Sentence. Full stop

David Moores doesn’t know the exact number of jail terms he’s served. Now he’s been rehabilitated – not by the prison system, but by an organisation that meets former inmates on the out

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For 18 months during his twenties, David Moores lived in a skip in Blackburn. He’d been released from prison and had returned to heroin use immediately. Moores had no home and no real concept of living any other way.

“I couldn’t go to my family. I didn’t want them to see me the way I was,” he says.

“I was a menace to society but I’m not that person now and I never will be again.”

An addict from his late teens until his early forties, Moores only ever had one job – a brief stint as a window cleaner, when he would rob the houses he was supposed to be cleaning – before he was swiftly returned to jail. For more than 20 years, jail was his life – sentences upon sentences punctuated by brief spells of freedom, addiction and crime.

Often, when his release date grew near, Moores would tell himself that’d he do it right this time. Get clean, or stay clean if he had managed to do so inside – which wasn’t often the case, given just how readily available drugs were in prison. But when he’d reach the reception and see the same familiar faces waiting, all good intentions were scrapped.

“You scoring, David? What you having?”

“Three white and three brown.” Rinse and repeat.

On the Out is an organisation in Manchester bidding to break these cycles and help former inmates return to society. Moores is now a volunteer for it, having finally broken his own. It began in 2016 as a community interest company and is managed by trained social worker Helen Brown. Of the 12 main staff, most are ex-offenders. Roughly 200 metres from its office in Cheetham Hill is HMP Manchester, commonly known as Strangeways prison.

“It’s pretty handy in that sense,” says Mark Power, the community co-ordinator and group facilitator for On the Out, only half joking. The office is a large space with a pool table, a TV and chairs circled around a whiteboard that lists various dos (acceptance, commitment, being present) and don’ts (substance misuse, getting angry, lingering on the past). Members can drop in as and when they wish until 4pm, the assortment of breakfast cereals attesting that this is more than a place of education.

“We’re like a big family in many ways. A dysfunctional family,” Power says, but corrects himself. “Actually, we’re functioning pretty well.” He says that everyone here has spent time in prison, and many have experienced drug addiction or mental health problems. Moores chips in, almost raising a hand as he does so. “All three here!”

Moores had been in care from the age of seven and became a heroin user at around 17. His first prison sentence came aged 21 – a violent offence towards a man who had been causing problems for his family. From there, “it was crime, crime, crime, crime, in and out of jail”. He doesn’t know the exact number of sentences but it’s a lot. “I would rob your eyes off you and try to sell them back to you. I couldn’t give a fuck who you were,” he says.

For a long time, jail was preferable to the outside world, a holiday almost. “I enjoyed going to jail – I was safe there, I knew people who were like me,” he says. As he got older though, his outlook changed. A few years ago he was sitting in a hostel, needle in hand, wanting to kill himself. Returning to jail meant having to “rattle” – a term used by users to describe the shaking sensations that can be caused by drug withdrawal – and besides, he felt too old to continue the cycles of in and out, in and out.

A friend got him into supported accommodation and clean. He started volunteering for On the Out, helping people of a similar plight, and after a year he was offered a full-time position. He’s been clean for 18 months and hasn’t been to jail in six years.

“I was a menace to society but I’m not that person now and I will never be again,” Moores says.

George Rigby, 36, first stole when he was seven. His dad was an alcoholic who spent all the family’s money on his addiction, including his nan’s. The bailiffs had emptied his house and they were evicted.

“We just came home and it was boarded up,” he says. They moved above a corner shop while they tried to get some money together. Rigby went out and robbed a keyboard and brought it home for his nan in the hope she would sell it and put the money towards the new home. He pretended he found it in a skip and didn’t look back.

“I stole because I was hungry most of the time. We didn’t have much food,” he says. He was first arrested aged 10 for taking a burnt-out car and rolling it down a hill and now has a total count of offences above 40. He got into cocaine, taking and later dealing to fund his habit, and got his first sentence at 23. He started using hard drugs in his late twenties and began receiving regular sentences until his most recent one ended 19 months ago.

“I remember thinking how far away I was from the previous me,” Rigby says. “It was almost as though something in the universe had shifted because I’d become so disconnected from who I was.”

When he got out he was too full of anxiety to even set up his benefits.

“I couldn’t even pick up a phone,” he says. He’d start stealing because of a lack of money, but having money inevitably led him straight back towards heroin and crack.

“You’ve been in a box for so long and then you’re let out and the pressure is just too much to cope with.”

On the Out picked up Rigby at the prison gate 19 months ago and helped put him in supported housing in Macclesfield. The prison pickups are crucial. Where other organisations require a period of stability for ex-convicts before taking them on, On the Out treat the first 24 hours as the critical period.

During prison gate meets, the staff often don’t wear lanyards so as not to identify themselves as too official, or seem intimidating. They help get those released a mobile phone, set up with the probation services and signed up on benefits, alongside any other emotional or more human support.

“It’s about putting their mind at ease and knowing that they’ve got someone if they do need advice,” Rigby says. Many of the people they meet they recognise from jail themselves.

From the office, Power teaches acceptance and commitment therapy lessons, a form of psychotherapy that focuses on mindfulness in an attempt to change behaviour. It is designed to make subjects more present and “move towards valued behaviour” rather than eliminate difficult feelings altogether.

Despite the academic tethering, doing what Moores, Power, Rigby and the others do is not something that can be lifted from a textbook. “You’ve got to have lived it,” Moores says. “To understand me, you have to have lived in my head. It’s like a dodgy council estate in my head.”

“We don’t tell people to do this or that,” says Power. No one is instructed to stop using drugs or change their criminal behaviour in order to access On the Out. Indeed many of those coming here still do both. No one is turned away from On the Out either – it takes on those who no one else will.

Moores receives regular thanks from users and criminals he’s aided to reform. “They come up to me and say: ‘Thank you, David. I could never have imagined my life being like this,’” he recalls with pride. Rigby has a baby on the way and he’s moving into a new place in Macclesfield. They both believe more funding should be made available for follow-on work after inmates leave jail, so the work On the Out is achieving can be replicated on a more national scale.

Aside from on-the-gate work, the organisation helps with cold weather provision, going into the nearby homeless hostels and offering the same support. There is considerable overlap between homelessness and offending. Data from the Ministry of Justice in 2016 showed that 67 per cent of ex-prisoners who were homeless went on to commit another crime within 12 months.

The organisation’s help is offered to prisoners approaching the end of their terms, often by probation officers. It has leaflets in prison and goes inside to talk inmates through the process, but it also accepts that the primary motivation can’t come from On the Out.

“At the end of the day we can’t just stand at the prison gates snatching people,” Power laughs. Often he and colleagues have pickups arranged and then when the moment comes the newly released person decides not to get into the van.

It’s not hard to guess what they’re choosing to do instead, but the purpose isn’t to bend arms up behind backs – they have to drive their own rehabilitation.

“It’s clear they’re going to be doing the things that’ll land them straight back in jail,” Power says.

“But maybe next time or a few years down the line they’ll be ready and we can be there for them. We’re not going anywhere.”

Photo: On the Out co-ordinator Mark Power and David Moores (Rebecca Lupton)

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