myths

Why are there more Fathers Rights’ Organisations than Mothers?

quote-there-is-no-greater-warrior-than-a-mother-protecting-her-child-n-k-jemisin-240587I have to get this off my chest. In fact, this is a decade of frustration over my family law case. While I am out of Family Law as are my children, I have had shall we say, a few years to reflect on the mistakes I made back in 2003 in expecting a court would resolve the difficulties within my home environment.

A decade on – Action for Children are working on an alternative offence for the neglect of children. Details of which can be found in the link.

I am passionate about justice and child welfare. Having failed as a mother to protect my children from the damage two warring parents subject any child to, I have found peace within myself to be able to look at situations with a degree of balance.

I opened proceedings in Family Court back in 2004 in order to secure the residency of my own children. The father of my children took great exception to this matter and between us, we started a war. For twelve years, we were married and yes, we had the same difficulties as any other young family. The struggles of the early 90s recession, job losses and the strains of raising two young children. Yet neither of us had our problems with each other as parents of the same children. Our children were paramount in our relationship. When the marriage faltered, we managed for a time to exercise contact between ourselves. My ex-husband was in a new relationship and yes, I was hurting and fragile. But friends supported me and it was clear my marriage was over.

The moment I started court proceedings, was the moment my ex-husband turned against me. Mud was flung, I made scurrilous attempts to undermine him, he counter-acted with further attempts to throw in family history and we viewed each other across a courtroom like two small countries about to launch missile attacks on each other.

Cafcass were brought in to “assess” and one day, his contact order stated he should return them at 18.00 hours and he did not. Without going into a long detailed misery piece of how I fell apart, the long and short of it is, my children were so frightened the result was they no longer wanted to see me. I was awarded (oh the terms used in law) indirect contact. Pretty useless when he refused to disclose where the children were living.

I began to search for a name for what was happening. I found it. This name was Parental Alienation Syndrome. I latched onto this and a decade ago, it was not too well-known in the UK. I spent time with Americans who were far more advanced in this topic. I searched for Mother’s Groups who were suffering the same and very few were around. I came across MATCH (Mothers apart from their children) joined but soon became frustrated with the whole process and carried on racking up huge legal bills that I simply could not pay for. The journey took me to Europe, the Middle East, the United States and I chased my tail until it all ended back in England in a criminal dock with my liberty in a Judge’s hands.

In 2014,it has been ten years since my ex-husband made me see my children in a car park. He refused to allow me to see them only under his command. I had no choice but to respect his decision. Please do not misunderstand, I have no problem with my ex-husband’s abilities as a father, he was and is a good father. He hated me for beginning those proceedings and “taking him to court”

Jumping forward to the present day, I have seen Father’s Rights groups, contact groups and a whole new PAS-aware world. But rarely, do I see, a decade on, Mothers Groups. Fathers Groups’ tell me and I do engage with them, as I do support the family unit, Family Law favours Mothers rights over Fathers. I disagree, Family Law does not favour mothers over fathers, nor does it favour Fathers over Fathers. I do not see this at all. What I do see and what I have experienced, is the worst words any parents could fear. “You will never see your child/children again”

This is a traumatic statement for any parent. Having discussed this with Natasha Phillips who is passionate over the welfare of children, she experienced this and that statement in itself proved to be true for me, ten years is a long time for any child to not see a parent. I know, I never saw my own mother for three decades and when I found her, it was not a pretty sight.

I see Fathers battling for their “rights” to see their child/children and years of estrangements at the hands of the mother. Wars in secret courtrooms where emotions run high and broken parents fight to the very last for their children, believing this is the way forward. I see Fathers Rights’ groups tell of wicked, evil liars of mothers who have stopped them from seeing their children and recently, I have seen support for the imprisonment of mothers who prevent children from seeing their fathers.

