Interview with an Ex-Con
Recently, I interviewed my friend Alican Imir about his previous first-hand experiences as a delinquent youth going through the processes of the British criminal justice system. Back in 1999, when he was 7 years old, Alican and his family moved from Turkey to England where he, like many of us, grew up in the London borough of Islington. When he was 15, Alican (like so many other impressionable teenagers) began to get into some trouble with the law for what I would call ‘pseudo-gangster’ behaviour. But by around 17 years old, his delinquency had worsened and he became a habitual criminal, well-known to the local police. Despite being arrested several times, Alican was never charged for his crimes, which include: grievous and actual bodily harm (GBH & ABH); robbery; common assault and assaulting a police constable; breaking and entering; and handling stolen goods. However, in 2011, when he was 19 years old, Alican was finally arrested, tried and convicted for his actions during the riots that followed the death of Mark Duggan that year.
Firstly, tell me about your actions during the riots. What happened that day?
I was at home with my cousin who was watching the riots in Hackney on TV and at some point, my mate texted me saying let’s meet in Holloway and go too. At first I didn’t want go but then I changed my mind. We just went and then, I don’t know, one thing led to another and before you knew it, I was dashing bricks at things, caught up in the moment. We burnt cars, threw bricks at riot police, damaged a police car, tried to hijack a number 236 bus and robbed an off-license. I did get caught by a police officer that day but I hit him and ran away.
What about the actual day you were arrested?
The police came to the door when I was chillin’ at home, but they were there to arrest me for something else, not the riots. I told them I needed to go to the hospital, just to keep me out of a police cell. At the hospital, the police officers with me changed over to another two and one of them recognised me from the riots, so they arrested me for that as well. But someone had already snitched anyway, so I was getting arrested regardless.
Of course they recognised you from the riots. You were the only hooligan that day who was dressed like a f*cking tomato. What were you charged with?
Don’t be dissin' the red jacket! The charges were violent disorder and burglary.
Explain the procedures you went through between getting arrested and the day of your final court hearing.
From the hospital, they took me to the police station in Hoxton and I got interviewed. The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] decided to charge as they had all the evidence. They denied me bail as well, which was on a Friday, so I spent Saturday and Sunday in a police cell. On Monday morning, they got me into a Serco van [escort van] and we went to the police station in Tolpuddle Street, where they picked up my mate who was at the riots and got arrested too. We went to Bow Magistrates’ Court for the first hearing where we pleaded guilty to the charges, but the judge denied us bail ‘cause we were messing about. After that, I got moved to Chelmsford Prison and was there for 2 months on remand, before I had my final trial at Woodgreen Crown Court.
How was your first day on remand in Chelmsford Prison?
That sh*t was scary. When we first got to the prison, I think it was about 6 or 7 in the evening ‘cause I remember watching EastEnders that night. They took me in and searched me a couple of times, and they gave me the uniform and whatnot, assigned me a cell and gave me an ID card. Then they locked me in my cell until morning. It wasn’t really, really scary but I was nervous. In the morning, a prison officer came to my cell and told me how to get breakfast and showed me the areas I can go into, like the gym. They wouldn’t let me go on education or go to work ‘cause I was on remand. They didn’t want to spend money putting me on a course without knowing what was going to happen to me. So they just kept me locked up.
Tell me about what happened during the final trial. How did it make you feel?
At Woodgreen Crown Court, they put three of us in one cell where I waited until the time came for my trial. Going in, I was anxious and worried, like in the back of my head I was thinking ‘sh*t!’ But I got bored halfway through the trial to be honest. The prosecution were trying to push for the maximum sentence and the evidence they had was CCTV, a witness statement and pictures of me in newspapers like The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. They were saying that I was leading the group during the riots, ‘cause I was at the front of every picture in the newspapers. But every picture they found, the boys were just following me. I wasn’t leading. And the defence basically argued that I used to be a police cadet and that I had previous good character and nothing on my record [arrested but never charged.]
When the judge made his ruling, how long was your sentence to be? Did he make any comments?
The judge found me guilty on both charges of violent disorder and burglary. That’s when I panicked ‘cause he said the same thing my solicitor said to me. He was seriously considering giving me 16 years but wouldn’t ‘cause I didn’t have any criminal record. He said that some will consider it as being overly lenient, but gave me 20 months for burglary and 18 months for violent disorder, to do at the same time [concurrent sentence]. So I got 10 months to serve in prison and the last 10 months on probation. When he was sentencing me, he said I was a young man that made stupid decisions. Honestly, I actually thought the judge was alright.
Did you think the ruling was fair?
Yeah, it was. I could’ve got sixteen years but I only did one year. I was lucky.
Lucky is an understatement! Tell me about what happened between the end of your final trial and your arrival in prison.
I was moved to Feltham Prison after the sentencing, got there in the evening. They put us in this introduction room but they wouldn’t give me my cigarettes, so I kicked off in the morning and they put me in segregation, in a cell on my own, ‘cause I was throwing chairs at them. I broke one of my fingers punching the cell door and had to go to the hospital there. I was only in Feltham for 2 days though, so after I got moved to Isis Prison, I was still kept in segregation, which put an extra 2 months on my sentence. That’s why I did 12 months in total.
What was segregation like?
