Kamali Stevens jumped up and punched the air in delight when he was announced as the winner of the higher education student of the year award at this year’s Association of Colleges annual conference.
The 41-year-old’s elation at that moment was understandable. He had undergone an incredible journey from prisoner to prison reformer, after being failed as a child by the systems designed to protect him.
Now he is about to complete his BA (Hons) in film and media arts production from University Centre Weston (part of Weston College Group), and is working with senior leaders within the prison service to implement cultural change. He is also developing an app supporting those leaving custody to stay on the right track.
“To come on the national stage and be recognised just blew my mind,” he said.
“Just three years ago, I didn’t even have a basic school education. It was a hard childhood, and I held on to that anger for so long. I poisoned myself with rage and resentment for being let down.”
Path to crime
As a young boy, Stevens did not know his father and had a “difficult relationship” with his mother, who went through “tough times herself”. She would “take it out” on Stevens with a belt, and he remembers feeling “petrified” of her. He “used to run away a lot”, leading to social services involvement.
At seven, Stevens was sent to live on his grandmother’s farm in the Caribbean. Stevens recalls her with fondness as being “more like a mother” to him, and he felt “liberated” as a “nature boy” there in contrast to the “concrete jungle” of Slough. He passed grammar school entrance exams and had “plans to be a doctor”, but his mother brought him back to start secondary school in the UK.
At 12, Stevens wanted to “buy nice things” to “fit in” with his peers, and lied about his age to get work at KFC. “I’d go buy my Reebok Classics, then I’m one of the guys.” But Stevens’ life “took a turn” when his mum discovered his work uniform in his school bag, and got him sacked.
He “still wanted nice things” and turned to crime to get them. Stevens claims his mum told the court after he was arrested for robbery that “she didn’t want me at home”, and he was sent to live in a children’s home in Reading.
Life of crime
Rivalry between gangs from Slough and Reading made the move particularly challenging. Stevens was introduced to crack cocaine at 13 in a secure unit.
Social services paid for taxis to his school in Slough, but he kept “disappearing for months on end”. At 14, he was permanently excluded for stealing the deputy headteacher’s car, which he vehemently denies doing. “I spoke to somebody who did take the car, and that was enough in their eyes to kick me out. That was really hard.”
After being thrown out of another children’s home at 14 for “behaviour issues”, Stevens was moved onto a bed and breakfast. That was the last he ever heard from social services.
“I was left to my own devices and tried to survive the best I could. The streets took me from there.”
Reflecting on this time, Stevens feels he was “let down” by public services. “There was no duty of care. I had a lot of abandonment issues and unresolved trauma. Life became about just wanting more drugs.”
Lacking any qualifications, Stevens felt “stuck in a rut” and unable to break free of a life of crime.
‘The devil came whispering’
His last stint in prison in 2017 was for aggravated burglary. He recalled how “the devil came whispering” after he left a “really horrible job” and couldn’t pay his rent.
It was his first time back in jail for 13 years, and prison conditions had deteriorated in that time. It was “like a war zone”. While there, he was told his grandmother had died and his teenage son was put into care after getting involved in county lines.
“It was frustrating seeing history repeating itself, and knowing I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t tell my son to do better without doing better myself.”
Stevens was moved to five different prisons over the next three years, including a move to HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset after he experienced “a lot of trouble because of the people I’d robbed”. However, the move proved fortuitous, as it was there that Stevens met prison reformer Dr Sarah Lewis.
She was working to create a rehabilitative culture using an all-prison approach called The Growth Project. Lewis saw potential in Stevens and told him to apply for a position as a researcher on her team.
The job paid him £15 a week – not a lot, given that “things are more expensive in prison”, but it meant a great deal to Stevens who received no outside support during his sentence.
The job involved creating “interventions that brought meaning to the staff and residents”, including wellbeing days and a community fair. Stevens was tasked with coming up with a project of his own. At the time, spice was “causing havoc” in the prison.
Research by Middlesex University shows that almost half the non-natural deaths of prisoners between 2015 and 2020 were caused by the synthetic cannabinoid. Stevens recalls around five people dying from it during his time in the prison. He decided to write a play about the harm he saw it inflicting.
