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The secret chord that David played

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This summer, Dave Sheldon, 48, has been working out on track and is looking forward to taking up a full-time job with First Structure. For the last four months the one-time armed robber has gone through PTS, railway induction and various other courses as part of a back- to-work programme for prisoners run by Intertrain in Doncaster. If his Parole Board appearance goes off OK, Dave will be taking up a new career on the railway and living back at home with his wife, Wendy.

As the rail industry expands its recruitment of apprentices, students and professionals from other industries, one little-noticed but rich vein of talent is being quietly mined by rail chiefs tapping into programmes of prisoner rehabilitation. At first glance it seems an unlikely alliance – rail boss meets bank robber. However in the railway’s case, the arithmetic sees altruism coinciding with urgent need.

Intertrain, Ballycommon and several more contractors – with the approval of Network Rail – are overcoming an innate society-wide suspicion of the criminal and getting a growing number of ex-offenders back into work. It’s not easy in a nation that locks up more men and women annually than any other country in the EU. Initial schemes were greeted with derision by the press. Ex- offenders were thought to be working on the WCML near Bridego Bridge – scene of the Great Train Robbery. The press managed to imply masked platelayers were leaning on their shovels awaiting the arrival of the Glasgow Mail.

Second Chance

However, the rail industry has several advantages in this field – being impervious to press criticism is one of them.

First, the railway has long sought out staff from overseas – Irish navvies built much of it. After the Second World War, the railway recruited from Italy, the West Indies and the Commonwealth. More by luck than judgement, admittedly, the railway was multi-cultural long before it became fashionable.

Secondly, it’s always been a case of needs must. With passenger volume now double what it was in 1948 and punters piling on to half the amount of track available back then, the need for new staff to build, electrify, upgrade and crew an expanded network has never been more urgent.

Thirdly, hard-nosed recruitment officers have taken to scouting out schools and universities, other engineering set ups – like coal mining – as well as teaching and the armed services. Like the armies of old the railway is not overly concerned about a person’s past. Suitability checks are stringent, certainly, but it has to be said the rail industry is more prepared than most to give a man a second chance.


Alex Pond at Intertrain is taking on ex-prisoners and training them up with the basic skills needed for life on track. ‘This industry needs motivated individuals we can place with teams out on track and in a variety of other roles from civil engineering to train maintenance. The deal is the industry gets new staff – often very well suited to the work at hand – which we train. The wider country benefits as former criminals take up paid employment in an industry where no day is like another. It reduces reoffending.’

Says Neil Moore deputy governor HMP Hatfield, a category D prison in South Yorkshire, ‘This is their chance to get back into a useful life…’ Moore says Hatfield houses 260 prisoners and has 80 out on work placements.

The equation for success is simple, according to Moore. Newly released prisoners need three things: paid work, a place to stay and the support of family and friends. Take this away and the chances of reoffending increase. These are men who prison authorities deem are set on putting their past behind them. The government, behind the usual hang ‘em high bluster, now backs the idea of getting prisoners into work. This is important as training has to be paid for. It’s bridging that initial gap – from a prisoner turning up on day release and getting skilled up for life on the track and then starting work and picking up a pay cheque.

Bridge into life

Figures for reoffending are astounding. Over half of released prisoners will be back inside within a year. The cost of reoffending is thought to total over £10 billion a year. The reasons are varied and it is easy to be simplistic. However, one factor is the high rate of illiteracy in prison – many prisoners cannot read or write. Holding a job with a criminal record is tough enough, but the simple business of surviving in a world full of digital info, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, rotas and risk assessments defeats many. The nub is the bridge from prison, to training, to work. Funding is not enough and the bridge too often collapses like a scene out of the Lord of the Rings.

Ex-prisoner Erwin James, author and columnist for the Guardian newspaper, sums the matter up succinctly. ‘If they need education, let them have it. If they need work skills, give them training….’ Get this right, the argument runs, and the criminal is permanently removed from society – the prisoner effectively leaves that persona behind.

‘These simple measures are all it would take to bring about better public safety and cost efficient outcome, ensuring that more people come out of prison able, willing and motivated to be good neighbours,’ says James, who was released 10 years ago.

