Pulling No Punches – An Interview With Stephen Martin
Economics Teacher, volunteer at Liverpool Cathedral, restaurant critic and contributor to The Anfield Wrap.
WHAT IS ‘BE STRONG’?
It’s a community based rehabilitation programme for ex offenders. In prison, offenders have a structured programme to follow each and every day where everything is done for them. They attend the gym, work, education and their meals are cooked for them but when they leave prison they have no focus, no support and no benefits. What ‘Be Strong’ aims to do is bridge that gap by mirroring their lifestyle in prison whilst they’re finding their feet in the community. We provide a compulsory ‘life focus’ session each week, gym memberships, nutritional guidance, employment support and someone to talk to. The overall aim is to help them reintegrate and avoid homelessness.
WHAT CONSTITUTES HOMELESSNESS?
People with no personal space or private retreat are homeless. Those who can’t go into a house and kick their shoes off whilst deciding when to have a shower and what to watch on TV are homeless. Hostels that ex-offenders live in are not homes. They experience bullying, theft and pressures other people couldn’t imagine.
They have to ‘report in’ and ‘sign out’ as they come and go. That’s not a home and it certainly doesn’t help them to reintegrate as it’s not a fit base to start everyday from.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN BE STRONG?
In my late twenties I managed to move away from drugs and crime as I got involved with my local church. In order to help me pass the time and keep me away from my previous lifestyle I joined my local college and, after twelve months, my tutor began pushing me towards university. I attended university and was sent on a work experience placement to support a sports development programme in a prison. It was during this time that I felt God gave me a mission to complete; I had to help ex offenders. ‘Be Strong’ started to take shape and quickly became very dear to me.
WHAT IS THE VISION FOR ‘BE STRONG’ TEN YEARS FROM NOW?
I would love to see it rolled out into other towns and cities, helping people right across the north-west. I could start that now but I want get the Bolton operation completely successful first. We’ve got to achieve charity status in the short term, which will hopefully open doors to investment and volunteers, and then we can move on to becoming a completely self-funded social enterprise. The bigger picture is to have food banks, opportunities for people to rent or buy domestic appliances from us without needing high-interest loans and to support families who to get back on track.
WHERE DOES YOUR MOTIVATION COME FROM?
Seeing people’s lives change every day or seeing people’s attitudes change every day and knowing that I’m doing God’s work every day. There’s nothing better than going to a hostel to tell a lad I’ve got him a job interview, running him to Asda for a shirt and tie and telling him he looks the business before he goes in.
It would be nice to leave a legacy for my children, something they too can be proud of. I certainly don’t want other people’s recognition or a pat on the back because I get my rewards from God and I’ll keep doing this until my last day here or when He tells me to stop.
DO YOU HAVE A ROLE MODEL OR SOMEONE YOU DRAW INSPIRATION FROM?
My Pastor, Derek Smith. He’s my hero and is essentially the dad I never had. He’s stuck by me even when I’ve made poor choices and always been there to offer me advice.
WHAT’S ‘BE STRONG’S’ GREATEST STRENGTH AND BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
Our greatest strength is the retention rate. Very few people leave the programme once they’re enrolled on it. The reason for that is that I never give up on them and, quite often, I’m more enthusiastic about their futures than they are!
I’m an ex-offender and an ex-drug addict so I know how they feel and what they’re going through. I’ve come out of prison and not known which way to turn so I can relate to them. I may be in a better place now but I was once where they are.
Our biggest challenge is getting investment. I’m shit at all that. I’ve been away from drugs and crime now for nine years and I’ve been voluntarily running this programme for five years but people are still cautious of me due to my reputation. Hopefully, that’s starting to change as people begin to see that I’ve genuinely changed.
Last year I was given five grand and told to take it as a salary but I never. I bought extra gym memberships and computer software etc with it. We need more investment.
WHAT’S THE TOUGHEST DECISION YOU’VE HAD TO MAKE?
