Prison

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.

 

 

Women Coming from Prison – Challenging Support Frameworks

il_340x270.569587853_axch

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

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

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

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

But SHE has.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

East Lancashire Moves Towards Recognising Importance of Housing in Rehabilitation

LogoColorTextRight SHE Project is keeping me busy. Back in February, I attended a Through The Gate conference to discuss housing for released prisoners. I was pleased to hear the importance of housing in resettlement plans. While funding is a thorny topic, housing affects society over a much wider scope. Or shall we say, lack of housing.

SHE is slowing building housing stock. Acommodation is awarded following a referral process. The Project offers furnished homes in the community on a shared basis. All residents are risk-assessed and are offered stable accommodation in homes to begin journeys to brighter futures.

Alongside accommodation, SHE offers a range of support services such as registration with a local GP, setting up of bank accounts, house meetings, a repairs procedure, benefit application assistance & free use of telephone line to call agencies. Working closely with local authority Housing Needs & the Community Safety Partnership, the Project reports into these local authority departments with regular updates and capacity reports. Burnley Borough Council have welcomed the service and along with other agencies, small steps are being made.

SHE also offers work-based schemes. SHE residents are welcomed by the community. With the support of Burnley, Pendle & Rossendale Council for Voluntary Services who offer community-based courses, treatment services for stress-related conditions, SHE women have support on tap.

Of course, we are dealing with people. And with people come issues. These are addressed with the fabulous team who key-work with our residents.

Working with INCAS, SHE is now tapping into empty homes. Burnley, for example has a large number of empty homes that are boarded up. SHE/INCAS are looking at building their own maintenance team to bring these houses back into community use.

On offer to residents, as part of their care plan is volunteering to paint empty homes. This in-house pilot is to explore creating jobs to work within the project. Building and renovating a house to create a home is exciting and further development in this area is in place.

In the research and development of this project following my experiences of homelessness post-sentence, a home was the hardest area to acquire. SHE & INCAS have worked hard to tidy up the pathway into homes. We have referral pathways and developing partnerships with Lancashire Constabulary, HMPS, Lancashire County Council & Burnley Borough Council.

Accommodation on release has been an area that has been largely ignored throughout many parts of the country. It is not easy to get a home for most of society, add convictions, sofa surfing becomes the default setting. SHE & INCAS have made baby steps in removing the barriers. In East Lancashire, slowly, this area is opening up.

There is a lot of talk on housing and while SHE/INCAS do not have all the answers, our results show that stable accommodation in the community does work. My time in a hostel motivated me to work on the female model after drying myself on a bath mat as I was not given towels. We gather donations from people in the form of toiletries, the project provides bedding, towels, sanitary items to mention a few items that make all the difference. Local TV aerial fitters are working with us to supply our properties so our residents have an environment resembling what most people take for granted.

It is almost two years since my ideas were written on a tatty notepad from a canal bank, but the best part is, the support of our local community, the BPRCVS, Police, CSP and East Lancs CRC.

Housing for those released from prison is a thorny topic along with being a migraine for those coming through the gate & other supporting agencies. And rather than it be banged at the doors of Westminster constantly, a small group of community members can and do make a difference.

Bill

It is with hindsight due to my experiences as a female con, I recognised there was no system. My work over the last five months has shown me more first hand, how following the Corston report, little has changed for women in prison. Moreover, on release, links are so broken for both women & men it is little wonder reoffending rates are so high.

This week I received a phone call from one of our INCAS members. He was released from prison in November and had nowhere to live. INCAS placed this 30-year old in a property with a male of a similar age. Estranged from his family, he had spent many short-term prison sentences since his late teens. Bill, (name has been changed) had difficulty in trusting people. INCAS were supporting him in housing with a network of drug misuse support services available to him. As weeks passed, it became clear, Bill had no intention of engaging with these services. Slowly, services withdrew. INCAS support never left him. We remained on the sidelines and under the Housing Act, we simply could not throw him out. We let him be and gradually, contact was re-established with Bill. It was clear Bill wanted to find his own feet and contact with his father was developing. His father contacted me and I explained Bill had our support, but that we were concerned about his mental health. Bill was not happy with this contact between us and his father. Bill launched at me that I was trying to ruin his life. Once I had explained that his father loved him, had spent years of trying to help him and that it was Bill who had to do the work, Bill slowly began to emerge as a man who knew he had enough of the life he had led. Small contact sessions with his father had begun to happen. INCAS remained in the background and Bill simply dropped in occassionally.

Looking back at Bill’s story has led to many comments. “A casualty of a system failure” As the INCAS project manager pointed out this week, there is no system in place to fail Bill. Bill repeatedly ended up in the slammer because of his behaviours and while he presented as vulnerable to us, Bill knew what he wanted. Time. Time & stable accommodation to find his feet without pressure from agencies to sign up for group therapies and endless appointments.

On Thursday, Bill called me. He told me he had packed up the house, as his father was picking him up and he was moving closer to family. He told me that he had realised how much support he had had from INCAS and there had never been anything like our support before. He requested he stay in touch should it all “get fucked up again” Of course you can, Bill. Anytime. But drop us a call to let us know how you are anyway.

Bill’s story is one of thousands. A life addicted to class A substances. Is Bill a result for INCAS? Who knows, but INCAS gave him a foothold in the trench to bond with his family, move on and at least give life a damn good shot on the right side of the law. We did this with one little front door key and ensured his home was safe.

The system that imprisoned Bill was not that of the Big House. Being there was of his own making. Bill’s imprisonment came from doing what he had always done. He, like I did put himself there. What Bill has shown is that stable accommodation can make a difference. As our society dictates our lives orbit around a stable address, Bill was given this and he was able to make choices from the trenches.

As SHE & INCAS ethos is homes and sustaining homes, we are now getting members involved in the process. Painting a home for others who are coming through the gates. Peer-led projects do work. We take some getting used to as SHE & INCAS are non-statutory. We are there to help dig footholds in the trenches to move on from. We cannot prevent addicts from using, we cannot make pain go away. But we can and do show how important a home is and how to become better neighbours, contributing members of society and accepted back into the community.

Bill has had the benefit of what INCAS offer and while we are the new kids on the block, Bill is back in touch with his family. What happens from here is up to Bill.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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