Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
DENNIS ROSE (# 39)
Born in London, England
Father born in Jamaica / Mother in England
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Jamaican
Born in the Midlands, Dennis’s mother came to London when she was 14 and it was in London where she met her partner, newly arrived from Jamaica. They raised six children, initially in Clapham and later, on the notorious Stockwell Park Estate in Brixton - at one time listed as one of Britain’s ten most dangerous places to live. In a recent interview, Dennis recalls: “My mother was the one who was always at work; my father, on the other hand, had brought with him the rather more relaxed, old-school way of life prevalent amongst men in Jamaica. He never bothered with work, living his life primarily for enjoyment; that was the only lifestyle he knew and he never felt any need to change it.” Asked why his mother put up with this, having to bear the whole burden of raising the family on her own shoulders, Dennis continued: “Most women of her generation didn’t have a choice; it was part of the Jamaican tradition and sometimes these sorts of customs are observed more rigorously when away from the mother country. It was seen almost as a part of the cultural identity, part of being Jamaican, a heritage to be respected.” Of three girls and three boys, Dennis was the eldest son and vigorously defended his pre-eminent position within the family pecking order.
Asked how he would describe his childhood, Dennis replies unhesitatingly: “It was a very happy childhood, to be honest; we were a very close and happy family.” Although Dennis is now almost toweringly tall, fit, and with a body that emanates strength, as a kid he was only of average stature. He started his formal education at a primary school in Brixton and there he began what was to be, in its way, a remarkable educational career: “I was expelled from every single school I went to, starting with the day care centre, then the nursery school, the infants’ and junior school, and finishing with the secondary school.” Asked to explain, Dennis commented: “I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was certainly mischievous. I was cheeky too and a bit inclined to challenge every rule held up in front of me. I understood the rules OK but I wanted to know the reasons for them and since I rarely got any answers, I simply refused to obey them - I didn’t see why I should.” Dennis concludes with a broad smile, suggesting that he might perhaps still feel a bit the same way even now. “I did enjoy the physical activities and the sports in school, and I also enjoyed the camaraderie, of being with other kids; I always enjoyed, and still do enjoy, being in a group.” But these redeeming characteristics were not enough and Dennis did not do well; often excluded, he was frequently obliged to find a new school.
Aged 11, Dennis went to Archbishop Michael Ramsey, a mixed secondary school in Camberwell. While he claims to have enjoyed being there, he was nevertheless expelled once more. Academic work was not for him, it seems: “I had no interest in any of it and could not see what relevance it had to my life at the time or, for that matter, in the future.” Sadly, it also seems that, despite the repeated expulsions, there was no-one who made any effort to gain the trust of this clearly intelligent youngster or to try to understand him and perhaps get over to him what the eventual consequences of his fragmented schooling might be for his adult life. Of course, this would not necessarily have been an easy task but the fact remains that no-one ever bothered to try. “Please don’t misunderstand: while I was mischievous and rebellious, I was mainly reprimanded for loads of minor things, for not wearing my school tie, for turning up late, for chatting in class, and suchlike - mind you, looking back over some of my old school reports recently, it does seem as though I missed over 400 lessons!”
When not actually in school, he was never far away from it, hanging out with his mates and enjoying the street life in secluded corners of the estate. In one way, it might be said that Dennis simply followed in his father’s footsteps, perhaps without fully understanding that this was the traditional lifestyle of Jamaican men. In any event, he certainly loved the freedom of being able to do whatever he wanted - life was for living, after all!
With the arrival of puberty, Dennis shot up in height almost overnight and from then on he began, literally, to stand out from the crowd. But his prominence was not only due to his now imposing stature, it was because of his intelligence, his quick wit and his rebellious attitude; inevitably, he was also very popular with the girls. By this time in his youth, however, Dennis’s behaviour had become a little more than mischievous: “By the age of 11, I’d mastered the art of burglary, I knew how to steal car stereos, and I knew how to lift stuff from shops and market-stalls. Of course, we all knew thieving was wrong but to my mind, the only way to get the things that everyone else seemed to have was to pinch them. How else was I supposed to acquire the smart clothes that other guys were wearing and that my parents couldn’t afford to buy me? My parents strongly disapproved of crime: they would both have been angry if they’d known that I was nicking stuff to sell, so I could afford the trainers, the jackets and the other things I wanted. Although their suspicions were gradually raised, my mum had such a struggle to make ends meet that, from time to time, she would take money from me on the strict condition that she didn’t know where it came from.”
