Our son James was in his second year at Manchester University when it happened. We’d just come back from a food shop at the local supermarket, when the phone rang, and our lives were changed forever. James was at a police station on a drug’s charge, and he wanted to speak to me. Neither of us knew much about illegal drugs, and we shudder now to think how ignorant we were. Like most parents, we just hoped our kids would be okay, and any foolish things they might do were part of the growing up process. You have to let them go, and university is where you are meant to learn, experiment and make mistakes. But if your son or daughter is unlucky enough to get caught on a drug charge, they will be allowed no second chances. They are likely to be criminalised, and can end up in prison even for a first offence.
James had taken his turn to get cannabis and ecstasy for his household of adult university friends. He made no profit, but the drugs were cheaper if you got enough to last the term. They were in a bowl in the communal sitting room from which they all helped themselves. But James had told the truth about being the one to get them that time. Ecstasy is a Class A drug and the law does not differentiate between a feckless student and a drug dealer. Prison is the only outcome for the intent to supply a Class A drug. We just could not believe that our son was going to go to prison. How were we all going to cope? Luckily the university showed better judgement than our courts, which are hog-tied by indiscriminate politically pre-determined minimum sentence and rigid guidelines. After he came out of prison having served 15 months of his two-and-half year sentence, he went back to study and achieved a master’s degree in biology and geology.
Prison can be very brutalising, and is the wrong place for most people. We learned a lot about the prison system and how it doesn’t work. After James was sent down we were left reeling, but we had little knowledge of what he would have to face. Even while we sat in the court wondering if we could find the strength to walk, James was being attacked in the holding cells by two men who decided they wanted his watch. When he got to Strangeways, his cellmate was a Moss Side gangster who had chopped off the fingers of one of his victims, and stabbed a man in the heart. Luckily, we didn’t hear about most of the horrifying experiences until they were over, as I don’t know how we could have borne it. It is a long time ago now but nothing has changed. The profound after-effects are there and none of our family will ever fully recover. James’s life has been blighted. No one could avoid being scarred by what he has experienced. And he still has a criminal record that has affected his career prospects. Despite his master’s degree, he now sells carvings by the roadside.
When something so unjust happens, if it doesn’t destroy you, you want to do something about it. So our family began to fight for an end to these cruel and draconian laws so others won’t be afflicted in the same way. The voice of common sense is ready to be heard, and Anyone’s Child is bringing families together to make sure that it is. But for now, what happened to us could happen to you.