This is where I stop. Halt! When we begin to wish criminalizing the mother or father of our children, then I see even bigger problems occurring. I am against an alternative offence for neglect of children. The Criminal Justice System is a monster and children of imprisoned parents suffer more than any adult will ever at the hands of the CJS.

My message to Father’s Groups:

I understand your pain – I have been where you are. I have no wish to send the father of my children to prison or put him through the hands of the CJS, my children who are now adults love him and he is their father. Why on earth would I want to do this to my children? I am a mother and the loss of my children, I played a part in when I fought for my rights and forgot about their needs. The love they already had from their Mum and Dad.

In a child’s eyes, there is no ranking of who is the better parent. A mother’s love and bond is ferocious and sometimes we fuck it up. But as I enter my 11th year without my children, I do know they are safe and well under the care of their father. I took a step back to allow them to breathe when our war was suffocating them. That was out of love when I saw the terror on their faces of what we were doing to them.  A father’s love is strong and in no way lesser than a mothers. Your children love you no matter what and is it not time to look inside and stop the war?  Whether a mother or a father, is it really necessary to demand the opposing parent is placed into the hands of the criminal justice system? I have been there and let me tell you, it is not a pretty place and the ramifications are huge. Another law is not going to help understand why one parent uses a child as a pawn. In any game of chess, what happens at the end of the game? All the pieces are placed back inside the box…

As I wait, patiently for my children to make contact, this has to be their decision, they are adults now, my heart, my home and everything awaits them as a parent who is repaired. I retain no anger towards the man who made me see them in a car park all those years ago. I was not in his shoes at that time and who is to say I would not have done the same in my rage against him?

And the provocative question of the title of this piece – Why are you the common purpose? Because mothers in many cases, as I was, are demonised by society for not having our children with us. We are in many ways afraid to speak out for the fear of being named and shamed as bad or worse even mad mothers. There is something overtly strong about a father’s love for his child and you are commended for your fight. I support many in this, a father’s love cannot be diminished by a mother’s love for her child as there is room for both in a child’s heart. Love it or loathe it,  Mother Nature cannot be destroyed. Even in a prison cell.

Parental Alienation begins with one parent beginning the process. Many mothers get on with their lives and silently suffer afraid to ask for help. I am not against any campaign for the rights of children but I do believe it is time to look into those little faces we love so dearly and find it in us, to stop the war and leave court to those who do really need it. I know my children will have questions and they have every right to ask me those questions. Just as I had questions for my mother.

I was a child of two warring parents, and I became a parent who wanted a war. History does repeat itself. The scars of that war are hard for me to bear, so what must it be like for a child to understand why the two people they love most in the world hate each other so?

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.

Irresistible Force Paradox – The Invisible Journey

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When we think of invisible, what do we see? Imagery is created and while we picture in our minds the invisible, we are aware we cannot see the object. I can think of one example here and it was when my son was around nine months old. He was sitting in the bath and I had a shower spray which entertained him while in the bath. He would quizzically peer at the spray of water dispensed, attempt to grab it in his chubby little fingers then furrow his eyebrows, puzzled as to why the water was not present when he opened his hand. It’s the little things…

The theory of desistance is just that. A theory. Therefore, it can be argued. I’ve crashed on for a year on what is not being provided in rehabilitation for women, desistance is my new best friend. I have engaged with many other women on the topic of desistance. Yet, it is primarily absent in services. It is still being defined with academics and they, (the smart and clever beings they are) have yet to come up with a definition of what the word means.

Desistance cannot be rolled out as a model in the way a set of rehabilitation techniques can. There are rehabilitation models out there in use and being used. We have those “service-users” and the delivery is rolled out by service providers. Desistance is not. It is an invisible force. There has been no test to implement the process structurally as there is with rehabilitation. Criminology academics write about it, research it and study it.

As a footsoldier, who has served a community sentence, my journey is well-documented across various channels. Desistance is defined (albeit loosely) as a cessation of offending behaviour. It is this cessation of behaviour, offending is a behaviour, regardless of the act or law it breaches, I am going to explore here.

