Modern Times

When One Gate Closes, Another Six Open…

SHE Project has survived against many odds. SHE’s belief is that no woman should leave prison without a roof over her head. A recent media spin that HMP Bronzefield issued sleeping bags & tents to women peppered my inbox with *Have you seen the news?* subject lines.

It’s been three years since I was street homeless. Three years since I lived on my mother’s sofa following my travails through the CJS.  Since then, I started SHE Project, stood my ground against bigger & much better housing elements than I could ever aspire to. SHE started with a small funding grant from Allen Lane Foundation.

I’ll not forget the day SHE opened her tiny little office at BPRCVS in Burnley. There we were, with a raft of back office support I’d created whilst on licence.  SHE had five volunteers then and we were bemused.  We had an office. We had one house. A phone line. (No Internet,  this took three weeks) Me & our five volunteers looked at each other not knowing what to do.

“Let’s ring some people up’ I screeched.

This is what we did.

SHE Project opened at a time of uncertainty for The Probation Service.  Funding cuts screamed from pages of mainstream media. Within six weeks of SHE opening, my mother died. It was not going well for me as a woman launching a community project to support women  from prison.

Yet, SHE would never have survived this time without her team around her. Strength comes from within. Strength also comes from comforting arms in the form of those whom have struggled as organisations to survive.

SHE’S first annual report is due for publication in a couple of months. I’ve worked this bloody project for three years since I squatted on my mother’s sofa. I’ve watched volunteers come and bless them, go.

We’ve helped 52 women from prison incorporating their families.  We’ve taken part in research.  We’ve struggled to survive and been threatened with closure.

In 18 months, through our doors SHE has supported 339 convictions (including mine) had 22 properties, furnished them, bought 79 packets of tampons, 24 packets of panty liners, 28 tubes of toothpaste, 19 toothbrushes, (12 sets of towels donated through our lovely friends at Cohort4women) 39 duvets and well, had 66 keys cut (TY Timpson) 19 washing machines, 12 fridges, 6 tellies, 19 sets of cutlery.  That’s before support kicks in..

SHE has spent hours on telephone calls, reunited a mother from prison with her daughter from care. Shouted, screamed, argued and fought the corners of our lasses. All here in East Lancs.

As our fellow women in HMP Holloway are shipped out, to prisons hundreds of miles away from families & children,  SHE opens her first six self-contained flats in Greenwich London.

Women from Holloway serving sentences are now hundreds of miles away from family links, families are hundreds of miles away from women in their lives.

SHE is not delighted to be offering this service. SHE felt she had to do something to support women as we have done in the North.

But out of the ashes rises women. When the gates of Holloway close for the final time, SHE can do a tiny part in our big dirty capital to help and support six women.

SHE Project and Women in Prison, in the spirit of their founder, Chris Tchaikovsky, ensure that women do deserve a home on release and do deserve to at least have a foot in the trenches to dig up.

SHE Project Greenwich opens in June 2016.

 

 

Transforming Rehabilitation….Spinach & Mango Juice

As much as I would like to forget about this excuse for supporting those in the hands of the Criminal Justice System, I cannot let it go. Treating grown women & men as though they are devoid of intelligence, is a crime. Transforming Rehabilitation is not the revolution, the MoJ mouth propagates.

Support for those leaving prison is an omnishambles of that *multi-agency* support. I see it via our referral process. Gate pick-up is early. 9.15am by one agency and the newly-released (adults in my language) person is driven to their locality. Usually their home town.

On arrival, a newly-released prisoner will be taken to various appointments, drug misuse services for the induction on methadone prescriptions, various supporting agencies for volunteering opportunities, essentially, I see a pattern. Cram these newly-released prisoner’s days with appointments so they end up knackered and are too tired to go out committing criminal behaviours. Rather than managing risk, plain as the nose on my boat race, obliterating risk.  Should SHE or INCAS be in the food chain of this lot, typically on a Friday afternoon, at approximately 3.30pm, arrival at our offices occur.

What we are faced with, are people with their belongings in plastic bags, a food pack, and SHE/INCAS support team are tasked with moving a tired, exhausted, burdened, worried person, who has been sitting in a car for the day and being dragged around to various agencies meeting people who tell them shitty platitudes around how life is going to be wonderful should they follow the support plan pulled together for them on the day of release. Out-of-hours support is non-existent unless one considers being picked up in a stranger’s car at a pre-agreed point on Friday night to sit in a group drinking spinach & mango juice. This is the start of the *recovery* journey. (According to experts)

For fucks sake. A newly-released prisoner is supposed to engineer their rehabilitation in one day, move house, drink spinach & mango juice with other *recovering* people and join every club going to cram their day listening to people who have *been there* I frankly, would fancy heading to the nearest pub and getting smashed on my £47 release grant.

Seen as somewhat of a maverick, because I managed to drag myself through with no support from a service, plus my criminal background, I am accountable to statutory agencies to explain issues raised by those who have never been where I have. People supported me through my journey. It is always people who support other people, not a service, people. Still, in my kitchen, I can drink my spinach & mango juice made by own fair hands.

When will England & Wales wake up? When will Mr Grayling wake up? This is not meeting the complex needs of a person who has left prison, often homeless and with a rucksack on their back. Sitting in a car all day, appointments with agencies, and being told what to do. These people are adults.

