Gethin Jones was a repeat offender who spent his youth in and out of care homes, secure units and prisons, until the year 2000 he embarked on a journey of change and ultimately self-forgiveness.
I was born into the system in that my mother was a care leaver – a single parent with mild learning difficulties struggling to bring up four children. I had no real emotional attachment to her and when at around three I was put into foster care I didn’t miss her at all.
My attachment was to my brother who was placed with me. This relationship continued when later I was returned to my mum in Portsmouth. I don’t remember being reunited with my mum or missing her, I do remember being happy I was with my brother.
Because I was bright and more intellectually advanced than my mum it was hard for her and she’d respond by hitting me and telling me I was bad. When her boyfriend came to live with us he became physically and verbally violent and we lived in fear.
Eventually he went to prison but by now we were so angry that we took it out on our mum. Because my brother and I got into lots of trouble one day I came back from school to find he’d been taken into care again. I was nine by now and I’d lost the most important person in my life.
I begged Social Services to take me into care too – but no one listened. At school the message was reinforced that I was bad and I got my first criminal conviction when I was 11. Only when I was arrested for burglary did I get a full care order.
But of course, the place wasn’t the haven I thought it would be and I started running away and sleeping rough. I was moved between different institutions then, but nothing stopped me from going on the rampage, breaking into cars, and experimenting with cannabis and alcohol.
At the age of 14 I was sent to a Detention Centre for the first time – the short, sharp, shock treatment. Of all my traumas this place really damaged me the most because of the humiliation. On the day I arrived grown men stripped me naked, screamed in my face, told me I was worthless and gave me a card with a number on it. ‘In here you are just a number, you don’t exist,’ one of them said.
For the first time, I really wanted my mum. So I wrote to ask her to visit but she never came. Something inside me broke then as I decided I could never trust another human being again, the only person I could depend on was me and I was no longer going to play society’s game.
I continued going between secure and open units and youth custody until at 16 I ended up at a B&B back in Portsmouth – a city I’d left years before. Here I gained a reputation and status for my criminal activities, and eventually started taking heroin. For the next fifteen years I was in and out of prison. In total I spent 8 years behind bars, destroying every relationship I had.
In the year 2000 something shifted. By now I had reached rock bottom, injecting heroin into my neck and I didn’t care if I lived or died. One day during a spell in Winchester Prison I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise myself. I knew I needed to change but had no understanding of what change looked like. Then a drug worker, who was an ex-addict, started to talk to me about recovery.
For the first time I realised how damaged I was and how much help I needed. The trouble was I needed to ask for help from the very system that had harmed me and which I fundamentally mistrusted. It felt like a victim going to their perpetrator to get fixed.
What really helped me was going to a therapeutic prison where I met a counsellor who became a beacon of hope for me. Also, the prison officers weren’t in uniform here and sat in sessions with us talking about their lives. As a result, I saw them in a completely different light and slowly started to trust people. When in 2003 I was released back into the community I knew I wouldn’t go back to crime but I also had no idea how I’d survive in the outside world.
A woman called Jo P. became my key worker and was instrumental in my change. She never gave up on me. She got me into detox programmes and every time I failed she would still be there for me. She always showed me care and compassion while also challenging me.
It was through this process that I began to see the system differently. I’d only ever focused on the unkind staff who’d caused me hurt and pain. Now I understood that some staff members also wanted to help me. Over time my anger started to fade because Jo gave a loving face to a system I’d hated.
My breakthrough came with the help of a counsellor called Alan in a drug treatment programme. I still had huge resentment for my mum who was the foundation of all my resentments and who I hadn’t seen for ten years. He asked me one day, ‘What was your mum’s life like Gethin?’
I’d never thought about this before but of course my mum had been in children’s homes in the 1950s and 60s. I started to think about this young girl with learning difficulties abandoned by her parents. And as I imagined what that must have been like for her my resentment just washed away. It was a massive release and I no longer hated her.
The funny thing is I didn’t even know I was looking to forgive but I wouldn’t have found peace and freedom without forgiveness.
For me forgiveness started with first forgiving the system, then forgiving my mum and eventually forgiving myself. That was the hardest part. Once I’d stopped blaming the system and my mum, everything came down to me. By now I had three children and I was tortured by thinking of all the hurt I’d caused them.
It was a big struggle to learn to forgive myself but during a 12-Step Fellowship programme someone told me that you can’t change the past, you can only change the future by changing your behaviour today. That made real sense to me.
For the first time I took ownership of who I’d been and decided that every single day from now on I would strive to be the very best version of myself. It doesn’t always come easily, and I still feel anger, but the heartbeat of my change is that I no longer want to hurt myself or anyone else.
When I turned my life around in 2006 my brother returned to my life. David was a family man and he became my greatest teacher. Very sadly my brother died in 2014 but his legacy was that he was the one who taught me to have a relationship with my mum. It gives me great peace to have made a commitment to be there for her.
My two sisters refuse to have a relationship with her because they still carry too much trauma. It’s a strange gift – I never thought that I would be the one left to take care and look after my mum.
Today Gethin is founder of Unlocking Potential
devoting his time to supporting those trapped within the criminal justice system. Gethin does this by training staff to be more humanistic and he also influences the senior leaders and politicians within the Ministry of Justice.