Dennis was by no means on his own: he was introduced to theft by older members of the group he hung around with; most of them were at it, it was a sort of norm, and the ones who were the most skilful in the art of stealing and trading stolen goods, they were the ones who gained the greatest respect. Dennis was not only highly intelligent but also smart with it; he had the courage to push boundaries, to go where others were reluctant to go, so his progress amongst the gang of local youths was almost assured. “We all used pot from early on, perhaps from about the age of 12, but once I’d got to 14, I started to smoke coke (cocaine) and to use crack and then things changed profoundly. I never had to pay for hard drugs because I discovered early on that selling them generated lots more money and left you enough for your own use as well. It all felt good and it boosted my confidence too; everything seemed heightened and I started to assert my position as a leader within the group.” With a broad smile, Dennis adds: “This came naturally to me - wherever I go, I soon become ‘the leader of the pack’! Though I had to keep my hard drug taking and dealing very much out of my mum’s sight, well knowing that she’d disown me if she found out, smoking crack really was the norm - almost everyone I knew was at it; it was the way of life then for a black teenager in Brixton.”
“By the age of 16, together with a number of my mates, I had progressed a notch further: we started to organise trips to the outskirts of London where we would rob suburban branches of building societies and banks. We never used any weapons, no knives or anything like that, and we didn’t even have to threaten the staff, we just made a surprise entry, jumped the counter, and emptied the drawers of all the cash, then we’d make a quick getaway. It was all about speed, surprise and scare tactics - the staff would just freeze and let us get on with it. It was easier then, of course, as security was remarkably slapdash in lots of out-of-town places, though all that has changed now. Whenever money was getting low, we’d just organise another ‘fishing expedition’, as we called them, and we got pretty good at it too.”
“Then one day, everything went wrong: after another of our expeditions to the suburbs, to rob a building society, we crashed the car and then got involved in a fight in Brixton Market - the reasons are too complicated to explain now. Anyway, I managed to get arrested and was charged with robbery and aggravated GBH. I was 16 and it was my first offence but I was still sentenced to five and a half years. I soon found myself in HM Prison and Young Offender Institution, at Feltham, previously known as Feltham Borstal. The shock was profound and it felt horrid, but I was lucky to be there with another boy, my accomplice in crime, who’d been in Feltham before. He taught me the ropes, how to survive in the place, and how to make things easier. Mind you, though prison life was ten times easier for me than I would have imagined, I also often had the feeling that my sentence would never end.” Dennis served around three years in Feltham and was then moved on to several other units before he was released.
Asked if, when he was inside, he’d received any help from professionals who might have possibly guided him towards a reformed life after his release, Dennis confirms that he had: “Yes, I listened to a number of them. I always listen to others, but listening and hearing are two very different things. Of course, at Feltham, I became a leader - and anywhere else I was moved to, for that matter - both because it’s in my nature to lead and because I was already known to others from South London who’d ended up in Feltham before me. My position as a leader was almost assured, with my reputation arriving everywhere before I did.”
Dennis served three years and two months of his sentence and then returned home, now aged 20. He went back to the Stockwell Park Estate, back to the place where criminality was the norm, a place where a young black man could not easily contemplate a different way of life, where in order to belong, you just had to do what others did. For anyone who chose not to join in the life of crime, survival would not have been easy, and it should not be forgotten that anyone coming out of a place like Stockwell Park would be seen as suspect anyway. “My family was pleased to see me and welcomed me home but by then, sadly, my dad had died and I felt that everything had changed so much over the three years I’d been away. Also, it was only after I was free, free from being locked up in an institution, that I became aware of the enormity of what I had done, of what I had just been through, of all the time I had wasted.”
“Of course, after my release, I was ‘on licence’: this means reporting regularly to the Police, not transgressing in any way, and keeping yourself cleaner then clean. I was absolutely determined not to go back to jail, so I had to weigh things in my life very carefully now - for selling a £10 sachet of drugs, I could be back inside for years. Unfortunately, this state of mind was short-lived because I hadn’t really changed as a person. While my time in prison had been unpleasant, it hadn’t fundamentally changed my attitudes; it had not made me re-think my way of life in any major way. Of course, to make matters worse, I was now even more admired in the eyes of my gang and, within days, I had reasserted my position as leader. I was welcomed with the gift of a gold chain for around my neck, I was given money, clothes; I was not only a gang leader but a sort of local hero too. Most of the others hadn’t been to prison, so they admired me for getting through it, for staying strong and not being crushed by it. On top of everything else, I was now 20, now even more masculine than before and admired by both women and men; I had ten times more respect than I’d had before I went in. I also started a relationship with a girl; she got pregnant and I found myself heading towards becoming a father at the tender age of 21.”
