John McAvoy: The ex-armed robber who reformed via sport in excessive safety jail

John McAvoy: The ex-armed robber who reformed via sport in excessive safety jail

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Two pictures of John McAvoy - one a mugshot after his arrest in 2005, the next standing outside 10 Downing Street
McAvoy was despatched to jail for a second time following his arrest in 2005, and was launched in 2012

At half previous eight on a heat September morning in 2005, 22-year-old legal John McAvoy was prepared. He and one other man had been planning to raid a safety van making a supply of round £100,000 in money in Eltham, south-east London.

McAvoy didn’t know there was a surveillance operation watching this man, Kevin Brown. For months police had been observing him, ready for him to commit an offence.

As Brown approached the van they had been concentrating on, McAvoy, observing from his personal automobile, noticed a police automotive. What occurred subsequent modified his life endlessly.

“The officers jumped out with all of the weapons however I managed to drive off,” says McAvoy, who knocked over a lamppost as he tried to flee. “All of them jumped again of their vehicles and chased me and I saved pondering I needed to get out as quick as I may.

“I used to be absolutely ready to die making an attempt to get away, as a result of I knew what was coming in the event that they caught me. I used to be going again to that tiny segregation cell, for lots longer than the primary time.”

Now on foot, McAvoy ran right into a useless finish. With nowhere to go, he was rapidly apprehended. It was throughout. Brown had been arrested too.

“I had about 15 weapons pointing at me on this little cul-de-sac and I used to be face down on the ground. I used to be completely deflated,” he says.

“They put me behind this undercover automotive and I used to be pretending I had concussion as a result of I used to be determined, pondering they may take me to hospital as a substitute and I may attempt to escape.

“As I used to be pretending to float out and in of consciousness, the identical police officer who’d arrested me the primary time was calling my identify.

“He mentioned to me: ‘John, look out of the window.’ There have been individuals out on the excessive avenue with their buying baggage. ‘You’ll not be seeing this for a very long time’, he mentioned. I keep in mind pondering I’d do completely something to swap locations with these individuals strolling down the excessive avenue.”

The 15 years that adopted have led McAvoy alongside a really completely different path to the one he had envisaged rising up amongst hardened members of the legal underworld.

Over the course of a life sentence partly served in one in all Britain’s highest-security prisons, it was his finest good friend’s demise in a theft gone fallacious that sparked a want to lastly rehabilitate himself.

By the point of his launch in 2012, McAvoy had radically turned his life round, and he has since set about encouraging others to comply with the identical redemptive course he discovered – within the energy of sport.

Now aged 37, McAvoy is a sponsored triathlete who competes in Ironman occasions. A person who broke three world data and 7 British data in indoor rowing, from the confines of the jail health club.

And he has fairly a narrative to inform.

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There’d been an earlier event in McAvoy’s life when he was instructed to look out the window. That first time was as a younger boy, sitting in his step-father Billy Tobin’s Porsche. He did not know what he was alleged to be taking a look at.

Tobin was a infamous armed robber who engaged McAvoy in a legal “apprenticeship” from the age of about eight years outdated.

“All these individuals on the market are sheep,” Tobin mentioned, in line with McAvoy, who was taught that working and paying taxes would by no means result in turning into a millionaire by the age of 21 like Tobin had.

McAvoy’s father had died earlier than he was born. His uncle Mickey was concerned within the Brinks Mat theft of 1983, when a gang stole gold bullion and uncut diamonds price £26m from a warehouse close to Heathrow Airport, some of the dramatic heists in British historical past.

McAvoy’s mom, who labored on minimal wage at a neighborhood florist in Crystal Palace, was sad about her son’s publicity to that world, however there wasn’t a lot she may do about it.

“After I was a child my mum would not even let me have a toy gun in the home to play cowboys and Indians,” he says. “She was so anti-gangs, anti-violence. However as I used to be getting older she may see I used to be getting pulled additional and additional into that world.

“She used to say ‘you are an accident ready to occur’ and ‘should you stay your life within the quick lane you’ll crash and burn’. ‘You will find yourself how all of them find yourself – residing in a cage and going to jail.'”

John McAvoy speaking at a public event, with his 2005 mugshot on screen behind him
McAvoy is a daily speaker on jail reform and sport’s energy to assist change lives

The primary time McAvoy was despatched to jail, it did not deter him from the life he lived. In truth throughout his time inside, he was decided to not undergo “the system”.

“I had no worry in any respect,” he says. “[Prison] was a part of the approach to life.

“Deep down in your unconscious you could have a actuality that you will get caught. You hear somebody’s been arrested, you discover monitoring units in your automotive, you recognize the police are watching you and also you’re at all times making an attempt to remain one step forward of them.

“A number of the individuals I used to be surrounded by as a younger boy had been to jail, it was all about not displaying weak point and preventing it so that is what I did. I spent a yr in a segregation cell, refused to come back out, [exercised] in my cell daily, learn books, would not work together with the jail regime and was as tough as I may very well be.”

The second time McAvoy was arrested, his sentencing was rather more sturdy. He was first despatched to HMP Belmarsh. Excessive safety.

When he went out into the train yard for the primary time he was met by the London 21/7 bombers, and Abu Hamza, the infamous Islamic extremist. It was then he realised the extent of the difficulty he was in.

“It is like your life has been hit by a prepare,” he says.