And why not try this way round. For those who are homeless & SHE & INCAS are to house, it would help hugely if we knew more than three days prior to release. Moving into a new home should take precedence over everything else. We could have paperwork ready, we could have the property ready, heated, aired, and a new resident can settle down and begin their journeys.

I moved house recently, it was stressful & tiring and I wanted to curl up in bed & not speak to any person for a week. I had the fortune to be able to organise my own house move with support. My supported living service is exactly that. Support into a home, nice home, so people can move forward with stability.

Unpopular Causes – What is One?

I’ve been in a few discussions recently over unpopular causes.  I compared SHE’S fundraising campaign to that of a journalist’s to live tweet from the hacking trial. We raised £65 and his campaign received well over £10,000. I’m thoroughly grateful to the wonderful people who gave generous donations and that money has been used wisely. We have almost got everything we need for our next house and we have five rooms now available for those leaving prison without a home to return to.

During the development of SHE, while I recognised services were patchy to say the least, there are some brilliant support networks for women leaving prison.  Some of the women housed with SHE are hooked into Lancashire Women’s Centres and other agencies which means the level of support is strong. The fact I encourage this widely is because I was desperate for support and at that time my fragility of mind meant I could have easily become dependant on anyone or anything.

Our men’s project, INCAS, is spearheaded by men. Men developed the project based on their experiences both of the CJS & society.  In the town of Burnley, services for men are as rare as rocking horse shit. Our first member of the projects was male. Released from prison after serving nine weeks of an 18-week sentence, this man had no home, was suicidal and came to us shaking and terrified.  Our chairman spent time with him, playing chess, talking and supporting him. We managed to find him emergency accommodation until his property was ready. We got him hooked into services and he took it upon himself to sign up to the Revolution team from Lancashire Police who offer support to prison leavers.

INCAS is soon to be starting a men’s group. Men, unlike women, can isolate and withdraw which is dangerous particularly when simply dumped outside a prison gate with nowhere to go. Men are much less likely to draw empathy from society than women are. It is no secret men are more likely to take their lives than women. Men struggle to ask for help and reoffending is often their only option to survive.  Going a step further,  the CJS was designed by men for men and it shows. Not because it is unsuitable for women, (it is)  but there is not the support for men which is why the CJS is one big monstrous mess. Women are far more likely to be further up the sentencing tariff,  than a male for a first offence, particularly mothers, as middle class Magistrates judge the woman as opposed to the crime. Men will climb the tariff and have more custodial increments than women.

During a meeting on Friday with a probation officer who is joining our management committee, I discussed with him early intervention in domestic abuse incidents and the possibility of the INCAS Project coordinator working with him on this area for men. Probation agreed it was an area he (bearing in mind his demanding full-time role) would put time into.  My default setting is keeping the family unit intact where safe to do so. At the first sign of abuse, intervention at an earlier stage is vital. I have read some excellent work on early intervention in domestic abuse situations and I fail to see how more work in this area should not be explored. Ignoring abuse at early stages has cost lives, split families and caused generations of children to suffer as adults after witnessing domestic abuse. I witnessed my mother attack my father with a knife as a child, I’ve never forgotten this as an adult.

The support in place for victims of domestic abuse is highlighted often.  But the problem will never be eradicated or solved if only side is supported and the perpetrator isolated. To raise awareness and truly take the bull by the horns, we have to, for the sake of our future generations, look at pathways to step in at a much earlier stage. An unpopular cause? Very much so. I’ve seen resistance to the research on restorative solutions in domestic abuse. As unpopular as it may be, we at INCAS are willing to explore this area. INCAS & SHE are fortunate in that we have a management committee with a lot of experience in a vast range of areas including unpopular causes.

For the sake and safety of our next generation, we should be looking at earlier interventions to keep a family together and show that solutions are possible. Unpopular as this may be, our children deserve at least further exploration.

 

 

Prisoners are a part of Society. Time to face this fact..

stock-photo-lonely-woman-is-walking-through-dark-tunnel-to-the-light-52591162Six weeks in from launching SHE, I have reflected on society’s perspective of prisoners and prison.

The Prison Estate is needed in any society that has laws & a justice system. Prison protects the public by removing those who are a danger to society and as a reasonable woman, I will not argue otherwise.  Any offence committed should be punished & dealt with by a justice system that is fair and dispassionate from the reasons why an offence has been committed.

The current prison crisis, (and there is one, Mr Grayling, not quite sure how long the sand will keep your ears warm) has not just happened since 2010.  The Corston Report as an example, was written on the back of six female suicides in 2005 who were imprisoned at HMP Styal in Cheshire. Yes, six women in one year. Six. Under the Labour government. Sadik Khan may be fighting the corner of Probation as the meat cleaver comes down on the service, held by the hand of Mr Grayling. But, The Corston Report is gathering dust and we have a crisis on top of a crisis. A total fucking mess.

The British are well known as a public for being curious about prison & prisoners. I see campaigns for more people to be locked up counter-acted by campaigns for less punishment and more rehabilitation.  Whichever way the coin is turned, there is a crisis. Prison is part of our society and it costs money. As a tax payer, I’m content that my hard-earned contributes to keeping a prisoner safe and where necessary, away from the public. On the back of this, I’d go further to say, I’d pay more tax so those who leave prison have a pathway whereby they have a shot at becoming working members of the society I live in.

