Women Coming from Prison – Challenging Support Frameworks


Over the last few weeks, I have been working with CRI following a successful tender bid to Lancashire County Council for recovery services in East Lancashire. Consisting of a brand new model, with a raft of local organisations involved, this is a radical and bold model to support people throughout East Lancashire in all areas of their life. SHE and INCAS are proud to be part of this consortium and for a little organisation that has struggled to survive, we are able to move forward under this localised model that centres around families, housing, clinical, education and training needs of people.

The North West has rolled out early adoption schemes – the first in which SHE & INCAS ran under, was the North West Recovery Housing – Through the Gate scheme called Gateways. Under this, SHE and her bigger brother, INCAS, accommodated men and women coming through the gate into safe and affordable housing. Fifteen providers of different models of accommodation were part of the scheme. Gateways was our first outing as a local provider of services and it was an interesting scheme.

For me, Gateways, although now ceased, left a legacy, if not a gap. That legacy taught me as a practitioner, working with one of the most overlooked group of people in prison, women in prison, how to manage being a part of a founding member of a consortium providing vital services. SHE Project has been a part of my DNA since I was homeless, serving a prison sentence in the community. (Yes, you hang em and flog em crowd, a suspended sentence carries as much as weight as a custodial sentence)  I live and breathe the Project and still, nearly two years since SHE opened her doors, SHE runs through my blood like fat through streaky bacon. I have fought, battled and continue to do so. Largely against many odds and barriers.

SHE Project does not fit into any group of services. SHE has been the leaf blowing around on a blustery night. LA loved her, then they wondered about her, then oddly, they disliked her. But SHE has kept going. Looking back, I am not sure how SHE has survived.

But SHE has.

Why has she? Because SHE is right down and dirty with understanding the local socio-economic dynamics of her geographical area. Add to that, a vital understanding of the needs of women emerging from behind the walls too high to see over.

There is a need for local services. There is little room for a blanket approach on what women need coming from prison. It isn’t enough to be rolling out services from the halls of Parliament or academics who have studied women’s needs. It isn’t enough to tell women what they need – it’s local services where women can feel safe to say “This is what I need, can you help me?”

If we were to break down to each local or district authority, a map of services, there would be a very different graph and demographic image of needs in areas.  What works in the Home Counties, will not work in Cumbria. Models that do work, are not area-specific. It is simply they are fantastic models that work.

Properly resourced and funded local services that meet the needs of their local communities will welcome home women and men coming back to their communities from prison. I cannot bang this drum enough. The moment a woman leaves prison is the moment she belongs in the community she wishes to live in. It is vital she has services to turn to.  Just as any member of the community is able to.

It is time for funding to cease being the bidding pool it has become. It is time for commissioners and grant-givers to ensure local services are fully resourced and able to survive. Let local services care for their own. It’s time.





GETTING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM WE CHOOSE Part 2: ”Think of a number……any number”

At the conclusion of the opening part of this series, I posed a question. If you got the right answer I hope the elation derived from that fact alone will be sufficient, as no prizes were being offered.

If we are agreed, as I suggested in Part 1, that there are certain aspects of our lives, existence and bodies over which we can demonstrably be shown to have no control whatsoever, let me now go a little deeper and suggest –before we even get to the science of the matter- that you really have no control over another integral part of your make-up; something that may make you a little more uncomfortable and, probably, defensive. I am going to suggest that not only do you not have any control over things such as your DNA and genetic make-up, and your date, location and place of birth, for example, but more importantly –and possibly from your point of view, more worryingly- you do not have any control over your thoughts either. That’s right. Let me say it again. You have no control over your thoughts.

I would like to claim the credit for this seemingly radical proposition, but I cannot. In his recent book “Free Will” (2012, Free Press), Sam Harris explores some of these themes in far more depth and far more eloquently than I can hope to do. What I hope to do, however, is blow some of the intellectual froth from the surface and at least stimulate you in a direct way to consider something intimate to yourself: your own thoughts and thought process. What has this to do with the criminal justice system? Plenty, I will argue.

But first, another challenge. Think of a number……..any number. It can be any whole number you choose from 1 to, well, the highest number your mind can possibly envisage. That should give you essentially an infinite choice and, in that regard, I suggest I am giving you the freest choice you will ever get in your entire life. Look at it this way; in the coffee shop, my supposed choice was limited, not so much by the size of the display board as the stock the coffee shop had. If, for example, I had asked for ‘Deadly Nightshade and Guacamole’ flavoured tea, I suspect I would have presented the barista with a challenge she could not have risen to, at least for several days. Even my choice of exotic beverage, whatever it may be, would eventually be exhausted by the fact that all resources on the planet are limited. There are only so many possible choices of ‘tea’ I can have, thanks to nature’s limitations. So the choice I am offering to you, literally any number from an unlimited number of possibilities, must be as good as you will ever get in terms of a free choice.

