A reformed Dundee drug addict says efforts to start his life anew are being stymied by employers who can’t look past his history.
Ex-heroin user Ronald Dickson, 34, has not used hard drugs for several years and has been clean of substitutes for several months.
He was jailed after being caught with two ounces of heroin. However, after serving his sentence in HMP Perth and the support of a recovery programme, he is ready to start again.
But Lochee man Ronald – who makes no bones about the mistakes he made in the past – says he has hit wall after wall trying to find work.
“Since I’ve been off suboxone (which is used to treat opiate addiction) I’ve been trying to find work. I’ve been upfront about my convictions.
“I’ve gone for all types of jobs out there. I’ve applied for construction jobs, call centre jobs – I must have applied for about 35 lately.
“I haven’t even heard back from half of them. They haven’t said it’s because of my past but you get a feeling. How can I get started again if no one can give me work?”
Ronald hopes to inspire others to kick the habit – and ward off those who see drugs as a glamorous vice.
“I started taking hash at 13 and got into using Es (ecstasy) when I was 15, just through friends,” he said.
“I first tried heroin at 18 but didn’t use it again until 2008, in my 20s. And then that was it. I was on it.
“I’d fallen out with my girlfriend, I didn’t have a job. I just felt lost and heroin was there. It numbed everything. The hits make you forget but you come out from them worse.”
The drug took Ronald to some of the lowest points he has ever known.
His parents walked in on him vomiting, crying and defecating himself as he suffered his first ever withdrawal. They resorted to taping up his letterbox to stop dealers posting drugs through his door.
It took being locked up for drugs offences in August 2012 for Ronald to wake up to his situation. He continued to use heroin in prison, buying it from well-connected inmates.
He said: “I can remember the day I had my last hit. It was February 12, 2013, in prison. That day I just realised: ‘how did I get here?’.
“I just decided that was it. I was put on 70mg of methadone and later put on suboxone. I had been doing heroin several times a day up to then. I could easily say I did a gram a day.”
Midway through his sentence he was transferred to HMP Edinburgh and, with the help of a programme called SMART Recovery and organiser Craig Park, Ronald steered himself on to a better path.
“My brothers and sisters all have good jobs. They’re nurses and lorry drivers, and I was the one that took that devil dust,” he said.
“My dad’s 71 and my mum’s 67. They won’t be around forever. My mum’s a strong lady but it made her ill seeing me change. That made me realise it wasn’t just me that my habit affected.
“I don’t want them to remember me as ‘Ronald the junkie’. I want them to see that I’m turning my life around. My dad encouraged me to educate myself to take my mind off reducing my methadone too.”
Ronald was inspired to share his story after life-long pal John McCabe told of his own struggles last month.
He’s looking for voluntary work to help others like him and boost his chances of finding a job. But he still faces stigma because of his past.
He said: “People still judge. I had been seeing a girl but her mum said she didn’t want me anywhere near her daughter.
“I’m looking for my second chance. I want people to see that and to see that heroin is a mug’s game.”
‘We need to see a cultural shift’
Ronald’s story is typical of many reformed offenders looking to start afresh, according to Sean Duffy, boss of social enterprise body The Wise Group (TWG).
TWG is one of many organisations across the UK which helps people back into work, including ex-offenders.
It works with Dundee City Council to help locals find their way into employment.
Sean said: “The Wise Group recognises stories like Ronald’s across Scotland.
“Employers cannot discriminate on the basis of gender, race or religion but, sadly, can based on someone’s criminal past.
“It’s time for employers, and society as a whole, to address the fear and stigma around recruiting people with convictions.”
A YouGov survey commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2016 found 50% of employers would not consider hiring an ex-offender.
Just 27% of men and 13% of women who have spent time in prison found a job after being released, according to research by the UK Parliament’s work and pensions select committee.
However, Sean stressed that ex-offenders can actually benefit their bosses .
He said: “People who have served a prison sentence often stay with employers longer, have lower rates of absenteeism and can offer a different perspective to broaden a business’s horizons.
“The Wise Group has helped many through the often difficult transition from prison to employment.
“We want to help more, but to do so we need to see a cultural shift in the way employers view those with a different past to their own.”