Stevens’ play, Choices, told the story of a young prisoner with “lots of potential” who is guided by an older inmate, and another who commits suicide after being bullied for not paying off drug debts.
It only took Stevens one night to write – he stayed up until 3am to complete it – and another five months working with Lewis to bring his vision to life.
Stevens led six performances in 2019 which elicited “powerful emotions” from the audience of staff, residents and the local community, and was “really well received”.
Lewis recalls how inmates were referred to on the radio “as ‘actors’ rather than ‘prisoners’”, which meant they felt “seen for their talent, not their mistakes”. Spice use in the prison “fell to near off zero” following the play.
Championing prison reform
In July 2020, Stevens was released but returned to prison within six months – though thankfully not as an inmate. He has been working alongside Lewis and senior managers as a consultant, tasked with creating content for staff training, and for social media around staff and inmate experiences.
Being able to bring camera equipment into prisons makes him smile. “Only Ross Kemp does that!”
Staff and prisoners these days are shocked when he tells them he was an inmate once.
“They just can’t get into their heads that I’ve been in a cell, and now I’m working with them at that level.”
State of education
Stevens is passionate about the power of education to change prisoners’ lives. But prison education is in a “poor” state and “continue[d] to decline” this year according to Ofsted, amid “significant recruitment issues” in some prisons.
Of the 43 prison and young offender inspections undertaken this year, only four were good, 20 required improvement and 19 were inadequate, with none judged outstanding.
Ministry of Justice data for prison contracts analysed by FE Week shows that between January and March, there were 34 instances where classroom-based delivery was “significantly restricted”.
Although contracts state that “other forms of remote delivery have continued”, Stevens laments that it’s “nearly impossible” to develop meaningful learning opportunities without face-to-face interaction.“Only about four per cent of prisoners complete online courses. They don’t get that engagement they need to push them through.”
“Every establishment I went to would be making me do the same courses over and over – basic maths and English. Why?
“I’ve seen people in there with PhDs and masters degrees still having to do these courses. There’s an abundance of creativity within prisons. If it was nurtured, you’d get so many leaders coming out of there empowering others.”
Stevens believes in the adage that “culture starts at the top”, and in prison that means change needs to come from those “doing organised crime, the guys on the wing with the most status. If you can change their way of thinking, it’s only going to filter down and create opportunities.”
Stevens believes that probation services are currently “very stretched,” with a “low trust factor” from “those they’re supposed to be serving”.
He has been involved in developing an app providing them with digital support by pulling together information about well-being, job placements, housing and education for those in custody and on probation. Stevens hopes the Growth App will also act “as a deterrent”, by providing “the fundamentals that can stop people from falling into the cycle of criminality”.
“We want people to get the most out of their time on probation instead of it being a box ticking exercise, which it has turned into unfortunately.”
Life on the outside
Stevens decided he wanted to do a degree while still in prison, where he did an access to HE course through the Open University and went on day release to attend an interview at University Centre Weston.
He “didn’t think anything would come of it”. However, Weston staff told him: “‘don’t worry, we’ve had people who have done worse crimes than you and given them a chance’. We take you on the merit of who you are today.’”
Stevens now has “good relationships” with his five brothers on his father’s side, and after leaving prison one brother let him sleep on his sofa in Slough for eight weeks to save money for a flat. He borrowed his nephew’s bike to travel to a construction job every day.
But starting at Weston was not easy. As a mature student in a class where “a lot” of his fellow students had “come up through school or college together”, it was “difficult being an outsider”.
Many of his classmates were the same age as Stevens’ 22-year-old son.
Stevens is currently commuting to college from West London, where he is a single dad to his youngest son, 11 and daughter, 10. They came over to the UK from Antigua to live with Stevens in September, so he could “provide a better future” for them.
It’s “a lot of back and forth”, and Weston has been “really flexible” so he can “juggle work with school runs”.
One of the most moving moments of the AoC ceremony for Stevens was not the rapturous applause he received upon collecting the award, but the conversation he had with a porter who approached him as he was leaving.
She told him, “I want my son to be like you. He’s going through some difficulties, but your story gave me hope.”
Stevens said: “For me, that’s so important because a lot of those who’ve gone through adversity don’t see people like themselves reach those heights. If they can see someone who reflects who they are, they’ll believe they can do it themselves.”