Looking into my own psyche, I did not “suddenly” offend. A catalogue of years of badly managed choices, a fight in Family Law courts to see my children, some bad relationship choices and some dreadful business decisions led to me signing cheques I could not honour and creating credit card accounts in someone else’s name. That’s the history sorted then… But what of my future – what is it in my brain that prevents me doing it all again?

Fear of Prison? – I do not fear a prison cell. That is not because they are holiday camps as the press would have you believe. I was living on a canal bank, prison would have solved my immediate homeless problem, hooked me into the system and I would have become a “service-user” I would have used prison as a way of re-focusing, re-building and tapped into what was on offer. The custodial part of my suspended sentence of 18-weeks may not have afforded me much in the way of rehabilitation, but hell, I’d have a bunk to sleep in and a sink to wash my hands in post-sanitary needs.

Fear of public’s reaction after journalists have filed articles – Goodness me, this one makes me smile. Honestly, I could not give a flying fuck what the public think of me – I have not seen my children for a decade – that features highly on my agenda and continues to reach way and beyond the public’s wanton need to shout out that women are fraudsters and should rot in hell. If the public want to own what I have taken responsibility for, served a sentence for and changed a tampon on a canal bank for, be my guest. You’re welcome to it.

None of the above – I’ll tell you what it is. It is that I like my life. I like the fact I have a little home. I don’t have much – but it is all mine. I did not re-start. I started. At the age of 45-years old, I changed my thinking patterns. It was always going to happen, and I’d simply had enough of the crap. I do not have chaos in my life any longer. This is because I am not creating chaos. People overlook when I say the words – “It was not hard” Default settings are set within the power of suggestion – how wonderful it is when a person has championed adversity and come through to a better place. I had to learn one thing. I had to overcome what I was always doing. Lying to those close to me, and leading them to believe I was “fine” I clearly wasn’t. I can see where I went wrong and it cost me dearly. I had to look at what I was doing. It was only my behaviour that got me in a dock. When I stopped looking for someone, something, to blame, it was the wake-up call that I needed. I could not hold it, I could not see it, I could feel it but I could not reach it. One day I did. I found my path and started. It was my path and it is not one for another person, their path is their path, my path is mine and if that path is broken by another, I can still remain there crawling along at my speed and taking my time. I might have the odd trip-up and the odd fall, but I keep on it and I live it each day.

I did not need to cease offending. I needed to alter my whole world to how I once knew it. It is within the creation of a new life, I was able to look at what I was doing and not break the laws in this, our green and pleasant land. I did not find the answer from Probation, I did not find the answer from a research paper. I found it, where it was always lurking, popping up on my shoulder, wagging its finger at me and saying “Trace, is this really a good idea?” I found the answer in me.

To quote: “when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object”

That is my desistance journey – and this time, it is not going to land me in a dock. There is not a law in this land that can tell me how to manage this one…

But good luck trying…:)

You Cannot Melt Ice with Snow – The Ice Mountain that is Chris Grayling

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I love to study body language and there is no better body language to study than that of Chris Grayling. This Ice Mountain of a man, appointed as Lord Chancellor & Secretary of State for Justice, has been the subject of criticism from lawyers, probation and lest we not forget those who have been sentenced at the hands of his department. Chris Grayling has caused a stand-off between the Criminal Bar Association of monumental proportions. Even the Yanks are writing about this. My time being in the cells ceased in the 70s. Mr Grayling is the most talked about Secretary of State for Justice in my lifetime and I am 55-years old.

