The big idea that may redeem Tuggy Tug

Tuggy Tug declared: ‘I can’t wait to get out of this place because I won’t be coming back’.

I was standing on a street corner last week with a young man called Tuggy Tug. His face displayed an emotion I had never before associated with this 21-year-old leader of a south London gang during the three years of our unlikely friendship. It was transfixed with wonder. Before us rose an imposing West End hotel. It was here that Tuggy Tug was about to have his first job interview, for the post of trainee chef. I started across the road towards the hotel entrance, which was flanked by columns and patrolled by a doorman. Tuggy Tug held me back. “Let’s wait and take it in,” he urged, his eyes wandering over the facade in delight.

“It is really that big, Harry man?” Finally he sighed and said: “Be real. On one to ten, what are my chances of getting a job in a place like that?”

Tuggy Tug had just emerged from two years in jail. Would that hotel offer an Easter Sunday chance of redemption for one young thief? Or will Tuggy Tug, like three-quarters of ex-offenders under the age of 25, be back inside within two years, condemned to a life of prison, joblessness and despair?

The answer, however unlikely, may lie with another event that also took place last week — the launch of Big Society Capital by David Cameron and the start of the world’s first charity investment market.

The £600m fund will provide loans to charities and social enterprises so that they can bid for contracts to run public sector projects. At the moment only private sector providers such as Serco and A4e have the capital to do so.

What is truly exciting and new is that these charities and social enterprises will be paid by result. In contrast to so many of our state institutions that are meant to deal with young people such as Tuggy Tug, failure year after year is not an option for them.

As Cameron announced: “Big Society Capital is going to encourage charities and social enterprises to prove their business models and then replicate them.”

Sir Ronald Cohen, chairman of Big Society Capital, pointed out at the launch that a charity stopping young men such as Tuggy Tug from reoffending would be able “to get the capital to increase the size of their organisation and improve the lives of these prisoners”.

Revenue will come from the Treasury, grateful at saving some of the estimated £80,000 a year a prolific teenage offender such as Tuggy Tug costs. The result will be to make organisations concentrate on outcome rather than process. Gazing at Tuggy Tug’s delighted face at the prospect of his first job interview arranged by just such a charity, the importance of that change was clear. I had seen at first hand how badly we needed an innovation of this sort. When I visited Tuggy Tug in prison, he declared: “I can’t wait to get out of this place because I won’t be coming back.” He went on: “I really want a job, trust me. I just want to do good.” It soon became clear why, under the present system, there was little hope of that.

The problems began a few hours after he got out. He rang me in indignation. None of his old clothes fitted. The novelty of three meals a day in prison, regular sessions in the gym and the absence of weed had seen him grow and fill out for the first time. He had no money for new clothes.

A week’s freedom soon crushed his usual ebullience. As a graduate of our care system — like half of all prisoners under 25 — he had had no family to welcome him back or offer him a helping hand.

“I was happy in prison,” he said. “Inside I had a job. I was exercising. My washing was all done for me. Last night I had to wash my underpants in shower gel. This morning I had to dry myself with a dirty T-shirt. I got no towel. In prison we had fresh towels.

“I was never worried about towels or dentists. My teeth are in bits now, Harry, and there’s no, like, dentist out here.” He spends a lot of time in his room asleep. “That’s what we did in jail — or watch telly. I got no telly neither.”

His hostel is hardly conducive to good behaviour. Downstairs a “big Rasta man”, who has just left jail after serving 12 years for murder, smokes crack and runs a brothel from his room.

On the floor above, a young drug dealer is selling “food” — a street name for crack — to the prostitutes and their customers. At the same time Tuggy Tug’s local authority is threatening to make him homeless “because of my history”, he says vaguely. He is nervous of being out on the streets “in case I get caught up in a beef”.

What about help to stop him reoffending? Tuggy Tug looked astonished. “You mean social workers and that? On my mum’s life they are useless, you get me? Two years in jail and not one thing prepared when I came out. Six months ago I was asking them!”

But what about a job, I persisted. Tuggy Tug explained he was far too preoccupied with probation, housing and signing on at the jobcentre to have time to look for work. “Probation is killing my flow and holding me back,” he said.

He repeated a conversation he had had with his probation officer in prison. He had asked about finding a job. “That’s not the priority,” said the man. “Well if it’s not, what is?” asked Tuggy Tug. “The probation programme,” said the officer.

“So are you going to be buying me my clothes and food?” asked Tuggy Tug. He wanted to add to his catering qualification but the probation service insisted he should do a “thinking” course instead. “It’s not about me. It’s all about their targets.”

All this “getting with the programme” was expensive. “I am spending the little money I got running all over the world,” he complained.

By the third day, he had spent £20 of the £40 with which he had left prison on taking the bus back and forth between probation, housing and tracking down the key to the hostel. The surprise is it takes the majority of young men such as Tuggy Tug two years to reoffend. The first week seems more likely.

But a minor miracle had occurred. In High Down prison, in Surrey, Tuggy Tug had worked in the Clink, a restaurant staffed by inmates.

The Clink charity, a collaboration between the prison and the Ministry of Justice (and just the sort of unusual and imaginative enterprise envisaged by Cameron) aims to train prisoners for work in the hospitality industry.

In order to expand its operation to other prisons, it wants to attract funding. And to do that it has to prove it is successful and gives value for money. So the Clink had contracted Springboard, a charity with 20 years’ experience of getting jobs in the catering industry, to follow up and mentor its ex-offenders such as Tuggy Tug.

A determined young woman called Rachel had taken over Tuggy Tug and got him the job interview — more than I had managed in three years of trying.

So now, outside the hotel, Tuggy Tug took a deep breath, then, remembering Rachel’s lesson on body language, dropped his shoulders from their usual fighting hunch and tried a smile. “Yeah, I am ready now. Let’s do this thing,” he said and we crossed the road and went inside.

The head chef gave him a two-day trial. Not quite the full Easter Sunday redemption but on the way.

Sunday Times
Published 8 April 2012

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