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Former Gangsters Tell Us ​How and Why They Got Out of the Game

"When I was released, I was offered quite a bit of money to get involved in some serious crimes, but said no because I'd made a concrete decision to turn my life around."
March 17, 2016, 3:30pm
Some drug dealers posing for selfies (none of the men pictured are featured in this article).

For many petty criminals, going straight is no easy task. Imagine you've been sent to jail for selling pills or stealing a car; you're legally obliged to tell prospective employers that fact, which sets you back a spot in an already competitive job market. Knocked back, the allure of falling back in with your old criminal peers and doing another job for a bit of easy cash gets stronger and stronger.

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But what about more serious offenders? It's one thing reintegrating back into society after a sentence for a pub brawl or a burglary, but how do people go about reforming after helping to run a major drug ring or taking part in protection rackets? How do such heavy-duty criminals manage to leave their former lives behind, given the fact the odds are so stacked against them?

To find out, I got in touch with five former criminals: ex-Mancunian gang member Darryl Laycock; John Lawson, who was a member of the Nomads biker gang; Bradley Welsh, who was once described as "a teenage godfather who ran the streets of the Scottish capital"; Peter "Wildman" Mahoney, who was an enforcer for drug lord Shaun "English Shaun" Attwood; and Stephen Graham, who was involved in a variety of serious crimes until serving time for manslaughter in Jamaica.

JOHN LAWSON

Anything immoral I did, I would try to justify by saying, "I'm not such a bad guy overall." This meant that I managed to still class myself as a decent bloke, in spite of living a life of crime. I thought I was an OK person because I didn't beat my wife up, wasn't a drug addict, and was providing for my family. That justification allowed me to have a mentality where I would read my kids a bedtime story, kiss them goodnight, and then put on a balaclava, pick up my shotgun, and hold someone hostage who owed my client money.

I first realized that I wasn't actually all that great a guy when the Sun described me as an "enforcer for Glasgow's gangsters." I hadn't seen myself like that until that point, and thought, Is that really who I am? I didn't have an immediate change of heart or anything like that; it was just a case of acknowledging that I was a wicked man. I was serving five years for extortion at the time, which gave me a lot of time to think about things. In those contemplative moments when you're in your prison cell at night, you really begin to analyze yourself.

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The major turning point came when I went to a Bible group in Glenochil, a high security prison. My intention was to steal the biscuits the pastor brought in, but I burst out in tears while reading the lyrics of a hymn called "Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord" and spent the following night thinking about all the kidnappings, extortions, and beatings that I'd carried out. The next day, my friend gave me a Bible, and I read something from the Book of Ezekiel that said if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness, that he's committed and does what is just and right, he can still be saved. After reading this, I looked in the mirror and saw myself for the animal I'd become. I surrendered my life to Christ in that prison.

It wasn't easy to turn over a new leaf. In jail, people tried to take advantage when they realized I'd become a Christian. When I was eventually released, some of the people I'd previously worked with asked if I wanted in on crimes they were committing, which I said no to. Fortunately, nobody attempted to intimidate me back into my old line of work. I think that was partly down to my reputation.

When I left the Nomads, which happened way before my imprisonment, the main guy said, "Look, you can't just quit like that without any repercussions." I told him that I'd blow his house up if he and his mates tried anything. I had previously been asked by someone to sell some plastic explosives that he'd stolen from the army to a guy in the IRA, so they knew it was a serious threat. The knowledge of things like that probably made people wary of trying to coerce me into doing things, although now my life has totally changed, and I get my buzz from preaching the word of God in some of the toughest prisons on the planet, rather than inflicting pain and suffering.

DARRYL LAYCOCK

When I was in jail, a member of my family made me promise to turn my life around. I decided there and then that I was going to change for the better when I was released, and I have never looked back. To be honest, I haven't really even been tempted, because a promise is a promise.

When I got out of prison, I was banned from Manchester because I was labeled as a high risk of harm to people living there. My mom had a heart attack shortly afterward, and I was only allowed to visit her with a police escort. I was also banned from mixing with around 30 known associates, who the police believed were involved with gangs or criminal activity. Some people might have seen all this as an obstacle to getting on with their life, but I viewed it as a consequence of my own actions. If I hadn't committed crimes and been involved with gangs in the first place, I wouldn't have had such strict conditions placed on me.

