Choose Life our background.
When the Project Manager joined the Prison Service 23 years ago the drugs training generally consisted of someone standing up in front of the class and showing some brown powder and saying this is what illegal drugs looks like i.e. white powder and saying this is what cocaine looks like and then, unbelievably, holding up an oxo cube and saying this is what cannabis looks like!
Does this ring a bell in your drugs training?
It really was poor training around addiction and is similar to what goes on today .No one told any potential police officers that 75% of the people they may arrest would be heroin/crack addicts or chronic alcoholics. In HMP Liverpool in 1988 education around substance misuse was non existent – there wasn’t even a poster on the wall or any other form of support for the inmates.
In 1995 the Project Manager asked the then Governor, Bill Abbot, to consider the role of Drugs Liaison Officer and this could be a crucial link between the Prison Officers and Probation Officers. This initiative was funded this by the Home Office and the remit was very broad ie. to start the process of setting up drugs services in Liverpool Prison.
While this was going on a Probation Officer informed the Project Manager that he had seen a play in the community called “Bang Up”. He said it was briliant and gave him the phone number to the Theatre company. The Theatre Company came into HMP Liverpool and performed the play for the inmates, they loved it.
The Play was very realistic and the inmates identified with it and it resonated in their own lives.When the Project Manager asked the lady who wrote the play if she worked in the drugs field, she said she didn’t. She told him she used to see the addicts congregating in Kirkby and went over and asked them about their lives. She stated she then just put the play together.
At the time HMP Liverpool had 1520 inmates of which 1200 were addicted, this obviously meant there was huge scope for the inmates to produce their own play. This was started by having a script writer’s competition with £10 prize to the winner! About fifteen small scripts came in and a winner was chosen. All entrants were then asked to would they like to become involved with putting a play together about drugs. They all agreed and with the help of Delia Brady-Jacobs they produced a play called “Choose Life”.
The play was originally just for inmates as a unique way of getting them to look at their lives and what was going on for them. The play was performed and then there would be very positive discussions on addiction and their lives. At the time as previously mentioned there were no drug services in HMP Liverpool and if an addict who was engaging with services went into Prison it was like going into a black hole, the Project Manager felt that this was unacceptable.
To change this the Project Manager invited Drug Services into the Prison to view the play using this as a chance to say to the drugs services that things were changing in the Prison and that know their were lines of communication open.
That night turned out to be a life changing event and was totally unexpected. It was expected that we would do the play and then the Project Manager would talk to the Drugs Workers. As the Project Manager stood up to address the audience an inmate asked if he could speak, when he was asked what he wanted to say he said “I want to say why I think I became a Drug Addict” . He was allowed to speak and he spoke for over thirty minutes.
He spoke about his very young days being totally anarchic with his parents being chaotic alcoholics. He said his earliest memories were of his Father being very violent to his Mother and it terrifying him. He used to run to bed and hide under the sheets. He often used to have nightmares and started to steal his mothers sleeping tablets, these were the first drugs he ever took. The conditions at home only got worse and so, Social Services split the family up. He was now seperated from his siblings and living with foster parents in Wales.
He said the Foster Parents were fine but the children used to say to him that his Mum and Dad were bad and that was why he was there. They also used to take back any presents he received saying they were not really his. He soon worked out a strategy to get moved on, he would rob a purse or smash a window, and the Social Services would soon move you on.
This of course got him a bad name as a troublesome kid. He then had about fifteen Foster Parents and ended up in a secure unit were he was abused by staff. At the Secure Home there were lots of children like him and many were using drugs. He stated that when he started using drugs it temporarily made him feel good about himself. In his own words he said he “jumped feet first into drug addiction”.
Teachers often say about Choose Life that you could hear a pin drop when the volunteers are talking, well this was true of the Drug’s Workers.
Choose Life at HMP Liverpool
Afterwards all the Drugs Workers were saying you should be doing this for young people, its the best drugs education we have ever seen. This turned out to be very prophetic!
Mr Wise, the Head teacher at Holyhead high school described the project as
“the most effective and coherent way of delivering the anti- drugs message that I have ever seen”.
We then invited in School Teachers and Governors to view our drug education and although the feedback was not universally positive the vast majority of Teachers and Governors were very enthusiastic. We then started to invite schools and Colleges into the Prison. The feedback was brilliant.
“The Play was brilliant,it is a powerful anti drugs message”.
Peter Kilfoyle MP Liverpool Walton
We had a Steering Committee and on that Steering Committee were three Police Officers they each agreed that they had learnt more about drugs by watching the play and talking to the inmates than in over twenty years on the beat. This inspired us to start training professionals, this we felt was totally unique and the Police attending were great and the sessions were unbelieveable with both the police and inmates getting so much out of it.
Old views out the window…
“Thanks for your presentation on choose life. This talk with real life experiences helped me to understand people that i have dealings with and arrest on a regular basis. My old opinions have been challenged and i thank you for that. Learning about narcotics anonymous has helped me to introduce this support in interviews and subsequently i have been able to gain more knowledge and background stories of why people in my area have turned to crime. i have also been to university as a criminology student and although i had seminars on drug awareness, your talk was better than 3 years put together. i wish you all the very best in the future”.
Submitted by: PC Hodges (GMP)
Unfortunately we then had a new Governor who decided that security was his priority and stopped all groups coming into the Prison. This was a bitter blow to us,but we soon realised there was a big market in the community for our unique and by now proven drug education (we had it formally evaluated by Leicester University).
In 2009 the same Governor wanted to just concentrate on the Prison and closed down Choose Life. The Project Manager was and still is very passionate about this Project and he decided to leave the Prison Service and set up Choose Life as a charity. Although like any charity the cuts are hitting hard but the future looks bright!