Social enterprise aims to tackle a knife crime epidemic in London by teaching young offenders how to fix cracked smartphones
By Lee Mannion
LONDON, Aug 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sitting in his cell, mulling a childhood shaped by fear, theft and drugs, gang member Jake knew things had to change.
He was part of Britain's spiralling knife culture and feared it would all end badly.
Jake was 15 when he first carried a knife - as protection. Friends had been stabbed, some had gone to prison and he said four had used their 'protective' knives to commit murder.
"I was thinking 'this is it, it's just going to get worse.' I wanted to change my life because I was tired of doing illegal stuff," the softly spoken Londoner, who asked for his surname to be withheld, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Enter "Cracked It" - an innovative business that teaches young offenders like 21-year-old Jake how to fix cracked smartphones, boosting former inmates' self esteem and confidence in the process.
"Iphone repairs are a Trojan horse for getting them engaged in work," said Josh Babarinde, a 25-year-old former youth worker who started the business three years ago.
His social enterprise aims to tackle a knife crime epidemic in the capital, beset by ever more inner-city stabbings.
Knife crime rose 16 percent in England and Wales in the 12 months to March 2018, official data shows, logging the biggest annual increase ever recorded.
Knives were responsible for more than a third of murders last year and the government says the rise in offences involving a knife or sharp instrument is "persistent and worrying".
There were more than 40,000 knife attacks resulting in more than 280 murders in the year to March 2018. The number of victims under 24 is rising faster than any other age group.
A 2017 government report calls it a crime that particularly impacts young people - people whom Babarinde said often fall into knife culture and gang life for want of other options.
"Many of the young people I work with have really good hearts, they've got very credible aspirations, they want to earn money, they want to feel valued, they want to belong," he said.
Nearly two thirds of his 140 graduates are working or studying and 80 percent did not reoffend within six months of graduating, bucking the national trend of 42 percent.
The organisation gets paid by companies to offer on-the-spot repairs and by local councils to offer training to young people.
Britain is seen as a global leader in the innovative social enterprise sector, with about 70,000 ethical businesses employing nearly a million people, according to Social Enterprise UK, which represents the growing sector.
If Cracked It tries to help those who wield the knife, Steel Warriors puts its efforts into repurposing the weapons.
The year-old organisation took some of the thousands of knives that police take off London's streets, melted them down and built an outdoor gym from the steel in an east London park.
Founder Ben Wintour said he wanted the gym to start conversations about knife crime. He also wanted somewhere that provided a free workout for people who could not afford a gym.
"It's about helping people to build their bodies and having a bit more confidence in their bodies so they feel less of a need to carry a knife," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Spotlight Youth Service sits on the edge of the park which is home to the gym in one of the most deprived areas of London.
"There's a fear of knife crime across the capital at the moment and the gym is a real positive message. It states an unequivocal 'no'," said Daniel Rose, director of Spotlight.
He said a group of Spotlight users exercise together at the free gym, joining 40 to 50 others who work out there daily.
Babarinde had no experience of fixing phones on launch but chose it because it is a quick skill to learn - his course takes five days - and because technology appeals to young people.
He said that "a bunch" of the people working with Cracked It - Babarinde had no firm numbers - had been convicted of knife crime, using a blade for protection or to enforce drug deals.
"Many young people are leaving school without the skills they need for employment and (so they turn to) crime - whether it's nicking bikes or dealing drugs and maybe using weapons in the course of that activity to protect themselves. That's a key reason why we are seeing knife crime rise," said Babarinde.
About half a million people aged 16-24 are unemployed in Britain, according to official data.
Tariq, 18, took the Cracked It course after spending nine months in a secure unit for young offenders in 2017. He is now a technician for the organisation, mending phones in corporate settings and training others to do the same.
"When you fix someone's phone and do it successfully you feel good in yourself, you feel more confident because you think: 'Wow, a week ago I never knew how to fix a phone.'"
Tariq - who did not want his surname revealed - said he had previously been part of a gang, dealing drugs and stealing.
Experts say work is the best escape route out of crime.
"Not everybody has the parenting or someone around them that gives them that positive interaction," said Patrick Green, chief executive of the Ben Kinsella Trust, a charity that teaches about knife crime.
"More work like that where young people can find a little bit of dignity, self respect, some money and start to see a career is absolutely vital."
(Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion and editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.(Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.