Hardened criminal or lost boy looking for consolation? Sevi Kemal’s account of the life of ‘Tyler’, lived in and out of more prisons than suitcases, shows why she thinks it’s the latter.
“I sat on the hard bed on a thin smelly blanket staring at the graffiti on the wall. An officer emerged and got me out my cell. I followed him through the cold, dark corridor. I looked up and to my surprise I saw my grandfather sat there in front of me. I beamed my smile wide and my eyes lit. ‘What are you doing here, Grandad?’ I asked excitedly. He sat there clasping his hands and looking down. Why was there a man next to him with one of those black and white collar things? A priest, what was a priest doing here with Grandad?
‘I’m afraid it’s bad news, Tyler.’ My gut turned as I squared him straight in the eye. ‘What is it?’ I demanded. I’m so sorry, Ty. It’s your mum. She’s dead.’
My head was spinning as I pictured my mum’s beautiful face fading between clouds. I saw black. I held my head. I was dizzy. I couldn’t think straight. This was an illusion not reality. At that moment I felt an unbearable stinging in my chest. My heart dropped and burned. ‘No, it can’t be!’ I cried. I flung myself to the ground, screaming. My heart exploding. My soul on fire. I remember my granddad just sitting there. He didn’t try to console me, he left me to mourn.”
By now Tyler’s face was a combination of tears, snot and dirt. The prison officers decided not to return him to the segregation unit; instead he was taken to ‘suicide watch’ where prisoners are checked every 20 minutes.
By his own admission, Tyler has never been a good boy. But after the trauma of his mother’s death, his life went from bad to worse.
Tyler’s parents separated when he was just four years old. He remembers not seeing much of his father: ‘my dad says it was because of my grandparents, they were racist and didn’t want a black dad in the picture.’ He recalls his mum being there ‘physically, but her mind was somewhere else’.
Tyler moved into his Nan’s and Grandad’s at six years old. His mother was a heroin user – essentially off the rails. It was also at the tender age of six that Tyler was kicked out of primary school and placed in a pupil referral unit.
‘I was dyslexic, I didn’t understand the work, I was frustrated,’ he explains. Tyler lasted three years in the unit before he was kicked out of that, too. From there he was placed in a boarding school in Kent which described itself as a ‘therapeutic community’. Stealing is what Tyler remembers most about being there: ‘I stole everything from cigarettes to petty cash to a minibus.’ The minibus incident resulted in a head injury, a police caution and being kicked out – again.
So who is this Tyler? Sitting opposite me is a nicely built boy of medium height with a caramel complexion. I see his sparkling brown eyes with long lashes; full lips, dimples and a wide smile. When he looks at me I can glimpse his sadness tinged with optimism – even as he describes the difficulties he faced.
From Home To Home
Tyler couldn’t seem to settle. He was moved around between six children’s homes until he was convicted of TDA at 13 years old and sent to a secure unit. ‘I did it for the sake of it,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t hurting anyone. After all I was no one’s child.’ The secure unit made him anything but.
‘I didn’t like it, I felt out of place, different people, different accents. I wasn’t used to it. I was scared and alone, I cried myself to sleep a couple times”. But after a while, Tyler found his feet and settled in. ‘It turned into a nice place to be.’
On release from the secure unit Tyler was put into a new children’s home. But he’d had enough of squeaky bunk beds and tight regimes, and ran away. He moved into a hostel with a friend. But the two boys stole a car, drove it into a well-manicured lawn, and Tyler got himself sent to another secure unit.
It turned into a routine: out of secure unit, into new children’s home, relatively minor offence, back into secure unit – repeat.
Most of all, Tyler missed his mum, who was still alive at this point. ‘I missed her so much it burned,’ he recalls. Accompanied by a friend, he took it upon himself to escape from a children’s home, buy some cannabis and drive a stolen car down to visit her. Predictably Tyler was caught by the police, kicked out of the children’s home, and put on bail. ‘But it was worth it to me,’ he insists. ‘I got to spend the day chilling with my mum, it was worth it to me”.
