| Last updated
When you hear a judge give you eight life sentences, it's probably a sign you should turn your life around.
For career criminal and former lifer, Noel Smith, the path to redemption wasn't so clearly signposted.
Watch Noel tell his story:
His first taste of the British justice system came when he was just 14 years old. He was sentenced to borstal for assaulting a police officer, stealing his bike and riding it into Clapton pond.
He went to borstal expecting to find rehabilitation - instead the juvenile detention centre gave him a crash course in crime.
"I know it sounds a bit of a cliche but it was actually like a university of higher learning for juvenile criminals," says Noel. "From that sentence, within two weeks I met a guy from North London in that prison whose brother had firearms for sale."
He went from carousing teenage tearaway to armed robber, never aware of the consequences of his actions.
"It was through going to that prison that I actually met someone that could further my criminal career," says Noel, and it wasn't long before he was back in prison. At 15, he was sent down for three years for armed robbery. It was a sentence that nearly cost him his life.
"I went a little bit mad in there," he continues. "I ripped the tag off my prison jeans, the metal piece, sharpened it up by rubbing it on the wall and ripped out my wrist, my tendons. They [the prison guards] came along and saw all the blood and started laughing and left me there for about 10 minutes."
Eventually, Noel was taken to a hospital where doctors were able to save his life. When he was released three years later, he wasn't the same person.
He explains: "I'd been seriously assaulted from the age of 14 by grown men in uniform. I had a terrible hatred of people in uniform. The fact that I spent so long in solitary confinement as well... I know it sounds strange, but it helped me in subsequent prison sentences.
"It set me up for adult prison, because I'd already been through what could be described as hell."
Hardened from the abuse and violence at the hands of prison guards, it was inevitable that Noel would make the leap from lone robber to joining a gang.
He was the founding member of the 'Laughing Bank Robbers', a gang that was directly created from the connections each member made in prison.
"I actually set them up [The Laughing Bank Robbers] in '97, and they were guys I'd been in prison with," he remembers. "We'd met in jail... and we trusted each other.
"It's pretty hard to meet someone on the outside who's supplying firearms or large amounts of drugs... in jail, you just ask about. We'd been through the prison system together and we trusted each other."
The Laughing Bank Robbers made their name from their signature style of robbing: putting Santa hats over ski masks during a Christmas robbery and robbing the Midland Bank in Hendon Central - next to the Police College, of course.
The next time Noel found himself in front of a judge it was an inevitability that he would be looking at spending the rest of his life in prison.
He says: "I'm standing there on my own, at the age of 47 or 49, and you hear a judge up there giving you eight life sentences plus 80 years in concurrent sentences and is actually saying in his summing up that he hopes you're never released... you kind of figure your life is over."
Yet, this wasn't the turning point in his life. It was the moment he was informed of his 19-year-old son's death.
Reeling with grief, he was told that he wouldn't be allowed to attend the funeral.
From that moment, Noel knew he had to make a change. As a serious career criminal, he qualified for consideration at HMP Grendon a therapeutic prison known for its low reconviction rates.
After years of therapy he was released. HMP Grendon's therapy sessions forced Noel to confront the consequences of his actions with other prisoners, an environment where he was disarmed and found himself able to access empathy to the pain he'd caused others during his years of robbing.
Now, Noel is a much reformed character and acts as Commission Editor of the prison newspaper, Inside Times. As an editor he is able to help young people like himself find a way through a system, HMP Grendon aside, that's largely unsympathetic to the role of rehabilitation in these criminal's lives.
"Our prisons are full of inadequate people, people who are addicted, people who've made a mistake, people who are in poverty, people who have medical issues, and there's only a small sort of hardcore of real serious criminals... So to end up in prison is very easy for the average man in the street," he concludes.
"It's not Chinese math, I mean you don't pay your council bill, [then] boom! You're in jail with the rest of the people. You're in among paedophiles, terrorists and murders."
When it's that easy to go to prison, isn't it time we had a proper discussion about the state of our prisons in 2017?
Thanks to Shepton Mallet Prison and Jailhouse Tours for providing the backdrop to Noel's story.
Chosen for YouChosen for You
Most Read StoriesMost Read