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I couldn't get work at first because I had to live in a bail hostel and return at regular intervals to sign in. That was intended to prevent me from going back to Manchester. Because I didn't have a job, I started volunteering at an organization called CELL instead, which stands for "Choices, Education, Lifelong Learning." I volunteered for nine months and was then given an opportunity to work part time as a volunteer coordinator, which I did. I've been in employment ever since, and still do work for CELLS from time to time five years later.

Fortunately, I'm no longer at risk from my old enemies, and there's no danger of them dragging me back into violence. I actually work with some of the people I used to have trouble with, educating young people about the consequences of violence. The gang problem has subsided in Manchester nowadays. Lots of the people who used to be involved have now grown up and moved on with their lives. Many of my former associates are now legitimate businessmen.

I get more of a buzz from doing the positive things I do today than I ever did from negative stuff. I also value my life, which I didn't before. A lot of people are stuck in a cycle of crime all their lives, so I'm pleased to have managed to break free. I've done over 12 years in prison overall, and I've been locked up in 19 different jails, some of which I've been in four or five times. I'm glad to say I've left all that behind and would never want to be stuck in that revolving door again. Back in the day, I thought there was no hope for me, but now, I've realized I was wrong. Giving up crime is as easy as you make it, and for me, it was as simple as making a promise and sticking to it.

BRADLEY WELSH

Bradley with his daughter

I first made the decision to pack crime in while lying in a straitjacket in a prison cell after having the shit beaten out of me by the wardens at just 19 years old. I was on remand at the time for firearms, extortion, and menacing an estate agent, and facing between ten and 15 years in jail. The authorities had placed me in solitary and put me in the straitjacket because I'd kicked off when they wouldn't allow me to see a visitor who'd traveled for two hours to get to the jail. I lay there thinking to myself, This isn't the life for me! I also realized that I was putting my family through shit for no good reason. What had I gained from my crimes? Money? At the end of the day, you can't buy freedom.

I ended up getting found not guilty for the firearms and extortion charges, but was given four years in prison for menacing an estate agent. It dawned on me that even though I earned a small fortune when I was committing crime, if you added up all the hours I was going to spend in prison, it still wasn't worth it. The grief I had inflicted on my poor mom was the worst thing of all. I vowed that I was never going to do anything that would cause her that much strife again.

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I'd been a prominent figure in Hibernian FC's Capital City Service football firm before going to jail. That meant that a lot of people in the prison system who followed other teams hated me because of my reputation. It resulted in me getting moved from jail to jail to avoid trouble. I ended up in Dumfries prison, where there was a warden called Ian Black, who was the captain of a Scottish boxing team I'd been in three years earlier. He got me into training, and I later moved to an open prison, where I was allowed out to box in competitions.

Boxing gave me a focus, and I later went on to win the British title. The energy that I had once put into crime was now being used for something productive. Not everybody was convinced of this when I was released back onto the streets, though. A lot of people didn't seem to be able to get their heads around the fact that people can change, and assumed that I was still the same. Luckily, I went to live in the States to pursue my boxing, which enabled me to get away from all that. I eventually moved back to Edinburgh, where I'm now chairman of the Amateur Boxing Association Scotland, which runs 20 different gyms around the country. I can be found at Holyrood Boxing Gym or Castle Boxing Gym, using sport to provide young people with an alternative to getting into trouble. My advice to anyone who is considering getting involved in crime is that it's a mug's game. I was lucky to have stopped living that life at a young age, and I am very glad I did.

PETER 'WILDMAN' MAHONEY

Wildman (right) with Shaun Attwood after their release from prison

In 2002, I was arrested for my involvement in a drug ring in the US and ended up doing seven and a half years. To be honest, prison didn't phase me when I first got locked up, and it definitely didn't make me want to go straight. For the first five years, I got into fights all the time, and I thought, I'm not bothered if they want to give me extra time. They can go for it. Then I got a visit from a lady from the British embassy, who was very nice and polite and treated me like a human being. She made me realize how much I missed the pleasantries of the outside world. That was the turning point when I decided I didn't want to end up behind bars again.