One of the biggest questions I have been asked since launching live delivery of SHE, is “How do you get on with women who have left prison? ”

I’ll tell you. These women are human beings. They laugh, they cry, they get mad when people clutch their personal belongings as though Satan is in their midst. These women have the same travails that any member of society has. Living on a pittance, waiting for six weeks so their rent can be paid, wondering if their landlord will place an eviction order on them.

These women were still a part of Society when in prison, for non-violent offences. No agency went into help them with resettlement.  In fact one of them was on remand for eight months & found not guilty.  She was dumped outside the gates without a £47 grant and no home to return to. She had the clothes she was standing up in.  She has dangerously low blood pressure and has had to wait for six weeks for a GP appointment. She has never sought action to shout about her situation on being incarcerated for eight months. She’s the least self-indulged person I know.  SHE team have supported her (no payment received) and she’s soon to be engaging in a market stall to be guided in retail skills. A normal woman who has been discarded by a society that claims to care.  She is part of Society. Yet never asked for anything apart from a home where she could build a life.  SHE gave her this.

I was discarded by society in 2013. I never stopped submitting a tax return, I worked and while I was given a custodial sentence, I served a suspended sentence which carries as much weight as a custodial sentence in terms of disclosure requirements. I gatecrashed my way back into being a functioning member of society. Members of SHE will do so too.

So, when campaigners are fighting for more prison sentences for people, remember, it costs money, and all very well locking people up and feeling satisfied when this happens. But 95% of those people at some point will return to society and that society has a duty to ensure help is there to facilitate progress.

Prisoners are part of our society and it is time society wakened from their slumber so that prison leavers are able to move forward.

 

Women in The Justice System: Let women decide their needs on release.

Women in the Justice System is rarely out of the news. There appears to be a distinct interest in women who commit crime. As a woman who has journeyed through a court, I often wonder what is so fascinating about women who commit crime.

Since the news has got out around my project locally, I have been approached regularly by people looking to volunteer. I have had to seriously consider what these women who will be supported in their new homes, need. Having researched women in prison, spoken directly with women who have been in prison, and now housing women from prison, I have to restructure how I, as the coordinator of the project that I built based on my experiences, look for the skills in people to offer support to women who have been released from prison.

We all know a home is required prior to any support that can be put in place. SHE provides a home. SHE provides a safe and secure environment where women can feel safe. Not a person’s sofa or a grotty hostel. (Yes, hostels are unpleasant places, I was in one) Prison is one of the shittiest institutions a country can have. Yet within or behind the gates too high for the public to see over, women learn from each other. They cluster together and get through how the state, ignore the needs of women in their care. I have two former female prisoners who are tenants and have created a lovely little home for themselves. Everybody appears amazed these women are able to run a home. For pity’s sake, these are women who have run homes. Being in prison does not remove the ability to run a home, shop, wire a plug and operate a washing machine. Hello, these women have survived horrendous conditions that would make a woman who runs a mansion, shudder.

I have kept relatively quiet while our women have settled into their home. I have given them the space, respect and courtesy to settle into their new home. There have been disputes, but these women, and let we not forget, have resolved, as the adults they are, in-house, these disputes. See, that is what they did inside. Today, they came to my office & had coffee. They always cheer me up, they talk over one another and speak loudly, because this is what they had to do inside. And the best bit? We laugh. They are a pure joy & delight to work alongside and are capable, streetwise, sassy and bloody smart.

Back to volunteers. Having been approached by many, who I have spoken with, I find (and I am not dissmissing volunteers at all) there are some who have used pre-defined ideology on what these women need. Our tenants have shown me the way, without knowing it. They have shown me what they need. By their words, the thank you they give me when I ask their consent, consent majority of humans take for granted each day, but most of all, our women have told me what they need. To find their own path and less of a regime than they have been subjected to behind the walls.

Of course, SHE has to abide by many guidelines and we do. We have a duty of care. To encourage a visit to the GP on acceptance to the project, to ensure correct insurances are in place, offer support when asked for support and most of all, show respect that they are free to make informed choices around their needs.

The pathways that women need, according to many, are in place and a paper by Baroness Corston has been gathering dust. Let women who are released from prison, choose for themselves their needs. All our women wanted, was a home. They have settled in and are content. Their further needs are met and where we cannot meet them, we have close links with organisations that can.

I have been known to be up in arms over how women in prison are overlooked on release. I can only offer my support as a woman who has been through the CJS and served a suspended sentence. I can offer support as a woman who has been homeless. I can offer women support when they are separated from their children. I know that pain.

The simplicity of what a woman who has been released from prison, needs, has been swamped by glossy brands. SHE is simple. It costs little, she needs supporting at times, SHE knows what she needs to do. Listen, provide the basic essentials and the rest will fall into place. Needs change, just as they do in any woman who has not been through a prison gate.