Trouble was irresistible to Tyler. After he stole a pizza bike ‘for the thrill’, he was sent to a Secure Training Centre in Newcastle. ‘I cried the first night, surrounded by strangers, foreigners. It felt more like prison.’
Released from Newcastle, Tyler skipped probation sessions and was put into a secure unit in Kent, followed by a children’s home in Ipswich. ‘It was all right,’ he remembers. ‘It was mixed’ – not segregated by sex. Tyler recalls being allowed to spend time with the girls during exercise time. But there were fights: ‘this one guy accused me of taking his girl but I had my own.’
History repeated itself when a 14 year old Tyler ran away from the Ipswich children’s home. As I talk to Tyler I cannot help but notice the severe burns on his hands that extend all the way up his arms. He tells me he was electrocuted: ‘Me and my pal used to jump on the back of trains and sit their gripping on to the bars. It was fun. It felt free”. Then his friend declared he was going to climb onto the top of the train. ‘Being the person I am I wanted to beat him to it.’ Tyler went ahead and climbed up. ‘I saw a bright, florescent, yellow light. I was stiff. I couldn’t move .My muscles froze. My eyes were blinded. I looked down and saw big bubbles blowing up on my chest.’ Fortunately the train pulled up to the platform and Tyler was airlifted to hospital where he remained for two weeks.
Step forward Auntie Sue, who agreed to have him stay with her. ‘I liked Auntie Sue. She had the same bouncy red hair and green eyes that Mum did.’ But Auntie Sue and her Greek husband had rules and regulations that out-of-control Tyler struggled to stick to. ‘Smoking grets and weed was part of my day. I couldn’t quit that,’ he explains. The boundaries were too restrictive. Tyler did what he knows best and ran away.
Out roaming the streets, Tyler got involved with an older guy who snorted and sold the Class A drug, cocaine. The older man took a liking to fearless, charismatic Tyler. ‘I moved in with him, he gave me pills to shoot, we made a bit of money.’ Tyler recalls taking and selling cocaine alongside ecstasy. He also had a sideline in stealing: Tyler assisted two boys in taking a few laptops, and together they stole a brief case containing £1200 in cash. ‘I gave my money to the man I was living and working for so that he could pay off his debts.’ But even Tyler’s generosity couldn’t keep him from juvenile prison – convicted of a string of burglaries. Once inside the juvenile prison, he was sent to the segregation unit for bad behaviour.
It was to the segregation unit that his grandfather came in order to tell him of his mother’s death. The ordeal didn’t stop there. There was an autopsy to establish the cause of death, and her body was not released for four months. On the other hand, Tyler, accompanied by a prison officer, was allowed to attend the funeral. He remembers comforting and cuddling his grieving Nan and catching up with family he hadn’t for a long time seen. ‘I was glad to see them I guess, it was bitter sweet.’
If things were already bad for Tyler, now they became considerably worse. Suicide watch was only the start of it. He was in self-destruct mode for some considerable time. When Tyler was sent back to his original wing, he decided to charge other offenders rent for staying on his patch. ‘I threatened people and collected rent money until someone snitched then I was back to segregation wing.’ He was constantly getting into fights with inmates. And he didn’t accept prison punishment without trying to retaliate:
‘I shit them up when they wanted to punish me. We would shift in a bucket and dash it on them guards.’ Tyler’s outrageous behaviour got him kicked out of this juvenile detention centre and transferred to one in Oxfordshire with an even harsher regime.
Aged 16 Tyler was finally on the outside, living in an East London hostel, when unexpectedly his estranged father got in contact with him. His Dad insisted that he would have taken him in sooner if it wasn’t for his Mum’s parents ‘who made it impossible for me to see you’ because ‘they didn’t like black people.’ But Tyler’s father also had a way with words. He has fathered 14 children that Tyler knows about, but he reckons there may even be a few more that his father hasn’t admitted to. In any case, Tyler tried living with his Dad – gave it a good shot but couldn’t stop clashing with his elder half-brother.