I asked if, at this point, he had considered getting a job and starting to earn an honest living; Dennis replied without hesitation: “The idea never entered my head, and even if it had, it wouldn’t have been easy anyway, plus the thought of working all week for the minimum wage didn’t make much sense to me. Now fitter, stronger, and more mature, I returned to my old ways within days. I might have been on licence, and that made me a bit more careful, but at the same time, it meant that I just avoided things where the rewards didn’t justify the risks. So, together with the gang, I continued dealing in drugs, continued robbing banks and building societies, until I was caught for the second time, during an attempted robbery of the Asda Cash Department. By this time, I was 23 and I got four years, almost three of which I served in Highpoint South Prison in Suffolk.” This was Dennis’s first time in an adult prison and he was asked how it differed from the Young Offenders’ Institution he’d known before: “It was better, miles better; all the facilities were better; the gym was great and I spent lots of time in it. Of course, I was soon a leader again, even though that’s not so easy in a place where the competition is a lot tougher, but don’t forget, I’m almost always a leader or if I‘m not, I do deals with those who are. Once more, my reputation got there before me,” Dennis explains, grinning.
Dennis was again released on licence and even if London seemed to have changed a lot, especially the architecture, with new buildings springing up like mushrooms, the Stockwell Park Estate was pretty much as it was before, still a part of Brixton that it was wise to avoid and often featuring in the newspapers for the hideous crimes committed there. By now, Dennis’s own little boy was almost 4 years old. He continues: “I returned to that same melting pot once again and, with being a father now, I felt the pressures were even greater. To look after my little boy, I had to have cash, but I wasn’t working - I’d never contemplated getting a job anyway - so I returned to my old ways of getting money, the only way I knew and the easiest option anyway. Working for the minimum wage, filling shelves in a supermarket, or selling a single sachet of crack for a whole week’s wage, a choice like that is hardly rocket science. This is the economy that goes on under the radar and you feel a bit of an idiot if you don’t engage in it. We all had that same mentality, that same view of the world. It’s just the same sort of opportunism that goes on in the City except there the culprits wear stripey suits and commute to respectable, leafy suburbia. With being a father now, I gradually started to consider what kind of future lay ahead for him and for me. I loved the boy and I loved to watch him grow; he spent every other weekend with me and being a father gave a new dimension to my life.”
Robbing building societies and provincial banks was starting to get more difficult, with security systems becoming harder to crack, so Dennis and his mates developed a new technique, this time for robbing security vans. This required precise planning, great skill and above all, speed; and they usually got away with the loot. But then, in the nature of things, one of the raids went wrong and once again, at the age of 28, Dennis found himself heading for prison. On this occasion, he was sentenced to 6 years, to be served in High Down Prison in Sutton. “This time, to be honest, I was well and truly pissed off. I’d had a premonition that this particular robbery was going to go wrong, but no-one would listen to me, so I was angry with all the others for refusing to heed my advice. I’d even tried to get out of taking part but they sort of blackmailed me into it. So here I was, banged up again, missing my son and facing a very long sentence. I was in a state of rage for weeks. On this occasion, I also felt totally abandoned in prison - no letters, no visits from anyone, no money to buy the little things you need, but in an odd way, I sort of welcomed that.”
It proved to be the turning point in Dennis’s life; he started to change his mindset, his attitude to life, and he began to marshal his considerable strength in order to focus it on changing the course of his life, on going straight. Knowing that he was a leader by nature, perhaps Dennis had realised that he did not have to follow the paths trodden by others but could determine his own, unique direction of travel. He realised that, being strong, he could use his strength to not take part in criminal enterprises, to not take such risks with his freedom, to not waste any more of his life in solitude, away from his son, behind bars, a total outsider. With a note of determination in his voice, Dennis continued: “I came to see that this was my life, that I was master of my own destiny, and that I was the only person who was going to determine what I did with my life. I also knew that I could be as good as anyone else: I was strong, determined, with the will to turn things around.”