Give these women the freedom to make informed choices. They have served their sentence…. they paid the price for their behaviour. At a time of difficult change in rehabilitation, let us, as a society, offer what we all have. The freedom to make informed choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parent’s “Snatch” Child from Hospital

i will not calm down

 

What a week in the “news”. Yesterday, I was amazed when I read a headline claiming two parents had “snatched” a child from a Hampshire hospital. These sort of headlines grab my attention as a mother. Even though I am without my children, I know the brokenness of this and how I have felt at times over wanting another child to replace the feelings of loss. The mind is a fragile sphere and my own thoughts at times have scared the shit out of me. Back to the headline, on further probing, it emerged the parents who snatched a child, had taken the decision to collect their child from said hospital. I first came across the BBC report. The words that stood out for me in that report were “without consent”. Later news reports declined into “snatched” and the caring British public began to comment on how these parents were abusive, selfish and a number of other adjectives appeared. A “major” investigation was launched and Hampshire Police appeared on camera detailing their concern for the five-year old little boy who is seriously ill with a brain tumour. It has to be said, I have no issue with the police being concerned over the welfare of a vulnerable child, (lest we forget Rotherham) I appreciate the police have to look into a hospital reporting a missing child.

That said, I want to explore why a mother and father, parents of five other children have been subjected to such crucifying headlining by mainstream media. I want to place myself in the shoes of these two parents who have a seriously ill child, are loving parents to all of their children. They are, according to reports, Jehovah’s Witnesses, but whatever their beliefs, as parents in the UK, they have a choice in the medical decisions around their child. As far as we know, the little boy was granted home leave under the supervision of his parents and there have been no reports claiming any of the six children are the subject of any child protection orders. The child protection remains the responsibility of these two parents. Youtube clips of a loving brother telling of his pain at the hands of his poorly little brother have been aired and pictures of a loving mother at the side of her desperately ill little boy have been printed.

The parents have broken no laws. They removed their child from the hospital, as they have not responded to any of the reports in the press, their reasons are speculation only. As a mother, were my child dying, I likely would do the same. I would take my suffering child and spend as much time with him/her as I could and if the end was near, I would rather my child was surrounded by his/her loving family and be there, as a mother holding that little hand as my child passed on into the next world. As a mother, I would want to ensure that passage was safe and be there. That is what I would do as a mother amidst the grief and loss I knew I would endure. I can look back and state this, given I could no longer tear my children up from a war between their mother and father, not knowing the loss and pain I would endure. Ten years of pain, slaggings off from those around me, that I was an unfit mother et al. My children are alive and I may at some point in the future be able to build and form strong bonds, the mother of this little boy does not have this hope.

It is a lonely place at times, being three-dimensional. Of course, the welfare of this little boy must remain paramount. I stand by that, but isn’t the welfare of this little boy the responsibility of the parents who have chosen for him not to be treated at the said hospital they “snatched” him from?  There were no concerns previously over him being under the care of his parents during his home visits. The press frenzy around this is piss poor and on the back of the Rotherham abuse of 1400 girls, it appears orchestrated to turn the attention of the public away from what is systematic abuse of young girls to two parents who are loving and their dying child.

These two parents did not “snatch” their little boy from a Hampshire hospital. They took their seriously ill little boy out of the hospital lawfully and as loving parents.

What is scandalous, is the headlining of these two parents as child snatchers and the press should be ashamed of themselves.

As always, comments are welcome.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/11062841/Major-investigation-as-parents-take-five-year-old-boy-with-a-brain-tumour-from-hospital.html

1400 Children and Questions that Need Answering writes JP Riley

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Rotherham has hit the headlines this week for reasons that are wrong on so many levels. It appears a huge systematic failure, on a scale that beggars belief, has occurred over a number of years and now the authorities need to explain why. Feeble excuses of “we must ensure this never happens again” are just not good enough.

Child sexual exploitation is a very serious matter. As an observer with no legal experience, the glaringly obvious is the following:

1) Engaging in sexual activity with a child under the age of 16 is a crime.

2) Authorities have a duty of care in order to protect children from harm

3) The police have a duty to investigate any allegation.

4) The CPS must consider any case presented to them.

Seems to me this ought to be a simple process that should quite easily run its course.

When is the law not the law? It seems to be able to move the goal posts with the complexities that surround it, nothing seems black or white at times. If a crime and/or crimes have been committed or indeed many crimes as appears in Rotherham, why was it allowed to happen to so many? Who knew about this, and who were actually involved with the process that seemed to fail them all? If politics are allowed to be thrown into the mix this may hinder the process further, throw in the race card or cultural differences and this could hinder the process. Throw in community cohesion and multi-cultural agencies and this may also hinder the process further.

Will one authority or a number of authorities be sufficient to suppress the distaste of many people that are appalled at what has happened in Rotherham? Will it spiral to other parts of the country and show failings in their local authorities too. One needs to cut away the chaff, no excuses from the class system, or the out of control children from the worst deprived areas of the country, or blaming the parents of those children. The law applies to all. Why has the law been distorted in this way? To the naked human eye, it appears the law has been broken to avoid the law.

The police have many questions to answer. There should be questions to answer. Lest we not forget the media. Their control of such events of late have been nothing more than contempt in order to cause frenzies and sensationalise these events. Their profits will soar and they will be wielding their axe on many people in order to conduct their kangaroo trial of these events.

These children have suffered heinous and violent attacks and have been failed on a monstrous scale. By the law, that is supposed to protect the public. Statutory agencies had a duty of care to these children and the voices of these children were ignored. There has been no recourse to help from the victim support networks that are available. The agencies who were aware of these crimes had a duty to report, furthermore, the police had a duty to investigate any allegation and they have a duty to answer now, why they chose not to act on these matters.

