Darrell Tunningley, 33, was an armed robber and heroin addict. But it all changed when he was invited on an Alpha course in prison. This is his story in his own words:
I was using drugs from the age of 11, smoking cannabis, sniffing solvents, taking LSD and drinking every weekend. I’d love to be able to say that I went with the crowd, peer pressure all the rest of it, but the truth is I was the instigator in most of it. By the age of 16 I was selling drugs – quite large amounts – and had people selling for me.
There were three of us sort of close-ish friends who did it together, so I got more and more involved in crime.
I started dealing for some pretty heavy, hard hitters who covered a massive part of Yorkshire. We were debt collecting, giving punishments and some pretty nasty stuff. They once used a petrol grass strimmer on the bottom of a guy’s feet because he owed them £300 because they wanted to make a public exhibition of him.
I got involved in some pretty stupid and scary things and sort of moved up the criminal ladder.
At the same time, my drug use was going through the roof and I was getting more and more involved in harder drugs. I was going out to a lot of illegal raves, doing a lot of Ecstasy and cocaine.
Then people started smoking heroin to come down off the stimulant drugs – everybody starting doing it – but before you know it, heroin’s got a grip of you.
Addicted to heroin
Very quickly you slip into injecting and because money wasn’t a problem and drugs were in plenty, my use just went up and up and up. I overdosed three times. I was aged 16 or 17.
I’d disappear for weeks on end, sometimes it was because I’d been arrested and I was on remand, I just wouldn’t tell my parents. Other times it was because I was off on a bender and I’d just disappear for a couple of weeks.
It all came to a head when one of the guys, one of the associates I was involved with, asked me if I wanted to get involved with an armed robbery.
I’d stolen a lot of cars in my youth and he knew I was a good driver and he wanted me to be the driver for the job. So I went and had a look at the job they were planning and it seemed fairly low risk and so we went.
We used to cross the border into South Yorkshire to steal a car and bring it back into West Yorkshire, because it would take at least a week, sometimes more, for South Yorkshire Police to inform West Yorkshire Police. So you had a honeymoon period being able to drive round in a car.
It’s literally three miles over the border, steal a car, bring it over.
So we found this little loophole. I don’t know if they’ve closed it now, but that’s the way it used to be.
We went over to Selby, stole a car, came back, stored it for a day and then went and did this job. We hit a wages depot and came away with £40,000, so split it up – £10,000 each for 10 minutes work.We thought we’d got away Scot free, but that wasn’t the case. A few days later I was in my flat and one of the lads came running up to my front door. He was all out of breath and he just said ‘You need to get going, the Black Maria’s at the top of the road with the armed response and the dogs’.
I lived in a little cul-de-sac, so they could only have been at the top of the road for one reason. It had to be me.
I knew I couldn’t get out at the top of the cul-de-sac and I wasn’t going to try running because I tried that once before with police dogs and you never win.
So I thought my only option is if I can try and get down the back of the flats and get to my other mate who lived at the end of the cul-de-sac, lay low in his flat, wait till it blows over and then go on the run.
I got down the back without anyone seeing and I got to Joe’s flat. Joe was an amphetamine addict and would go on two, three-week benders, so he was always in. But this time, the one time I needed him, he wasn’t in.
I sort of panicked and I kicked his door in and went in his flat, shut it as best as I could again and just looking out the curtains watching.
I saw them all go up, I heard my door going in and I saw them marching everybody out who’d been left in my flat. I knew they wouldn’t say anything.
I later found out that the drugs squad had had me under observation for six weeks, but obviously the robbery squad had got in there before them.
I always had my supply of drugs stashed elsewhere. There was an old derelict school and we stashed drugs in the air duct units in the school.
So I’m trying to lay low, watching what’s going on and I thought it would blow over. I realised I still had my personal drugs on me – two ounces of heroin, about £180 street value. That’s the amount I was using per day, but you’d go down for years for that.
Then I saw them start going door-to-door asking questions and I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go’.
So the drugs I had on me, I cooked some up and had an injection and then what was left, I put it into like a plastic sealed bag and put loads of electrical tape round it and swallowed it, thinking I can get it back later.