Tyler spent the next few years of his life selling drugs, taking drugs, fighting, drinking, committing burglaries and going in and out of junior jails such as Feltham Young Offenders Institute. In between jail times he also got himself a ‘frumpy looking’ girlfriend named Katie, who fell pregnant after a spell they spent in a hostel together. But by the time the baby was born, Tyler was back in Feltham, rotting inside the cold brick walls.
Free again, he finally met his son. But being a father wasn’t enough to make him turn his life around. Minor theft turned into organised burglaries, interspersed with nights of drinking, sniffing and street fighting. As Tyler’s life continued to spiral downwards, the tariff of penalties kept going in the opposite direction – upwards.
Tyler was arrested for grievously bodily harm and put into Feltham prison; but this time he was admitted to the adult side. He was then moved to Rochester – a ‘sentenced’ prison where inmates have all been tried and convicted. At this point Tyler seems to have matched his father’s way with words. He speaks of how he grew ‘friendly’ with a female prison officer. Tyler recalls her performing oral sex on him behind the canteen counter, in the washing up area. He goes on to say that she kindly allowed him to use her cell phone to call his girlfriend, whilst she groped him.
On release, he discovered that girlfriend Katie had been cheating on him: ‘She tried to say the baby was mine but she had milk coming out of her tits and I had only been out for two weeks.’ Partly for revenge, partly because she was ‘fit’, Tyler dated Katie’s next door neighbour, a stripper named Emily.
Enter the welfare state! Tyler was given a studio flat by the local council, and he even landed his first job (in a corner shop). But his old ways were still close by. Pressed to account for his return to crime, all he could say was ‘it was the risk, the fear, the excitement, the adrenaline, it was addictive.’
Next stop Pentonville – two and a half years for burglary. Then another jail in the Midlands. He wasn’t familiar with the names but for Tyler prison – whichever one it was – had become almost a friendly place. He missed his son and his Nan but in prison he had everything else he needed: ‘a phone, a bed, warm meals and access to drugs and alcohol’.
Going inside didn’t worry Tyler anymore. He adds: ‘I didn’t care if I was in or out. It wasn’t a punishment, it was just somewhere they put you.’
Every time he came, freedom tasted good. But what did he have to come out to, other than a grotty flat on a sink estate. On the outside, he was soon into drugs again. ‘I had to sell drugs to eat,’ Tyler insists. And sometimes the sales weren’t high enough to eat well, and Tyler would be round his mate’s house hoping for a hot dinner.
After all this chaos, Tyler remains a positive, upbeat guy who says he loves to make others feel good about themselves. He doesn’t for one second give the impression of someone who feels sorry for himself. He has an aura around him and the ability to light up a room.
This must have helped when he met his second girlfriend ‘who was beautiful and exotic looking with curly black hair and a luscious pink smile.’ Tyler goes on to say that ‘she listened to me and understood me, she motivated me. I opened up to her and I never felt such peace as when I was with her.’
But when he met her Tyler was on the run. One night they were at his friend’s house watching television when they noticed police officers circulating the estate. They sat tight and the knock on the door duly came – now their hearts were pounding. The police swarmed the flat like hawks searching for prey. Tyler screamed as his ankles were gripped by the officer who pulled him out from underneath the bed. He didn’t resist arrest. Tyler was handcuffed by the sink, taken out and thrown into a police van.
Back To ‘Normal’
At 24 years old, Tyler was released again. But by then his girlfriend had moved on and he went back to square one. ‘When things ain’t right you go back to normal,’ he notes wryly.