The magnitude of the failings between so many agencies and the people responsible for those failings need to be brought to task, people cause system failure and in turn ought to be accountable and dealt with accordingly to that of the law.

GETTING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM WE CHOOSE Part 3: The Philosophy of the Criminal Justice System:

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Mark Fletton writes:

 Let me pose another question. What do we mean when we say ‘the criminal justice system’? It would be an interesting experiment to simply stop now and invite responses. It is a phrase which is used frequently, and yet we rarely stop to consider what it actually means. If we want to feel ‘safe’, and maybe not think too much, we could simply go to one of the many online or ‘hard copy’ sources and lift a definition. If you do that, you will probably find a definition along the lines provided, for example, by Oxford Dictionaries which provides that a ‘criminal justice system’ is ‘The system of law enforcement that is directly involved in apprehending, prosecuting, defending, sentencing, and punishing those who are suspected or convicted of criminal offences.’

All very neat, isn’t it? In twenty-five words we have encapsulated the essence of one of the most vital components of our society: one that deals with protecting the citizenry from all manner of ‘harms and wrongs’ and ‘punishing’ those who perpetrate those wrongs. And it covers a huge production line, from initial apprehension of suspects (normally undertaken by an organisation established and dedicated to that purpose) to those who undertake and dispense ‘punishment’, and all stations in between. The same dictionary uses twenty-eight words to define ‘elephant’.

‘Systems’ are good. A system is a set of things working together as parts, forming a complex whole. A watch is a system, the pipes which bring water into your home comprise a system, and your body is a system – a system which contains many other systems. Notice anything about these systems? Well, they all work together with a simple purpose. If a spring goes in your watch, you can’t tell the right time. If a water-pipe bursts, you can forget a cup of tea in the morning. And if your blood gets infected, you are going to need a doctor, quick.

I am going to argue that the criminal justice ‘system’ (if we adopt the simple definition above), as it has evolved, is really not a ‘system’ at all. I would describe it more as an ‘industry’, although in many ways an industry at least seems to have the advantage of having some idea of the reason for its existence and its primary goals. The car industry exists to produce metal boxes with wheels to make people’s lives more comfortable and enjoyable, and to make as much financial profit as possible whilst doing it. The management and employees all know what they are striving to achieve and generally all pull in the same direction to achieve it. The criminal justice ‘industry’ is a huge undertaking, mainly financed from the public purse, and employing an eye-watering number of people. There are some 130,000 serving police officers, for example, and that is before we begin to count the number of Police Community Support Officers and staff in support roles. Then you have court staff up and down the country, the CPS and its support staff, solicitors, barristers, judges, prison staff, probation staff and on and on. This is, on any view, a sizeable enterprise.

Criminal legislation generally begins in Parliament, when the governing political party, or parties, decide that a particular activity or behaviour should be deemed a criminal offence. This is often, though by all means not always, driven by what they perceive the general public consider as important (and which political party wants to dent their prospects of electoral success?) or as a response to specific events (eg terrorist attacks – consider the volume of criminal legislation this has driven in the past thirteen years!). Of course, the politicians would say that they are taking steps to protect the public; which, by happy coincidence, helps to obtain the support of the electorate if they can convince them they have protected them by passing the legislation, and shown them they are ‘tough on crime’. The police, of course, have the task of apprehending those who they deem to be breaching these laws. They then pass the person accused of a crime to the court system, where eventually evidence is tested and guilt established, or not, as the case may be. If guilty, the convicted person then moves into the ‘punishment’ regime, the sausage meat end of the process.

I suggest that any system is ordinarily judged by success in achieving what it is designed to do. A watch is designed to tell the time, water-pipes to deliver water, and your body to stay alive, and if any of these things don’t result we would have no hesitation in saying the system has failed. The failure of one component in an integrated task will defeat the purpose. But what is the purpose of the ‘criminal justice system’, and what are the criteria for ‘success’?

Although some readers may regard it as cynical, a government passing laws will see the success of what they are doing in essentially keeping the electorate happy, and getting re-elected. The police will see success in terms of arresting people they believe have broken the law, and hitting their ‘targets’ as efficiently as possible. The Crown Prosecution Service, charged with the task of prosecuting those in the court system, sees ‘success’ as achieving as many convictions as they can. Defence solicitors and barristers see ‘success’ as the acquittal of as many of their clients as possible. Judges see ‘success’ as passing what they deem to be a sentence ‘in accordance with the law and guidelines laid down’ to the point where they are not the subject of too many successful appeals. Those involved in running the prisons see ‘success’ as implementing a regime where prisoners are kept secure and don’t escape. Probation officers, and probably prison governors also, may see ‘success’ as their charges not returning to a life of crime. Of course, each one of these integral parts will say they don’t view ‘success’ in the way I have suggested: the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, will try to suggest that ‘success’ is in ensuring only the guilty are convicted. This overlooks the fact that they are not ultimately responsible for that outcome; a jury or bench of magistrates are, and all the CPS can do is ask itself ‘is there a reasonable prospect of conviction of person X on the evidence we have’ and, if so, try to secure a conviction against them; otherwise why bring the case? It can be seen that the criminal justice system really is not an interlocking mechanism of parts all vital to produce a successful outcome. It is a smorgasbord of bodies and people who have different aims, different interests, and who have different primary outlooks on what counts as a ‘success’.