Sure enough, they came to the door and obviously it had been kicked in and the lock was bust. They knocked a couple of times and pushed the door and it just swung open.
I thought I’ll try and blag my way through it, I’ll see how it pans out.
So I pretended to be asleep on the settee as they came in. I jumped up looking startled and surprised, I said ‘Who are you? What do you want? What you doing in my flat?’
They said ‘Oh sorry sir, we knocked but the lock was bust’. I said, ‘Oh I know, I’m waiting for the council to come fix that. I lost my keys and had to kick the door in’.
They said ‘We’re looking for Darrell Tunningley. Have you seen him?’
I said ‘No, no, I know him like, he lives up there. I’m Joe Harrison. This is my flat.’
It looked like it was working and they were getting ready to leave when this Detective Sergeant came in who knew me and said, ‘All right Darrell, how you doing?’
At that point everything went ballistic. They knew I had a reputation for violence and they obviously weren’t going to take any chances and they started screaming at me to get away from a knife on the table next to me.
‘Step away from the knife. Step away from the knife’. I was like ‘I’m not doing anything with the knife’. I hadn’t even seen it was there.
Then the armed response people came in with the guns and I got thrown face-down, arms behind my back.
The handcuffs the police use now have a black plastic bit in the middle of the two cuffs and when they put them on, they twisted the middle and it really dug into both sides of the bones on my wrists and it was painful.
As a reaction, I flung my head back and I head butted and busted the nose of one of the police officers by mistake.
So they slammed me back on the floor again and they used the tie wraps then on my feet and my hands and they picked me up by my hands and my feet, so I’m facing down and they’re carrying me out. And they threw me in the back of the van and off I went to Pontefract Police Station. I was about 17 ½.
It was obvious from the very first interview that somebody had said something because they couldn’t have known the details that they knew if that hadn’t happened.
I knew then that I was in trouble. It turned out one of the lads on the job who got arrested had started to rattle. He was an addict as well and had been put on detox. The detox is horrible.
They utilised that and he grassed everyone up. He turned Queen’s evidence against us and stood in the dock and said, ‘Yeah I’ve seen him and him’, so you knew then.
There was other evidence – they had a thumbprint of mine and things like that. We’d wiped everything down, but I must have just left this one thumbprint that they managed to find.
I was sentenced for five and a half years and I did just short of four years of it. When you stand in that dock and you receive the sentence, no matter how tough and how hard you are, your legs almost go out from underneath you.
I’d been told by the barrister to expect up to 10 years, so receiving less was great, but it’s still a long time.
I was taken down to the holding cells and taken to a little visiting area with a plastic screen and my family came down and they were all teary and crying, but I couldn’t, I had to let them think I was ok.
As soon as I got back to the holding cell, I just flipped out and was punching the door, punching the walls, going crazy.
Once I got in there, I knew I would have to do a detox. I got the drugs I swallowed out and I decided to have one last night of using and then I knew I had to do my detox then.
While in prison I just carried on the same way I behaved outside – getting into fights.
I assaulted prison officers and spent a lot of time on the segregation block where you are in your cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Because I was behaving like an idiot, I got shipped around an awful lot, so I spent time in Doncaster Prison, then I got shipped down to Glen Parva which is in Leicester and from there they shipped me back to a Category A prison up near Hull.
Invitation to Alpha
While I was in there, I managed to get a job in the welding workshop, which was great. While I was in there one of the lads who I didn’t normally associate with came up to me in the workshop and said ‘Do you fancy going on an Alpha Course?’
I had no idea what an Alpha Course was.
He said ‘It’s in the chapel’ and as soon as he said that, I wasn’t interested.
I said ‘Get out of my face before I slap you’ and he was under no illusion that I would have done.
He must have had great courage because he came back the next day and I saw him coming towards me, I wasn’t even going to wait for him to talk. I was just going to hit him and he blurted out, ‘This Alpha you get Wednesday afternoon off work and you get free coffee and you free biscuits’.
So I stopped. Wednesdays were known as ‘Dodgy Wednesday’ because the prison officers had staff training, so you were basically locked up all through the afternoon and all through the evening until the next morning.