Having served three years of his sentence in custody, Dennis remained for a further three years on licence. “On the day when that licence expired, I got together with the wonderful person who was to become my soulmate, and soon to be the mother of my second child too. I’ve had many women in my life but never someone who meant so much to me. We had known each other as kids but, after living away from each other for many years, we met again through the Community Centre. Now I have rediscovered the value of sharing, the pleasure of sharing with someone who cares. I no longer feel that I am alone with my thoughts, something I was used to. She keeps me grounded, or perhaps I should say that I keep myself grounded because I now have my own family as an anchor, something I’d always longed for. In that respect, I have broken the tradition, the tradition of my father and his forefathers who all drifted away from their families, whereas I see my family as the cornerstone of everything in life that matters to me. Having spent lots of time on my own, behind bars - nine years precisely - I’d had lots of time to consider this; perhaps my Jamaican father never found the time to evaluate his own life, to discover all that was possible, but just followed instead the traditional way men lived back home in Jamaica. I tell you something: I am now almost grateful for those nine years in prison, because that experience has made me the person that I am today, a good person. I suspect I was always a good person underneath but I certainly did lots of very bad things in the past; I took big risks and I paid for them dearly. Now, even if I did those wrong things in the past, and I offer no excuses, now I almost feel like a new man.”
Dennis is still a young man, he’s now 34, and has his future in front of him, a beautiful son of 13, and a new baby on the way. He strives to see his teenage son regularly. “I know that he admires me for who I am today but I wouldn’t like to think he admired me for what I did in the past. I love him too; he is a great kid and I will do my best to guide him away from everything that I did myself at his age.”
Even with a changed attitude and an altered vision of life, how was Dennis to reintegrate himself into society? Like so many ex-convicts, Dennis faced this conundrum for the third time when, aged 31, he was released from High Down Prison. As we all know, when the big prison gates swing open on their release date, most men walk out on to the street with £46 in their pockets, with a small bundle of their personal possessions, and with little else. Sadly, most of them are not even met by anyone on the outside. Many have nowhere to go, nowhere even to sleep that night, and how long can you survive on the £46 discharge grant? It is hardly surprising that most men head for the nearest pub or off-licence, often on their own, and drown their sorrows in alcohol. Even if they want to go straight and try to get work, claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in the meantime, it will be six weeks before they receive any benefit at all. In other words, as a society, we expect a newly-released prisoner to survive for six weeks or more on a sum of £46.00. Is it any wonder that seven out of ten young offenders (ie the 15 to 17 year-olds) released from jail reoffend within one year. Some reports suggest even higher statistics, up to 80% recidivism. Amongst adults, the rate of reoffending is closer to 50% but higher for those who are jailed for 12 months or less. Taking into consideration the low level of basic education amongst many prisoners, and the chronic failure of prisons to provide them with invaluable literacy, numeracy and vocational skills, many commentators have argued that the only real success of the criminal justice system is in turning first-time offenders into career criminals.
Freshly released from prison, many individuals have no money, nowhere to live, and no job - jobs are notoriously difficult for ex-convicts to find and for years the ‘ex-con’ label hangs around their necks like a millstone. People on the outside see them as criminals first; they are society’s outsiders, striving to get back to normal life again, trying to rebuild their lives, yet the foundations they need are often in ruins or long since disintegrated altogether. If they have good friends, where they might find a bit of floor space or a spare couch to sleep on, these will often be friends from the ‘old days’, friends who can easily tempt them back into the same old criminal networks or gangs, making it more than likely that before very long, they will be behind bars again. Of course, there is the weekly, fifteen-minute interview with a Probation Officer and it is not hard to imagine just how much help can be provided or how many problems can be solved within such a meagre allocation of time. Many convicted men out on licence describe these fifteen minutes as ‘just going through the motions’. The National Audit Office (NAO) recently calculated that the cost to society of this disastrous revolving door of recidivism is between 9.5 and 18 billion pounds a year - roughly the cost of hosting the Olympics on an annual basis. Of course, not even the NAO can calculate the human cost of continual re-offending. There is a huge impact in the damage to society, to individuals, to families and children, and in the tragic loss of human potential represented by all those individuals who spend years locked behind bars with little effort made to help them to rehabilitate, to gain useful skills or qualifications, or to prepare themselves for a successful return to life in the world outside, a life without crime.
