It's a Guy Thing

Banged Up: a mother’s story

A lifetime ago, aged 19, I joined the police with, if I’m totally honest, a principal yearning to be looked after. As an employer, this respected profession gave me everything – job security, a decent wage, prospects, status, companionship, a roof over my head, and identity. My self-worth, for an insecure guy lacking in worldly wisdom, was immediate and all that was required of me was to do the bidding of the State. This, roughly speaking, was arresting villains, and imprisoning the more serious offenders. The latter, colloquially referred to as “banging them up,” appeared to me as a fairly robust mechanism complementing both justice and deterrent. After all, who the hell would ever want to return to one of the many dilapidated UK prisons? Not me!

I had visited several prisons when returning remand prisoners after a hearing. HMP Reading, built in 1844, and famous for incarnating Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde fifty-one years later, was the most local ─ and it was grim ─ the most inhospitable place imaginable, until, that is, I entered HMP Holloway erected shortly afterwards. In 1903 it became a female-only prison and was, without doubt, one of the most intimidating places that I had ever visited ─ and I was supposedly on the side of the good guys. But perhaps the most frightening experience was at Haslar juvenile detention center. The manner in which the teen offender that my colleague and I dropped off – as I recall, a sociable guy who talked non-stop football on the journey down – was treated after being sentenced at Bracknell youth court will live with me forever. I get the “short, sharp, shock” treatment, but he was immediately stripped of his dignity and humanity by prison officers who had him standing face to the wall within moments of our arrival. Such was the ferocity of the verbal commands that I momentarily felt compelled to react in the same manner. Yet, no doubt, I processed this moment as apparent evidence of the need to “bang up” offenders, thus supporting my early career indoctrination that suggested this was the best method of crime prevention and rehabilitation. As the years passed, I began to question this doctrine and the facts appeared to support my growing unease.

According to the most recent UK statistics (published in April 2022) the percentage of offenders who reoffended upon release is a staggering 29.2%. Even more shocking was the young offenders’ data that recorded a heightened scale of 34.4%. As a means of curtailing crime, our domestic criminal justice system is clearly flawed. As a post-graduate criminologist, my mind jumped in all directions as I sought to reconcile the myriad of factors that underpin this tale of woe. But one piece of evidence kept pushing itself to the front of the queue. What had happened to the kid whom I had taken to Haslar that day? The one who had made me laugh. The one that I instinctively knew was more good than bad. What side of the percentages had he fallen into upon his release? How had his life changed? And just as importantly, how had this event changed those around him – his loved ones and close friends? This wasn’t to be a reflection upon an emotional reunion with him – meeting his family and celebrating his life successes ─ since the trail was now cold and maybe he was content to leave it that way. But the nagging doubts that surrounded my once clinical view of the prison system wouldn’t abate.

I had known Natalie for a couple of years. A funny, vivacious independent lady whose boys were the center of her universe ─ bright young men with the world awaiting their individual vision and vitality. Exciting times for any parent. We both lived in the same town and our kids were schooled locally too. On the face of it, both of our families were, dare I say it, ordinary. But then, what the hell is “ordinary” within the context of family? Natalie had, in my opinion, an extraordinary story to tell because one of her boys had been banged up and was facing several years behind bars. For what seemed an eternity I conveniently side-stepped the issue, offering only supportive words of perceived understanding and empathy. But how could I really know what to say when this situation was so unfathomable to me, and how the hell was Natalie able to process the gravity of the situation and still maintain a life when such an important member was missing? Yet my Haslar companion had made more of an impact on my view of punishment than either of us could ever have imagined as we headed towards the south coast all those years ago. Plucking up the courage I eventually asked Natalie if I could talk to her about her experiences; to my surprise she agreed.


Can you tell me about Ryan, especially his dreams and aspirations?

“Ryan was ─ and still is ─ a very bright, talented, polite, and caring young man. Always the first to help anyone he saw struggling or being bullied, liked by his teachers for having the cheekiest of smiles, and by his classmates for always making them laugh. He grew up with two older brothers. Unfortunately, at the age of two he became a statistic of a broken home. His father put lots of time, effort and resources into the older brothers, and Ryan spent much of his time with me. He was, and still is, loved very much by mum, brothers and grandparents and he knew this.”

“He spent his younger years playing football for the local team, with mum ferrying him around every weekend in the wind, rain, and snow! Around the age of eleven, he decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers onto the basketball court and played for a local team. He showed much promise and was picked to play for the South Region under 13’s. Ryan and myself were exceptionally close and still are. My older sons give a wry smile when he calls me from prison and my face lights up and announce that ‘mums treasured delight’ is on the phone!”