I would liken the criminal justice system to a pantomime horse. It is a combination of parts, none of which quite know what the other is exactly doing, or more importantly why. What holds it together and provides it with some semblance of cohesion is a great brown big cloth, designed to create the illusion of a horse. The reality of course is that we all know it isn’t a real horse but is just doing an impression of one. All we need to do is suspend our disbelief for a while and our imagination can do the rest. For a time, the two people bent double under the cloth and moving on stage are a horse.

As I mentioned in Part 1, there are plenty of people who will try and convince you that the criminal justice system, as it may be traditionally understood, is based on Judeo-Christian values. For a variety of reasons that I need not go into, I don’t subscribe to that particular piece of casuistry. I do, however, concede that there is one element of the Judeo-Christian tradition which has been the bedrock of the criminal justice system for many centuries, namely that individuals have been born as moral free-agents, possessing absolute free will when it comes to thought and action. The Judeo-Christian theology, which has permeated every part of the life and culture of England and Wales, again for many centuries, is predicated on the notion that everyone is free to think and act as they wish. Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a list of ten holy commandments, among them several ‘thought crimes’, including coveting your neighbour’s goods and his wife. The last two parts of this series have attempted to provide cogent reasons why thoughts are out of your control, and why you cannot be ‘blamed’ for them. And yet our entire system of ‘justice’ rests upon assumptions about human nature, and principles carved out of stone by the finger of God on a mountain several thousand years ago; namely the notion that you can control your thoughts, and your actions (and I will return to address that in a later part), and that if you don’t you will receive punishment, and the moral outrage of your fellow citizens. We have allowed Bronze Age assumptions to journey with us unthinkingly through thousands of years, never putting the bags down long enough to ask whether they actually reflect what human beings really are and how they really operate, within the context of how best to protect society from ‘harm’.

Borrowing from the publication that brought us Moses and the holy commandments for a moment, in Matthew 7:24-27 we are taught the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Essentially, if you build your house on a foundation of sand, sooner or later it is going to be found out by an influx of water. I have long argued, rather like Noah, that the rain is coming and that eventually the cracks in the ‘criminal justice system’ will be too large to ignore. If the ‘system’ is predicated on a premise that is false, the conclusions will be flawed and the outcomes will not be ‘justice’. If free will is the illusion I contend it is, then ‘punishment’ is futile, and indeed the very word becomes meaningless. This is not to say that society does not need either laws or procedures in place to both protect its citizens and, wherever possible, to remove as far as possible the risk of those who have caused harm from doing so again. But if free will is an illusion, we need a new approach and a new vocabulary for the reality we actually face, rather than continue to suspend our disbelief and seeing the pantomime horse as the real thing.

Very few people want to lift this particular stone for fear of what they might find underneath. It is far easier to keep holding the security blanket of history and the overarching, but rationally and scientifically threadbare, beliefs which now seem ingrained into our psyches. So instead of asking ourselves what this ‘system’ is trying to achieve, and by extension asking ourselves how we are going to achieve it, we just ignore the issue and carry on, but in an increasingly frenzied way. What ‘justice’ meant for the Blair administration, for instance, was to pass some three thousand new criminal offences in a nine year period. During this ‘law-fest’, activities such as selling grey squirrels and impersonating a traffic warden became criminal offences. Had a law been passed making it compulsory for traffic wardens to impersonate human beings, I might have had rather more sympathy. But the prevailing attitude now for some time has been to increasingly regulate people and their behaviour by the creation of criminal offences, to the point where you begin to ask yourself whether the true intention is to ensure that everyone secures themselves a criminal record sooner or later, with all the baggage that brings with it. What is really needed is to ask ourselves ‘what are we trying to achieve by doing this, and what is the best way of doing it, based on hard realities and a true assessment of ourselves as human beings?’

And if free will is an illusion then, as I have suggested, ‘punishment’ becomes futile, and we need to look afresh at what we are trying to achieve in each individual case. We send people to prison, only to find out they are released and ‘reoffend’. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice in 2013, one in four ‘criminals’ reoffend within one year, committing five hundred thousand offences between them. For those leaving the prison system, the reoffending rate was 47.2%. Is this meant to represent ‘success’? Bearing in mind the statistics are not broken down by individual offences, it is hard to know how many of these ‘reoffenders’ fall into the category because they sold a grey squirrel or acquired a fetish for traffic warden uniforms.

What religion and the criminal justice system have in common, for sure, is that they both rely on faith to survive. As long as you have faith that what you see is a horse, you will ignore the brown cloth and cardboard face and continue to try to feed it a sugar lump. What is not so sure is how much longer faith can be maintained in the face of the overwhelming evidence that the ‘system’, from first to last, is deeply flawed and operating against the very thing it should be doing, namely protecting the public.

Mark Fletton is a former barrister, a hardened and devoted Sheffield Wednesday FC supporter. He is now a writer/researcher and lives in Exeter, Devon.

PRISON CRISIS? YOU CAN SPRAY THAT AGAIN

This week Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been defending himself against further criticism that there is a prisons crisis. A little over a week ago Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, told the Independent newspaper that overcrowding and staff shortages were directly related to the growing number of suicides in prisons. The very body which represents prison governors have said that staff shortages mean that it is impossible to run a safe and decent prison regime. The Howard League for Penal Reform has calculated that prison officer numbers dropped by 30% between 2010 and 2013, while the prison population has continued to increase. Attacks in prison are increasing, assaults on prison staff are increasing, and the prison service’s riot squad was called out two hundred times last year, a sixty per cent rise on the previous year.

