Coaches whose past experiences must include addiction or imprisonment are helping to keep Scotland's ex-offenders on the straight and narrow
"I was about eight stone, battleship grey, [had] the 'lovely' high cheekbones of an addict, matted hair, probably the same jeans on for about a month," says Billy Burrows. "I didn't care about myself, never mind anyone else."
The ex-offender and former drug addict, 35, is describing himself when he first met his life coach 18 months ago. The life of this habitual criminal, drug dealer and heroin user has since been transformed. Burrows has been clean of drugs for almost a year, has contact with the two children he had abandoned due to his addiction and, instead of considering suicide, is now looking to his future. His unlikely saviour is an imposing former gang member and drug dealer from one of Glasgow's toughest housing estates.
Allan McGinley has helped scores of ex-offenders as a life coach working for the Routes Out of Prison project. Set up in 2006 by social enterprise the Wise Group, the initiative employs McGinley and 20 other life coaches, all of whom have personal experience of addictions or imprisonment. Each coach offers emotional support, a signposting service and is an advocate for individuals who may lack the self-esteem or communication skills to engage with government agencies.
Laurie Russell, chief executive of the Wise Group, says: "They [the life coach] can be quite firm, which [ex-offenders] probably wouldn't take from a professional worker. But the individual has to take responsibility for being an offender, and to make that psychological leap in order to change their lifestyle."
Reoffending rates in Scotland have remained stubbornly high over the last decade. An independent evaluation of the Routes Out of Prison project by the University of Edinburgh found that of the 1,500 ex-offenders helped between 2008 and 2010 40% have reoffended. This compared with a national recidivism rate of 44%. Many went into employment, training or education or were supported out of homelessness and into drug rehabilitation services.
It costs around ?35,000 a year to keep someone in prison. In contrast, a life coach costs ?2,100. "The reoffending rates for Scotland are horrendous, but there is also a clear economic argument for this [project]," Russell points out.
The Scottish government has recognised the value of the scheme and last year channelled ?75,000 into it.
McGinley, 50, says his experience is an important element of the success of the project in creating common ground between coach and client: "I'll tell a client anything about my life because, sometimes, if they have dark in their life they need to hear dark in your life to bring it out.
"A probation officer will tell them what to do, but all their lives they have been fighting authority figures telling them what to do. In my experience, the best way to progress is to say, 'You need to find your way to progress.' I'll pull out from them the way they want to do it, and then I'll source how to do it."
McGinley describes how Burrows wanted to change when he first met him but couldn't meet the demands agencies wanted before they would authorise his entry into a detoxification programme. "Billy wanted to come away from all drugs. I spoke to his social worker but she wanted Billy to do A to Z before he would be allowed to go into rehab. But I told her it had to be Billy's way," says McGinley.
"My belief is the quicker you get someone through the door at rehab when they step up to the mark, the more success you will get with them."
With McGinley's help, Burrows got a place in an abstinence-based rehabilitation programme. Previously, Burrows had been regulating his drug usage by being arrested. "I would go shoplifting which would either help me to get more drugs or, the positive outcome, it would get me back into prison," he explains.
"Prison kept me alive. Any time I was at death's door I would go in there and have a drying out period."
Burrows says his greatest pleasure now is being reconciled with his children, which he never thought possible. "I used to walk past my daughter in the street and not acknowledge her. Part of me thought I don't want anyone to see the wee lassie talking to a drug dealer and junkie; but part of me just didn't want to know because she would get in the way of my drugs.
"I thought my kids would hate me, because I hated myself for not being there and for using drugs in front of them. The first day I met my daughter again, I was just blown away."
Burrows is now looking for voluntary work: "I would like to do for someone what Allan has done for me."
For McGinley, being a life coach has improved his self-esteem and self-respect after decades of gang violence and selling drugs to support his habit. But the real reward, he says, is seeing the transformation in the people he helps. "I love it when you see that they get a flush of colour back on their face, you get half a smile and the death mask is gone. It's so overwhelming to be able to do that for someone."