How Top Boys topple down crime’s ladder

Too many prisoners rejoin society with no education, stable housing or job prospects. No surprise that more than half reoffend within a year

Harriet Sergeant

I was walking through Soho with a friend, an ex-con from south London now in his 40s. Suddenly what looked like a pile of old clothes rose up from the pavement and hailed us. My friend stepped back, shocked. “Bullface, is that you?” The tramp drew close. His expression lit up as he recalled the past—the gangs, gun battles and daring robberies of crack dens in the 1990s. Then, still smiling, he moved off, trailing a dirty duvet. My friend watched him disappear. “Back in the day,” he said, “Bullface was Top Boy. He had the fast whips and the girls. Us little youts, we all respected Bullface. He was the man. Now look at him.”

The latest series of Top Boy is back on our screens with its story of drug dealing and young men growing up on crime-ridden estates. But what happens to these young men in the real world once they enter the criminal justice system? Why, despite millions being spent, do so many become Bottom Men?

In 2016, more than half of prisoners reoffended within a year of leaving jail. Of those, 44.2 per cent committed their first offence within the first three months. The total economic and social cost is £18.1 billion, according to a report for the Ministry of Justice Analytical Series published this year.

To understand reoffending rates, it is vital to understand the role prison plays in these young men’s lives. For the south London gang I befriended, prison was not a place of punishment but, as one put it, “positivity”. A vulnerable young man who is in and out of jail explained that: “My mental health is always better in prison. No stress. You ain’t got to worry about anything. Your clothes are being washed for you. You got three meals a day, a little job and the gym,” he sighed. “You’re in this lovely bubble.”

For many it was the first time they had enjoyed a routine and education. Prisoners are more likely to have truanted, been excluded or left school before the age of 16. On prison courses, “You’re getting your confidence back. You’re thinking, I’m not that bad. I can do this”. A number admitted prison was also the first time—with a single mother and at schools where 80 per cent of staff are female—they spent time with adult men. Their eyes lit up with pleasure: “You’re having deep conversations with big men.”

Gamble, one of the few young men I know who has turned his life around, summed it up: “You’re eating better. You’re getting in touch with religion, Islam or Christianity. You’re reading books. Mind, body and soul is all good for the first time in your life. When you’re inside you think, I can do anything.”

Reality hits a few hours after release. Often the reason for that first crime is quite minor. Regular exercise, meals and working out in the gym sees young men shoot up and put on muscle. Their growth spurt means they no longer fit into their old clothes. If they had gone in during summer and emerged in winter, they lacked a warm jacket. “I got to go robbin’ my first day, innit,” one explained matter-of-factly.

Bigs blamed probation for his early downfall. He had come out of prison with £50 and a further £80 that he had earned. Probation insisted he take the bus back and forth between their offices, housing and the manager of a hostel. “I am spending the little money I have running all over the world.” They told him he had to wait two weeks for benefits, and they know it’s wrong but there’s nothing they can do. “And I waste money going from Streatham and back to Brixton.” He sighed and lit up a spliff to calm himself: “You get too comfortable in prison, you get me, zero stress. Everything handed to you on a plate.” Their previous optimism made the despair and disillusion all the more intense. “Same old, same old,” said one sadly.

Many young men explained they returned to drug dealing almost immediately because, as one put it: “To be honest, there’s not much else out there for me.” He had trouble “with them little words”. Like half of prisoners in Britain, he is functionally illiterate. This means half of the 85,000 people currently incarcerated have a reading age of 11 or lower—with 20 per cent falling well short of that mark. Many prisoners are completely illiterate. The failure of our primary schools to teach young men from a poor background to read and write fuels our criminal justice system. For the ambitious and illiterate young man, the only way to acquire status, money and girls is through crime. “You lot go from school to university. We got from school to prison.”

Illiteracy is a major driver of reoffending rates, as it is almost impossible to get work if you cannot read or use a computer. Even labouring on a building site requires a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card. As someone who coached one young man, I can certify how challenging this simple, multiple choice test proved for a graduate of our state school system. (Better-educated Eastern Europeans have no such problems.) Another boy repeatedly failed his driving theory test for the same reason—lack of literacy. It meant he could not get a hoped-for driving job.

Stable housing is also critical for prisoners when they are first released. Many complained the authorities did little—despite the release date being known in advance. “There’s a lot of chat about ‘Support’,” explained one young man, but that turned out to be nothing more than a list of hostels, B&Bs and private landlords. Private landlords required a deposit and one month’s rent in advance—money prisoners could only dream about. 

