crime

Coaching Behind Bars….. By Clare McGregor

Working in the community with women who have been in custody is challenging yet rewarding work. However, what goes on behind the scenes through a different set of eyes is narrated by Clare McGregor in this sparkling, entertaining (perfect for cross country train journeys where every stop feels like counting milestones on foot) book.

Clare McGregor is the brains behind Coaching Inside & Out initiative. Having come across Clare two years ago whilst serving my sentence, I have followed her on that social media place where folks sing like canaries.

My utter delight when coming across Clare’s book involved a little dance around my office chanting “Now she’s gone and written a book” and I totally understand why. Women from HMP Styal are referred into SHE as the resettlement prison for the North West. I have a natural affinity with Styal due to SHE’s women and listening as we do “on the other side”  A few clicks later, I had ordered the book and it came in a couple of days.

As I do with all our books, I immediately write in the front: “Office Copy – Not To Be Removed”  I waved it around lots telling and threatening removal of sugars in coffee should it be missing from our book shelf. (I took it home, so don’t tell anyone okay?)

On Monday, I travelled to Cambridge. What a bastard of a journey. I had some documents to read, some writing to do, alas Cross Country Trains aren’t so generous with the internet speed – emails get sent if one is lucky.

I peered in my book and there it was. I had my train coffee (or what passes for coffee) and as I was on page 18 from a mosey through the first few pages on arrival, I was happy to get stuck in.

Coaching – How very American and for the rich only…. But no wealth or status has the cornerstone on being coached. Why not coach women who are in the vice-like grip of the prison estate? Women who have been through crisis that could make even the hardiest of persons wither. Clare with her 20-year background in service creation has blended women which society forget with her two-decade experience into this fabulous page-turner.

I don’t coach our women – I plainly support them in accommodation – nag them about the dentist, the doctor, help them with bank accounts, listen when they are pissed off with their Probation Officer and talk about gaining employment. But, Clare’s book has highlighted in beautiful words, the power of these women responding to coaching. The words of Clare resonate in my work – SHE women shout – Prisons are noisy places and to be heard, these women need to shout – I hear myself saying on our corridor when other organisations say “Tracey’s lot are noisy” Yes they are – I think you would be, locked up with a few hundred other women. Still, social boundaries are one area that coaching helps with. Clare’s book describes women imagining themselves on sunny beaches, eating ice-cream and watching the waves crash. The chapter “Problems” describes what I hear from SHE women on release – fear of coming home, family disowning them, seeing their children and the worry of gaining employment. Clare describes indepth, how these women are supported in navigating the quagmire of life on the inside and the outside through coaching.

This is truly a beautiful read and had me laughing and crying, but in such an uplifting way. I could relate to all the women’s narratives and I hear them daily from SHE Women. Of course, our women want to read it and I might have to learn to trust my book will be returned for others to read.

A superb read and comes highly recommended for anyone who has a curiosity about women in prison and an excellent insight for organisations who work with women in the community following a custodial sentence.

 

Clare Mc

Clare’s book can be purchased here

Social Impact of Women Returning to Their Community

Since the launch of SHE in September 2014, one of the areas I am interested in is how the community accepts women back into the community following a custodial sentence.

While I appreciate there is a place in society for a women’ prison estate, I am still of the mind too many women are being locked up for offences that could be managed in the community.

Taking nothing away from men, when a woman is sentenced to custody, the social impact is vast. Research has given me a wider scope of how much support there is in the community and it is hard to argue there is not. However, the bigger picture is missed.

Why? 

The women referred to SHE have mostly come from custody & have been in the community for some weeks. If no licence is in place, these women are on probation and are hooked into various agencies voluntarily. Those who are with local substance support services are bound by a prescription for Methadone & work with groups to move forward from substance misuse. SHE is not involved in this area, it is not our remit. Community support within their accommodation is. It is the area of accommodation, that is most overlooked.

To answer the sub-heading, ‘why?’  I am still amazed at how little emphasis is placed on stabilising accommodation. A lack of housing/accommodation is a social problem, not a criminal offence. During my travails, the lack of housing was my immediate need. This affected my whole being in not having access to hot water, cooking facilities, access to a GP, a bank account. This is a social impact and I was not even on the grid of society.  This is apparent in other agencies who view SHE as a competitor for localised services.