“The powers that be thought me to be such a excessive escape threat that they put me with these those that had been a risk to nationwide safety. I recognised all of the faces from the newspapers. Abu Hamza comes as much as me, actually well mannered, and says you’ve got simply been arrested have not you, do you want something? I mentioned no I am completely high-quality thanks.”

Later that day, after getting back from a bathe, McAvoy entered his cell to seek out the Qur’an, a packet of Weetabix and a few UHT milk on his mattress.

McAvoy says: “It was the most important e-book I’ve ever seen in my life! I went again to his cell and mentioned: ‘Thanks a lot, I am completely high-quality.’ And he mentioned: ‘No, no brother, I am simply being well mannered.’ I put it on his mattress and went again in to my cell.”

Then got here the second that will change his view of the world.

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Three years into his sentence, McAvoy was knowledgeable of his finest good friend’s demise. Aaron Cloud broke his neck and died immediately when he was thrown out of a getaway automotive after robbing an ATM within the Netherlands. It had a profound affect on McAvoy.

“It was then I realised how treasured life is,” he says.

“I might by no means misplaced anybody I cared for and instantly my finest good friend dies. All of the individuals I might admired and seemed as much as since I used to be slightly boy had been simply outdated males rotting in jail and so they’d executed nothing with their lives.

“I received up the following morning and I used to be fully misplaced. My popularity, my identify, it was meaningless. I checked out myself in that jail cell. I had wasted my life as much as that time, down the drain.

“I made the choice: I’m not residing this life any extra.”

The jail health club turned McAvoy’s refuge. It was a means of channelling his vitality into one thing rewarding, an escape from the poisonous goings on with different inmates, an opportunity to do one thing together with his time inside.

McAvoy found the indoor rowing machine and located he was allowed greater than his allotted time if he was coaching for one of many many rowing challenges. It gave him focus.

John McAvoy, pictured in 2013 at London Rowing Club
McAvoy (centre) pictured in 2013, a yr after his launch from jail, at London Rowing Membership

At first, he was prime of the jail leaderboard. Then, supported by jail guard Darren Davis, he educated for the 24-hour indoor rowing problem and broke two world data – 100,000m and the furthest distance rowed in 24 hours.

He requested the jail library to order him stacks of books on coaching and sports activities diet. He needed to study turning into an athlete. In complete he turned the proud holder of three world data and 7 British data in indoor rowing, all achieved in confinement.

“A number of these traits that I had – the need to win and need to achieve success – I solely used to see in criminals and instantly there’s this different group of individuals,” McAvoy says.

“The mindset was the identical however I simply needed to channel the vitality into one thing optimistic.”

McAvoy’s progress was famous, and he was quickly put up for parole. But it surely did not go easily.

“After I went to my first listening to, the choose sat throughout the desk from me and mentioned ‘what are you going to do while you get launched?’

“I mentioned: ‘I’ll turn into an athlete’. He was a crown court docket choose in his 70s. Along with his glasses on the bridge of his nostril he seemed up at me with a smile and mentioned: ‘In all my years of sitting in hearings for life-sentence prisoners, you’re the just one who has sat in entrance of me and mentioned that.’

“I used to be completely satisfied and adamant I used to be going to do it. However they refused my parole.”

Nonetheless, McAvoy was downgraded to an open jail the place he may take {qualifications} to arrange for an early launch.

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McAvoy was launched from jail in 2012. One of many first issues he did – after getting a Nando’s and going to see his mum – was to move to London Rowing Membership in Putney. He needed to make it as knowledgeable rower.

Months later when someone typed his identify right into a search engine, headlines of his previous and his mug photographs got here up. He determined to disclose his story and was met with understanding, however because it turned out, he was too outdated to make it in rowing. He turned his consideration to endurance sport and triathlon as a substitute, touchdown sponsorship from Nike and competing in Ironman races.

John McAvoy, pictured with Parkrun ambassador Andrew Graham and four-time world Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington outside the Ministry of Justice
McAvoy, pictured with Parkrun ambassador Andrew Graham and four-time world Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington

On the time of our dialog, the UK’s nationwide lockdown had lifted and McAvoy had ventured to the Alps for a couple of months to coach and work on a venture serving to younger deprived British youngsters expertise comparable locations as a way to broaden their horizons.

Within the UK, he desires to proceed pushing for reforms within the jail system that additional deal with sport’s rehabilitating position. He has his personal basis and is concerned in a number of different charities together with Boats not Bars,external-link Gloves not Gunzexternal-link and the Twinning Undertaking.

He has campaigned in help of an initiative bringing Parkrun into prisons,external-link and backed a 2018 report that advisable lifting a ban on educating inmates boxing and martial arts. In 2019 he took up an ambassadorial position with the European Fee,external-link looking for to encourage extra individuals to train.

“I simply need to have a optimistic affect on the world and make up for the all of the fallacious I’ve executed previously,” McAvoy says.

“Your view and imaginative and prescient of the world may be very restricted by what you are uncovered to as a toddler. That legal world had turn into so normalised to me that I felt everybody else was irregular.

“Now I look again on it and I can not even consider a few of the issues we used to do. I’ve to stay with that daily; it is one of many acutely aware explanation why I do what I do now. As a result of they don’t seem to be errors, they’re choices. Poor life decisions based mostly on what you recognize.

“Sport modified my life and with out it I would not be the person I’m immediately. I’m so adamant and so pushed that different individuals get the identical alternative to show their lives round and discover their objective and path in life.

“I used to be as unhealthy as you will get. If I can undergo that journey and means of change, it is attainable for anybody. I’m so decided to assist different individuals get the identical likelihood.”

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