It is not easy to convey a rather personal experience that took 10 days and over 80 hours of footage to capture; an experience that will only be complete once I have seen the final programme myself, which will not be before it is transmitted next Tuesday at 9pm on Channel 4.
If you are not familiar with the programme, take a look at the Channel 4 web site and my Q&A about why I took part in the programme. I am the first male to appear on the programme with any African or Caribbean heritage.
Many people ask whether the experience is ‘as shown on TV’ in terms of the accommodation, budget and the process of deciding who to ‘help’. Is it for real? I can assure you that it is. It’s a journey. A personal journey that you embark on without contact with family or friends (or business partners) to alter the trajectory of your thinking. You do clearly have a team of five or so profesionals with you twelve hours a day with a project to deliver, but each new day brought a surprise. Realising that my budget equated to £8 per day for food, utility bills, phone bills, entertainment and travel was both alarming and a reminder of the financial pressures faced by many for many reasons.
It is not often that my smartphone and laptop are taken from me for such a long period of time – even on my honeymoon! In fact I only got to use my laptop briefly so that I could video-call my daughter and pregnant wife using Microsoft Lync. I lived in a ground floor flat that was absolutely awful. So awful that even after creating one disinfected ‘clean room’, I still couldn’t bring myself to eat anything there, apart from the odd bag of batttered chips (a Wolverhapmton delicacy and don’t knock them until you’ve tried them!). It’ll be interesting to see how they capture the filth as it is hard to show on camera. Shots of a slug taking a morning dump in the kitchen sink or the woodlice and silverfish that scattered to the four corners of the room whenever I turned a light on might do it. Then there was the kitchen, which I refused to use, and the ‘garden’, which looked like a badly operated landfill. My neighbour explained to me that the flat had been used as a ‘drug den’ and that the police had raided it and taken it to pieces. That explained a lot…
You will have to watch the programme to understand my experience in Brinsford and my deliberations about how and whether I could help the prison-based charities at all. “You could throw one hundred million at the ciriminal justice system and not even dent it”, was one of my thoughts. However, during the filming I met a number of prisoners and began to ask whether I could / should help individuals. Had they already made poor decisions about the direction of their lives and are other young people from similar backgrounds who had turned their backs on the illegal alternatives to focus on education and self-improvement (I met some through the other charities I met in Wolverhampton that didn’t make it into the final cut) more deserving? When resources are limited, is it easier to just write-off every young person that ends up inside and move on?
Learning to Read with Jo and ‘Toe By Toe’
The main issue I confronted in Brinsford was illiteracy. You might expect droves of illiterate young people in a Dickensian novel, but not in our modern society. An alarming number of prisoners have a reading age of less than 10 years.
I was gobsmacked. They are unable to read “the cat sat on the mat” as I think I say in the programme and many of the 18 – 21 year old lads in Brinsford have the reading age of a seven year old – or worse. If you can’t read, you are screwed. Your chances of finding work are extremely limited and the probability of another visit to prison is high. I met the inspiring ‘Jo’ at Brinsford. Her mission in life is to teach as many young prisoners (‘her boys’ as she calls them) to read as possible to reduce the chances of them windng up back in the criminal justive system. Success for most of the staff in Brinsford means that they’ll never see the lads again.
Prisoners who can read are encouraged to act as mentors to take prisoners through the ‘Toe By Toe’ reading book and course. The reading literature and support is provided by The Shannon Trust. My gift was £25,000 to fund a part-time post for upto five years to take Toe By Toe’ into another YOI with the guidance of Jo from Brinsford in terms of best practice.
StoryBook Dads is a charity that aims to maintain the connection between prisoners and their children through recorded stories. Many might say (and I think I said it too), “well, you should’ve thought about the fact that you might miss your children, before you broke the law”. That does hold true to some extent, but separation from young children, who are often babies given the age of the prisoners in a Young Offenders’ Institution, can impact behaviour. What struck me is that it is the children who suffer too – they are also victims of their fathers’ crimes. For every prisoner, there is a family serving a sentence too and in many cases the father was the breadwinner. Further, relationship break down during a sentence is a prime reason for re-offending.
‘Alan’ runs StoryBook Dads at Brinsford. He is the librarian, a comedy writer and performer and an author of books and poetry for children. In fact you can buy his books, including his epic trilogy, ‘Harvester of the Now’ , which took Alan three years to write, on Amazon here via his web site. Click here. Alan also runs writing and poetry workshops. Alan decided to work at Brinsford after working with a former inmate who said that the place had changed his life for the better.
It is ironic that many of the lads in Brinsford who wanted to improve their chances would never have received the education and guidance that is on offer in prison in the outside world. For many, teachers were the enemy and the ‘system’ had failed them a long time ago. Alan is clearly a talented and dedicated chap who works with young prisoners in difficult and noisy surroundings with no privacy to record stories, especially when many prisoners struggle to actually read a children’s book. It was explained to me that it can be dangerous to be seen as ‘soft’ in prison, so recordings were done in private, which meant the library had to be closed once a month. This, combined with the constant background noise (you don’t want the sounds of keys and banging gates in the background to your fairytale) and disruptions, limits the number of recordings that can be made. I made a couple of CDs for my daughter and she loves them. The audio is sent of to another pison and inamtes there learn to add sound effects and edit.
My ‘gift’ at Alan, Brinsford and StoryBook Dads was £5,000 to fund a professional, soundproof and private recording studio, which should increase output several times.
I am not going to pretend that all of the lads in Brinsford want to help others learn to read of acquire skills to become productive members of the community. Unfortunately, many don’t care and they will be back. However, in many cases, when you learn about their difficult backgrounds and limited options many of the lads have experienced, it harder to judge them by their conviction alone, even when it is for a quite serious offence.
Becoming ‘The Secret Millionaire’ was a worthwhile, at times difficult and life-enhancing experience and I left with several long-term obligations, a well-timed reality check and some new friends.
The charities that didn’t make the final programme
The programme typically features three ‘reveals’ (as they are called) and ‘gifts’ to charities. I filmed four involving charities and two more for individuals. They couldn’t all make the programme and, to be fair, the footage and issues surrounding my time in Brinsford Young Offenders’ Institution probably do make more powerful TV. I am pleased that my programme is a little bit different to the others given that it is now series six.
However, I did spend some fantastic time with the African Caribbean Community Initiative (ACCI) and the amazing Alicia. I spent time riding bikes around a local park and attending a cookery class with ACCI service users, all of whom suffer from mental health issues ranging from anxiety to long-term paranoid schizophrenia. 5% of the UK population suffers from mental health issues, but 30% of those sufferers are from the African and Caribbean communities. My gift of £5,000 to ACCI is to be used to part fund the annual trip to Butlins for ca. 40 service users to make it more affordable. The activities are important to ensure that ACCI’s service users socialise, learn new skills (such as healthy cooking) and even keep fit.
I also met the founders (Helen and Jenny) of Enage Youth Empowerment Services (E.Y.E.S.) who have dedicated the last decade of their lives to working with vulnerable young children and using performing arts as a means to instil confidence and keep them off the streets. My gift of £15,000 to E.Y.E.S. will be used to ensure that they can put on a large show to showcase the talents of the young people.
You can read more about all of the charities on The Secret Millionaire section of this web site here.