Of course it’s not always like this, but Sevi Kemal spoke to one ex-con whose life was transformed from the inside.
This is the tale of a life turned around in prison. After a particularly bad week for David Cameron (tax returns and all that), the story of Shakur Solomon may be enough to reassure him that making prisons fit for purpose is as important as he said it should be.
Shakur Solomon grew up with his twin brother and his Mum on a hard estate in London. Shakur worked from the age of 13: “if I didn’t work I didn’t eat”. As a skinny teenage boy he roamed the streets selling and delivering marijuana. School wasn’t Shakur’s thing: he was easily distracted and often became frustrated whilst attempting school work. His mother received a series of written warnings and eventually she was fined for her son’s low attendance. But in any case he didn’t receive much financial or emotional support from his mother; her negligence helped put him on a path headed ‘disaster’.
When Shakur was 19 years old his flat was broken into by two boys who came after his stash: “word must of gotten round the street that I was selling”. Shakur woke to see the intruders’ legs dangling down past his window ledge. Exploding with anger he phoned for back-up, pulled on his boots and called his dog – yes, it was a pitbull. The thieving boys jumped off the roof and began legging it down the street. Shakur sprinted after them, caught up with them, and used the dog to coral them against the wall. The dog had already drawn blood when Shakur instructed his captives to walk along the street back towards his garage.
Waiting inside were Shakur’s boys. Shakur told his prisoners to take their clothes off: “they looked up at my eyes and knew I weren’t playing”. The pitbull stood proudly at his master’s side, waiting for orders. “Get ‘em,” whispered Shakur, loosening the lead. The dog leaped on one of the boys, biting him. Then Shakur yanked the dog back and let his gang have a go at the trembling, wailing youths. Shakur’s boys pounced on them, lunging forward, repeatedly booting them all over – body, legs, arms, head. The victims lay on the garage floor covering their faces. Shakur set the pit bull free again, allowing the beast to dive onto them, ripping into their skin. Blood poured out of their noses and squirted out of their mouths as they coughed and cried and lay naked and shamed on the blood-stained, concrete floor.
When Shakur gave the order to stop, they fled from the garage as fast their trembling limbs would let them.
As a result, Shakur was convicted of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to four years’ gaol. Staring at the grey stone walls of Pentonville prison, at first he tried to excuse himself, telling himself he wasn’t to blame, that he had no control of the circus he was caught up and brought up in. But gradually Shakur’s attitude began to change:
“After a few months I began to accept where I was and accept that I put myself here”.
Shakur found himself forming a strong bond with an older man who was riding a life sentence: “His words still stay with me,” Shakur says. The man told the boy: “you’re only 19, you’ll be out by 24 and you still have a chance to turn your life around. Unlike me – I don’t have a second chance in life, but you do.”
Shakur took this advice to heart, and decided to use the rock-solid stability of prison life to his own advantage:
“I found prison quite stable. I had three cooked meals a day and a roof over my head. I didn’t have to roam the streets to eat anymore. I kept my head down and grasped any opportunities that I could.”
Shakur used the gym on a daily basis and the discipline of physical exercise became a kind of therapy for him. Fitness slowly became his forte. Being institutionalised inside the prison walls appeared to help Shakur as he found the exact routine and rigid structure very supportive. He explains that “training on a daily basis gave me self-discipline and I found myself putting my energy into my health, my body and my fitness. My body became my focus. Exercise was my way of releasing stress. When I was in the gym I felt peace of mind.”
Prison worked for Shakur in unexpected ways. Rather than simply undergoing punishment, he seemed to gain a sense of guidance. Jail, for all its faults, functioned better for him than his dysfunctional family. “The emotional support and motivation I got in prison amounted to more than any I received in my childhood,” he insists.
Taking advantage of all possibilities available to him Shakur enrolled in Maths and English classes. He got his first-ever job as a chef in the cafeteria. “I had stability and support surrounding me so I clutched on to any opportunities I could with both hands”.
At 24 years old Shakur re-entered the world outside the prison gates. He was a very different person from the one who went in.
“I was focused and fuelled with determination. I had been locked up for four years and felt that entering back into freedom again I had a second chance to make something of myself and I did not want to waste it.
“I didn’t want to waste time chasing girls or hanging out on the street. I wanted to achieve”.
Shakur took a course in how to be a personal trainer. Based in Southgate, North London, he now works for fast-growing fitness company Herbal Life. He has already been promoted within the company and now mentors other trainers on health and nutrition and how to create personalised training regimes.
Shakur also has his own fitness website and high profile Integra account, incorporating daily work outs and healthy recipes.
“My dream is to become an entrepreneur. I came from nothing, but now I have purchased my own vehicle and I’m in the process of flat hunting. If I can do that, it is proof that anyone can”.
Sounding every inch the life coach, Shakur insists that “everything you do now is for your future. When you wake up in the morning you need to wake up with a positive mindset and strive for success”.
As for his own success in turning his life around, he maintains that prison was his coach.
Being sentenced and sent to jail marked the pivotal moment in Shakur’s life, at which point he began the process that would lead to his personal transformation.
A lot of people mouth motivational sayings and more often than not, it sounds hollow. But in this instance the guy has gone and done it – and who can argue with that? He’s turned himself from a street criminal into a health professional and he believes it was prison discipline that enabled him to do it. On this basis, prison works!
Traditionally right wing politicians tend to think that people are beyond redemption; meanwhile left wingers have been quick to say ‘society is to blame’, even if it means letting criminals off the hook. Both views are similarly pessimistic about what little can be achieved.
But Shakur’s story shows that the system can actually get it right. What started with punishment to fit the crime has culminated in a human being capable of contributing to society.
That’s what I call ‘fit for purpose’.