Since his appearance on the panel of Question Time this week, I have seen cries of injustice that questions about the injustices of his axe coming down on the Probation Service and The Criminal Bar, were not put to him. Housing and immigration were the order of the day. The lawyers and Probation staff felt cheated. (From what I have been reading)

We know Chris Grayling is not a lawyer. He has a degree in history. He’s made history, I’ll grant him that. Grayling towers over people as his hatchet comes crashing down on legal aid and the ever controversial figures of re-offending. Controversy theories reign large – he must have something on Cameron to be able to cause collateral damage of massive proportions on the Justice System and not content with pissing off barristers and Probation staff, he’s happy to lock kids up in a modern-day borstal.

So what is it about Grayling that intrigues me? The MoJ have a frontman who is unshakeable. He has a photographic memory. I have watched him on various news outlets and the man never flinches. He is unemotional and chilling in his delivery.  A well-versed public speaker who is not stupid. He knows exactly what he is doing and as the MoJ shuffle their balance sheets, worrying about the cost of legal aid, who better to front out controversial changes than an Ice Mountain who raises an eyebrow and places his hands together, before he launches his missile attack on lawyers and Probation? I have respect for the legal profession and the Probation Service but the missile Chris Grayling has launched on them is huge and he simply, raises an eyebrow as our esteemed legal profession stand off against him and NAPO write daily on the hatchet job he has done on their members.

I am not in a profession. I am a former builder and have worked with people diagnosed with acute mental health illnesses. That took some doing and gave me a few skills to look at behaviours. Chris Grayling’s behaviours have caused the Masters of The Criminal Bar and they are no shrinking violets to stand up to him, but even the Masters of Inner Temples cannot shake the Grand Master who is without a doubt, The Ice Mountain that is unconquerable. One thing you cannot take away from Grayling is that he is an educated man, his use & understanding of words leaves everybody lost for words.

Public opinion is not divided on Grayling. He has obliterated it and everybody detests the man. One cannot even align him to Marmite. People don’t love or hate him, they just hate him. Grayling shows no signs of psychotic episodes, he is neither a sociapath or psychopath, take away the rage and contempt people have for him and look at the man, one could attribute him to an adored Mary Magdalene. The Criminal Bar and The Probation Service are the ones on the pilgrimage. Thou shalt not worship false gods.

The legal profession have their ice picks out and have chipped away at the base of the ice mountain. Despite the overturning on appeal of the halting of a major fraud trial, the legal profession chipped away at the ice mountain. Chris Grayling and the MoJ then used the little-known Public Defender Service and began to offer a recruitment process for lawyers. The Criminal Bar’s reaction to this was to dismiss any lawyer who went and got themselves a paid job.  Sadly the Probation Service have not yet used an ice pick, they have used a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

David Cameron may well be the leader of the Conservative Party, but Grayling is the Don. Grayling decides who lives, dies and who gets to be a volunteer for those pesky re-offenders who will be mentored by a range of private enterprises when sentenced to less than 12-months in prison or a community based sentence.

My opinions are entirely my own and without prejudice. Time to go and take my medication.

Author – JP Riley

 

What the Papers Say…

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The British and their love of the media is well-known and even more well-known, is the British media and their reporting of events. We all subscribe to it one way or another.

I have been poking around in dungeons of research and have found a handful of papers that reflect my thoughts since the shabby reporting of my cases. Despite the usual comforting platitudes of people over and around the usual – you’re not a bad person, chip paper, people forget – there is always someone waiting like a lion/ness in the wings to look up the goodies that cause shuddering outrage. It is akin to legalised terrorism. To install terror into communities under the rather flaky smokescreen of that old favourite – in the public interest – or the even more disturbing,- the public have a right to know -. Despite claims of never believing everything in the media, there are many who do. It is a cultural failing of the human race. Let us look up this person and find out what the papers say.

The reporting of women who commit crime in the media is harsher than the reports of men who commit crime. The Sun has it down to a fine art. “Monster Mother is released from prison” was thrown around in the latter months of 2013. Monster is a childhood image formed by parents during bedtime stories. Children are scared of monsters, The Sun however, sees it differently. What better way to sell copy than terrorising the nation into believing there is a monster roaming the streets? Even more terrorising is the monster is a woman. Furthermore, she is a mother.