So, have you chosen yet? Take your time; there really is no hurry. If you want to go and get a cup of coffee, or even have a holiday abroad specifically to consider this very matter, please go ahead. I will still be here waiting. I want to do nothing to limit your freedom to choose. However long you have taken –again a totally free choice for you- let me assume that you now have chosen a number. I say immediately that I am not a mind-reader, so I don’t know what number you have selected – and once again, no prizes are involved. It could have been any number.

Now try again, but this time focus on your thought process. Think about how, and what, is happening in your mind in the process of choosing any random number.

Now, I don’t know what number you are thinking of, and it really does not matter. For argument’s sake, let’s say you have selected 65. Now let me ask you: why did you alight on that particular number? Focus on your thought process. Perhaps you are sixty-five years old, or have sixty-five pounds in your bank account. Was the number you chose significant for any reason you can understand or make sense of?

But even if you had ‘65’, or whatever number you actually chose, lurking somewhere in your conscious mind, why choose it? I mean, you had infinity to choose from. While you were considering your selection the second time, did the number 346 ever feature in your conscious mind, for example? Or 34,987? Or 3? I could go on and on suggesting numbers which you could have selected, but didn’t; numbers which you obviously knew existed and could possibly have alighted on, but which never presented themselves consciously to you. The fact is that any number, from 1 to infinity and beyond were available for you; and almost all of them, I can guarantee, were ‘eliminated’ from your decision-making process with no thought of your own whatsoever, because your mind never brought them into your consciousness. If that is the case, and I suggest it is, how could you ever have been ‘free’ to select any of them? They just never materialised; for whatever reason, your brain, your mind just refused to offer it to you for consideration. And was the reason it failed to do so any fault of yours? And could you have done anything about it anyway?

Let me go further. What is the next thing you are going to think? You may answer ‘Well, I am reading this, and this is what I am thinking about’, which is a fair comment. However, have you ever noticed how things just ‘pop’ into your mind without you ever, literally, ‘thinking’ about them. Maybe for some reason you have just remembered as you were reading that you left the iron on in the kitchen, or that you forgot to post a letter to your sister, or you ask yourself ‘Why is he using that font?’, or any one of an infinite number of random ‘unthought’ thoughts. Where did those thoughts come from? And have you ever been talking to someone, listening to whatever they are saying, and then thought to yourself something along the lines ‘You look just like Bill Clinton’. Where did that thought come from? You weren’t inviting it, you weren’t expecting it; it just ‘happened’, out of the blue, from nowhere. It simply ‘pops’ into our consciousness, and we are powerless to prevent it. Now focus on exactly how many times a day this happens. And focus on the process by which it happens. Your thoughts, in terms of what you think (by being brought into your consciousness) are out of your control. They either happen by some process of ‘cause and effect’ or they are utterly random; but either way, you have no control over them. This was my reason for posing the question I did at the conclusion of the last part: I suggest that you had just as much chance of guessing what I was going to write next as you had of knowing what your next thought would be, and had as much control over it.

Before going further, let me make a concession at this point. You may say ‘You have a point about that, but once the ‘thought’ is brought into your consciousness, then you have a free choice about what to do with it.’ I will return to this in another Part. At this point, however, if you concede that what ‘pops’ into your consciousness, a ‘thought’ is something you are powerless to control because it is essentially given to you by your brain/mind, it is then ‘there’. It is a thought, and something you cannot either prevent or control. Try telling yourself not to think about something; in telling yourself, you are proving you are thinking about it, and if it remains in your mind (and for however long) it will not be down to anything you can consciously do. And if you forget it for a while, you will never stop it coming back in, when your brain/mind slides it back in to your consciousness.

Thoughts are personal. Thoughts are private. They are the essence of what makes us who we are. They, like numbers, appear to be infinite. We are told thoughts can be ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. They can be dominated by emotions, which can be affected by all manner of things from mechanical (misfiring synapses in the brain, for example) to personal experiences. They are the ‘holding pen’ of our essence; sometimes we express them to others and sometimes we do not.