So by going on this course you didn’t do the whole afternoon section of the bang-up – and you got coffee and biscuits.
So I said ‘All right, see you Wednesday’.
Then I rounded up some of the other lads who’d already said no. I said, ‘Here listen, it’s a skive. You get the afternoon off work and get free coffee’.
So I took them along as well.
Two nuns leading Alpha
Two nuns had come in to run it, and to this day they’re the oldest people I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think you could live that long. They were what I, at the time, perceived to be the stereotypical Christian – sandals, socks and a slight moustache.
I thought, how can they be relevant to me, to my life? What can they possibly have to say that’s worth listening to? They’ve been shut away from the world their entire lives.
They put on the video and then we talked about it.
We didn’t make it easy for the nuns but for every little dig and jibe we gave them, they never got angry, they never got riled, they stayed calm... They only ever showed love and compassion.
And most of us kept going back week after week – even though a few dropped out.
It came to a point where I kind of made the decision that they deserved a little bit more respect.
I sort of said to myself, ‘Right Darrell, for once in your life just shut up and listen what someone else has got to say’.
That was about three weeks into the course.
They were saying that the whole point was about a clean slate. It was smashing up your old slate completely and getting a new one, a complete fresh start, being forgiven.
They said, ‘God loves you exactly as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way. He wants to take the best of who you are and get rid of the worst of who you are.’
And it just made sense to me. Something clicked with me.
Towards the end of the course we were given some sort of pamphlets and a Bible. I’d never had a Bible.
At the end, they said, ‘We hope you come to church on Sunday.'
I remember saying ‘If there’s coffee and biscuits, I’ll be there’. And I went back to my cell. That night I was sat in my cell.
There was nothing on the radio and I picked up one of the leaflets and sort of thumbed through it. On the back it had something that said ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’.
I thought that sounds like me. But when I looked carefully at it, it wasn’t how I spoke. It didn’t really make sense to me at all.
I put it to one side and picked up the Bible and started thumbing through.
It just dropped open at what I thought said ‘Job’. It was a modern translation, so I started having a read and I just kept on reading and reading.
This story just gripped me and it made me ask a question: this guy lost absolutely everything, but it would not shake his faith in God.
I thought, ‘What made God so real to him that he would not move no matter what? And then in the end, he got it all back and then some.
I sat there on my bed and I picked up the pamphlet again and I looked at the Sinner’s Prayer again and it still didn’t make sense to me.
So I sat there and said my own version. It’s not one I’ll repeat because it had a few swear words in it, but the gist of it was: ‘God if you’re real, prove it. I’ve tried to stop with the drugs, I’ve tried to stop with the violence. Nothing I do works. If you’re real, prove it. Take away my drug addiction, take away all this anger that’s inside me and if you do that for me, I’ll live the rest of my life for you’.
And that was it. There was no bright lights, no shaking cell door, no visitations from angels... I just went to bed.
But when I woke up the next morning, a series of weird events started to happen.
Deliverance from addiction
I’d always make a roll-up smoke before I went to bed and leave it next to my bunk. Then, as soon as I woke up, I’d roll over and smoke it in bed.
But this morning I woke up and went to roll over as a default reaction but the thought of touching the cig made me feel physically sick – really, really ill – and I started to freak out.
I got the cig and I threw it out of the cell window and then I got my tobacco and I threw that out the cell window and as soon as I’d done that, I started to feel better.
Usually in the mornings as well, I’d also smoke a joint.
I had some weed in my cell, but as soon as the thought popped into my head, I started to feel sick again. So I got the weed and I threw that out of the window too, and as soon as I’d done it, I stopped feeling sick.
Then I started to notice something really odd. I went to get a wash and a shave and I looked in the mirror and I almost couldn’t recognise the reflection because I was smiling – not just smiling, but beaming.
And then I noticed I wasn’t just smiling and beaming, but that I actually felt euphorically happy. It was as if someone had unscrewed the top of my head and poured freezing cold water in and every bit of anger and guilt and frustration had gone.
