Andi Brierley went from repeat offender to helping troubled youngsters rebuild their lives. Now an autobiography telling his amazing life story is being published. Chris Burn reports.
Andi Brierley’s life was changed by hearing a radio advert by chance while he was working a late shift in a warehouse – the only job he could get after serving four custodial sentences by the age of 23.
“While I was sweeping the floor, I heard an advert saying Leeds Youth Justice Service were looking for volunteers,” the now 37-year-old explains while sitting in a Leeds coffee shop. “I thought wouldn’t it be a great thing to turn my negative experiences into a positive. I wrote down the number and called them the following day and they asked me to come in for an interview.”
Now little more than a decade later with a degree, wife, child, his own house, a fulfilling job as specialising in helping looked-after children avoid criminality and a book soon to be published, the contrast with his life before hearing the radio appeal could barely be more stark.
Andi’s mother was 16 and a single parent who had just left a residential home herself when he was born. When he was seven, social services took Andi and his brother and sister into care, leaving his mother with her two youngest children in a specialist mother and baby unit.
Andi was separated from his siblings and placed with a different carer. While they were eventually reunited with their mother after two years, the family’s life was still difficult as they moved around the country and were subject to criminal influences. “There were still lots of bad men that came in the house and their behaviour became normal to me,” he explains.
He was eventually excluded from school and while living in Stoke-on-Trent was groomed by older drugs dealers into working for them, using him to hoard and traffick drugs while he also developed his own addiction. In 1999, at the age of 17 he was sentenced to 18 months in a Young Offender’s Institution after being convicted of drug offences. “It was awful, I was ill-prepared but who could be prepared? I didn’t feel it was the place for me but I’m sure pretty much everyone does. You sink or you swim.”
After serving his sentence, Andi moved back to Leeds but an altercation with a neighbour resulted in him being sent to another YOI. A further two prison sentences in adult jail soon followed as he struggled to break out of his pattern of offending. But after attempting to stay on the straight and narrow with his warehouse work following his fourth sentence coming to an end, he thought the chance to assist the Leeds Youth Offending Service was an ideal one to make more of his life.
“While I had been in custody, I had done lots of courses – community sports leadership, business studies, weightlifting,” he explains. “They provided me with all these certificates but I didn’t know how to go about putting them to any use in the real world.”
Andi soon realised the other volunteers came from completely different backgrounds to himself. “I had no real education, no GCSEs, I didn’t use full stops and commas in my writing. In terms of starting points, I was at a complete disadvantage.”
He was taken on as a youth panel worker and Andi was then asked to participate in a project Leeds Rhinos were running with the service, helping out with coaching young people. He was then offered paid work but was unsure about leaving his warehouse job so would do youth work in the day before heading immediately to the warehouse for night shifts straight afterwards.
Andi became a youth justice worker in 2008, having been released from prison just three years earlier. He eventually quit the warehouse job and in 2009, Leeds Council secured funding for him to do a degree in youth justice work from the Open University.
He says helping young people in care who had difficult starts to life and were at risk of falling into a criminal lifestyle also helped put his own past into perspective. “When I accessed my care records files when I was 30, it was like being given all the missing pieces to a jigsaw. It was helpful for me to understand why I had made poor choices.
“I have really huge expectations of the kids I come into contact with based on the fact that if I can do it, they can. I’m no superhuman, I’m a person with a bit of drive who had the right opportunity. When things come together in the right way, anybody can do it. Some of the kids I work with can do things I couldn’t have at their age and I tell them, you could be my manager in 20 years.”
Andi says there is no doubt his own life experiences have helped him relate to the children he deals with and change their direction in life – and believes other ex-prisoners should get similar chances to the ones he has had. “It is a fundamental belief of mine that we would see better outcomes for disadvantaged children if local authorities recruited and trained adults that have gone through the same experiences. Education is absolutely vital but it doesn’t trump lived experience. I believe you can get both.”
With recent figures suggesting 75 per cent of British companies would not hire an ex-prisoner, Andi says he supports an idea put forward by David Cameron in 2016 that former criminals should no longer have to declare convictions on their CVs when going for jobs, with the requirement to do so only coming when they are offered a position. “We have got to find a way of getting a level playing field while still recognising the risks. The years I was in prison between 17 and 23 are crucial years for your life and finding your place in the world. The perception in society is those behind bars are serious organised criminals. But 90 per cent of the prison population aren’t made up of them, most are people who have had very unstable lives and been taken advantage of.”
Andi says he takes great pride in seeing children he has helped go on to successful lives as young adults, whether it is finding a job or going on to university. He adds that he believes there need to be more patience with troubled children who fall into crime and that in many cases alternatives to custody – such as restorative justice where young offenders meet their victims – can be a more powerful and effective deterrent than detaining them.
“I understand that people want to hold them accountable. But the truth is they can’t be responsible for everything they do because they have very little control over the life they are living. There is something like 800 kids in prison at the moment. I don’t think that is the best way to help children.”
Andi says writing a book about his life has been an opportunity to reflect on his own experiences – and count his blessings as a proud husband and father to a three-year-old girl.
“Whatever I was chasing because of the childhood I had, I feel I have found it. I had nothing at 23 apart from an HMP bag full of toiletries. I have led two lives but I wouldn’t change anything. I’m proud of who I am today.”
Hard-hitting book with important lessons
Andi’s autobiography came about after he started writing down his life experiences following him starting the volunteering role back in 2007.
The book, entitled Your Honour, Can I Tell You My Story?, is due to be published by Waterside Press on April 17 and can be pre-ordered now.
A spokesman for the publisher said his “hard-hitting story” contains important messages for those who work with vulnerable young people.
“How should the authorities respond to kids who are at risk of crime, drugs and custody? Andrew Brierley’s story of his progress through care, prison and mainstream rejection to senior youth justice worker in Leeds contains countless clues for those who work with young people.”