The then Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, expressed his serious reservations about the proposed privatisation of the Probation Service: “We are taking a huge risk with public safety by letting inexperienced private companies motivated by profit ... [take over this service].” He also stated that, “The rehabilitation process should begin the moment somebody is found guilty. A single person should be put in charge of each prisoner assessing the help they need, be it literacy courses or courses to up-skill them. We need a joined-up system.”
While the polemics have continued, the prison population in England and Wales has almost doubled in two decades, rising from 44,628 in 1993 to 84,078 in 2013! According to the Prison Reform Trust, over half of the ‘child prisoners’, those who were in care when they were convicted, do not know who (if anyone) will be collecting them on the day of their release!
Labelled as an ‘ex-con’ and being a black man to boot, Dennis is asked how difficult it was to get a job. Dennis hesitates: “That was the hardest thing imaginable. Perhaps I was lucky in having two wonderful individuals at the Stockwell Park Community Centre (part of the Community Trust) Mary and Julie, who both helped me enormously. After my release, they welcomed me back into the Community Centre, a place where, in the past, I had been seen as a gang leader, a menace, and a major threat to the safety of others. They helped me to get my various credentials sorted out, then I had to start from scratch. Fortunately, I had two things going for me: I had a small flat, so at least I had somewhere to live; and I was helped by my firm determination to turn things round - I really was minded to sort out my life, to use my skills and my strength to lead a fulfilled life away from criminality and out of the vicious circle I had inhabited since my boyhood. With Leo as my star sign, I feel that it’s natural for me to be up in front and leading, but I now feel that with leadership comes responsibility too, responsibility for those who follow.”
The Stockwell Park Community Centre was always part of Dennis’s life: he went there as a kid; he used to go there too when he was bad, when he was the leader of a roaming gang, when he was feared. Now he was back and now he was welcome. He participated in the Centre’s various activities, mainly with local kids, and is now an active volunteer member of this extraordinary institution. “Mary has been instrumental in helping me with practicalities too; she saw that the old Dennis had changed, and she saw the potential within me, helping me to rebuild my confidence but without having to rely on crime. Initially, through the Community Centre, I managed to get a labouring job for a building firm associated with the estate; all went well and that was my first step on the ladder. With the Rail Engineering Certificate I’d studied for, I was in the process of getting a job with Network Rail when I was invited to take a job with the same building firm I’d started off with. Originally, this was a traffic marshalling job but I am now Trainee Assistant Manager, so my leadership qualities have shone through once again, though this time it’s in the context of a major construction enterprise of considerable complexity. I’m a musician now too; I write music and I sing as well. (I failed to mention it but I have been sort of involved with music since I was 16 and music has always played an important part in my life.) I am am now quite a well-known rap-artist and I really love performing; writing and performing rap-lyrics help me express my feelings and my view of the world that surrounds us. It is a significant hobby for me these days and the ‘creative me’ finds expression through it.”
Asked how he feels about his future now, and the future for his family, with a broad, joyful smile Dennis concludes: “Despite all the obstacles I have to confront daily, I feel that my future is brighter then ever before and, while I expect that this passion for life, this flame within me, will burn out one day, just now, I feel on top of the world.” Having shared a few hours with Dennis, I suspect that this flame will not easily burn out, though it might, over time, burn differently, casting a different light perhaps. Some may well think of Dennis as a criminal, as someone who did bad things in the past, but I am convinced that he will be better remembered for the way he has changed, for how he has managed to transform his life, and for how much good there is inside him, as there is good in everyone, even in those who are thought very bad indeed. Dennis’s story certainly shows that despite all the bleakness and the desperation of some of our worst inner-city estates, there is still no reason to lose hope for humanity.
Interview Date: 20th March 2014
Updated: 5th July 2014
Aged 31 and released from his third custodial sentence, Dennis had reached a turning point; his mindset started to change and, marshalling his considerable strength, he began to focus on altering the course of his life, on going straight. Yet how was Dennis the ex-offender to reintegrate himself into society? He faced this conundrum on his return to Stockwell Park, where choosing a life of crime seemed the only way to fit in. But Dennis was lucky: Mary and Julie, two remarkable individuals at the Community Centre, gave him enormous support; they welcomed him back into the Centre, encouraged him, and helped him get a decent job with some builders associated with the estate. This went well and his talent for leadership soon set him on course for management.
Photography: London 20th March 2014