Segregation is nuts. There is literally no one there, you’re all alone. They gave me a crap book to read that they thought was entertaining but it wasn’t. At one point, one guy gave me a bible. I was going nuts. I wasn’t even allowed out for food, they brought it to me. Every day, I was only allowed out for half an hour on my own for one phone call and a shower. That’s it.
Explain to me your daily routine in Isis Prison after you left segregation and were all settled in and no longer considered new. How was the food?
In the mornings, they used to open up the cell doors at around 7 or half 7, so I’d wake up and go get my breakfast. We always ate in our cells, including dinner time. Most of the time they locked us up again after breakfast but sometimes they didn’t bother, and no one went out of their cell ‘cause everyone knew not to, until it was time for work or education. I used to do some sh*t graphic design course, so after breakfast they let me go to my classes, which I actually enjoyed. I was on that course for the whole year ‘cause it was piss-easy and the teacher was cool. It was basically like secondary school, starting around 9am until about 3pm, with lunch at around 12pm. After education, we used to piss about ‘cause it used to take them long to get everyone back in their cells. We thought that even if we were out for another half hour, that’s a half hour out of the cell. Then they’d count everybody and lock us up until dinner at 6pm. The food wasn’t good but it wasn’t bad. We’d have things like burgers, pizza, fish and chips, curry. It was different every night. The food portions were alright and I always used to make snacks with the kettle in my cell too, like noodles. After dinner was social time. They would let us out for an hour to do things like use the shower, make a phone call, play snooker, use the gym. Stuff like that. Then it was back in the cell until morning.
What about your cell, what did you have in it?
I had my bed, toilet, TV, kettle and snacks and drinks. That’s about it really.
Did you have any problems in prison, either with staff or other inmates?
Yeah, one inmate. A**hole decided to rob my jeans. A Cypriot prison officer told me that he went into my cell in the morning when I was out to get breakfast and stole my jeans and tobacco. I wasn’t about to snitch though, so I asked him nicely to hand over my stuff back but he didn’t want to, so I made a knife out of my razor blade and went into his cell and got my stuff back. The next morning, he came into my cell when I was still sleeping and stabbed me in the chest with his razor. They [prison staff] knew he did it ‘cause there was cameras and they saw him going in and out of my cell, but I told them it happened when I was trying to shave my chest.
Did you change in any way whilst you were in there?
I became more patient, but only noticed it after I left prison. I lost a bit of weight in there too. And I appreciated freedom more, after being locked up 23 hours a day like some zoo animal. But it’s less a prison and more like a holiday camp.
Do you feel that Isis Prison is like a holiday camp because of the type of prison it is?
Isis is a category B and C prison. Category A prisons are total lockdown and your every move is watched. They have a lot more control, isolation, tighter security and yeah, feel a lot more like a prison. But criminals in those prisons are in there for years and years, or are never getting released anyway. They’re people with life sentences, who’ve done big crimes like murder or rape or terrorism.
Do you think prison is successful in its purpose to rehabilitate?
Yes and no. I think the rehabilitation only works on certain people. If crime is all you’ve known your whole life, no matter who locks you up for how many years, it’s not going to teach you sh*t. I’ve seen a drug addict that was in there for about two years and when he was getting released, his last words were that he was never coming back. Two days later he was there again. It just don’t work, not for everyone. It depends on the individual and whether they feel remorseful for the crime and regret doing it. If they regret doing it, prison is going to change them and put them off, make them think twice. But some people haven’t got that sort of mentality, they think that crime is all they know, so they carry on doing it. All they know is people that commit crimes, like people that sell drugs or rob houses. They’ve grown up around crime, it’s a part of who they are.
Tell me about your life upon release. Were there conditions you had to abide by?
I was on license so I had to report to the probation officer for the next 10 months and I had to stay out of trouble and not get arrested again. I was free to do what I wanted though. At first, I had to report once a week for about 2 months, then for another 2 months I had to report once every 2 weeks. Then the last few months I had to report once a week again ‘cause I got arrested during probation for handling stolen goods. I wasn’t though, it was someone else. I got arrested ‘cause I was with them but I never got charged. My probation officer wanted to send me back to prison for that.
Did you find it easy to re-settle into society?
Yeah, it was easy for me, and family and friends did help. I don’t know, I came out and it was like I never went away. For about 3 weeks I didn’t do anything, I didn’t want to do anything. Then I got a job in an off-license in Hackney. But being out on license, the local police all knew about me and kept an eye on me. No matter what I was doing, even if it was just walking down the street not doing anything, I would randomly get stopped and searched. After my probation ended, they started to back off.
What were the difficulties you faced with a criminal record attached to you?
I knew looking for a job was going to be hard but I didn’t realise it would be for so long. I knew my criminal record was there permanently, but even after probation was finished, I still had to declare it to any job that I applied for, for the next five years. My five years has finished by now so I only have to declare it if I’m applying for certain jobs, like jobs where I’m working with vulnerable people.
Finally, do you have anything to say to the delinquent youths out there who are in the position that you were in?
Looking back on everything that happened, with the mentality I have now, I wouldn’t make the same decisions I made back then. So, what I’d say to them is: friends will leave you when the going gets tough, so don’t make bad choices ‘cause of them and ruin your life. Don’t risk making your family grieve for you for years, ‘cause of those temporary friends. Crime might make you rich within a year, but it can also take your life within a second.