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Personal stories: Lee

Lee was the poster boy for repeat offending. His was a classic case: in and out of care homes as a child, an absent father, a mother with mental health issues, expelled from every school he attended, and an anti-authoritarian attitude that always got up the sentencer’s nose.

At 15, he nicked a couple of wheels from a car: a silly prank that gave him his first conviction and took away his only opportunity to join the army – his chosen profession –  and with no one else willing to give him a job, all hope of any kind of normal life.

And as one door closed, another opened: into a life of serial offending and drug-taking that continued for 34 years.

That life of crime cost Lee more than 15 years of his life incarcerated in prison, two fingers on his left hand, and the flesh off his bones – literally eviscerated from his chest, shoulders and arms. In his mid-thirties he even tried to kill himself. And yet nothing changed. No one, he says, reached out to help him or make any real attempt to rehabilitate him. The drug-taking continued and so did the life of crime.

He’s 51 now, and is marking another long stretch – he has been clean of drugs for two and a half years. Ever since the army rejected him, it’s the only time he’s ever tried to live a crime-free life. What’s more he has no intention of returning to his old ways.

For Lee, everything changed when he was sentenced to a 12-month supervision order with the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company for a domestic violence offence.

“I think the 12-month supervision order is brilliant,” Lee says. “People like me – who in the past slipped through the net – have a chance to get exactly the help they need. People I know – who’ve committed offences and are now under supervision orders – are all saying the quality of help is so much better since the CRCs came into being.”

Lee’s opinion is worth listening to: he knows the system, he’s gone around and around it for decades.

The making of LeeExpand to read more

Lee had it tough from the start. His mum had a nervous breakdown when he was just four or five years old. He remembers being torn away – along with his younger sister – from the arms of his distraught mother by the police. “It was like the final scene from A long Good Friday”, he says.

He went from foster care to children’s homes and school to school getting expelled from them all including boarding school.

“I had hopes like everyone else. I really, really wanted to be in the army. I grew up with forces children at boarding school. I look back and I know that had I been given that one chance, my life would have been very different.”

At 15, Lee ran away to join a fun fair. By 17 he’d got into the wrong crowd and started dealing hash and class A drugs like acid. By 18 it was crack and he was taking it himself.

Lee was living on a council estate in South London where within two years he was a major player in the crime scene. And by 21 he was banged up for five years.

“It was hard core - those first five years made me the criminal I became. When you hear the locks turning, there’s so much time to be bitter.” He believes it was a harsh sentence: he was given five years for growing weed and yet his co-defendant got six months.

In prison, Lee was on a four-man lock-up. He was young – Jack-the-lad – he says, and older prisoners wound him up to cause trouble. They moved him from prison to prison, blazing a trail of riots everywhere he went. Then he hit an officer in the face with a brick and was thrown into solitary confinement for nine months.

“That’s a long time without a friendly face or a visitor and that includes the cons. I was treated with contempt.”

Lee was released in 1989 and with no home, job, or support of any kind, he found himself in the middle of the rave scene helping to organise them, selling tickets and dealing recreational drugs. That’s when he started taking heroin himself.

He was busted by a drug squad with 300 acid tabs on him. He jumped bail and hid out in Newmarket where he began robbing shops and other drug dealers at gun-point. He was picked up on a routine stop and search on his way to London on a drugs take and given two years in prison. On release back in Newmarket he noted a gap in the market, he says like a seasoned commercial marketer. “I saw an opportunity to create a market for heroin and crack and I went for it.”

Public enemy number oneExpand to read more

“I became public enemy number one for the police. Over the next three decades, the police set up six major operations to catch me.” But Lee was helped by locals every time they got close and kept slipping from under their noses.

“One time I heard a teenage girl was going around telling people coppers had broken her bed by all crowding on it to spy on me through her bedroom window.”

On three occasions when he was running a crack house in Newmarket, he was able to flush the drugs down the toilet while the cops battled to get through 20 door locks and reinforced windows.

“Prison just can’t be a deterrent, because when I did get caught and given another five years, I was out just 13 weeks when I was sent back to prison for another five years for armed robbery. It felt more like home leave.

“I was so messed up by then. I’d only got involved with robberies because my crowd were doing them so badly. I decided to show them how it should be done. My car crashed on the way back from one and a police car just happened to come along.”

Lee was about 34 by this stage and realised he was stuck in a vicious circle so he stopped caring. One day he cut both his wrists, severing his arteries. There was blood everywhere. The doctor had to tip him up to prevent him from having a heart attack. He went on to have a nervous breakdown and still no one reached out to rehabilitate him. “There were courses”, he says, “There were always courses. But we just went along with them in the hope of getting early release with an electronic tag.”

Lee recovered from his physical injuries though managed to retain his drug habit throughout his time in prison. He came out at 39 and with no home, job or support, the whole cycle started all over again. “I didn’t buy into any part of society. I lived completely on the fringe. I’ll never forget being attacked in my flat by two men trying to take control of the drugs trade from me. They sliced my fingers off with a machete and I remember my girlfriend holding the crack pipe to my mouth while we waited for the ambulance.” He raises his hand to demonstrate the missing two fingers.

“Then there was the time I was so high I tried to take down a CCTV camera off a telegraph post that was pointed at an arms’ safe house. I was electrocuted by 90,000 volts.” He lifts his tee shirt and exposes several craters where the flesh had been blown away across his chest from one shoulder to the other.

His defining moment, he says, was injecting five to six grams of snowball (crack mixed with heroin) regularly into his groin. He burst an artery in his thigh – and owes his life to the fact he happened to be in the vascular unit of a hospital for another issue when it happened.

Something changedExpand to read more

But he knew something had to change when he discovered the mother of his only daughter – who’s now nine – had terminal cancer. He got in touch with a middle-class couple – parents of a client. They let him stay with them while he battled to get off the drugs. It was a comparative minor infraction that brought him into contact with the CRC when he was given a 12-month supervision order.

“I’m really impressed with the way the CRC operates. The goal is no different – getting someone like me to stop reoffending – but it’s the fact they’re tackling the real causes such as homelessness.” Lee went into assisted housing and it was there he met someone from User Voice who was able to convince him to volunteer with them. He’s been working with them for six months now, even facilitating a table at their first ever World Cafe event. He’s also using his obvious intelligence to help the Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC to hone the delivery of a specific programme on thinking skills.

“I’d never have believed that privatisation of the probation service could work – but there’s massive change going on for me. It’s obvious to me that the staff at the CRC really want to make a difference.

“Altogether I’ve spent over 15 years in prison – and not once have I been offered a genuine attempt at rehabilitation. No one reached out to try to help me. I can’t begin to think how much taxpayers’ money has been wasted sending me to prison and we all know nine out of 10 times it makes people worse. In fact, it hardens you so you’re actually more likely to commit an offence when you get out.”

It’s not going to be easy for Lee. He’s entered a brave new world and is just at the start of his journey. The only thing that’s certain for Lee is that he needs professional rehabilitation support if he is to have any real chance of a crime-free life.