Despite being a promising amateur boxer, drug addiction and prison shaped Rene’s 20s and 30s. He joined our RAW Talent programme in 2015, thanks to our connection with Caring Hands, a church-run charity in Chatham that offers food and support to vulnerable people. He now works as a porter in our Finishing Team.
It’s now four years since you left prison. What’s was that like?
Well, when I came out, I was still the same. I was still using, still selling, still spending nights in police cells. And I thought, There’s more to life than this.
I’m originally from Gravesend, so that’s where I went. I was homeless, eating out of bins. Not nice. The worst bit was when your mates go to bed and you’re left walking the streets. I nearly went over so many times. That depression gets hold of you and you think you’re worthless, useless. I was lucky my sister helped and got me a place in Chatham. There were two places I could have moved to. One was on a street that’s full of junkies, the other was near King’s Church. Fortunately, I moved near the church, otherwise I would have fallen back into the life, I’m sure.
That’s the church that runs Caring Hands?
Yeah, I started going there for food, and that’s how I met John again [John, a.k.a. Red, has been working at COOK for about 3½ years]. I’d known him from Chatham and being in cells together. I started thinking, If John can change his life, then maybe I can. Eventually I got the strength to quit heroin – I’d tried 15 times or something before, but I’d always buckled and messed it up.
Was it frightening getting clean?
Yeah, of course it was. I was on this drug called Suboxone to take away all your clucking [withdrawal symptoms] from heroin. I started on 16ml, then 14 and so on. I remember when I held my last 2ml, a dear little tablet, and I was thinking, That’s my life, in that pill. I had to lock myself in my room for a couple of days, but I gradually started coming back to myself. I saw things differently. Before it was like a blanket I was wrapped in, but then it began to clear. Everything was 3D, you know, 4K. But, yeah, it’s scary at first. But it’s not how you go down, it’s how you get back up. And I like to get up fighting. Do I still have thoughts? Of course I do. But I wake up every morning feeling good and grateful to be clean. I go to work, and at the end of the day I come home to my family. It’s working for me.
What problems did you face trying to find a job?
It’s hard. People look at you and – if you’ve been jail or in trouble with the police or an addict – they just look at you funny. Is he to be trusted? You’re marked with a stigma. When I came to COOK, it didn’t matter.
What difference has having a job made?
For myself, everything. It gives you integrity, people trust you again. I love coming to work. I go home tired. Good tired. I couldn’t sleep for years when I was using, but now the problem is getting up! Not many companies do this, this outreach. But people from backgrounds like mine need it. If you’re trying to move away from one life and you’ve nowhere to go, it’s like No Man’s Land. If you’re not careful you can slip back. A bit of effort, some input like COOK does, it makes a big difference. I’m working full time, which I never thought I’d do. I’ve got a rented house, I got married about 3 years ago, children. I got a good relationship with my teenage kids, who wouldn’t speak to me before. I live right. I even pay my bills!
Now you’ve settled in, do you make a special effort with people who’ve come from a similar background?
Yeah, there’s been a few boys from Standford Hill, and I sort of gravitate to them. I try and be friendly and reach out. I know what it’s like. If being behind a wall is all you’ve known for six years, it’s nice for someone to come over and say, “Alright, how are you doing today?” It helps me, too. Who would I be if I didn’t make an effort?
What would you say to a company thinking of setting up a scheme like this?
I’d say go for it. What have you got to lose? You might just find one person, but it will change their life. Don’t you think they deserve a shot? It doesn’t matter where you come from. If someone sees that light in you, puts in a bit of effort, they can become a cornerstone of your team. We’re all one family at the end of the day. So many people don’t get the opportunity of a second chance in life. I’m a great believer in looking after individuals. Even if it’s just one person, you can give them back their integrity and help them from going back into prison. I’m proof that it can work.
Finally, what would you say to someone about to finish their sentence?
You don’t have to go back. You don’t have to run around, looking over your shoulder. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me I just wanted to change my life. I didn’t want to put rubbish up my arm, do this, do that. I’d say to any prisoner, it can happen. My Christian faith is important to me, but whatever you believe in for your inner strength, if you want to change deep down, you can.
When you come to the end of your sentence, you start thinking, do I really want to keep doing this? Do I still want to be here in 20 years? That’s the bottom line. I’ve been there. I’ve got the t-shirt. I’m not going back.