Women do commit crime. Infanticide is committed by more women than men. Any loving parent cannot even begin to comprehend such an act. When a woman commits a violent act, I understand the media frenzy, we wimmen are not supposed to act in this way. If we take “Sam” from my previous post. Despite her crimes, I do not care what they were, I have no wish to know, she made herself homeless according to LPT because she “surrendered” her tenancy to her partner so her children’s home could be protected. Once a mother, always a mother.

There is a manufactured belief that women are kind, compassionate, and should not commit crime. Studying comments in “below the line” sections, women will happily go along with such words such as “My children are my world, how could any woman do such a thing?” Along come many “thumbs up” to this wonderful woman who adores her children showing the world how she can never imagine another woman committing such a crime? It is unthinkable to contemplate what could drive a creature who is compassionate, kind and gentle to kill her young?

When a story like this breaks, the qualification of such actions brings a woman’s femininity into the equation. Then of course her mental health is brought into the mix to throw up a cobbled story with little or no substance. Backed up further, is the failings of systems who were either involved or should have been involved to prevent such an act and hence, media frenzy follows.

If we were to ask 100 people which woman represents a “monster of a woman” I’d lay a pound, each of those 100 people to come up with the name of Myra Hindley. Myra Hindley is not remembered for being a woman. She is remembered for her acts as a woman. The media portrayal, half a century later, depicts her as evil. It is accepted Ian Brady committed acts of horror, yet more has been written over Myra Hindley’s involvement. We understand Brady and his psychopathic tendencies, but even today, Hindley’s involvement is hard to define.

Yet, we have many women who say they would do “anything” for their children. These women are portrayed as heroines. Movies detail such events. A woman who commits murder as a revengeful act against a person who has harmed her child is depicted as a woman who was driven to this because of the act against her child. She has conviction, a determination and her loss is driven by her maternal need. She kills the person who has harmed her child, everybody applauds her. Sympathy and empathy follows from many who say they would do the same. There is little condemnation of a woman who commits an act against someone who has harmed her child.

I have given birth to three children and none of those children are with me. Two have spent their teens with another woman, one who I do not know. She is married to their father. She has her own child now. Frankly, I feel the lesser of the two evils, despite having had the long finger of Regina pointing down on me. Any woman who takes, without permission, children of another woman because of her love for a man, commits the biggest of theft imaginable. I mean really? How many mothers would give their children to a stranger? Yet there are no press reports around her – only me. I committed acts of fraud. Looking at my mother, who last saw her children being driven away by another woman in 1977, after a Judge ordered the removal of her children (one of them being me) and given to another woman who fell in love with their father. My mother was then abandoned by the state, her doctor, the father of her children and it took me until I was 42 to find her side of the story. I found her homeless, broken, having been spat on, robbed and walked past many times a day. Again, platitudes of “poor woman” or “how could this happen?” She will never recover from the loss of her children and it’s all very well for those who say “Oh how lovely you’re back in her life”

Press reports on women who commit crime are never easy for me to read and I have flown a one-woman-plane in commenting on how harsh the media is on women. Naturally, I get the usual “whataboutery” from men who claim they have just as hard a time, but the biggest resistance, anger, hatred and awful comments have come from women.

There are a handful of people who I have spoken with who truly do understand what a woman goes through when she commits a crime. Usually women who have also committed a crime.

It is pointless asking the media industry to tone down their reporting – we all having a living to earn, right?

Media reports lull us into believing that women who commit crime are evil. Societal norms drive social engineering and the media play a huge part in socially engineering that women who commit crimes are evil, mad or downright bad. So the next time any person reads a headline where a woman has committed a crime, perhaps remember the very contribution to society’s attitude around women is being created because of what is sold as copy.

