Statistics showing a stark rise in suicide for those on probation come as no surprise to those struggling with the harsh reality of post-prison life. Joanna Morris spoke to ex-offender Mark Chesney.

“WHEN heroes who put their lives on the line for their country are homeless, what hope is there for a two-bit junky?”

Mark Chesney speaks, no-holds-barred and fierce, from amid the hustle and bustle of the homeless café in Middlesbrough where he is spending the afternoon.

Stark suicide statistics come as no surprise to a man who has lived a chaotic and often criminal lifestyle for decades, a man who has struggled with addiction, who has been in and out of jail since his teens.

He knows the criminal justice system backwards, claims his battles with it have helped to make him cleverer, have helped him to become “a better liar” in his efforts to stay on the outside. They have also taken a toll on his mental health..

The 38-year-old is currently celebrating his longest spell out of prison since he began offending at 14 but fears he – and others like him – will inevitably be consigned to a life defined by their past.

He says those carrying with them the tag of ‘offender’ often also carry the weight of problems including homelessness, unemployment, addiction and low self-esteem – issues that can combine to make desperate people feel as though they have nowhere left to turn.

Employers may baulk at hiring ex-offenders, stable accommodation is increasingly difficult to find and there can be systematic difficulties in accessing appropriate care and support, with such battles having an inevitable impact on the mental health of those trying to turn their lives around.

Mr Chesney describes turning to a doctor and begging for help after feeling mentally unwell and as though he needed someone to talk to – he was told he would have to get off the drugs before he could get help he urgently needed.

“There are so many catch-22 situations like this and these kind of problems can push people to the edge - these suicide rates aren’t down to one thing, they’re down to all sorts of things and I can’t see change coming in my lifetime,” he says.

“Once you’re a criminal, you’re never given the benefit of the doubt again – you’ve got to keep carrying it around with you.

“I’m not bitching and I try to take it on the chin because I know I brought all of this on myself and am reaping what I sowed, but it changes you.”

He says it can be a constant battle for people to stay on the right side of probation services and describes being recalled to prison “for the most stupid reasons”.

Currently homeless himself, the Billingham-born man says offenders can fall foul of the system if they are unable to find stable accommodation and risk inadvertently breaking licence terms by being unable to stay at addresses registered upon their release from prison, finding themselves back behind bars as a consequence.

Such unbending policies prove, Mr Chesney insists, that the system does not work as well as it could and can instead contribute to offenders being unable to successfully break away from their criminal past.

“I was once recalled to prison after asking probation if I could start a methadone programme” he says.

“My licence got revoked over that, because it was seen as proof I was using illegal substances and I had to serve another two and a half years.

“I was asking for help and trying to engage, tried to be honest, but ended up back in jail.

“Probation never did me any good – just limited me.I was always left feeling like they just wanted me to finish and get off their books.”

The problems faced by Mr Chesney and others like him will not change, he believes, until society does.

Reform is needed, he says – of probation, of Government, of rogue landlords and of attitudes towards those in need.

“Until people stop being so selfish, we will not move forward – nobody cares about these kind of issues.

“There are people in sleeping bags on the street but everyone’s got their own lives to worry about.

“Suicide figures don’t surprise me, it’s becoming more and more normal – the more it happens, the more acceptable it gets, probably until it starts affecting the MPs.

“For the small people, for the drug users and the junkies like us, there’s no hope.

"How are you supposed to have self-esteem or respect for yourself when you are constantly shown so much negativity?

“People say we have no morals but half the world’s got no morals – everything’s blamed on us but the problems go higher up.”