In terms of the rise in prison population, Grayling puts this down, in part, to what he calls ‘the Savile effect’; the courts are now imprisoning more sex offenders and particularly historic sex offenders. Andrew Neilson of the Howard League, however, claims that the real driver is that remand in custody is being overused, alongside the fact that sentencers are being influenced by, and responding to, contemporary political rhetoric from the government about being ‘tough on crime’. Grayling’s response to this most recent spate of criticism looks more and more as though it is based on sticking two fingers in his ears, humming loudly and hoping that he can keep a lid on the crisis, at least until the next election when the problem will either no longer be his, or alternatively he’ll be in another government post.

In March 1996 a young man called Simon Sunderland appeared before His Honour Judge Robert Moore at Sheffield Crown Court, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He hadn’t burgled or robbed anyone, glassed anyone in the face, or committed any sexual offence against sheep or other livestock. Although many citizens of the ‘Steel City’ applauded the sentence, even the man who hunted him down and brought him to justice said at the time “I hate to think of him rotting in prison.” The crimes for which Sunderland, who at the time went by the moniker ‘Fista’, was incarcerated related to his activities as a ‘graffiti artist’ and were all charged as criminal
damage.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not for one moment saying that what Sunderland did was not, or should not be, a criminal offence. Francis Butler, the councillor who led the hunt for ‘Fista’ over a five year period, said at the time “No one living outside of Sheffield can imagine the chaos he caused over the years. He painted on everything: walls, public buildings….street signs, even a bus that had broken down.” As fast as the council cleaned off the graffiti, ‘Fista’ would redecorate. As I indicated earlier, Mr Butler felt no sense of triumph in the sentence. He said “My own personal view is that I imagine he had already learnt his lesson by the time he came to court.” Councillor Pat Midgeley felt that the sentence sent a powerful deterrent message, saying “This sentence should stop people in their tracks. It shows what people are beginning to think about public order offences.” At this point, it should be said that ‘Fista’ did appeal his sentence, having it reduced to 21 months by the Court of Appeal. Nonetheless, it would be hard to deny that Sunderland surely must have been made to suffer for his ‘art’. No sane person wants their liberty taken away, do they?

Except that, for whatever reason, prison did not deter Sunderland. Having been released from prison, he found himself back before the courts in 2002 for similar graffiti offences involving two bridges in Barnsley (although I would have thought that any attempt to add colour to Barnsley ought to have earned him the freedom of the town in any sane society). On Friday this week, Sunderland, now 41, is due back again before the Sheffield Crown Court for sentence, having admitted numerous further offences of damaging railway property in Sheffield, Rotherham and Chesterfield in 2009 by way of graffiti ‘art’.

In an excellent and thought-provoking article in the Guardian newspaper this week, Simon Jenkins said “The British are prison addicts. We scour the country for reasons to imprison. We jail for not having a television licence, for Googling in jury rooms, for smoking cannabis, for hacking a phone…”* The point he makes, in a nutshell, is that this is not a ‘prison crisis’ but one in our courts and parliament. We live in a culture which seems to have prison as some kind of all-encompassing answer or antidote to every ‘anti-social behaviour’ hard-wired into its DNA. That is all well and good if you also have a society which is willing to spend whatever it takes to build prisons and staff them appropriately. But if you want to keep imprisoning people, or remanding them in custody, and you are not prepared to allocate sufficient resources, then you are going to be sitting on a ticking time bomb so far as the prison population is concerned. If you want to send someone to prison because they can’t seem to stop rambling ‘in the buff’, well, you have to provide the resources to keep them locked up. But of course the reality is that the government either can’t, or won’t, allocate sufficient resources to ensure both the physical space to incarcerate an ever-expanding prison population or prison staff to watch over them. The result? Grayling fiddles while Rome burns.

And in all of this, very few people ask the real question: what is prison meant to achieve? What has prison achieved for Simon Sunderland, for example?

In her 2008 memoir ‘How To Survive Puberty At 25’, Nina Bhadreshwar recalls an interview she conducted with Simon Sunderland, during which she asked him ‘What would stop you doing graffiti?’ To this, Sunderland replied ‘Having my hands chopped off.’ A five year prison sentence, albeit reduced on appeal, and further court appearances for similar matters has failed to prevent Sunderland committing further offences of criminal damage. What is the answer? Longer and longer prison sentences? Some would probably endorse the answer that Sunderland himself gave, and have his hands surgically removed, with or without anaesthetic. Or does the answer lie in the realisation that society has to be more creative, particularly in situations where nobody has been killed, nobody has been physically injured, nobody has even had their personal belongings stolen or their personal security threatened.