I once knew someone who didn’t like ‘black people’. It didn’t matter where they came from or what their personality might be. I once asked him why he thought like that. He didn’t even give me time to finish the sentence before providing me with a seemingly endless list of reasons, none of which I really need to rehearse. However, in summary, he just thought ‘black people should go home’. That was his ‘thought’. As he spoke, whatever part of my being that responds to things I strongly disagree with was being activated, and the thoughts that began to appear within my ‘conscious mind’, from wherever they came, created the strongest sense of negativity within me towards him. Again, from somewhere, my conscious thoughts were primarily directed towards labels: racist, bigot, intolerant, and so on. I didn’t ask those particular labels to flood my conscious thoughts; they just ‘popped in’. I didn’t think of a list and choose them. It was only, much later, that I began to ask myself –again for no reason I can explain, and can therefore take no moral credit or responsibility for- whether if I myself could not control the responses that my mind was bringing into my consciousness at that moment, could he for the things that were ‘popping’ into his? My immediate feelings were being presented to me from, I would suggest, internal and organic workings of my brain, for which I am not responsible, and programming and conditioning throughout my entire life to that point – again something for which I was not responsible. I wasn’t actually ‘choosing’ to experience the feeling of despising his ‘thoughts’ for any better or more morally superior reasons than he was ‘choosing’ to have them brought into his consciousness. In fact, I realised that if I had been born when he was, with his DNA, his mother and father, his life experiences, and every atom and molecule of my body was switched for his, it would be me who was saying these things; and would I be in any way culpable for that?

I also realised that if, by dint of circumstance, I had been born with a different set of genes, whereby my skin was no longer a (hopefully) healthy shade of pink, but brown or black, and I had been sat opposite the man I have just described, what he said to me would almost inevitably have amounted to a ‘hate crime’ under the laws of this country; something for which he could be arrested, detained against his will, prosecuted and punished for. Of course, you may say that even if he couldn’t help his thoughts, for all the reasons I have suggested, he could have held his lips together and said nothing. I would contend, for reasons I will later outline in greater detail, that whether he would have done is something he was not free to choose; but even if he was, there is the issue of whether it is in any way justifiable to criminalise his ‘freedom’ to simply express thoughts which he cannot control, however unpleasant we may consider them to be.

In the next part I am going to suggest going out of our minds for a while and taking a closer look at how some of this connects with the criminal justice system.

Part 3: “The philosophy of the criminal justice system: ‘I think, therefore I am……..guilty?”

GETTING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM WE CHOOSE Part 1:”Where there’s a (free) will…….”

Smiling barista: “What can I get for you today?”
Me: “Okay, what have you got?
The smiling barista points helpfully to a large board just behind her head, containing a generous list of beverages under a variety of headings. My eyes scan the board. After a few moments I’ve made my decision, and a peppermint tea is “Coming right up!”
What is unusual about this scenario? Absolutely nothing. Every moment of every day of every week choices are being made by every one of us. And these choices are made, I am going to suggest quite literally, without us even thinking about them.

Almost every area of our life, our society, politics, religion and much more besides is based squarely on the assumption that we as individuals have freedom of choice, freedom of thought and freedom of action. The Judeo-Christian theology, and the ‘morality’ that religious enthusiasts are so often quick to remind us is the basis of our morality, our society, and the foundation of the laws that operate within it, rests entirely on the premise that we are ‘free moral agents’; that we are free to think and act as we choose, and that if we choose ‘wrongly’ consequences –in the here and now and, for the religiously-minded, the eternal- will follow. The ‘democracy’ that we are so often reminded to cherish is likewise based upon the premise that every five years we are free to enter a polling booth and place a cross against the name of someone from among a list of candidates to represent us in the legislature, and who will (on our behalf) engage in debate, frame and then vote to enact the laws which we all must obey or face the consequence of punishment. And of course, the criminal justice system is based on the premise that we are all free to think and act as we choose, and that if we choose to act in a way which infringes criminal legislation we can be arrested, detained against our will, charged, tried and (if found guilty) punished in a variety of ways which can range from being deprived of our liberty to the simple fact of having a conviction recorded against our name, which carries with it both stigma and potential discrimination against us by others, thereby affecting and limiting our ‘life-choices’. The criminal, we hear, ‘deserves’ punishment simply because he or she freely chose to behave in a way that the law, whatever law, does not permit. But what if this ‘freedom’ to think, to act and to choose is actually illusory? What would this mean for the criminal justice system which, as I have suggested, is fundamentally premised on individuals having what we call ‘free will’? And what would, and should, it mean for our attitudes towards others more generally?

It would be easy to react to this by responding that this is a debate for philosophers sat in some ivory tower over a bottle of sherry. The fact is that this is exactly what philosophers have done –with or without the sherry- for centuries. The issue of ‘free will versus determinism’ has been the subject of metaphysical enquiry, in one form or another, for thousands of years, and in spite of the intellectual weight of those participating in it, the fact that the metaphysical debate remained unresolved and was still the subject of philosophy examination questions in elite universities probably cemented the not unreasonable view that there was no definitive answer. And if there was no definitive answer, who really would feel compelled to regard themselves as anything other than being able to think and act as they chose? Do you want to consider yourself anything other than free to think, act, choose and live as you want? ‘Freedom’ is an evocative word; something to be sought, to be fought for, to be argued for, and even to die for. You may now be thinking that you are free to stop reading. Part of me wants to say to you ‘well, feel free’, but I suggest the reality is that whether you stop reading or not is not something you are really ‘free’ to do. And for that reason, if you do stop, I should not, and would not, feel any offence whatsoever. This is something I will return to later in the series.