Bigs showed me the room found for him in a hostel in south London. He is 19 years old and from the care system. While those in care account for just 1 per cent of children, a quarter of all prisoners were brought up by the state. Bigs explained how this affected him when he left prison. “So I got no little room in my mum’s house. You get me. You don’t know what that means to have nowhere to go after you come out.” When I visited him in his room the window was broken and the chair collapsed when I sat on it. On the ground floor lodged a lifer, a big Rastafarian who had just left jail after serving 20 years for murder. He and his girlfriend smoked crack. She was a prostitute and they ran a brothel from their room. “So there’s all sorts of comings and goings.”

On the floor above, a drug dealer sold drugs to the prostitutes and their customers. Bigs sighed: “And I’m trying to keep away from all that shit.” He was assessed in prison as having an 88 per cent chance of reoffending. This hardly seemed a helpful environment. When I said people did not know what hostels were like, he looked amazed. “But they must know about them. How can they not know?”

Work is crucial to prevent reoffending. I took two young men fresh out of jail to the Job Centre. As with accommodation, there was a lot of talk of “support” and “stake holders” but after three days they received nothing more than a web address. Probation, far from supporting efforts to find work, often made it more difficult. When Rumbles asked his probation officer about a job, the man answered that it was “not the priority”.

“Well, if it’s not, what is?” said Rumbles.

“The probation programme.”

“So are you going to be buying me my clothes and food?”

He said bitterly of his probation officer, “He can send you back to jail like that. I am in his hands.” When they talk about reoffending rates most of the people are there for recall. “That’s a big part of it. If they don’t want you to go back, you won’t. If they want you to, you will.”

Tugs was put on a tag from 7pm to 7am, so his whereabouts were known and monitored. He complained the curfew stopped him trying for a job that began early in the morning or finished late at night. Shift work, working for an employer far from the hostel or with unpredictable hours were all out for him. “So that’s holding me back to be honest. Not letting me get on with my life.”

Some ex-offenders complained they had tried to do the all-important CSCS training in prison—but it was over-subscribed. Another was referred to a CSCS training centre when he left, but there was a two-month waiting list. By the time his slot came up, he was back in prison. Even if they did manage to qualify in prison, others never received their card or, for that matter, any proof of the qualifications they had gained there. One young man told me confidently his certificates were due to arrive any day now. They never did. He is now back inside on his third prison sentence. He rang recently to reassure me he was doing “all them little courses”. I reminded him they never sent his certificates. He sighed.

Even if ex-cons do find work, the reality often proves a cruel disappointment. One man in his late 20s made the decision to give up crime. We celebrated his finding a job. But disillusion soon set in. Rent (and his flat was social housing) came to £500 a month. After paying for utilities and council tax, he was left with £40 a week. “The social housing people asked how could I afford to work. Why wasn’t I claiming benefits!” Others admitted to turning to drug dealing to supplement a minimum wage salary, “to pay for all those little extras like trainers and the gym”.

The man sighed: “Doing a full time job is supposed to be able to keep a man, that’s what I assumed. But I can’t afford a holiday or a car. I have no means to socialise, to go out to a bar. I can’t even manage a hobby.” As a drug dealer he often had thousands of pounds stacked on top of his wardrobe. Now he could barely buy shower gel. He shook his head, “What’s the choice for me? Criminal or some waste man ting?”

Another had a different problem. A former life of crime meant he was restricted to where he could go. “I got a job in Croydon but I got beef from people in that area. So I got to spend my money on cabs so I can go to and from work in peace. I can’t afford to get caught slipping on the bus.”

More than ever before, a prison record is a barrier to finding work. Far more jobs now require a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check. Men explained that they managed to get a job but were then fired when their DBS came back. Delivery jobs, for example, are out of the question because drivers are required to carry goods into private homes. When one man was sacked from his driving job, he returned to drug dealing, saved money, bought a van and equipment and recently started a gardening business. For those sentenced to more than five years, their past is even harder to escape. Their convictions are never spent. One man, who came out of prison 17 years ago, still has to reveal his criminal record every time he goes for a job interview. He received his five year sentence when he was 15. “But I can’t leave it behind. The reality is I am still a criminal in the eyes of people. I’m still carrying the burden of my past mistakes.”

No one should be surprised when Top Boys grow up into Bottom Men. And the state should take a lot of the blame. As my friend said, “You want to be good and you want to change but there’s no help and no forgiveness out there.” 

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