Yet, SHE as a tiny support service recognises the social impact of a woman returning to the community. This is a social impact we at SHE handle with a nuturing approach. The majority of our lasses have family, children & some have elderly parents they care for. Family support is proven to lessen the chance of reoffending. Education is vital, but none so vital as a woman returning to her family. Cramming a woman’s day with appointments prior to securing safe & stable accommodation is futile. It is pleasing to my ears the powers in East Lancashire are recognising this. When I opened the doors of SHE, I was truly up against other services. It has taken eight months to dig the trenches from the community and sustain a service that is so badly needed.

The Benefits? 

The benefits of offering shared accommodation to women enable a natural transition to other support networks. An address opens up pathways for other support to activate. An address ensures the services of a GP, bank accounts, reduces community crime & swifter access to all areas any citizen is entitled to.

But it does not come cheap. SHE does not take deposits, we do not charge outside the housing benefit cap, we have looked at the simple need that was being overlooked. Safe & secure accommodation for women returning to their community.

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) 

It is as simple as ABC…. When any woman has served her time, do we as a society have a duty to ensure her return to the community is not blocked by red tape & mindless bureaucracy?

Do communities not fair better when pathways are opened up in order for a woman to settle back home & become a neighbour, friend, family member & where children are involved, a mother? Children deserve this more than any Payment by Results box-ticking exercise.

In communities that are challenged daily with crime, high rates of unemployment, is it not beneficial to clear blocked pathways & make way for social inclusion for women returning to their communities?

Because, if we do not, & do what we always did, we will certainly get what we always got.

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.

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?”

Women In Prison

Fabulous – the great team over at Ending Victimisation sent this.

Last night I found an article in the Express detailing a planned naked protest by women in custody (I never call these women “inmates”) at HMP Drake Hall.

It’s such a simple thing, underwear. We take it for granted and many women are passionate about underwear. As the ever-eloquent, Planet Cath points out, the book ban campaign drew immense support. I made a concerted effort last night to bring this to the attention of underwear manufacturers, followers, women in the US and various people engaged in what we have called, #BriefStatement.

We had some fabulous support in the short burst that I did. We had pictures of knickers posted up and I rather daringly posted a picture of me in a pair of knickers. Stretch marks, the lot.

Jonathan Robinson – you know him? He was that idiot who went to prison, kindly produced a pair of knickers for us with the #hashtag added. He did declare this the “strangest” request to date. We also have procured from JR, his #Thongscanonlygetbetter

Knickers With the utmost thanks to my very dear friend, Dr Rita Pal, editor at World Medical Times , who rooted through her knicker drawer to offer her support and the great team who I truly support at and of course, Planet Cath, who has written the original article.

Ladies, we and many others support you in your protest. There aren’t many of us who are shouting for you, but by bra hook and knicker elastic, we are with you…

opinionatedplanet

This week has seen the most blatant display of women’s erasure that I’ve seen in a while.
Firstly, there was the Centre for Social Justice report on Girls and Gangs on 24th March.
Then there was the HMIC report in to the failing of the police to tackle domestic abuse.
And now it’s the book ban for prisoners which Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform wrote extremely passionately and eloquently about here.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as appalled as the next woman that those who are incarcerated for rehabilitation purposes are being refused access to books. As a former youth justice social worker, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in prisons, and I am fully aware of the importance for prisoners of being able to escape from the reality of prison life.
I don’t oppose the writers and poets who…

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Cheery Advertisements for Adopting Babies – Give me my Baby…

ImageLast night a cheery advertisement appeared. Of course, this is a registered charity. It is called Adoption Matters (North West) and is a combination of the (formerly known as) Chester Diocese of Adoption Services & Blackburn Diocese Adoption Agency.

The cheery flashcards appeared in front of smiling couples. Same sex couples, older couples, working couples and younger couples. It’s aim, I have translated to “we are open to everyone” Beautifully delivered with pretty colours and smiling children doing finger painting and such. Lovely…

Prior to seeing the cheerful marketing piece, I’d read a report from the Lords discussing women in custody. In there were some sobering figures. 18,000 children had been separated from their mothers who were sentenced to short-term custodial sentences. If you’re getting my drift, you’ll be expecting a rant on short-term prison sentences for women and how costly these are… But no. I have done that one till it’s died, been resurrected, reborn and then some.