Any more like you?

Does prisoner rehabilitation work? ‘We’ve taken on quite a few over the last four years,’ says Jimmy Wilson, rail director, Ballycommon. ‘Often for friends and people we know and now Intertrain. We have a 90 per cent success rate – that is people sticking with the scheme. Yes, we can say it is a success.’

Ballycommon has a strong background in civil engineering which has translated with some aplomb to the rail industry. Wilson runs the rail division from offices in Rotherham. Ballycommon is involved in signals and telecoms, main line upgrades and renewals. For him ex-prisoners do well and reward the amount of effort he and colleagues like Austin Harrison put in.

One, Anthony Pankhurst, formerly of HMP Hatfield, took up full time work at Ballycommon and sees the new job as the answer to a prayer. ‘The people here have been very patient and very kind,’ says Pankhurst. ‘If I don’t understand something they’ll go through it again.’

The job means a fresh start for the former robber, who was sentenced to seven years for conspiracy to burgle. Married with five children, life is a struggle but the future is looking brighter now. He’s been working with various railway gangs at Ballycommon and has done well. The other rail staff, he says, have been welcoming and genuine.

Erwin James agrees both prisoners and the rail industry benefit. ‘I remember when I was finishing off my sentence in Blantyre House prison in Kent, the local rail yards were training and employing prisoners in rail maintenance. This was Railtrack. The prisoners who took part loved the hard graft, and the trainers hailed the prisoners as the best employees they had in the area. A pal of mine went into the yard looking for a job. He’d applied for over a hundred jobs without success. The foreman was desperate for workers so gave my pal a chance.

After a few weeks the foreman said, ‘Are there any more like you in there?’ That yard became the biggest employer of prisoners from Blantyre House.’

Reformed prisoners have a great deal to prove and make good employees. ‘I’ve spoken to a number of CEOs who have employed prisoners and all agree that they make excellent employees in the main. There are occasional hiccups, but prisoners have so much to prove,’ says Erwin James.

No need to rush

What hiccups might these be? Jimmy Wilson again. ‘We sent back one guy – he was just too full of himself and did not gel with the teams out there. I just didn’t feel he was safe out on track – nothing criminal but a safety issue.’

According to Wilson the lad later thought about this and persuaded the authorities to give him another chance. Second time out he made it into full- time employment.

Wilson, a one-time PE teacher from Sheffield, won’t compromise on safety. Personal tragedy saw to that. ‘What I am very strict on, some say regimented, is basic knowledge – it’s the best way to guarantee safety. All my staff must have a first aid ticket. As well as PTS, new recruits do track induction courses and basic railway safety. We’ll integrate them into our teams and get feedback from foremen, gangers, and the COSS.’

There’s no need to rush into extra responsibility. ‘I am all for upskilling but only after six months’ experience out on track. We made Anthony Pankhurst a look-out and he’s doing really well. We’ll look at making new people up to crane controller or COSS after a year to 18 months.’

Loss and grief

Wilson’s no nonsense attitude to safety dates back to 2003 when a main line team he was connected with suffered a fatality. ‘I knew the lad who died and his mum – in fact I’d grown up with her. I had to meet her as she came out of the morgue. She’d been to identify her son. I’ve never forgotten that. Her loss and grief underline every safety briefing I’ve delivered ever since.’

At the root of the rehabilitation effort is the assumption that every prisoner, no matter how bad their crimes, can turn their life around, give up crime and make a contribution. Is this not naive?

Seven years into his sentence, Dave Sheldon started to think about his life and where it was going.

‘I turned a corner, started wanting to improve. I must have read 1,000 books inside.’ Dave, who had been a noted boxer in his youth, went on to study for a degree in sports physiology.

‘I was worldly wise but very naive, uneducated,’ says Erwin James, who went on the run after committing murder and joined the Foreign Legion. His work as a writer has latterly opened a window on the unguessable world of the convict. ‘Over 20 years, I met every sort of criminal and they had committed every type of offence you can imagine. Almost all of them would at some point say they had not made a conscious choice to be a criminal. No one was where he wanted to be.’