Putting The “Sis” back into Genesis

sis 2

What’s not to love about Sister Act, the playful intersection of sex and sorority. The gritty dreams which rise from the street meld with the glamour of performance and into headlong collision with the self flagellation and denial of a convent. In a woman’s prison, filled to the rafters with the unlikeliest of friendships, like couples forced to stay in unhappy marriages because of economics or children, this was a gem of a production at HM Bronzefield in early March 2014.

This production by Pimlico Opera, a charity in the criminal justice rehabilitation sector has undoubtedly enhanced the confidence of the 20 or so women who took part, on stage and behind the scenes. They were each given £5 phone credit and £10 to spend on toiletries on their prison accounts.

Each one was brilliant and it was a pleasure to watch their confidence blossom. But what next?

In times of extreme austerity and the swinging cuts of Axeman Grayling, is the £180 000 cost to the prisons justified? In the brave new commissioning landscape of payment by results and a renewed focus on the arts as a tool for rehabilitation, metrics must be in place to measure hard outcomes aligned with the 7 identified pathways out of offending behaviour, as defined by NOMS. We have to be able to identify the long-term benefit of women prisoners taking part in these types of projects, which might appear, on the surface to be nothing more than excellent PR opportunities.

The production itself was spectacular though the full orchestra might have compensated for the very high ceilings in the gym at Bronzefield and the dreadful acoustics. Was this about showcasing the talent of the women prisoners or the dazzling orchestral manoeuvres in the dark of the Pimlico Opera orchestra? This is only the third time Pimlico Opera have produced a show in a women’s prison, their back catalogue is more impressive in men’s prisons.

Krispy Crèmes and exotic cheeses brought in as treats don’t add to up to long term rehabilitation. Why are they filling women with carbohydrates to make them behave nicely? These empty calories, both spiritually and vocationally symbolise the misplaced puffery and hype in a prison which has a battered reputation and enjoys a shocking reoffending rate in excess of 71% within a year.

Women prisoners at HMP Bronzefield were treated to a viewing of the performance on a Wednesday afternoon. This feminist manifesto made famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the lead role as Dolores van Cartier brought light and laughter to the grim greyness of HMP Bronzefield. It’s an institution where individual members of staff show dedication and compassion and where stories of inmate abuse, documented by HMPI Nick Hardwick last year, and sexual relationships between prison officers and the women are rife. The good ones – and they far outweigh the few renegades – are stifled by archaic management systems and an old guard of governor grades who believe in prison and making it as unbearable as possible – it is all about punishment. These worthies take on the role of God, all knowing, all seeing the eye in the sky and CCTV. When I asked the Head of Decency (whatever that entails) the justification for 500 women being locked down on a Friday afternoon so that staff could see the performance, leaving prisoners without access to services and even normal access to telephones, for the glorification and convenience of the few, he replies

“Well, they are all here to be punished.”

Chilling words as Bronzefield is a remand prison.

Many women did not bother to attend and visits were cancelled for the 8 days of the show’s duration and a few days either side. This included legal visits. These systems entrenched in punishment and retribution are the antithesis to rehabilitation. Bronzefield is notorious for its impossible visit booking system. How did the perverse decision to disrupt visits yield a net benefit for the 513 women who did not have anything to do with the show? Maintaining links with the community is an essential component in successful re-entry post incarceration and access to legal services is a basic human right. Should core ethics and values be hived off for the participation of a few or more perversely, in an attempt to repair the battered reputation of a beleaguered prison?

The punishment for profit agenda represents the negative, hardened attitude prevalent at this privately run prison in west London. It becomes necessary to magnify all the “worst” in these women and justifies this unfairness by abrogating responsibility. Until prison governors are clear about their remit to deliver a public service and whether safety, control and restraint trump compassion and rehabilitation we will continue, as the public, to suffer unacceptably high reoffending rates. The women’s prison estate remains successive governments’ biggest political failure, running over 200 years. We need to be clear as a society what we demand from those tasked with implementing policy; is it rehabilitation or retribution? Until such time as we exercise this choice, perverse attitudes will prevail.