I started being really giddy and happy. The prison officers came in and opened us all up and I walked out on the landing and the lad next door to me took one look at me and said ‘What’s wrong with you?’.
I looked at him kind of gormlessly and said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just happy’.
And from that day, I haven’t touched drugs, I haven’t smoked, I haven’t drunk, I haven’t had a fight...
Within a couple of weeks of that day, I was in the chapel speaking, trying to tell as many people as I possibly could what had happened to me. Not long after that, one of the prison officers on the wing came and opened me up really early and said ‘Pack your stuff up, you’re going to Buckley Hall.’
I was a Category A prisoner and I knew Buckley Hall was a Category C prison and I said ‘That can’t be right. That’s Category C. There’s no way can I go from Cat A to Cat C.’
You can expect if you’ve been good maybe getting put down to a Category B, but to go straight from Category A to Category C is unheard of. He said ‘Don’t argue, just pack your bags, you’re going’.
When I got to Buckley Hall, I found that the chaplain had already been on the phone and I was met by the chaplaincy team: the chaplain David and two ladies, Joyce Molvey and Rita Nightingale.
They all met me at the reception and said ‘We hear you’ve got a story to tell’. So I told them and after that God started to open up so many doors. We saw a great time of revival in the prison. It was fantastic.
I hadn’t spoken to my family for a little over a year. They had shut the door because of everything I’d been involved in.
When I moved to Buckley Hall I wrote a letter and my dad came up. He sat down in the visiting hall and looked at me. He said ‘I’ve got my son back.’
He could see the drugs had gone, everything had gone, and I was back. Since then, my dad and my mum have both made decisions for Christ. Slowly more and more men started giving their lives to Christ and then we were running the Alpha Courses in the chapel and I was running the Alpha Course.This was back when basically you had the Alpha book and the Nicky Gumbel video tapes.
'The fella with the poodle hair'
That’s all we had and God love Nicky and I hope he forgives me, but all the lads used to refer to him as ‘That fella with the poodle hair’. So whenever we put the tape on, ‘Oh it’s that fella with the poodle hair’.
We had to chop it up a little bit because these were very down-to-earth convicts and we had to take what Nicky was saying and put it into their language so they could understand it.
After a while we did away with the tapes and just sort of made up our own based around the books.
And it just took off. It was amazing.
On a Sunday morning we used to get a fry-up and it was the highlight of the week.
Breakfast Alpha in prison
We managed to get one of the prison governors to agree that we could run the Alpha on a Sunday morning before the church service, but they would bring up a food trolley from the kitchens with all the bacon and the sausage and the eggs and the tomatoes, so we could have a huge fry-up.
So we served an Alpha meal every single week of the Alpha course and that meant if you started a course with 20, you finished the course with 20. The numbers didn’t drop away.
But with each course our numbers went from 20 to 40 to 60, 80...
The chapel held 500 and we were having to have three services on the Sunday to accommodate everyone. It just exploded, it was fantastic. We’d have prayer meetings walking round the exercise yard, I’d have prison officers coming to speak to me for advice and counselling. It was phenomenal.
There was one lad called Darren who was a real hard nut to crack. He just wasn’t having any of it at all.
One day during association time, I was sat in my cell reading my bible (I remember I was reading Acts) when I looked up and it was Darren. I said, ‘Are you all right, mate. How are you doing?’
And he said the weirdest thing. He said, ‘I want what you’ve got’.
‘What my Bible?’
‘No, I want what you’ve got’.
I said, ‘What do you mean?’
He said, ‘You’re always calm, you’re always happy. Prison officers come to you for advice. I want what you’ve got, but I don’t want any of that God business.’
I said, ‘Well you’ve got two problems: number one it’s not mine to give you and number two, it only comes from God’.
And I said ‘Why don’t you come in and we’ll chat?’
And he came in, and the only other place to sit was my toilet in the cell, so he put the toilet seat down and he sat on my toilet and I’m sat on my bunk and we chatted – and he gave his life to Christ there on the toilet.
He’s the only person I’ve led to Christ on a toilet.
There was this large room in the healthcare unit which was never used and we said ‘Can we have it for prayer meetings?’