In the darkness of his first few years inside, one psychologist reached out to Erwin James and suggested he start to read. More out of respect for her than anything else James started out on a programme of structured reading. An Open University degree in history followed. Again encouraged by staff he submitted articles to the press and eventually produced an award-winning series of columns for the Guardian.

James was released 10 years ago. The delight at creating an article and seeing it published fired his imagination and brought him real hope. The upshot was a greater and enduring commitment to writing. The book, ‘Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope’ by Erwin James will be published next February.

Clock in my heart

This commitment to hard work by Pankhurst, Sheldon and James mirrors Alex Pond’s experience with prisoners at Intertrain.

‘They get stuck in, that’s my experience,’ says Alex Pond. ‘Often we turn up unexpected skills. One guy had done roofing, another knew a bit about welding. On railway courses, we get excellent feedback from our instructors. These people are keen to learn, and whatever their background, can hold their concentration.’

Time keeping is important, and walking into other courses at Intertrain Pond emphasises this time and again to apprentices and new staff. All-night possessions are only a few hours long leaving little room for stragglers. This reasoning finds an unexpected echo with the railway’s HMP recruits. No body of men understands the passing of time better than they. The years tick by and older prisoners make good recruits.

Age is not the problem on the railway it might be elsewhere. Says Jimmy Wilson, ‘A lot depends on age range. We get people coming out of prison

in their mid 30s and 40s and quite often they’ve had enough and want to change their lives.’ Wilson makes sure hours and opportunities are parcelled out equally. There’s ample chance to advance.

Feel valued

‘We make sure they feel valued, feel part of the team. Most important of all is to keep them engaged in what they’re doing. It’s good money. It keeps them in work. It’s a role and a career in a real industry,’ says Wilson.

Part of the reason for the railway’s relative success is its almost tribal identity. Ask track workers and train crew from Dollands Moor to Polmadie who they work for and the answer is almost invariably, ‘I work for the railway.’ Pond emphasises this point. The rail industry has a sense of togetherness, a camaraderie, which is hard to quantify.

This sense of belonging can take over from the failed identities of the past. Erwin James made an interesting remark about the legion. At Castelnaudary in the south of France for basic training he found a rigid system that prized honour and faithfulness, effort and victory over individualism.

‘I found that being a legionnaire presented an ordered way of life that offered the possibility of redemption from past sins and failures. For me, it was the family I had never had.’

Sadly James had already committed the murder that would land him in jail for 20 years. After two years in the Legion, he gave himself up.

At his trial the court was shown a letter of commendation sent by his commanding officer in Calvi, Corsica. In a way his new family had tried to help – giving James a glimpse of how life could have been.

‘I wished I had joined long before my life went down the drain,’ he said. Perhaps the colonel’s letter and later letters from legionnaires on Corsica nurtured the genesis of the future writer.

Changing the future

Prisoner rehabilitation is a strange story and it remains a scandal that so few make it back into mainstream life. Jimmy Wilson, Alex Pond and the quiet cohort of railway managers and foremen they represent are not only actively closing the skills gap in railways but are making a significant difference to the lives of many previously unreachable people.

Rehabilitating offenders is not easy and the public remains deeply sceptical. However out there on track the welcome of unassuming railwaymen is helping to replace suspicion with trust and substitute friendship for hatred. The rail industry, with its hard-nosed approach to integrity and knockabout humour, embraces a wider ethic beyond the tortured strictures of the justice system. The new staff are doing well; their contribution benefiting the places and people the railway serves – proof surely that everyone deserves another break.

Dave Sheldon took that second chance. ‘I’m over the moon, I can’t tell you. It’s been a lifeline, a job and good training. I’d never have got this far without Alex and the instructors at Intertrain. I can’t thank them enough. I’d like to thank my wife, Wendy, for sticking by me.’

Getting prisoners back to work makes sense for the railway, the treasury and future victims of crime. However, there’s a deeper moral issue. In a true civilisation, forgiveness and redemption should inform the moral compass of us all. Such daring makes for a brighter future for our country and our children. It takes courage to do what is right. The final word rests with Dave Sheldon. ‘I am ashamed of what I did. Although I can’t alter the past, I can change the future.’