‘No help’. This is the stark response offered by a group of young men recently released from prison, when asked just how much guidance they’d received behind bars in helping them adjust to life outside.
‘Nah, there isn’t any support at all,’ adds Liam*, from London, who’s just finished serving 12 years.
‘I was 16 when I went in and 28 when I was released – the transition in that time, it doesn’t get bigger than that, coming out as an adult.
‘Prison didn’t help me. They didn’t take anything into consideration. I asked to open a bank account, I asked for a form of ID, because I knew all of these things I’d need on the outside, and the prison basically didn’t do anything.’
This is a reality claimed by all of the ex-offenders Metro.co.uk spoke to, who are taking part in an initiative by one charity that helps them get back on their feet.
Called Switchback, the organisation supports former prisoners in London, through work experience, mentorship, and even funding for things like driving lessons.
While around 50% of people leaving prison end up reoffending within a year, for the men going through Switchback programmes, that statistic falls to just 9%.
And their work cannot be underestimated. One of their key partners is The Dusty Knuckle, a bakery in east London, which offers traineeships to ex-offenders.
Sitting in the busy bakery, one of their former trainees, Liam, tells Metro.co.uk how he wrote to Switchback while still in custody after seeing them mentioned on a laptop he was using in prison.
‘It wasn’t guaranteed I was going to get out as I didn’t have a release date, but I contacted them anyway because I believed I was,’ he explains.
Although he was fortunate that he didn’t need to worry about finding a home upon release, as his dad had arranged accommodation, employment was a concern.
However, once Liam embarked on his three-month training scheme at The Dusty Knuckle, he knew in his gut he’d go on to get a full-time role there.
‘I came out 29 December, and by the second week of January I was here. It all happened fast, but I needed that to show me this is reality,’ he explains.
‘I had to get used to working everyday, because I’ve never worked. Getting upearly, having some sense of responsibility and needing to turn up on time so I don’t lose my job – it’s a new life to adjust to. There are some areas where I struggle a bit, but I know it’s such a big transition, so I don’t let it stress me out.
‘I don’t intent to work here forever, this is for money now while I look into other things. I’m still seeing what’s available and taking each step at a time.’
And, for the time being, The Dusty Knuckle is a great place to be. The bakery is buzzing, with a non-stop flow of customers ordering cakes and coffees while we speak, and the employees are young, from bakers to baristas.
A few regulars come up to Liam to say ‘hello’, and you can feel a sense of community among the staff and customers, who snack on freshly made pastries (which you can watch being prepared), bread, and sarnies – some of which gets delivered to cafes in the area too owing to their high quality.
By 11am, they’re almost sold out of the first batch.
James* is another staff member that’s come through the partnership.
At just 21, he’s newly released from prison and is a paid trainee – he says being here has given him a ‘fresh start’.
‘While I was incarcerated, my mum reached out to Switchback, so I had a meeting and it went on from there,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘At first, I wasn’t too keen on it, but I ended up going and started to like it. I haven’t been in this type of environment before, but it’s nice here and I like making coffees and serving people.
‘I’m used to being just with my friends, so working with others that I’m not normally around, it’s good to hear from them and know what their paths are and hear their stories.’
James admits he was worried at first about being ‘judged’, given his recent past, and what life would be like after release.
‘They always say you’re going to end up in the s*** and come back to prison,’ he explains.
‘My main focus was just not to come back, and that’s what I’m doing right now.
‘I’ll be honest, there wasn’t much support with rehabilitation where I was, and it felt like they do the bare minimum for mental health in prison. It was so they could say “Yeah we help people”, but then don’t actually put a lot into it.’
Switchback, by comparison, was a breath of fresh air, says James. Now he has a mentor he sees weekly who is ‘always checking up’ on him.
‘He’s made my journey easier for me,’ James adds. ‘Support is a big thing when you come out, because sometimes you just feel like you’re by yourself. But when you have someone behind you that’s not your family, who’s trying to steer you in the right direction and open up doors for you, it’s good.’
As for the future, James hopes to move on from The Dusty Knuckle – which is always intended to be a stepping stone – and train as a tradesman.
‘Hopefully, if I’m good enough, I can open up my own business and be my own boss – that’s always what I’ve wanted to do,’ he says.
Though The Dusty Knuckle only began their relationship with Switchback in 2019, working with young people who face barriers to employment has always been in the fabric of the company since it was founded five years prior.
Max Tobias, one of the bakery’s co-founders, had spent ten years working in youth violence and gang prevention, so building a social enterprise was important to him.
The motto the bakery operates on is: ‘Young people who make bad choices do so because, for them, they are the best option at the time.’ They work with prisons, charities and families, offering training to ex-offenders, refugees, asylum seekers, and those with disabilities, among others.