And the governor agreed to let us have it for prayer meetings.
So we’d go and have an entire afternoon prayer meeting for three hours at a time.
And it was in a prayer meeting that the Holy Spirit appeared for the first time and hit every single one of us. Every person in that room were just on fire. We were rolling on the floor laughing... I’ll never forget.
Drugs Awareness Course
One of the courses we started in the prison was called The Rethink Drugs Awareness course, later called the Rethink Programme. It was to help long-term addicts deal with the issues that they face when they come off drugs.
We started with a budget of £30, a flipchart pad and a load of markers and that’s what we had to run it.
Jack Straw was the Home Secretary at the time and Sir David Ramsbotham was the Director of Prisons and they both flew in by helicopter with news crews to look at this great, successful course that was helping people come off drugs.
Towards the end of my sentence there were lots of churches in the surrounding areas around Rochdale, Bolton, Manchester saying, ‘Come and work with us, come and do this with us, come and be youth pastor here, come and do that’.
So I was like ‘Oh what do I do? Where do I go?’
I was about 20 and I knew I had to make the right decision and I was really praying. I knew God had already done so much, but I knew he still had so much more for me to do.
We put on this Passion play in prison with a cast of 40 and the woodwork department made this huge 15ft high cross that could be winched up on a pulley system.
One of the lads’ ex-wives was coming up to visit him and she was a member of Hope Corner Community Church in Runcorn. She went back to church saying ‘You should see what’s happening in Buckley Hall. It’s amazing.’
So Mark Finch, the pastor, got tickets to the Passion play. I was playing Jesus, wearing a loincloth, 15ft up in the air.
We managed to chat for a little bit afterwards, and he said ‘Can I come to see you again?’
So he rang the chaplaincy team and arranged to come up again. He brought one of the church elders with him and the person who was youth pastor at the time.
They talked about the work that they were doing in Runcorn where they’re really heavily involved with children and youth work and working in the schools. He asked me if I would join his team.
All the Scousers, all the Liverpudlians that were in the prison knew Runcorn and their advice to me was ‘Don’t go there, mate, it’s a toilet’.
So that was the only advice I received, but as I prayed it through, it was the only one that I couldn’t shake from my mind or my heart.
On my release, Mark came and picked me up and I went straight to the church. I didn’t go home, I didn’t go to see family and friends because I knew this was what God wanted.
That was on the 4th August 2000. I was 21 by that point.
I’d been assigned a new social worker and all she got was a file that said in big red letters across the front ‘Extreme High Risk Re-Offender’ so she thought she was getting handed Hannibal Lecter.
She became my nemesis – it took a long time to win her round.
The church was a new church plant started in 1994 with seven people. So everything they were doing was groundbreaking.
Mark is a really forward thinking minister. He’s also a magistrate, so he was really putting his reputation on the line going to the school and saying ‘I want to bring this ex convict in who has just got out of prison to talk to these kids’.
It happened that the principal of that particular school was also a Christian, and was also very forward thinking and she agreed and basically said ‘It’s your head on the block’ to Mark, but agreed to do it.
It’s grown and developed from there from doing mentoring in schools with students, to us becoming an approved provider for Halton Borough Council and the Educational Authority.
The drugs programme has grown and we’ve recently been involved in training the police because they’re rolling out their drug/drive initiative now and they’ve started charging people for driving under the influence of drugs.
So we’ve trained the key people in Cheshire, Hampshire, the Met, Manchester forces. So God’s opened amazing doors.
Married to pastor's daughter
I got married to Mark’s daughter, Rebekah, who is our social worker on staff. We’ve been married going on six years. We’ve got a little boy who’s two and a half and a baby girl.
I’m an Assembly of God minister now and I have written my biography called Unreachable published by Sovereign World.
Before Alpha, Jesus was an irrelevant historical figure that did and said a lot of good stuff.
And now he’s my everything. He’s my lifeline, he’s my strength, he’s everything, I couldn’t live without him and everything I do is through him and for him. My life wouldn’t be the way it is if he wasn’t exactly who he said he was.
He is alive.
To watch an interview with Darrell click here.