'I have lost my son but I tell all these prisoners they can regain their lives'

Neville Lawrence, the father of the murdered London teenager, believes he can help others in his weekly visits to jail
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The Independent Online

Neville Lawrence stands in the courtyard of Brixton prison surrounded by 30ft-high fences topped with loops of barbed wire. He walks under escort to one of the jail's grey Victorian wings and the barred gates are shut noisily behind him.

It is a remarkable sight. Mr Lawrence, one of Britain's most famous victims of crime, shut away in prison while the gang who murdered his teenage son is still at liberty. But to the Brixton inmates, the presence among them of the tall figure of the father of Stephen Lawrence is increasingly familiar.

Every week since January, the quietly spoken painter and decorator has chosen to sit among them as part of a discussion group, face to face with convicted murderers and other serious criminals.

But the exercise is not an attempt to come to terms with the loss of a murdered child by looking into the eyes of those who admit taking the life of another. Mr Lawrence, whose eight-year fight for justice since Stephen's murder also led to the breakdown of his marriage, simply wishes to put his own suffering to use.

An immediately recognisable symbol of strength in the face of adversity, he provides an example that no normal rehabilitation programme can offer.

In an interview with The Independent at the prison last week, he explained his motives for placing himself in an environment that his son's killers have so far managed to escape. "I am trying to get the prisoners to make some commitment to themselves, so that when they leave they won't come back," he said. "It's good when people are able to own up to what they have done and to move on."

Mr Lawrence said he tried to give prisoners living proof that there was always a way back from pain and hardship. "[The prisoners] have lost something and what they have lost is their liberty and their freedom to do what they want to do," he said. "I have lost my son and the rest of my family because of what happened to me, through no fault of my own.

"I try to say to them, 'What you have lost, you can regain but I cannot regain my son. You are in a better position than me to regain your losses'."

Amazingly, he says he holds no bitterness towards the racist gang that killed Stephen, an 18-year-old architecture student, at a south London bus stop in April 1993. "Let me explain what kind of person I am," Mr Lawrence said. "Even the boys who killed my son, I don't have any hatred for them. One of the things I have learnt over the years is [that] because of the way you bring up your kids they have a certain way of dealing with things.

"These guys were brought up with hatred. They didn't respect others. They thought they were the 'be it all' and minority people didn't count; if you killed one of them it didn't matter."

Referring to an incident at the public inquiry into Stephen's death in 1998, when the prime suspects declined to give evidence, he said: "I saw the way the mother tried to protect this boy from telling the truth in court. I blame all of this on the parents."

Asked about the presence of convicted killers in his Brixton discussion group, Mr Lawrence again displayed remarkable tolerance. He said: "I would be prepared to help anybody. I was not there when whatsoever happened, happened. It is wrong [but] as long as somebody is prepared to face up to reality and genuinely want to change, then if they ask me for help I am willing to give it to them."

Mr Lawrence's compassion is rooted in his Christian faith. A Seventh Day Adventist who began attending church as a three-year-old in Jamaica, he frequently makes reference to biblical stories of overcoming problems and caring for others.

"It's my religious background that gave me the strength to do what I'm doing," he said. "I can see my life through stories in the Bible. We talked about the Good Samaritan in the class last week; somebody who did something for someone on the opposite side who really hated him. He didn't pass by, he stayed and helped and that's what I am trying to do."

Mr Lawrence has chosen to remain in Britain, where he continues to highlight failings in the criminal justice system, rather than return to Jamaica where he and his former wife, Doreen, took Stephen to be buried. Prison posters for the discussion group attended by Mr Lawrence do not carry his name or picture. He explained: "When I first came, I made it plain I did not want them coming here because it was me, but because they were interested in hearing that you can change your way of life."

Mr Lawrence is not paid for his work at Brixton. He was inspired to help others by a meeting three months after Stephen's death with the former South African president Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for his political beliefs.

"He showed me that if you have belief in yourself and your goal and are determined to succeed then it can happen," Mr Lawrence said. "It was unbelievable that someone could be locked up for so long and show no sense of bitterness, anger or anything. I would like to be like him."

He began attending the Brixton discussions at the suggestion of the jail's Methodist chaplain, David Haslam, a long-standing friend. Mr Haslam said Mr Lawrence's presence had "a lot of effect on the guys, white and black".

He said most prison staff had welcomed Mr Lawrence although a minority had expressed concerns that he might "whip up the racism issue".

Mr Lawrence complained that he "didn't find funny at all" a supposed joke by one officer that he would be locked in the cells with the prisoners if he didn't hurry down some stairs. His unease with the idea of incarceration means he still cannot face the idea of actually going into a prisoner's cell.

Yet during the group session, Mr Lawrence seems relaxed enough in the whitewashed room with yellow-barred windows and 10 prisoners sat around him.

Occasionally prompting the discussion, he otherwise blends in, to a degree that, incredibly, one of the prisoners told him: "I've forgotten your name." After eight years of almost constant media attention, Mr Lawrence burst out laughing. "You've forgotten my name! OK, it's Lawrence."

Many of the prisoners in the group are black, but John, a white inmate serving a sentence for robbery, said of their famous visitor: "His son was killed by white racists but he has time for white people ... I can take advice from that man without being patronised and the advice he has given me has always been good advice."

The prisoners, who had just watched a film on the life of the jailed American boxer Rubin "The Hurricane" Carter, held an informed discussion on the subject of redemption, which spawned further debate on global politics and Third World debt.

In the view of inmates such as Sebastian, serving life for murder, Mr Lawrence's presence was generated by "total selflessness and commitment because he just wants to see change". While pointing out that the circumstances of his offence and of Stephen's murder were "two different things", he added: "I hope he doesn't look at me with animosity."