It was the decision to kick a really good lad off the programme. I enforce a strict policy of no drugs and no crime once you’re signed up to ‘Be Strong’ and everyone has to abide by it. I picked him up from his hostel one day and realised he had been drinking and taking drugs. I knew if I gave him another chance then it would probably work but I had to stick to the policy and tell him he was off the programme. I was gutted but that policy is there for a reason.
SOME PEOPLE MIGHT ARGUE THAT MANY CRIMINALS HAVE WRECKED THE LIVES OF OTHERS AND ARE A BURDEN TO SOCIETY. WOULDN’T YOUR EFFORTS BE BETTER SERVED HELPING MORE VULNERABLE PEOPLE IN SOCIETY, SUCH AS THOSE SUFFERING ILLNESS OR THE ELDERLY?
That’s right, I wouldn’t argue with that. All I can say is that I’m not an ex-cancer sufferer and I’m not an elderly person but I am an ex-offender and an ex-drug addict. I can use that experience in a positive way to try to stop or at least reduce a vicious cycle for other people. If I don’t do this then who will?
Who will attempt to stop them from re-offending and ruining more people’s lives? God gave me a second chance and now I’m trying to do the same for others in the only way I know how. It’s not just the ex-offenders who benefit from ‘Be Strong’, in that sense, everyone does.
ARE YOU HAPPY TO SHARE YOUR STORY?
I grew up in a fairly normal household with my mum and sister. It was a good family environment, we had the occasional holiday and I always came home from school to find food on the table. It certainly wasn’t very different to most of the people around me. However, at age fourteen, I came home from school one day to find all the blinds closed and the front door locked. When I looked through the letterbox I could see that the house was empty, all the furniture had gone. The lady next-door-but-one told me my mum had left with the bloke next-door, that she wasn’t coming back and I should go to the police or call social services. I was homeless.
I spent the next two years living on the streets, mixing with a bad crowd and slowly sinking into harder drugs and crime. From sniffing gas I went onto crack and from stealing I went on to stab someone. I was arrested for this and charged. I was given a reduced sentence as I was only sixteen, a drug addict and my girlfriend was pregnant.
Whilst in prison I got my fitness back and started playing football again; I’d been a good player in the past and I was surprised at how quickly it came back. In fact, one of the ‘screws’ got me a trial at Crewe but unfortunately it didn’t work out. On the day I was released from prison the ‘screw’ gave me a number for a coach at Blackpool FC but I never called it. Instead, despite the best intentions, I went straight back to drugs and crime only this time much worse.
I started robbing drug-dealers and mugging people. I was doing some really nasty stuff. Life was getting worse and I was having more kids. Randomly, a bloke knocked at my house and handed me the telephone number for the coach at Blackpool FC but, again, I threw it away.
At age twenty-one I was sent down for fraud and, again, I started getting fit and playing football. I got a trial at Altrincham and they kept me on.
However, shortly after I was released from prison, I was stabbed seven times. As you can imagine, it wasn’t good for my playing career!
I now got big into crime and this time I was really good at it. I had people working for me and never got caught once. Despite this, I was still heavily into drugs and also domestic violence. As a result of my mum’s actions, I could never trust a woman and whenever I’d hear them say they loved me I felt they were trying to trick me and I’d get paranoid. It’s a period I deeply regret but thankfully it’s a part of my past now.
Age twenty-eight, completely off my head on drugs, a leaflet from my local church came through the letterbox; ‘Do you want to change your life?’ I screwed it up and threw it in the bin but later on there it was next to the bin so I looked at it again and decided to go. I was met by some older women who immediately accepted me despite the state I was in; they never judged me or wanted anything from me. It was as if they genuinely cared about me.
I became a regular on a Sunday, until one morning when two drug addicts who owed me money passed my house. I ran after them with a hammer and smashed them up good style but they grassed me up to the police. The coppers came and banged me up despite my protesting that I needed to get to church!
I was facing a minimum of five years for GBH or possibly more for attempted murder but for some unknown reason I was granted bail (apparently the drug addicts had called the police station demanding ‘compo’!) and given a lift to church. I realised I had to change and with the help of the people there
I got myself enrolled into college.
You know the rest!
Darren Armstrong & Stephen Martin