Tyler had nothing left in London to keep him there so he took up his brother’s offer of re locating to the countryside. Tyler and his brother settled down just fine. The hang out with a group of white lads and sold everything from cannabis to heroin. Tyler’s charm meant he was never short of female attention. He soon found himself living with – and living off – a 31 year old school teacher who funded the majority of Tyler’s expenses. But it wasn’t long before the drug wars began.
Tyler received various threats from local drug dealers accusing Tyler of stealing their clientele. About a month later the drug rivals followed Tyler’s brother home in their car one night, targeting him when he was alone and giving him a formal warning to ‘stay off the drug scene’. ‘They told my brother that if we didn’t stop selling they would come and knife us.’ Not one to take threats lightly Tyler set off with his own blade to search for these boys – before they came looking for him.
Tyler found his rival in bed with a girl. He dragged him out of the bed and into the corridor. His rival didn’t waste time and fisted Tyler in the face, pulling out a knife from his pocket and lunging at Tyler. Tyler ducked and sliced the boy in the shoulder and arm before tripping up and falling to the floor. His rival leaped on top of Tyler striking him with his blade and wounding him repeatedly. Tyler gasped for air as he felt sharp shooting pains all over his chest and arms. The drug dealer ran off leaving Tyler for dead.
For the second time in his life, Tyler was airlifted to hospital. Subsequently, both he and the rival drug dealer were arrested and charged with ‘conspiracy to supply Class A drugs’. Tyler ended up in Peterborough prison, which is run by Sodexo Justice Services, a private prison-operating company. ‘It was nice,’ he recalls. ‘We had plasma TVs, big pillows and nine-hour visits.’
Tyler showed ‘promising behaviour’ and became a ‘diversity rep’. He says ‘it was cool because I was allowed to walk around the prison, to any wing I wanted, and discuss issues like racism and stuff.’
By now prison was so familiar to Tyler that he was being recognised by previous acquaintances. He bumped into a prison officer who asked: ‘Didn’t you have a mum that died years ago? I’m the one who took you to the funeral.’
Those words stung like acid on a cut. They prompted Tyler to realise that his life hadn’t progressed at all in the 10 years since his mother died.
On release (again), Tyler got into an argument with the probation service about where he should live. Before his arrest, he had been living in the country, and that’s where the probation officers said he must go back to. But Tyler maintained he was a Londoner at heart. Meanwhile he went back to selling drugs. He claims that ‘when you bag up heroin it can get into your system through rubbing against your fingertips.’ His life cycle remained unbroken – back in jail again after a few months, this time for intoxicated fighting with a nightclub bouncer.
New Girl, Old Tricks
Out again, and once again refused housing in London, Tyler resorted to old tricks – moving in with a new girlfriend and selling drugs:
‘It’s a vicious circle. I wanna do something but I can’t because nobody wants me so you know I go back to shooting.’ Tyler looks down at the ground. He is fidgeting – I sense his insecurity and the sadness comes back into his eyes. He and his latest squeeze had separated because they were arguing so much. His drug intake went up dramatically – and his alcohol consumption. He sold cannabis but claims ‘the money was tight’, all the while missing the comfort of his ex-lover’s home. I guess for Tyler a break up means becoming homeless too.
Then Tyler looks into my eyes and informs me of something that takes me by surprise: ‘I was recently involved in a robbery that went wrong,’ he confesses. When I ask what his current situation is, he admits that he is currently ‘wanted’ – on the run.
Up to this point, I had no idea that I was interviewing a wanted man. As he tells me about this, he looks hopeless and somewhat detached. But there is still a glimmer of hope in him. He hasn’t been free at Christmas for over 10 years and he is now desperately keen to enjoy the first free Christmas of his adult life. After that, he insist, he’s going to hand himself in, because he ‘wants to change’.
On that last bit, I believe him. Looking at me is not your everyday hardened convict but a lost boy desperate for consolation. But who knows if he’ll do what he’s resolved and give himself up before the New Year.