‘Prison saved my life’ says ex gang lord

The Reformed for Life charity in Meadow Street, Preston. Reformed for Life is a charity that helps offenders and people at risk of offending. It was set up by Ikram Patel, who has served time himself for conspiracy to blackmail. Picture by Paul Heyes, Thursday November 26, 2015.
The Reformed for Life charity in Meadow Street, Preston. Reformed for Life is a charity that helps offenders and people at risk of offending. It was set up by Ikram Patel, who has served time himself for conspiracy to blackmail. Picture by Paul Heyes, Thursday November 26, 2015.
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HE was once at the centre of a major gang, and served time behind bars for his role in a honeytrap blackmail plot.

Ikram Patel enjoyed the sense of power of being part of a gang when he left school, but was locked up when a judge deemed him to be the main organiser of a £50,000 conspiracy.

Now, after spending almost three years in jail and two years on licence, the father-of-one has transformed his life, and works tirelessly to stop youngsters becoming embroiled in a life of crime.

Ikram set up Reformed for Life in 2012, and works to empower and rehabilitate ex-offenders or people at risk of offending.

And the 34-year-old, from Deepdale, now sees his past and time in jail as a “blessing”, and says it may even have saved his life.

“If that didn’t happen and I had carried on, then it would have been a lot worse”, said Ikram.

“Maybe I would have been killed, or maybe I could have killed somebody.”

He said: “I think I got saved, and then I’ve come out and done all this.

“If I hadn’t gone to prison I wouldn’t have done all this and saved so many people, so I see it as a blessing.”

Ikram, who went to Moor Park High School as a teenager, said: “I wanted to be the boy on the street, as part of a gang there’s a sense of power.

“I was the one who drove around, I was the first to get my licence.

“That’s how I started getting involved in gangs.”

He said he later started body building and met “a few hench lads”, and said: “From there I got more into the gang culture.

“I wasn’t doing any crimes, I was just part of the gang, being there for the image.”

Ikram then became “mixed up” in a blackmail plot to trap a wealthy businessman – who is granted anonymity by law – into handing over more than £50,000 by setting him up with his female accomplice.

He said the gang had “set him up” and he “got stung”, but said: “That’s all I knew, I didn’t know anything about the money issue.

“I encouraged them and I drove them around.”

But in court Ikram was said to have been the main organiser of the plot, and was jailed for five-and-a-half years after being found guilty of conspiracy to blackmail.

His sentence was later cut to four years and nine months, and he served two years and nine months in prison, with the rest on licence.

Ikram served the beginning of his sentence in Preston, where he said he was “racially abused”.

He said: “There were a lot of bigger lads in there and it’s a different world, and I think I was getting bullied.

“I had two options at the beginning. I missed my family, I didn’t know where the hell I was, I could either explode and try to beat everyone up, or top myself and call it a day.

“I think what kept me going was the religion, coming from a good Muslim family and background.”

Ikram was later moved to HMP Haverigg in Cumbria, where he was able to secure his first prison job and begin training.

From HMP Sudbury open prison, Ikram began applying for jobs and wanted to get involved with community work, but found it hard to find work when he was released because of his record.

He spent from 2007 to 2012 setting up Reformed for Life, based in Meadow Street, Preston, which offers mentoring, workshops, and sports including football and boxing.

Ikram said: “I find it rewarding, I go home and think I’ve stopped somebody committing a crime.

“I get them involved with sport - football, boxing - I’m a fully qualified boxing coach.

“I’ve taken lads out on gardening projects, recycling old furniture, trying to keep them busy and involved to keep them engaged.

“This kind of stuff wasn’t there when I was around, I needed it and it was a big gap and I think I was filling that gap.”

Reformed for Life has received funding from the European Social Fund for an engagement project, and also from the Police and Crime Commissioner for a knife and gangs project, but Ikram still struggles to pay the rent on the premises.

He said: “Funding will help me do more work, but I don’t want to depend on funding, I’m trying to sustain it through myself.

“I want to use the lads I have to get them into business.

“We are looking at the location, because I’m struggling to pay rent here.

“I want an office, a workshop and computers and we also want to have a little warehouse where we can do the recycling stuff and an area for boxing.

“We want everything under one roof so we can provide a rehabilitation project.”

Ikram has helped dozens of people, and is able to engage with members of gangs because of his past.

He said: “The first thing is I’ve got to speak to them.

“For example I knew a little drug dealer, he was 17.

“I went up to him one day, I said ‘what’s going on, is this your turf?’

“I said ‘what are you selling?’, he said ‘what you after?’.

“You’ve got to talk at that level.”

He added: “You can’t tell him to stop it straight away.

“Then you get him into football.

“That’s how I build the relationship, then at football when I’m disciplining the lads, it’s my turf.”

Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw said: “One of the key priorities in my police and crime plan for Lancashire is to support initiatives which tackle re-offending and reduce crime.

“Stopping violent crimes involving knives and guns is a big concern for people in Lancashire and empowering our young people to avoid becoming part of gangs is a vital to this work.

“This is an important part of what Ikram and the Reformed for Life team work to achieve and why I was glad I could support their project through my Community Action Fund.

“By working with young people who may already be committing low level or anti-social offences, Reformed for Life’s project aimed to reduce re-offending and prevent young people going on to further criminal activity.

“Addressing issues like resolving conflict without resorting to violence as well as greater awareness of the impact crime has on its victims, I hope this project has made a real difference to those taking part.

“Having spoken to Ikram I know that improving the communities he works in something he’s really passionate about and I hope this project has helped with that work, making a difference to people’s futures as well as the areas in which they live.”

Coun Anis Faruki, who supported Ikram while he was setting up the organisation, said: “I am proud to have been assisting the group the past 18 months.

“I have seen the huge difference RFL is making in not only meeting the needs of the people they are serving, but to the lives of their families and neighbourhood they live in.”