'I'd never seen a lawnmower... it's hard to get a job when you have a criminal record'
Mar 31, 2021
It was a strange feeling coming out of prison, Aaron McReynolds says. The south Belfast father-of-four (23) remembers what it was like walking around town after completing a 15-month sentence, and how determined he was not to return to his old ways. "I was walking through town hearing traffic lights… and the buildings and all - it was really strange," he says. "I was really anxious. I felt like I wasn't safe out here. "But once you got used to it again, it was good - there's no going back." A few days after coming out of prison, Aaron started working for Outwork, a grounds maintenance firm run by social enterprise The Turnaround Project, which has now been appointed to provide grounds maintenance of Alpha Housing's 30 sites across Northern Ireland until at least March next year. He says joining the Outwork scheme brought stability into his life after leaving prison and he is now working full-time with the organisation as an assistant supervisor, mentoring others as they emerge from the criminal justice system. Aaron's boss, Brian Caskey (53), from Larne, has years of experience of working with young people on the fringes of the criminal justice system and has seen the benefits of offering a second chance. It can be very hard for unqualified young people with a criminal record to find work. "I'm always struck by how much people do take those chances, how much they give back to the community and to themselves," he says. "The idea is to look after the grounds to the standard that Alpha would expect. Young men and women are upskilled in how to use the equipment to get the best results, along with other softer skills such as communications, getting up to go to work, being part of a team, not just doing the bare minimum but going the extra mile to benefit the residents and build relationships together." Brian says the team-mates spend a lot of time talking about their experiences. "You do see at a very personal level the impact, positive and negative, prison has had on them. Some of them have told me what it was like, even if they'd been in for a year, to come out and go to the shop - even that journey from custody to home - how unattached they felt from society and how dramatic it was. "They're glad to be out, but they're having to adapt very quickly to the new challenges that are ahead of them. "There is a massive challenge for them in relation to getting on the right path and getting the right peer group around them. "I don't underestimate how keen I am to support them in their new journey. "Some people would be quick to say they don't deserve [a second chance], but I now see the other side of just how hard it is and the genuine desire to get back that these young people have." Explaining how his path led to prison, Aaron says he got in with the wrong crowd and drinking escalated into taking drugs. "I didn't really go to school - I always just skived and went to see my mates and got up to no good. Eventually I got thrown out of school because of the drugs and stuff. My friends were taking drugs too," he says. "I lost a few friends to suicide and that kind of made me worse with the drugs and stuff." Over the years, he says, he began doing more and more "stupid stuff" and eventually was imprisoned for robbery and false imprisonment. "I just went a wee bit mad and ended up inside, and I was like 'What am I doing?' I just didn't listen - I just thought I was the big man. I thought I was an adult, but I didn't have a clue - I know now." Aaron says it took two or three months to get used to being incarcerated: "I'm not saying it was good, but once you got used to it, it wasn't as bad, once you got into a routine." That said, he took all the help he could get to work towards qualifications in Maths and English, learn essential skills and gain work experience in order to set himself back on the right track . "I tried as much as I could - I didn't want to go back. It's not for me," he says. "And there was stuff happening outside family and kids - and I thought I should be out there. Like Christmas - you're sitting there, you phone people and they're having dinner or having a beer and having a good time and you're sitting there eating rubbish food. You just felt sad at times like birthdays and Christmas and things like that." Aaron admits he had a lot of time to think in prison and he did reflect on the impact his actions have had on the victims of his crimes. "When I sort of came round, I wasn't thinking of just myself, when I was sober. I was thinking that is somebody's brother or somebody's cousin or son and you do feel bad. If that was my brother or son, I'd be raging," he says. "Even stealing a car... It's stupid - I could have hurt somebody. Somebody worked hard to get that car. "I had a lot of time to think there and I did a lot of things as well - any kind of physical work, getting out and doing stuff working with my hands. "I was just aware that I needed some sort of routine and something to keep me busy." As he drew closer to his release date and began to go on day release, one of the workers suggested applying for the Outwork scheme, which offered work two days a week ahead of his release, followed by six months part-time after his release. "I got out on Thursday and started work on Monday - it was good to get stuck in early on. I was getting bored over that weekend and thinking what am I going to do?" he says. "But this took up a couple of days a week, so it was something to look forward to the next week and it gave me a bit of stability." Aaron admits he'd never considered horticulture before and had never lived anywhere that had a garden. "I'd never seen a lawnmower before - it was like 'Wow, fascinating'!" he says. "I never really thought that horticulture would be for me. But once I started doing it, I liked getting out and about. We all have a laugh - it's like a bit of a group of misfits, but it works." Aaron has been in the team since the scheme started and has now in his turn become a full-time assistant supervisor, mentoring the new arrivals. "If someone comes out of the justice system, I can help them with benefits, whatever - I know what to do. I can show them what to do, how to work the machines, stuff like that. Probably talking to me makes them feel more comfortable," he says. "Most of the people are a little anxious at first. People that do longer sentences, too, seem to struggle a bit more to cope. It takes them a week to adapt. I know what that's like, so it's good to help people in that way. "And the residents are all brilliant - they're all funny. They're a bit older and we would stand and talk to them - once you start talking, you'd be there all day. We do end up doing wee jobs for them, but we enjoy doing that." Aaron does feel that the arrival of Covid has disrupted things and fewer people are completing their training and work period: "Anyone that has come hasn't really stuck at it - we're trying to get people to stick at it." But he is hugely thankful that he was able to join during that crucial period just after leaving prison. "I don't know what I'd have done without it," he says. "I don't know whether I'd have been back to my old ways, but it has helped me a lot and I'm glad I came across the opportunity. For anybody in the same situation as me, it would be good. It's hard to get a job with a criminal record." Richard Good, director of Outwork, says jobs can be difficult to find for people leaving the justice system and the new partnership with Alpha Housing provides a stable environment where people can learn teamwork, develop new skills and build their CV. It will allow Outwork to help people who have been through the criminal justice system to turn their lives around with the help of short-term employment opportunities, while also creating attractive gardens for Alpha's 1,000 elderly tenants to enjoy. "Transitional employment helps people to overcome the challenges they face in securing long-term work," he says. "The partnership with Alpha has already helped provide nine people with a route back into employment, with seven coming from within the justice system and two from unemployment. We're delighted to see it improving the wellbeing of Alpha's residents and giving people a second chance to get their lives back on track through employment. "A quarter of the UK population will have some kind of criminal record, so in any average supermarket or standard company, it's almost inevitable that there will be people who have committed some kind of crime in their life," Richard says. "We as a society need to accept that people have a past and that many good employers may well have people within their workforce who have a criminal record." The two organisations have just marked the launch of their partnership with a large-scale planting project at Lowry Court sheltered housing scheme in south Belfast, adding hundreds of native trees and shrubs to the former arboretum in the grounds, and creating new wildlife habitats beside the Annadale Embankment and Lagan Valley Regional Park. Alpha chief executive Cameron Watt says: "We are delighted to be extending our partnership with Outwork, one of Northern Ireland's most dynamic social enterprises, into 2022. "Improving our communal gardens whilst helping give second chances to people in prison and probation is a real win-win - everyone benefits. "This planting project at Lowry Court will complement residents' recent gardening successes, including the planting of a herb garden and construction of raised beds to grow vegetables. "There's great potential to increase the social dividends from public procurement. As the NI Executive plans to rebuild after the pandemic, a Social Value Act in NI can produce many social benefits by enabling many more partnerships like this." Belfast Telegraph