What were the circumstances that led to his arrest and eventual conviction?

“We had a massive change in circumstances, once living in a very nice house; a good school in a nice area. Through no fault of our own we had to move into social housing. That brought a lot of challenges for us as a family. Oldest son was on his way to university, second son was sitting his ‘A’ levels and Ryan transferred to a local school. From my perspective this is when everything fell apart for him.”

“Money was in short supply. I was working two jobs, with no financial support from the boys’ father. No support in any way to be honest, physically, or emotionally. Their father was a controlling bully towards both me and the boys and did not see them ─ and still doesn’t. Out of the three of them Ryan had the least amount of contact. At 13 he saw my daily struggles and always hugged me and said, ‘Mum, it won’t always be like this. I’m going to look after you’”.

“The catalyst for me was Christmas 2015. We had moved into the ‘new house’ which was riddled with fleas and thirty years of dust and grease. I couldn’t afford to buy the boys any Christmas presents that year ─ not one. I just about managed to put a decent meal on the table for the big day. The older boys were more understanding, but I know this hit Ryan hard, and the look on his face will haunt me to this day. I carry a lot of blame for not being in a better financial position to support my sons.”

“Shortly after this, I noticed a huge difference in his behaviour ─ he was surly, argumentative, and would be in constant trouble at school. Every day I would get a call to go and see the Head, or Deputy. Eventually he was expelled. The school were in no way understanding or supportive. He began to get into trouble with the police who were forever knocking on my door. Social Services were involved, and again were of no use. Ryan was at this point selling marijuana. This progressed to class ‘A’ drugs, for which he was arrested at the age of 17. This was not a deterrent.”

“On Friday 27th March 2020, one week after COVID lockdown, my oldest son and I were about to take our new puppy for a walk when I heard a commotion on the road where we live. I looked out of the bedroom window to see three grown men running up and down shouting Ryan’s name and asking people where he lived. One of the neighbours ‘kindly’ furnished them with the number and the next thing I knew was the men kicking down the front door. My oldest son ran down the stairs although I begged him not to. I was still upstairs shouting and screaming with fear. The next thing I heard was the front window shattering. One of them had smashed through it with a paving block, threatening to kill the whole family if we didn’t tell him where Ryan was. I was on the phone to the police not knowing what was happening to my oldest son.”

“The men eventually left quite casually as though they hadn’t just threatened to kill a young man and his middle-aged mother. Earlier in the day, the same men and a couple of their family members had attempted to kidnap Ryan armed with weapons. Shortly afterwards, I heard police sirens in the distance. Little did I know that Ryan’s world, and that of his family were about to come tumbling down.”

“Ryan called later that evening and apologised and told me not to worry and that, no matter what happened, to always remember that he loved me. I didn’t hear from Ryan until the 3rd of April. He called me to say he was on remand for attempted murder. I later found out that after the men had left my house that day, they called Ryan to say if you don’t come and meet us, we are going back to the family house to ‘finish the job off.’ Ryan – who was just 18 years old ─ went to meet them. Six grown men. Thugs with a long history of criminal behaviour. There was an altercation. One of them got stabbed.”

“In September 2020, Ryan went to court to stand trial with two co-defendants. He was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years for Section 18 – causing grievous bodily harm with intent ─ and drugs offences.”

How did you process this period and what happened to you when the verdict was announced?

“Most days were spent sobbing. All day. Everyday. Not eating. Blaming myself. Dreaming about him. Hardly sleeping, with his sweatshirt next to me, night after night ─ smelling his aftershave; driving myself insane with stress and anxiety.”

“The court case was unimaginable ─ my beautiful loving son behind a wall of glass, hardly able to look at me as I gave evidence in relation to the men that broke into our home. Every day for over three weeks the pain was immeasurable. The jury were stony-faced and frankly looked bored. They sat there nonchalantly, just waiting to get it over with. I wanted to scream out to them that this was my son’s future they were dealing with. But it wasn’t their concern, was it?”

“The verdict was read out and I sat motionless in the grubby courtroom seat. There were wails from the mother of one of the other defendants, who ran out of the courtroom screaming and crying. I looked through the thick glass panel where my son was and put my palm up against it. He did the same. I told him how much I loved him, and then I heard the clanging of the keys as he was led away.”

What support was given to you and your family?

“None at all. From anyone. Not a visit. Not a phone call. To this very day. The three men who broke into my home did not get any charges against them, despite DNA evidence. What kind of justice is that?”

