A former gang member who was sentenced for a knife-point robbery and lost an eye when he was stabbed is helping Staffordshire Ditch the Blade.
Mark Bracewell grew up on the Moss Side estate in Manchester. As a teenager he began dealing drugs for older teens and carried a knife. This was the norm, he said, necessary to protect yourself from rival drug gangs and turf wars. Mark was even kidnapped and shot at the age of 14, the same year one of his best friends was shot and killed.
Mark said: “My life in Stoke-on-Trent now revolves around helping young people realise how crime can destroy your life, particularly knife crime. By sharing my experiences I hope to help them make better choices than I did. I am lucky to be here and to have a second chance to use my life for good.”
In Staffordshire over 50 per cent of knife crimes involve people under the age of 29, with 23 per cent under 18. Which is why Mark’s work with young people is so valuable; through sharing his lived experience he can potentially divert young people from carrying, and other related criminal behaviour, such as dealing drugs for county lines gangs.
Between Monday 26 April and Sunday 2 May the force will support the national Operation Sceptre, with targeted policing work focused on disrupting knife crimes such as possession and importation. This coincides with ongoing work under Ditch the Blade, which is the wider campaign in Staffordshire and hinges heavily on the education and prevention work of partners, parents and those working with young people.
Talking of being stabbed Mark said: “Five years ago I lost my eye when I was stabbed in the face and neck but it could have easily been my life. Having a prosthetic (eye) that I can easily take out means the kids can clearly see the harm a knife can do. I can take my fake eye out, hold it up and say – do you want this to happen to you? Or imagine if you did this to someone else, how would you feel?”
After dealing drugs for years Mark was 17 when he decided to take cocaine for the first time to give him courage to confront a rival gang leader. It wasn’t long before he was addicted and this led him to commit crimes to fund his habit.
It was only while spending time in prison for a knife point robbery that Mark began to change his thinking “In prison I found new value; I was race relations rep and also head of the kitchen. Being the race relations rep meant that I was involved in the handling of any incidents that inmates felt involved racism.
“Most of the time they were nothing to do with race, the prison officers were just doing their jobs. That’s when I changed my view of the police. I had many negative experiences with them as a teen, but I know now they are generally good people just trying to do their jobs.
“When I came out I got a job and began a ‘normal’ life but I felt like I had no purpose and wanted something more. As a recovering addict I found Walk Ministries, a faith focused charity based in Tunstall. Through finding my faith, and with their help and support, I began working in Stoke-on-Trent at Arch Housing (now Concrete). I helped mentor the 16-18-year-olds in supported living accommodation, preparing them for the real world while also volunteering at the YMCA. This lead to me working at residential care homes as a residential child practitioner.
“Now I also work with Ruff and Ruby. I hold small group sessions in schools in north Staffordshire, talking about my past to help teens see that while my story isn’t unique, the fact I’m here to tell it is. I also do one-to-one mentoring for troubled kids; I build a relationship with them, be someone they can really talk to, no judgement or worry. They also listen to what I have to say, because they know I get it, all the stuff they’re going through, the way they feel. I’ve been there, I’ve lived it too.
“My life is now dedicated to helping teenagers and young adults not to make the mistakes I did. Growing up my mum did the absolute best she could but I didn’t really have a male role model, someone to help me figure things out. I aim to be the person who does that for them and if any of my work stops just one kid from picking up a knife, it will be worth it.”
For more information on the Ditch the Blade campaign visit the dedicated webpage www.staffordshire.police.uk/ditchtheblade