Aspiring Doctor to Convicted Dealer

Published 07/11/2023
Author(s) Sobanan

A Series of Voices: Twenty Years on From “Making Good” – Entry 4

I never expected to go to prison, I don’t think anyone does the first time around. It’s a place that most members of society aren’t really aware of. I definitely wasn’t, despite going to a state school in Northwest London, where a few peers ended up in prison, I was blissfully unaware of the realities of being a prisoner. I was 18 years old when I got into Plymouth University to read medicine, it was a dream come true and a career that my identity was heavily attached to. During my school life, I enjoyed biology and chemistry while continually desiring a job where I could serve the people around me. Luckily, my friends from school all managed to get into Plymouth too, so we all set off that September to begin our adult lives in a new city, studying to be the young professionals we thought we were destined to be.

Plymouth was a shock to me, growing up in London, you rarely notice that you’re a minority in the UK. Although, in Plymouth, I was constantly reminded of this, whether it was from the comments made by passers-by on the street or the staring that a group of us would get as we walked down to the town centre. On the other hand, I was still grateful to be studying the course and to be living with my closest friends from school. Universities are where young people get to exist in a bubble, it’s a microcosm of society where you are in this transitory phase between adolescence and young adulthood. Of course, there were constant parties, illicit substances and immature behaviour – I expected this element of the University experience and like many young people I participated in the culture that surrounded me. It helped me to find a sense of belonging and acceptance in an entirely new environment.

In the middle of my degree, I was arrested for conspiracy to supply cannabis. A conspiracy simply means an agreement and intention to further an offence – simply put I was accused of contributing to my best friend’s cannabis operation. It was a shock to my system, having our student property raided by 18 police officers in the early hours of the morning. They used the red battering ram to bring down the door and arrested everyone on the property in their bedrooms. To cut a long story short, I took my charge to trial: I had three trials, one collapsed, one had a hung jury and finally I was convicted and sentenced to 2 years and 8 months in prison. It was one of the most difficult and disempowering experiences of my life. The funny part is, that I hadn’t even reached prison yet.

I was driven to HMP Exeter to begin my sentence in the back of the GeoAmey bus- it was a formative experience, to go from a medical student with a promising career to a convicted drug dealer at the tap of a gavel. I started my sentence as a naive young man, one who had been lucky to grow up in a loving family with an education and the resources to overcome this situation. I kept a journal of every day I spent in prison to build a daily reflection practice into this experience. It was on my fifth day, that I made a commitment to myself, that I was going to use this experience to continue with my underlying ambition to serve the people around me regardless of my own personal situation.

Initially, it was small acts of service, through supporting my fellow prisoners to write letters, communicate with staff and understand their paperwork to help navigate their sentences. The acts of service enabled me to gradually shed away the identity I had of being a medical student. That was the most painful part of this experience, it was losing my own identity – my sense of self had been built up around my career, degree and ambitions as opposed to any intrinsic traits like selflessness, resilience or humility. The biggest change during this prison experience was the transition from an externally constructed identity to an internally focused identity. There was this unwavering determination within me to prove the system wrong – to humanise the people in prison and to contribute to the prison environment as a place of healing. In many ways, prison reminded me of a misfit monastery. The way that a prisoner lives is similar to a monk minus the drugs, violence and chaos. The monk-like nature of prison life comes from the sacrifice, servitude, discipline and reflectiveness of the experience. Once I began to understand prison from a different perspective, it turned from a punishment to a cause.

Inside the prison, I didn’t observe bad or dangerous people – I met broken and traumatised men. People whose childhoods hadn’t been filled with unconditional love and compassion instead filled with misery, pain and suffering that was exacerbated by poverty and deprivation. These insights further strengthened my will to want to serve – there were people in there who took care of me and made sure that I was healthy, well and safe. Even with the little they had, they took it upon themselves to serve me, a University student who had ended up in prison and would most likely be fine on release.

My advice would be for those in prison to initially take responsibility for their experience of their sentence. You must take it upon yourself to engage in education, employment, training and other programmes. The prison is there to help you, but you must be willing to take that first step – once you do, it’s like a snowball. I would aim to speak to as many staff and fellow prisoners as possible to understand the people that made up this system. The conversations were always insightful and I learnt so much from just spending my time building relationships with people. I still speak to the governor of one of the prisons I was in and some of the education staff. I solemnly believe that the only way we can transform our criminal justice system is by coming together as stakeholders. Prisoners, prison officers, probation officers, education staff and every other stakeholder who engages with these groups should work together collaboratively and collectively to build a better future. We are all humans and there’s a shared experience among us all that must be nurtured to create long-lasting change.

I spoke to as many people as possible about my prison experience once I was released. I saw it as a duty to raise awareness about the experience of people in prison and those who are affected by the criminal justice system. It was a duty to me, as I wanted to play a small part in alleviating the suffering and sadness that exists within these parts of society. I’ve dedicated most of the last 5 years since I’ve been released to this sense of duty and service. In my work, I aim to help bridge some of these inequalities and provide my insight to people across society. My experience taught me that absolutely anyone could end up in prison or in court. It doesn’t matter what your background, education level or story is – we are all one bad day or one bad decision from being affected by the criminal justice system. It taught me a sense of empathy for every single person in prison and outside of prison. We don’t realise the humanity we all share until we are in a position where that’s all we have left to share.

I advise people in prison to view their experience of the criminal justice system as a strength. It’s a unique and valuable set of experiences that enable them to appreciate the plight of their fellow prisoners and future prisoners – while being able to build bridges for those who have the poorest experiences of prison and are being released. Don’t be ashamed of it, over 12 million people in the UK have a criminal record, if we can create a society where the culture destigmatizes a criminal record and embeds a sense of empathy, then we can be assured of a better nation. When you’re in prison and being released- prioritise education especially the use of technology. The world is undergoing rapid and sustained digitalisation, all knowledge is accessible through the internet and the ability to effectively use technology to work and live is a key determinant of success. The combination of strong digital skills and a lifelong learning mindset can lead you to the heights of success.

I will finish by recommending one book for anyone in prison or leaving prison to read. It has single-handedly added the most value to my life so I am constantly recommending it to others. It is The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, the founder of Angellist and an investor in a range of startups; it deep dives into areas like building wealth, relationships, happiness and health.