Demand for the programme is growing rapidly owing to their success stories. While last year the bakery trained 23 people, from January to May 2023, already it’s at 26. They’re expecting numbers to quadruple in the next year.
Charlie Atkinson, 38, The Dusty Knuckle’s youth training programme manager, says she sees her job as ‘providing the best place possible for people to make their steps of change’.
‘In a short space of time, there’s such a shift in their confidence and self-esteem,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘A lot of trainees are worried about interacting with the general public and what they’ll think of them, but in this atmosphere people feel really free. My favourite thing is when people have done their 12 weeks and they say they’re ready to go off out into the world.’
The traineeship gives people a chance to get a clearer sense of what might be next – something that Liam says is essential, as a lack of clarity on can be one of the many factors in why people offend.
‘I didn’t know where I was heading, and it’s probably the reason I ended up getting involved in certain things,’ he reflects. ‘My area played a part – things that are cool or glamorised, they’re often not good. That comes from poverty.
‘I also didn’t have any guidance – no one really questioned me, and I was quite naïve. I can’t fault my parents because they didn’t know, but I was 15 at the time when things happened and you just follow your friends.’
Mentors, provided by Switchback, play a huge role in providing that guidance post-prison. Even though Liam has technically finished his mentorship, he still is in touch with his, Tashan Lane-Pierre, 28, and their relationship has continued on.
‘Mentors can give you better advice because they understand it and they’ve been through it, rather than someone who might care, but don’t know it,’ he explains.
Tashan does get it, as he too has served time in prison – a year and a half in his early 20s – and now he is employed by the charity full time as a mentor, after using their services himself.
‘In my opinion, charities like this shouldn’t actually exist, if the prison system, the resettlement teams and probation were funded properly and doing their jobs,’ he says.
In theory, prisons should provide access to resettlement services, such as career and CV help, and support with housing. In practice, this isn’t always how it pans out.
‘When I was inside, I saw my mentor from Switchback more than I saw my resettlement team, so you can get an idea of how much support I had through the prison itself,’ Tashan adds.
He explains that the way the scheme works is, when people have three months left of their sentence, they go on a list that mentors can access, and so the charity might reach out to people from that list. Offenders and their families can also make the first move.
To be eligible, they need to be aged 18-30, returning to London, and have no terrorist, arson, or sexual offences, no immigration issues and no outstanding cases.
Then they’ll be connected with someone who potentially has lived experience, such as Tashan.
‘I’ve always liked teaching and I used to work in a nursery. I’m the eldest of seven so I’m always trying to help people anyway,’ he explains. ‘Once the charity helped me, I thought I could do this as well.’
Tashan tells Metro.co.uk that he received help in the way of employment and mental health support. Years on after lockdown, he went back to them and did an internship – now he mentors between three to five people at a time, seeing them all a minimum of once a week.
‘Before I went to prison, I knew the system was bad. But as I’ve come out and got in this job, I’ve realised it really needs a proper overhaul,’ he says. ‘It’s something like two thirds of people come out homeless, no bank account, no form of ID – and you can’t get a job without that. It’s like a cycle. It’s diabolical.
‘You’re trying to sort out all these things, and your mental health is just deteriorating because nothing is getting done – yet people expect you to be happy all the time and to change your life. How are you going to if you don’t have the fundamental things?’
Tashan has seen first-hand the consequences a lack of support can trigger. He says that, in his experience, re-offending only happens when people aren’t in a good set of circumstances.
‘Maybe they’ve lost their job, or their house, or they’ve come out and things aren’t going well. So when they don’t have the support, they think “What’s the point? I’m trying and getting nowhere”,’ he explains.
‘I think there should be an organisation like this in every major city, because I’ve seen it change a lot of people in a short space of time. Many people come to us quite shy and wary, because they worry are we going to be the same as everywhere else – a lot of promises not kept.
‘However, after a few weeks, when they can see we’re doing what we said we were going to do, they start to come out of their shell.’
Tashan adds that he’s proof an ex-offender’s future can be full of possibility.
‘The way Switchback has navigated my path, I think I’m on a good one,’ he says.
‘I didn’t find them – they found me. I never thought I’d be doing this, but I’m good at it.
‘The board said they would try to speak to Ofsted for me, as I used to work in a nursery and now I can’t, but I think: it’s a period of my life that’s ended, let’s find something new.
‘A lot of the time in prison you’re fighting the system, so knowing you have people in your corner actually in the system helps.
‘The Dusty Knuckle is a safe space. There is trust, and as long as you do your work, you can be yourself.’
You can support the Dusty Knuckle’s upcoming fundraiser here, so they can continue to help other young people facing barriers to employment.
*Names have been changed to protect against potential stigma.
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