The problem for the ‘freedom fighters’ in this debate has intensified in the past few years. What was once an academic metaphysical debate with no real possibility of ever arriving at a definitive outcome is now being invigorated by the intrusion of science; more specifically neuroscience. Where once upon a time fanciful debates over sherry generated little more than heat (some may say warmth) on the subject, science is now throwing much more light on it. Just what science currently has to say on the issue will be the subject of a later post in this series. The point perhaps to make here, though, is that where we could once sweep possibly uncomfortable propositions under the carpet because they could be labelled as subjects of philosophical debate is now not so easy to do, and that if we try to do that, the bulge under the rug will, sooner or later, demand our attention anyway. Science deals in cold, hard facts and is stubbornly resistant to all forms of human prejudice and preconception. And if what science currently has to offer us on this issue is right, or may be right, I am going to suggest that we are going to have to rethink many of those prejudices and preconceptions, including such fundamental things as the very nature of the laws we pass, why we pass them, just what purposes those laws are intended to achieve, how it is they can achieve those intended purposes, and the nature and purpose of punishment, among others. Put simply, if our criminal justice system is based upon the premise that we are free to choose whether we break laws or not, and this premise is (or may be) wrong, how can we justify it? And if we refuse to reconsider these things in the teeth of a truth we simply will not confront, our criminal justice system will remain unjust by definition, as it will be based on an illusory premise.

I know some readers are now already raising the defensive barriers and muttering things such as ‘of course we have free will. What is this idiot talking about?’ They may be looking back at the opening paragraph and suggesting that when I was stood in the coffee shop, looking at an array of options, I had perfect freedom of choice. I could have chosen anything and was free to do so: a Cappuccino (with or without cream), Latte, Mocha, Americano, and pretty much any variation on any of those themes. I could even have told the barista to mix up an iced lemon tea with a shot of espresso and a dash of tomato ketchup, if I’d chosen it. And, by extension, you may say, almost anyone can freely decide whether they are going to steal a purse out of a handbag when they see it – or not, as the case may be. If they decide to slip their hand in and ‘have it away’, that is their choice, and if they get caught, well, they will take the consequences of their actions.

In concluding this part, let me simply offer, by way of an opening gambit on this issue, something that we can maybe all agree on. There are innumerable aspects of our lives – and I would (and will) argue that these are fundamental to much of what makes us up as human beings and shape our ‘choices’ – about which we clearly have absolutely no choice whatsoever. You have not had (and never had) any choice – conscious or otherwise- over most of what makes you up. You didn’t choose when, where, or in which society, culture and/or religion you were born. If you were born into a religious family, you didn’t choose the basis of that religion, the principles it advances, or the expectations it makes of you. You didn’t choose your parents, or the genes you received from them. You didn’t choose your eye colour, skin tone, height, body shape, or hair colour. Born ‘ginger’? It wasn’t your fault, and you had no choice in the matter; but how many of us have personal recollections of the kind of relentless (and unchosen) baiting the ‘ginger kid’ got in the playground and elsewhere, let alone the effects (again unchosen) that this may have had on him or her. You didn’t choose any of the characteristics or experiences each of your parents brought to your upbringing and instilled in you on a daily basis from birth; in fact, you didn’t choose if your birth parents gave you up for adoption and (if so) the situation in which you found yourself growing up. You didn’t choose your pre-school or nursery contemporaries (who brought with them all the things they didn’t choose, either), the schools you went to, the other children who just happened to find themselves at that institution at the same time you did, or the teachers who you came into contact with. I could go on and on with this, but you get the point. For most of your young life, at the very least, your choices were not your own, your mind was immature, still forming, and influenced by things, most of which you didn’t choose or have any possibility of influencing.

Before you run away with the idea that I am saying that anything I mentioned in the previous paragraph amounts to a conclusive argument for the proposition that your actions should not have consequences, both as individuals and within the wider society in which we all have to live, I am not. Those matters I mentioned are nothing more than a list of things we (hopefully) can agree are not matters of free choice, by and large. As I stood in the coffee shop, looking up at the board, did I choose the fact that my taste buds (which I had no part in choosing) simply reject any kind of coffee, and that I would rather drink a gallon of road tar than a cappuccino? Did I choose the fact that at that moment I wanted a hot drink rather than a cold drink, or ever consciously consider why? In those circumstances, was I ever really ‘free’ to choose to act to buy a cappuccino or a glass of water as a ‘free choice’?

And here is a closing thought. What am I going to talk about in the next post?

Mark Fletton was a practising barrister for seventeen years, and is now a writer/researcher, living in Exeter, Devon.