What type of facility was he initially held in and has this subsequently changed?

“From arrest up until today, he is held in a Youth Offenders Institution due to his age.”

How has this changed your life?

“In every way imaginable. I have just started to sleep through the night after two years. I miss him every moment of every day. There are times when I don’t want to socialise, smile, talk to people, or even carry on. But I have to. I have two other sons that need their mum. I hide behind a painted-on smile. People think I’m dealing with it. I’m not. I cry ─ a lot.”

“I have lost friends but made new ones who appear too not be so judgemental! I am prepared to cut ties with people who cannot accept that I have a son in prison. My sons will always come first no matter what.”

What is it like for you as a loving parent?

“Heart-breaking. I feel guilty about going about daily life. Guilty for daring to book a much-needed holiday. Lots of guilt for so many reasons.”

Does it feel like the criminal justice system is working?

“Absolutely not! No rehabilitation. No access to learning facilities. Locked up twenty-three hours a day. The system is severely broken ─ undertrained staff and sometimes no staff at all.”

How is Ryan dealing with this?

“Ryan is a mentally strong young man. He reads, he works out, and he keeps his head down. He says, ‘It could be worse. My life is still to start mum.’”

Will Ryan ever be able to pick up where he left off and pursue his life goals?

“I have no doubt at all that Ryan will turn his life around and he will pursue his dreams and aspirations. His older brothers are working hard to ensure that when Ryan is home, they are in a position to support and encourage him. Ryan was raised with morals, boundaries, and love in abundance. I know in my heart that he will come through this a better man.”

How do you deal with other people’s perceptions and values?

“In all honesty, I take absolutely no notice of what others say now. They don’t matter. They are entitled to their opinions. We are all judgemental in one way or another. People ‘blame’ the parents for not raising their children correctly. What exactly is ‘correctly’? What happened to my son can happen to anyone, not just the poor and under privileged. I know my son. That is all that matters.”

When will Ryan be due for release?


How would you change the criminal justice system for the better?

“Invest in the system with the appropriate staff to delve into the underlying issues of how that young offender entered the criminal world. From my own personal experience, although I believed I was a good parent who set boundaries and instilled discipline, this came from an emotive place. Young male teenagers require a strong male role – a discipline a father can give is something quite different to what most mothers are capable of.”

“At a stage where I was at a loss with my young teenage son, I thought the police were on my side. They came to my home full of smiles and empathy – after all Ryan was a minor. Outside of the house they were a different entity. Goading my son – one officer even followed him into a restaurant and whispered into his ear, “I’m going to get you “! He eventually did with a taser and police dog biting at his ass!”

“He had just turned 18 and the police were out for him. Not for the bigger criminals further up the ladder – just a young misinformed naive young man. Social Services? There to protect and help ? Useless and clueless. My son was failed – by his father, the police, and social services.”

“Let’s lock him up for his heinous crime for twenty-three and a half hours a day. No social time. Not even a shower at weekends due to staff shortages. Some people may say, “No less than they deserve!” No, if prison is to reform then how do they achieve this? How does the time they spend inside lead them to motivate and educate themselves to create a better, more productive life? What tools are they providing to ensure they are equipped to deal with a life outside?”

“Invest in staff – in coaching, life skills. Looking at individual circumstances. Accessing each case individually – not referencing some law book that states a certain crimes equates to a certain sentence. Offenders want to change. Maybe they are inwardly crying out for someone to listen. To guide. To care.”

My time spent with the extraordinary Natalie was both emotional and enlightening. A sliding doors moment that could so easily have happened to my son. Our family homes are only a short walk away from one another. In many ways our lives and aspirations were, at one moment in time, pretty similar. Yet my son, in some twist of epic irony, is now a criminal barrister whilst Ryan is on the other side of the great criminal justice divide. Depressingly Natalie had only added to my conviction that the manner in which we punish appears to ignore the vital opportunity to rehabilitate which surely must occur to better protect us all. The moral codes – both written and unrecorded ─ that bind each and every one of us, and the communities we live in, need a criminal justice system that actually works. The statistics are damning and will continue to be so until we put aside our convenient contempt for the vast majority of those that are simply imprisoned with no exit plan, and wise up to the notion that, but for a twist of fate, Natalie’s story may not be so unique.

What can we do to lessen another Ryan’s story? There is, perhaps, no one simple solution, but by talking and seeking to learn from one another we can at least better understand what is more likely to work than simply banging them up. And who knows – preventing the circumstances that lead to this outcome in the first place. I know that Natalie’s candid account has helped me and for that I will always be grateful.

© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke