Opinion

From high-flyer to construction worker – a prison stay changed my values

Reformed City wide boy Steb Lawford says a spell inside and a construction job in poor conditions made him reassess society's often bizarre values

I had a well paid job in financial (dis)services until I went into meltdown. Too much wine, women, song and wheeler-dealing left me bankrupt and with a six-month stretch in prison for fraud. The deals that I was involved in were miles away from being ethical. They usually involved the sale of substandard investments wrapped up as high-quality goods. It was like a game of pass-the-parcel, only this parcel was horse manure, hermetically sealed in a bin liner, and hidden in a Harrods shopping bag. It was all show and no substance. I was relieved when the music stopped playing because I knew that it couldn’t go on for ever. My conscience was starting to cause me a lot of discomfort, anyway. But ending up in prison was a crash-landing. It hurled me headlong into a way of life that until then I’d never experienced.

I’m only surprised that more of us City wide boys didn’t end up as guests in one of Her Majesty’s establishments. The range of financial irregularities being perpetrated on a regular basis, while I was around, was astonishing. And as for the ‘legitimate’ deals I came across, a lot of them were questionable. Deals were being set up where corporate bonds and share dividends would be issued in tax havens, and the UK taxman would have no chance of getting his share. Sometimes the paper trail of holding and shell companies, based in tax havens, became so confused that even the initiators had trouble keeping up with it.

Even though my life has taken a wrong turn, at least it started in a good place

My brief spell in prison gave me ample opportunity to reflect upon the error of my ways. I used to help the other guys out with their basic literacy and numeracy. I found that most of the illiterate guys were ashamed at being unable to read. They thought that it was their own fault, in fact, they’d been let down by society, which should have intervened before it got to that stage. After a while some of them made rapid progress. They would open up, and tell me about how they’d ended up inside and I came to realise how lucky I’d been to have had the benefit of a good schooling, and a university education. Even though my life has taken a wrong turn, at least it started in a good place. Most of the guys in prison had missed out on that. They came from dysfunctional homes that were both materially and culturally deprived. The odds had been stacked against them, from the start.

So prison for me was quite a friendly place. In some ways, it was a gentle introduction to the new side of life that I was to become acquainted with upon my release. Since getting out, I’ve been homeless in London and living in squats. I’m in with three Central European mates, who don’t mind me not speaking their language, because I help them with their English.

I can’t get back into finance, since I’ve been blacklisted. So I’ve been working in construction, and my experiences there have reinforced the Marxist ideas that I imbibed in prison, from reading The Communist Manifesto. The treatment of workers in the building site, where I’m now working, could best be described as Dickensian. It’s reminiscent of the conditions workers slaved under during the early industrial revolution. Marx would have had a field day, analysing it.

We’re building penthouse flats in an elegant area that none of us workers could ever afford to live in. They cost over one million pounds each for soulless, anodyne, plastic two-bedroom pads. You wouldn’t pay £200k anywhere else in the country for them. The sales team are selling them to wealthy foreigners who are unlikely even to live there but use them as a way of stashing away hot money. Sadly, this whole process of buy-to-leave property development at the top end of the market comes at the expense of social housing provision further down the ladder.

It’s one rule for one lot, and another rule for everyone else

The conditions on our site are spartan. The toilet facilities are extremely primitive. The canteen is dirty and comes complete with mouse and rat droppings. You get openly berated for failing to keep up the work rate, but most of us take it easy anyway. We’re not getting paid enough to really put ourselves out. On induction day we were requested not to go outside at lunchtime in our high-visibility work clothes. Apparently the neighbours take offence at seeing construction workers using their local supermarkets. Strange really, because when I was working in the city after the 2008 crash, we city workers were still to be seen at lunchtime, dressed in suits. We weren’t required to change into jeans and sweatshirts and walk around in disguise. Even after we’d collectively almost bankrupted the country. It’s one rule for one lot, and another rule for everyone else. Interestingly, the instruction not to go outside in our work clothes was framed as a ‘request’. The bosses know that they can’t make that an ‘order’, and it isn’t written down anywhere. However, the security guard, who mans the gate, enforces that request and pulls us up if we try to go outside in our work clothes. He’s a nice guy but knows his place in the scheme of things.

It’s such a bizarre and discriminatory practice you wouldn’t expect in the 21st century, but it’s where we’re at now.

Sad, isn’t it?

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