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A day of celebration for lives transformed

The difference that rehabilitation can make was on show at a reunion organised by the charity Rapt

Robert Verkaik
Monday 04 October 2010 00:00 BST

"Hi, my name's Yana and I'm an addict," says a 37-year-old woman hunched over a table on a podium in central London.

"Hi Yana," shouts the audience of counsellors, prison officers, probation workers, friends and fellow addicts.

Her obvious nervousness and vulnerability add to a heart-warming moment of redemption and epiphany in a day when scores of offenders reaffirm their new drug-free lives.

Yet only five years ago Yana Stewart would have happily smacked you in the face as soon as look at you.

In a life marred by misery and self-destruction it was Yana's single piece of good fortune to find a place on an intensive drug treatment programme run by the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (Rapt). The charity's abstinence-based approach means that three quarters of those who complete the course stay off drugs and stay out of prison for life. Mike Trace, Rapt's chief executive and Labour's former deputy drug tsar, says that for a drugs rehabilitation programme to work it must be a "life-changing" experience.

Yana went on to outline her life of addiction: "My mum was a drinker. She was Scottish and liked a drop of whisky. I had my first can of Tennent's when I was 12 – I liked it and I never stopped."

Yana says the drink helped her escape her destructive family background. "My mum was violent with her boyfriends. I could see that violence in the home was one way of getting things sorted." She continued drinking into her teens. By the time she was 17 Yana had two young children with a boyfriend who was hooked on drugs and in and out of prison. He died when he fell from a 10th-floor window during a burglary to find money to feed his addiction.

Shortly after her 18th birthday Yana received her first prison sentence for assault and her children were taken into care. It was the start of a vicious circle of violent offending fuelled by addiction. "I lost count of how many times I was in prison," says Yana. "I tried to mask everything with my aggression because I did not want people to know that underneath I was vulnerable and fragile."

The turning point came in 2007 when she was jailed for three years for beating up her mother during a crack cocaine-fuelled row.

"That was the time when I came to realise that I was no good. I was sitting there in my cell for beating up my own mum and it made me feel ashamed."

She made five attempts to get off drugs with the help of programmes in prison but they all failed and it took a life-changing event before Yana could break her addiction. "I got a call in prison to say that my daughter had been hit by a car and she was in hospital in a coma. It was a devastating moment ... I believed it was a direct consequence of my drug using. I remember asking God not to take my daughter as well as her father."

Sitting in the audience politely applauding their mother's success are her son Anthony George and her daughter Shicara, who was fortunate to survive the car accident.

Yana's journey from a history of violent offending and crack cocaine addiction to proud mother was one of scores of harrowing stories recounted by addicts at the weekend. For many of them the route from addiction was a journey they didn't expect to survive.

Yana has been out of prison for six months and is working for the Salvation Army and living in London. Turning to her children, she says: "If it wasn't for you two I wouldn't be here today."

Success stories

'When I got my hit, I forgot my crimes': Keith Wallace, 46

"Normally when I speak to this amount of people there is a judge present," says Keith Wallace, 46, a drug addict who has spent the best part of his life involved in crime.

Keith has been clean of drugs for more than four years and is now a successful desktop publisher. Nervously addressing a reunion of rehabilitated drug addicts in London, Keith says he can still remember the dark days when he thought he wouldn't ever break free from the cycle of addiction and crime.

"The first burglary I did was in a family home," he recalls. "I had been on a three-day bender and I could hardly stand up straight. But I went into their bedroom and there was a picture of the family. I had to turn it face down and then I burst into tears."

Keith sold the contents that he stole to support his crack cocaine addiction. "As soon as I got that first hit I forgot the whole thing."

'I got hooked on heroin in jail when I was 18': Marcus Paine, 37

He began experimenting with drugs soon after his parents separated when he was 14 years old. He started on lighter fluid and glues before graduating to cannabis, LSD and amphetamines. By 18, he was in prison for attacking a householder who had challenged him during a burglary. A judge called him a "one-man crime wave" and another described him as the "scourge of Europe."

It was during a spell in prison that he says he became addicted to heroin and a number of overdoses soon followed. "I was so near to end that one day when I went to see my probation officer, she just burst into tears," remembers Marcus. It was only by joining a Rapt programme that he broke free from his addiction. He now works as a specialist sprayer painting luxury housing developments in London where he is trusted with the keys to the properties.

Next month Marcus and his partner are expecting their first baby. "I thought all those years of abuse had ended any chance of me having children."

'I couldn't look after my children': Spencer Coleshill, 40

He blames his early interest in drugs on his dyslexia and subsequent failure in school. It led directly to a lifestyle of drug-taking which inevitably ended up with a string of prison sentences for theft and burglary to support a heroin addiction. By the time his girlfriend had fallen pregnant and he became the father of twins he was out of control.

"I loved my children but I couldn't look after them because I didn't love myself," says Spencer.

Despite several attempts to get off drugs, it wasn't until he went on an abstinence programme that he was able to make any progress. Today he is married with two more children and is a chief executive of a national chain of garden centres. But even now he admits: "You can't ever stop working at the addiction. I have good days and I have bad days."

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