The stock response to Simon Sunderland’s case is to suggest that if he simply cannot stop spraying on buildings, bridges and walls, he will have to go back inside for longer and longer periods to ‘keep him out of circulation’. Is this really the best that society can do in the 21st century? One way or another, resources are going to have to be found: either to keep people like Sunderland locked away in a regime that satisfies the lust of those who think the answer to every ‘crime’ is to bang up the perpetrator for long periods of time, or to support creative and imaginative ways of responding to behaviours we deem ‘anti-social’. Sunderland is not a murderer, rapist, violent criminal, robber or house-breaker, but it is possible that in less than two days time he will be back in a prison system that is – in spite of Grayling’s denials – in a state of crisis, under-resourced and with no clue as to what it is really now trying to achieve beyond the will of political masters whose interests really are no more than being re-elected. Is this really the best we can do?

*”How can Chris Grayling deny our prisons crisis?”: Simon Jenkins, 19th August 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/19/chris-grayling-prisons-crisis-inspectors-overcrowded-violent-jails

 

Mark Fletton is a former barrister. Now a writer and researcher, he lives in Exeter & is a hardened Sheffield Wednesday (amended after suitable bollocking) supporter.

SHOW OF FORCE: Search for justice in naming a ‘suspect’ pre-charge

wave-of-the-hand

 

On the afternoon of Thursday 14th August 2014, police attended at a Berkshire residence to carry out a search of the property. They had apparently received a complaint from somebody and decided that searching the property was something that should be done in order to investigate the complaint. Nothing so unusual about that, you may think. After all, it is something that happens daily, up and down the country, when complaints are made to the police.

What happened in this case, however, is slightly more unusual. According to Amanda Platell in this morning’s Daily Mail*, the police admitted that they had confirmed to the BBC that they were going to search the property. Having received this information, the BBC then obviously do what any self-respecting national television station would do and turn up at the property to secure as much footage as they can about the ‘story’.

Amanda Platell may be a veritable bottomless pit of misplaced moral outrage but I suspect, rather like the broken watch that tells the correct time twice a day, she has probably hit upon an issue here which, in the interests of justice, needs to be addressed, and quickly.

The person whose home was being searched last Thursday is a ‘national celebrity’. That fact, obviously, secures him no immunity from the law and its processes. What it does do, however, is mean that in the event that ‘plod’ comes knocking at his or her door, it is going to arouse the interest of the media if and when they find out there is a criminal allegation being made against them. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and the media has an economic interest in stories involving ‘celebrities’. And if these ‘stories’ involve allegations of some of the most detested and detestable human behaviour, the more interest there is going to be. The media know that the public is now almost seemingly intoxicated by the cult of celebrity, and will milk that for all it is worth.

The media, like all of us, are subject to restrictions on what can or can’t be said about a story like the one I have described above. Why not? Because in the event that the matter comes to trial, it is essential that the individual concerned can secure a fair trial by a jury who have not been influenced by extraneous material and by soaking up what is often little more than the groundless opinion of others. The legal process often involves, for example, applications being made by the defence for certain evidence to be excluded under statutes such as sections 76 and 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and others. The more the case has been discussed and commented on in the media, the greater the likelihood that the jury may become aware of matters which, if they are deemed legally inadmissible, they should not. The fairness of any trial is then thrown into doubt.

But the possible legal implications are not the only ones that are at play here. As Amanda Platell probably rightly suggests, the implications of how this particular story has been reported go beyond legal issues. It touches upon how we, as human beings, respond when we are told that an unnamed complainant has suggested the commission of a repugnant criminal offence by another, ‘celebrity’ or otherwise. Many of us may be able to look at matters such as this objectively, and say something like ‘Well, he (or she) is innocent until they are proven guilty’, but should we have to?

Anyone who knows me will know I am a hardened opponent of any but the most necessary legal regulations to ensure that society functions in a way which creates the most harmony for the most people, and in any event justice and fairness for all. What I question about what has happened since Thursday lunchtime, when this story broke, is why the person was ever named, or details of the search disclosed. The inevitable media frenzy creates potential injustice and unfairness, and an atmosphere in which an individual (whatever the eventual outcome) has had his or her reputation brought into the public spotlight for examination.

None of us should engage in any kind of comment or speculation in relation to the individual concerned. Although we all now know who it is, I have deliberately refrained from using his name, and the only reason for mentioning the incident at all is because it highlights something I suggest we need to address now, particularly bearing in mind the ongoing police operations and enquiries into serious allegations of child abuse by ‘prominent’ people.

I have two questions arising out of all of this. Firstly, should the name of anyone who has not been charged with a criminal offence ever be made public in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation? Whilst in the vast majority of cases, the press have no interest in reporting pre-charge (or even post-charge) criminal cases, I suggest that cases like this serve only to run the risk of blighting someone’s reputation unnecessarily and increase the prospects of a trial being rendered unfair. Secondly, should the name of an accused person after being charged with a sexual offence ever be made public prior to conviction? This is, perhaps, the more debatable issue, bearing in mind it cannot be denied that releasing limited details of the name of an accused and some information about the charges may lead to other victims coming forward and making the case against him/her more compelling.

As I invite responses to these questions, I make one appeal. Please do not mention the name of any individual who has not been convicted of any criminal offence. It is not necessary to make your point, and the questions are aimed at stimulating a debate about the general issue, and not specific individuals.

* ‘Cliff Doesn’t Deserve This Lurid Trial By Television’: Amanda Platell Daily Mail 16th August 2014: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2726393/PLATELLS-PEOPLE-Cliff-doesnt-deserve-lurid-trial-television.html

 

Mark Fletton is a former barrister. He is now a writer/researcher and lives in Exeter.