turning point in my life as I had never had a real job before. I was extremely excited about the prospects, but also very scared and nervous. I spoke to my mentor about this and with her help I overcame the worries and concerns and attended my first day at work. It is now 2 years since I started and I am still working for the same company and am now a fully qualified carpenter.

On returning from Devon I stopped driving illegally and worked towards getting my drivers license.
I have recently achieved this. This was a real plus for me as since the age of 15 I had been banned. I have now found a real passion for sports bikes and belong to a club and many organisations that deal with raising people’s awareness of motorcyclists on the road. I attend rallies such as Kill Spills which help to reduce the number of bike related accidents on the road from spilt diesel.

I also have a fantastic relationship with my son Billy who I go and see every spare moment I have. We often go out at weekends to the zoo or play football and other things that dads do with their sons. All of this was only possible thanks to the C-FAR team and the parenting lessons and life experiences that I learned while I was there.

I really cannot stress enough how important it is to have places like C-FAR. Prison “DOES NOT WORK”. Although it is a punishment, it does not do anything to teach offenders the skills they need or provide the information to become a positive contributing member of the community and to start working on their futures. As a prisoner you are just locked in a cell and faced with violence and segregation, all of which is scary, often forcing people to build mental walls or become more violent simply to survive. This never helped me at all.

Do not for a second think that C-FAR is an easy option. Compared to prison, the programmes structure, work, lessons and mentoring was very intense. I believe that this was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, but with the help from the trainers and my mentor it worked.

C-FAR was a dream come true. It helped me get my life back on track, not only in the sense of stopping crime, but also in my personal relationships with my son and my Fiancée.

I was very distressed to hear that C-FAR had had to close because the government refused to pay enough money towards the programme. C-FAR is the type of programme that people like me desperately need. If the government spent as much time, money and effort on programmes such as the C-FAR Life Change programme as they did on prisons, I am sure they would cut the number of prisoners and re-offending. People who get into crime need ‘HELP’ to stop. Locking us up and leaving us with nothing when we return to the community does not do it.

I was so happy to hear that Trevor, Theresa and Steve, whom I have enormous respect for, had made the decision to start a new company, Life change UK, and that they are still working to help offenders turn there lives around. I cannot thank the C-FAR team enough for all the help that they gave me and for giving me a chance to change my life and prove myself. I will do anything I can to help promote Life change UK and the work they do with people like me.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope that this inspires you to assist Life Change UK and to promote how important it is to have alternatives to prison that work. -

Yours gratefully,

James Dwyer

Sunday, November 05, 2006


When will we all wake up?

Home Office figures this week have again shown increased levels of crime and re-offending rates. Hardly a day passes when there is not a disturbing portrayal of crime on the news.
Our prison population is at its highest ever level with police cells being used as alternatives. Prison and education staffs struggle to deliver meaningful programmes of rehabilitation.
Probation Service personnel describe staff morale as being at an all time low.
An EU report suggested that British teenagers are the worst behaved and most violent in Europe.
Another report has suggesting that UK adults are afraid of its teenagers and that we have lost the ability to communicate with them. Yet demands that young people show more respect to adults is a common theme.

The Chairman of the Youth Justice Board has described how we are locking up more juveniles than ever before and that we need to avoid criminalising young people. The ASBO debate has again been prominent with figures showing that at least 49% of ASBOs are being breached; some people have said the figures are actually worse. In order to address this, a Home Office Minister suggested that those who do not comply can be sent to prison – really!

It has been suggested that Government policy is a reaction to public opinion. In other words, it is the public that is demanding retribution and punishment. Yet, research by the Prison Reform Trust suggests otherwise. Rather, the majority of people simply want offenders to stop re-offending and would be happy for alternatives if they were shown to work.

Critically, not only is the current situation undermining our society, it is costing the state billions of pounds that could be directed towards increased support for the elderly, health provision, the environment and education. As a tax payer, I am left asking, what is going on? Clearly for those disenfranchised young people on the edge of our communities, the system of ASBOs, punishment and prison is not working. If it was we would be pulling prisons down, not building more and re-offending rates would be falling. Yet if we keep doing the same things, we must surely expect to get the same outcomes.

When will we start to address the underlying needs that cause such behaviour? The ‘drivers’ in our lives are surely success and reward.
When will we acknowledge that punishment, by itself, fails to promote meaningful change? Rather it demoralises, de-motivates and depresses, thus perpetuating the existing situation.
When will we start to recognise that only by investing personal time and appropriate role modelling will we effectively promote positive change in young people’s attitudes and behaviour?

Whilst sensationalising cases by the media is partly to blame, the rest must surely lie with the adult population and the way we are allowing our society to develop. Are we all too busy to care about the children that we bring into this world, or are we simply unable to understand what is happening and unable to meet the challenges of being both adult and parent?

The gap between the young and adults is widening. Communication and two-way understanding is becoming increasingly difficult and the fear of young people is worsening. In demanding increased levels of respect one has surely to show respect and provide the appropriate trust and role modelling that inspires our young to follow. Yet many of the standards that adults demonstrate fall well short of what is necessary. Instead of taking responsibility for what is happening, society seems to constantly blame the young for what is happening.

When I reflect back to my teenage years; life was relatively simple. Today, the pressures on our youth are massive and whilst many look to adults for help, sadly it is all too often lacking, resulting in them making their own decisions and sometimes mistakes. The response from adults is then to criticise them for doing so, thereby further undermining young people’s confidence and willingness to listen and engage. Is there a fundamental level of insecurity within the adult population and their own ability to cope?

The bottom line is clear, without change, the situation will not improve. Issues associated with drug misuse, mental health, social exclusion and the fear of crime will continue to drive ever-increasing wedges into the very fabric of our communities. Importantly, the children of today’s young people will probably grow up in similar or worse situations than their parents. Adults must surely stop beating up on our young people and start to take more responsibility for what is happening? We cannot continue to simply leave it to the Criminal Justice System to sort out?

Trevor Philpott
Life Change UK