Trevor Hercules: on a mission to help young black men avoid prison

Trevor Hercules: on a mission to help young black men avoid prison

The ex-offender advising justice secretary, Chris Grayling, on how to to divert young black males from crime by challenging the way they see the world through a ‘social deprivation mindset’

Duncan Campbell
The Guardian, Wednesday 4 December 2013

Trevor Hercules, who grew up as the only black boy in care homes in Sussex and Bedfordshire, says he developed the 'social deprivation mindset', as an alienated teenager in London. Photograph Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Trevor Hercules, who grew up as the only black boy in care homes in Sussex and Bedfordshire, says he developed the ‘social deprivation mindset’, as an alienated teenager in London. Photograph Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Once Trevor Hercules was an active armed robber who served more than a decade in some of our toughest jails. Now he is part of a taskforce aimed at diverting young offenders from a life of crime.

Hercules, 59, first encountered the law as a 16-year-old. He says he was arrested after two of his friends got involved in a fight, was racially abused and had his head bashed against the side of the police van.

“I had been brought up to believe the police were my friend so it was a real shock to be racially abused, not just by one but by all of them,” he recalls.

Hercules was fined £20 and put on probation. But he was soon running with a team of armed robbers and arrested again. He gave a black power salute from the dock as he was sentenced, and served his time in Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Parkhurst and Gartree. When he came out after seven years, he wrote a well-received book, Labelled a Black Villain, but says that his attitude to life had not changed. “I was obnoxious, unforgiving and frightening. I didn’t see myself as part of society.” He was soon back inside but on his last release, in 2000, he decided he had had enough of prison. “I knew I had to change and I had to leave a lot of friends behind,” he says.

Youth work

He took courses in youth and drug counselling and tried to get work in youth clubs but found himself rebuffed

“I was really keen and I remember walking into one place in Camden and seeing all these guys smoking spliffs and breaking the place up and I felt I could help but the people who ran it didn’t want to have anything to do with me because I had a record,” he says.

In 2007, someone told him to go and see his MP. “I said ‘you must be mad’, but I did and it was the best thing I ever did,” says Hercules.

Justine Greening, the Conservative MP for Putney, agreed to meet him. “I told her my story and how I wasn’t able to get any of the kind of work I felt I could do and she said ‘you should be like gold-dust’.” Through Greening, he was put in touch with two schools in Wandsworth, south London, to talk to teenagers about the realities of prison life.

“I would speak to the kids and tell them what their first night in jail would be like,” he says. “In one school, there were 16 of them up for expulsion and I worked with them for months and in the end none of them were expelled. I still see some of them today and they’re at college.”

Hercules says that much more could be done to divert young people from crime by challenging what he calls their “social deprivation mindset” before it becomes ingrained.

Hercules, who grew up as the only black boy in care homes in Sussex and Bedfordshire, says he developed that mindset as an alienated teenager in London. “People talk about ‘offending behaviour’ but that is just one part of the equation. A lot of young people feel the world is against them, that’s it’s unfair, alien and they are not part of society. So they make their own boundaries and carve out their own territories. They get into this mindset where ‘respect’ is king and you get respect from your peers by being the baddest boys on the estate.

“You can see people in court now crying because they don’t realise what they’ve done, what murder is. They don’t even know who the guy is they’ve killed. It’s only thanks to the grace of God that I didn’t find myself in the same position.”

This summer a taskforce chaired by Baroness Young was set up following a meeting with the justice secretary, Chris Grayling; Clive Martin, director of Clinks, an offenders charity; and Jeremy Crooks, director of Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG), who asked Hercules to join them. The aim of the Young review is to advise the Ministry of Justice and other relevant bodies on how to work with young male offenders, with a target group of African-Caribbean, mixed origin and Muslim offenders, aged between 18 and 24.

He has told the taskforce that young black men require programmes they can relate to, delivered by trained people they can believe. Hercules’ own programme, which he calls Social Deprivation Mindset, has been published in the British Journal of Community Justice, and the Probation Service invited him to deliver two workshops on it. He is awaiting validation to deliver it in prison.

“It’s my belief they need to change their mindset in order to move forward but they need people who understand them and their way of life and who have ‘been there, seen it, done it’ to show them there is a different way. By changing their mindset, the way they see the world, many of them will be free of a lot of confusion and anger and rage within”, he says.

One of the issues in prison is radicalisation. Hercules says he became a Muslim in prison for dietary reasons. But the appeal of Islam to young men who feel lost is that “being a Muslim in prison is like being in a club”, he says. Moreover, he adds, they give you good reasons for joining – “‘everyone from the west made you slaves’ and so on.”

When Hercules considers his life, he says: “I look back at what I could have done but I wasted my life and there was no one explaining to me what I was doing.”

So, now he sees one of his main tasks as explaining to young black men that there are many ways to make a living without dealing drugs or robbing. “Some of them have so much talent, they don’t understand that there are lots of things they can do,” he says. But he adds: “Everyone thinks that there is a magic wand to be waved, but it takes time and effort to change that mindset. There is no miracle cure.”

Curriculum vitae

Age 59.

Family Divorced, one son.

Home East Putney, south London.

Education St Gregory secondary modern, Bedford.

Career 2000-present: working with young people, developing Hercules programme, Social Deprivation Mindset (funded by the Monument Trust); 1998-2000: prisoner, xxxxx; 1982-98: a range of activities including import-export business, crime, unemployment; 1975-82: prisoner, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs, Parkhurst, Gartree prisons; 1969-75: apprentice electrician and engineer; armed robber.

Public life Member, taskforce advising Ministry of Jusice; author, The Rage Within (X Press, 2006) and Labelled a Black Villain (Fourth Estate, 1989).

Interests Playing the guitar, listening to the Jam and Bach, black history and culture.

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