I’ve asked the women what they gained besides soft, fuzzy outcomes which are short term, besides donuts and pin money. They also received 2 complimentary tickets and discounted tickets for friends who wished to attend. The current male lead who plays Curtis is a former offender who found employment with Pimlico Opera , post release. However, what of our own star in the making the fabulous Sister Mary Roberts? Is there a future for her on the stage or are these air dreams? There are vague promises of working with the women who took part post release and job prospects but there is nothing to evidence what these breathless opportunities mean or how they will manifest. Show me the money, as Dolores van Cartier might say.

It is an interesting time to consider the role of the church and the continued diminishment of women, evidenced in the refusal to allow women bishops and the recalcitrant patriarchy, which presides over the church. The servitude and Catholic guilt infused in most women – even those of us a million miles from entering a nunnery – resonated in the audience of “bad girls”. We must question what makes these women so bad, like Dolores that she needs to be hidden in a nunnery, so God can keep her safe. Safe from whom? Herself and her bad acts? To keep safe the poor vulnerable men in the community who might be her prey?

Society condemns women to a much higher standard than men, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC confirms that women receive longer sentences are more stigmatised than their male counterparts in her seminal book, Eve was Framed. Women are not allowed by society and patriarchal justice systems consisting of all white, middleclass, Oxbridge, old men, to misbehave or step outside of normal accepted patterns of behaviour.

Time has come to look at why women offend and the inherent misogyny in the criminal justice system. We can no longer afford to consign these women to society’s trash heap forever, based on outdated mores. These are the modern equivalent of the Old Testament’s fires of hell, or witches who burnt in earlier times, if women committed crimes. We collectively judge these women beyond redemption, but we are responsible for a criminal justice system that is not designed to rehabilitate women. Women are square pegs jammed into round holes, still subject to a Victorian system of punishment designed by cruel men in a time when the deserving poor were separate from the undeserving criminal, feral underclass.

We are the new Victorians, unleashing and relishing social policy which creates a new underclass – the undeserving poor. Research into how austerity has affected women’s services by the Fawcett Society and others show women are disproportionately affected because of dire reductions in the funding of women’s services.

There is not a single sympathetic male character in the entire piece. The pimp / club owner embodies all the things little boys are made of: frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails. His motley crew of thugs are narcissistic, homoerotic boy-men who can’t relate to women beyond reductive objects to be conquered. The good detective is frightened of his own shadow and emotionally castrated. Even the Bishop is corrupt, vacuous and has a watery morality, taking payment to sell the church building to developers. Where’s God in all this mess, you might ask.

Men are redeemed by the power of love and a good woman, it’s the anti-fairy-tale, Cinderella in the driving seat. The sleeping princess is awakened, she becomes the rescuer of men, but more significantly, of herself. Dolores finds her own strength, inside and salvation comes to the detective who steps into his manhood in her reflected glory and new found confidence. The pimp dies, the plastic cowboy goons are overcome by the nuns. It’s God, indeed but embodied through female power, Gaia’s cleansing vengeance.
But the new feminists, whose matriarch is Naomi Wolf demands more of men than allowing them to remain stifled and immature. We the women must accept responsibility for male attitudes, not a victim blaming doggedness. It will take grown up men to bring about a truly 21st Century feminist revolution in the criminal justice system, not confused hyperbole about intersectionalism and segmentation.

Time for good, grown up men at the helm of the church, the Ministry of Justice and outsourced providers of prison services to realise that women are indeed not men and examine the causes of female offending, which is rooted in inequality. The issues must be resolved by looking through a gendered lens, not the unconscious bias of the collective and the male dominated hierarchy.

No more reports, no more funding for the Prison Reform Trust to hold yet more conferences and do more research, no more talking, no more justice task forces. It’s time to take arms and fight for all women’s right to justice, not just those who happen to behave well.