I was very fortunate to have family and friends who supported me when I got out of prison, which is one of the reasons I stayed on the straight and narrow. I was aware that if I went back to crime, it wouldn't just be hurting society; it would be hurting my loved ones as well. One of the main obstacles I faced was that I couldn't get a job. Luckily, my dad took me under his wing. He's a kitchen fitter and cabinet maker, and he showed me the ropes. I now work a few days a week with him, and I am enjoying being a normal person. I only work part time, earning $212 a week, but it's enough to give me self-worth.

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I got no help from the government at all to find a job, and I can understand why some people who've been involved in crime in the past might find it difficult. They tried to send me on courses that seemed designed to make a mockery of me. The last one they sent me on was a personal hygiene course that taught me how to brush my teeth and cut my nails. That kind of thing isn't helping anyone, and just made me feel angry.

I've been tempted to handle situations with violence a few times since my release, when female friends have told me their boyfriends have beat them up. I considered going around and doing the boyfriends in, but then thought, Hang on a minute, if I do that, I might end up getting locked up, and then my family will be left to sort me out.

Drugs have never really tempted me that much since I got out. I used to take so many of them that I should be dead ten times over. I even carried on smoking crystal meth after I had a stroke and lost control of half my face, using the part of my mouth that still worked to suck the glass pipe. Prison probably saved my life in that respect. Nowadays I smoke a bit of weed and have a few beers, but that's it. I'm content with living a quiet family life.

STEPHEN GRAHAM

I decided to leave crime behind because I realized the selfishness of my attitude while I was incarcerated in Jamaica for manslaughter. It wasn't only me being punished, but also my family, who had done nothing wrong. Until that point, I hadn't really taken the time to look inside myself, but serving that sentence gave me a lot of time for reflection. Before that, I had known the things I did were bad, but hadn't come to a realization deep down within me, and there's definitely a difference between the two.

In order to reform, I had to learn to truly love myself and concentrate on my passions. That helped me fill the void that had been partly responsible for me doing crime. I'd always loved writing when I was younger, so I started using it as a vehicle to express myself while I was in prison, penning books and poems.

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When I was released, I was offered quite a bit of money to get involved in some serious crimes, but said no because I'd made a concrete decision to turn my life around. I'd put together a plan of action to better myself while I was behind bars, and was intent on sticking to it. I had no qualifications because I'd been kicked out of four different schools when I was younger, so I enrolled in community college and did an access course the following year. I passed with the highest mark in the class, which enabled me to go to university. The fact that I was able to do this despite lacking any qualifications at age 31, and having spent almost nine years in a Jamaican prison, shows that it's never too late to get an education. I got a degree in sports medicine and am now a personal trainer. I've since gone on to work with top national and international athletes.

I also typed up and self-published the books I'd written in prison; created a book and documentary examining the issues of knife and gun crime; and started mentoring young people. I started delivering talks about crime and antisocial behavior to schools, pupil referral units and universities, and hosting various fun projects and programs in the community. Doing all these things has allowed me to use the drive that motivated me to commit crime for positive purposes. What a lot of people don't realize is that to be on the streets selling drugs actually takes the same kind of drive that can be channeled into legitimate pursuits. I harnessed that determination and put it to good use.

Some people might have viewed me as being in a gang when I was younger, but I also came to the realization that there are no gangs in Britain—just people who are involved in street culture. I don't like to label groups of young people as gangs; many of these youths are just people who are yet to find their true passion in life. Fortunately, I'm no longer in that boat, and I have been able to get myself into a position where I'm able to help others. It's far more rewarding doing what I do today than breaking the law ever was, and the fact that I've been involved in every crime that you can think of means that I understand the youth's mentality and can help to change it.

Thanks to Shaun Attwood for putting me in touch with Wildman, who appears in two books Atwood has written: Party Time and Hard Time. Laycock is currently involved with the charity One Minute in May, and Lawson has a book coming out entitled If A Wicked Man.

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