I am a birth mother. At the young age of 20 years old, I found myself pregnant. My family were in a pickle and did not know what to do with me. This pregnancy split my family deeply – and eventually, a member of my family found me, took me home, decided I was unable to care for my baby and arranged with my GP to begin the adoption process. This was in 1989. I gave birth to my 8lb son after 15 hours of labour at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral. I was allowed contact with my baby for the two days I was in hospital and one memory that truly hits home is the tiny wristband – Baby McMahon – for adoption. I left my son in hospital after 48 hours. My feelings were not addressed as a young woman, I was on tablets to stop my milk & my family told me to get on with my life. We registered the birth, we completed the forms for child benefit and a social worker came to visit me to inform me of the process. When my son was six weeks old, I was allowed to visit him with the foster parents he had been placed with. I was given a short-list of “picked” parents and I dutifully chose a couple. In the run up to the birth, I had made an album for my son, with a letter that I had written to him. This detailed our family background, as much as I knew of his father and a nice analogy of how happy our family were, but that I was unable to care for him and I felt this was the best way forward. I met with the couple I had chosen, I handed them the album and said the words, “You will be his parents, you may not want to give this to him and I understand if you don’t, but it is there for you should you feel it will help him to understand his biological family.

When my son was six months old, I signed the papers presented to me by the social worker. I simply signed my name and that was it. Officialdom was done. Child benefit was dealt with – (the child benefit during this time was sent to the agency to pay for the fostering fees) and away I went with my life.

But you see – nobody can ever fill this hole. Platitudes of “it must be awful” and “only a person who loves their child would do such a gracious thing”  honestly? They do nothing for me. The tears of parents who are broadcast on programmes finding their loved ones, I cannot watch. They make me feel sick to my stomach. It isn’t a grief that ever goes away – it is a grief that remains daily. A pain that can never be soothed no matter how much balm one places on it. Grateful parents who are unable to have children rain down immense amounts of praise on the birth mother and make promises of caring for this gift they never thought they would have. I’m supposed to feel proud and a good person for doing something worthwhile. When I actually feel like screaming out “give me my baby” No counselling, no therapist can ever remove this. Because there is not a godamm fucking thing you can do about it. All I could do was come to terms with walking away, signing some court papers and holding onto to one picture that was sent to me of my baby sitting on a furry rug in an outfit that I had knitted for him.

Of course, my life has not been smooth – the state took me away from my mother, then took my child at the behest of my family, then allowed the eroding of my relationship with my two children from my marriage. Ending up in a criminal dock with a Judge holding my liberty in his hands was the ultimate straw that broke the camel’s back. Smashed to bits, I have thrown myself at walls many times, smashed myself up and committed acts that are against the law… the last year has been forming a new existence and working myself into the ground to work to help women who have lost everything. I don’t care what they have done and when they have lost their children, I see it in their eyes. No matter what nasal-expanding exercises they engage in, no matter what they steal, I know there is pain there that can never be dealt with in the realms of rehabilitation.

As I sit here now, in my little home, watch cheery, colourful marketing ploys for adoptive parents, look at colourful websites with call-to-action statements to “contact us” I look and think of picking up a sledgehammer and smashing it through the TV screen and say:

“Give me my Baby”

 

 

Yeah or Neah – “Ex-Offender”

ImageWhat do we think? Should the label “ex-offender” be used? I have been involved in this debate for nearly three years and suggestions from many have cropped up. It’s such a crap term. Ex-offender. I am not one, this I know.  I employ myself and I don’t need to screen myself. I work remotely and the only person who is offended by me is the dog when I haven’t given him his daily milk.

If and when I am in a position to offer employment rather than outsourcing work, I am under no obligation to ask the “have you ever” question… I have no wish as an employer to know the ins and outs of a person’s detailed history. I will have two requirements – can you do the job?  and are you likely to swear at my clients?  I don’t do “blue sky thinking” or “drilling down” and I am never in “agreement” (the word is “agree” and drill down should never be used as a way of getting to the bottom of anything – I’ve known people be sued for coming out with much less than let’s drill down the issue. Corporate bullshite is not my bag and we are not rats in a race.

One rather inspiring gentleman, a poet, goes by the name of Stephen Duncan, informed me weeks ago he was going to use, Future law abider… Those who have never had a conviction, do not go around calling themselves law-abiding citizens, (apart from the comments’ section on the Daily Mail when all that shuddering outrage is pouring out when yet another crime is reported. Oh then we hear about all those “law-abiding” citizens)

I cringe when I see ” Give ex-offenders a second chance” What a poxy, dreadful statement if not a teensy bit patronizing… Should the term be dropped? I think so.

Thoughts are welcome…