Jude Kelly’s annual Southbank festival extravaganza Women of the World came and went this year, with a whimper not a bang. The annual weekend celebration’s theme was One Billion Rising for Justice. Out came the old crones on their soapboxes, to dance the ritual sacrifices and tell us THEY know how to bring about women’s equality. One billion dancing or rising or whatever won’t change social policy or transform inequality. These vampires suck off the blood of the handmaiden and fresh ideas, about inclusivity and seeing powerful men as part of the solution, not the problem, are allowed to wither on the vine.

Naomi Wolf says poignantly that we need to take the tools of the master to dismantle the master’s house.

Author – Farah Damji

Mindful of Language – Myths of the CJS

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Language is what we use to communicate effectively and the CJS language is a whole area of vocabulary that is easily recognisable to those who have their ear to the ground when it comes to current affairs. Yet I see many myths floating around about the CJS and the main “offenders” are those who have had little or no direct experience. While the CJS is not a light-hearted subject, here is a light-hearted look at common myths:

Innocent until Proven Guilty

Despite press reports and those who “campaign” avidly for the rights of victims, innocent until proven guilty is still the under-lying basis of the justice system. The right to a fair trial is still in place. No person is convicted (nor should they be) by the public as a result of a tacky and sensational headline. “Questioned” and “arrested” is not indicative of guilt.

“Prison is a hotel/holiday camp”

Really? Have you tried talking to those who have been sentenced to custody? Try talking to prisoner’s families who have to jump through hoops to get into prison to see loved ones and snatched ten-minute phone calls from a person in custody to a worried family. Prison is not a holiday camp and there are many who will happily tell you what it is like who have never stepped foot inside prison gates. Get it from the horses’s mouth instead of reading trashy press. People die in custody. These are people’s children, parents, brother or sister.

Prisoners only serve half their sentence

I tire of explaining this one. There is no such thing as “half a sentence” Each person who has a sentence to serve, serves a full sentence. A sentence that determines a custodial term can in some cases mean that half of the custodial sentence passed, is served in custody. The remaining portion of that sentence is served in the community and a person can be recalled to custody at any time. The sentence is not halved in any way shape of form. No matter what the Daily Mail says.

Suspended sentences are just a slap on the wrist

One of my favourites. This comment used to make my blood turn to lava – however, I have learned to curb my temper. I’ll explain this one nicely. A suspended prison sentence carries just as much weight as a custodial sentence. For example, I was sentenced to 18 weeks custody which was suspended for one year. This means the following:

A) Had the 18 weeks custodial sentence been ordered, I would have served nine weeks, released and the remaining 9 weeks served in the community. The sentence would have been complete in terms of time served after the 18-week period. However, as my sentence was suspended for a year, this means my liberty can be rescinded were I to be placed in front of a court for the smallest, pettiest criminal act. The initial custodial part would be activated and I would be sentenced concurrently for the new offence. Effectively my suspended sentence has been a longer sentence than had I been banged up in a 10×8 for 18 weeks.

b) My suspended sentence is a prison sentence in terms of disclosure for employment purposes.

CRB Checks

These are bizarrely named “certificates” It is not a certificate – it is a piece of paper that is exempt on the day it is printed. The service is called The Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) and spent convictions (the rehabilitation period is longer than the sentencing period) do not always have to be declared for employment under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. There are exclusions to the ROA 1974, but the ROA is still effective.

Convicted of paedophilia

There is no such thing. It is a myth. No person can be convicted of paedophilia just as a person cannot be convicted of schizophrenia. Sexual offences is the correct term and using the term “paedo” is widely misunderstood. A lazy term for vigilantes to exchange dangerous views fuelled by a poorly regulated press. Paedophilia is not a crime. Committing a sexual offence is.

Just a handful of myths that I see in my day-to-day existence…