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Benjamin Zephaniah helps former offenders get back on track

INFUSING POSITIVITY: Poet Benjamin Zephaniah (right) with Jason Turner

RETURNING TO his roots, world-renowned poet Benjamin Zephaniah was in Birmingham to help launch a new film project to help ex-offenders get back on their feet.

As someone who spent time in Winson Green prison (HMP Birmingham) as a young man, Zephaniah knows all too well the stigma of having a criminal record and how it can be a battle to find work after spending time in jail.

The Handsworth-born dub poet has teamed up with Jason Turner, a reformed heroin addict and prolific offender who, with backing from Staffordshire and West Midlands Probation Trust, is making a short film to signpost former and current offenders back into work.

Zephaniah, who declined an OBE for services to literature, said at the launch of the scheme at Birmingham’s Aston Hall, one of his favourite childhood haunts: “Who hasn’t made mistakes? I have. But after making many mistakes when I was younger I told myself I had to learn from them.

“This scheme is a chance for me to use my experience to help others in a real concrete way. When I heard about it I just thought, ‘I want to do this because I know what it’s like to have been inside.’”

Turner approached Zephaniah last summer to present his short ‘how to’ film advising offenders about the disclosure of criminal records. The two hit it off immediately and the rapport between them is palpable.

Turner, who has been clean now for more than five years, said: “I’m so proud to be working with Benjamin and the Probation Trust. Someone told me that the only way I can keep what I have is by giving it away. That’s why I decided to set up isore Media, which is now a community interest company offering film-making courses to offenders.

“The course has already resulted in offenders receiving recognised adult education Open College Network qualifications – for many their first.”

He added: “The film will be only about 10 to 12 minutes long but it will give people on orders or under licence hints and tips on how to turn their lives around and how to act with potential employers.”

Asked if he enjoyed working with offenders, Turner, said smiling: “It’s extremely rewarding and they know they can’t fool me because I’ve been there. You can’t blag a blagger!”

Zephaniah, who also led an interactive poetry day for people supervised by the SWM Probation Trust, following the launch, added: “I remember going somewhere once where they stopped a man from entering because he had a criminal record, yet I was let in because I was famous. I said ‘I also have a criminal record’ so let this other man in.

“When I left Birmingham for London to try to better myself as a young man, my teachers, the police just said I was the lowest of the low. They wanted to lock me up and throw away the key and told me I would be just as bad in London, but I got myself back on track and proved them all wrong.”

Paul Levy, Head of Solihull Probation, said: “We’re thrilled that such inspirational people as Benjamin and Jason are supporting the probation service as we help people to transform their lives.”

He added: “Jason has turned his life around totally and now applies the same passion to helping offenders as he did to his criminal past.”

The film will be timely, as under reforms which come into force next month, freed prisoners who were sentenced to six months or less will have to include their criminal history on job application forms for two years from the time they are released instead of seven as at present.

More serious offenders will also see a dramatic cut in the length of time they are required to declare their convictions in a move intended to boost job prospects.

It is seen as the biggest change to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act since the current system began in the 1970s. It has the backing of Justice Minister Simon Hughes who said the change would be a vital support for people who want to turn their back on crime and rebuild their lives.

The film is due to be screened at Cineworld in Solihull in May or June.

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