Crime fails as a career choice

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Nearly a year in prison taught Craig Priestley that he had to find a different way to earn a living. Thanks to the Prince's Trust and the YMCA he found that new way. Steve Hook reports.

CRAIG Priestley bit off more than he could chew when he decided to have a go at house burglary.

He had already spent two years stealing stereos from cars without being arrested but the house-break was bungled and police caught him in the act after a neighbour dialled 999.

He committed a string of thefts while on bail for the burglary, on one occasion leaving fingerprints, a set of which had already been taken during his arrest and were quickly matched up.

By his 19th birthday, he was taking advantage of the opportunity to come to terms with his incompetence as a criminal while doing an 11-and-a-half month stretch in prison.

Since then, Craig, now 21, has transformed his life. Two months after being released, he completed a 12-week Prince's Trust course, run by the YMCA. It included a trip to the Lake District, doing work for the community and holding fund-raising events. It also equipped him with a City and Guilds profile of achievement and key skills.

He so impressed his supervisors that he became a team-leader for subsequent courses, a job he still does. Initially, he was funded by the New Deal.

Craig supervises the teams through the process of planning and carrying out a community project. He acts as a mentor, encouraging them to stay out of trouble, and helps them with their key skills work - particularly literacy.

His previous jobs had been packing goods from tampons to chocolate oranges, catering and travelling round in a van collecting scrap metal for cash.

His success story is an exception. It has been a long time since a man's willingness to graft was sufficient to guarantee the dignity of a steady job. The YMCA centre is in Little Horton, an area of Bradford where, often as not, it is the Department of Social Security which puts the dinner on the table.

Close by are shops whose metal bars stay up even when they're open. There are deserted terraced houses with boarded-up windows. All around is the solid red-brick architecture of West Yorkshire's industrial past, its Victorian walls daubed with the graffiti of Bradford's dispossessed youth.

Mercifully, most of the prose is either of the "Tom 4 Tracy" variety or mimics the language of South Bronx street gangs in a manner which is too incomprehensible to be offensive. A smal group of boys is playing football on the rubbish-strewn wasteground. They are using a burned-out car for shooting practice.

Craig feels he understands the people born into these surroundings. He is anxious not to be used as an example by those who would argue that self esteem, rather than economic reality, is at the heart of the problems they face.

He is especially conscious of this, having been invited to meet the Prince of Wales after being rewarded as the best Prince's Trust team leader in the country, an honour he describes as "a lot of fuss about nothing".

He is not much bothered whether people see him as a victim of social exclusion either.

"Social exclusion is something invented by people who mean well but don't necessarily know what goes on because they haven't been there.

"The fact is that crime really does pay but only if you're good at it, which I was not. I'd give myself two out of ten."

He was excluded several times from school, on one occasion for throwing a piece of concrete which hit a teacher.

"At first, I was in the top streams for everything at school. But I didn't do my homework. I'd get into trouble for smoking and I'd truant to earn money. I suppose I got in with people who were a bad influence. In the end I was in the bottom stream for everything."

He is clutching a pint of lager in what he describes as a "posh" pub in the centre of Bradford. In fact, it is a rather gloomy establishment, where men are sitting alone at the bar and a screen showing football barely attracts attention.

"I did the course because I didn't have anything to do. I was two months out of prison. The team-leader on that course was a policeman, although I didn't know that at first. It turned out his other half was a forensics officer. She'd been involved in investigating one of the thefts I got caught for.

"I respected him, which taught me that preconceptions can affect your judgment of someone. I don't tend to tell people about my past until a few weeks on the course. Then I know they'll treat me as me.

"I really liked the people at the Prince's Trust and respected them."

The job pays pound;8,500, considerably less than his counterparts get in London, or even in neighbouring Leeds, but his career is looking up. This matters more to him than meeting Prince Charles.

"I was told I have to call him 'Sir'. I don't really understand why. The last people I called 'Sir' were the screws when I was in prison."

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