Debate

Women Coming from Prison – Challenging Support Frameworks

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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.

 

 

 

 

Habilitation not Rehabilitation

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Cameron’s Speech on Prison Reform

David Cameron has stirred up the Criminal Justice System with his liberal speech on Prison Reform. My initial reaction was critical and sceptical, which is often the case when I hear politicians discussing prisons and the crisis.

There are statements which I could tear apart. Such as:

It’s pretty hard to get into prison in the first place

I still cannot get my head around the above. I am the first to admit those who are unjust should be dealt with at the hands of our justice system. Justice underpins the stability of any society. People mention often the law of the land – ensure society functions. I disagree, Justice is and should be for everybody. First and foremost, the victims of any crime should be considered and treated with compassion. Those who commit harm in communities against our most vulnerable, children and the elderly, should be held accountable for their actions. Of all the people I engage with, I have yet to come across any person that denies this. It’s called developing a conscience and taking responsibility. Equally, compassion should be shown to those who are dragged through the courts unnecessarily. Those whom are acquitted, we should allow their lives to be restored to normal.

Naturally, the papers have created a frenzy and in particular provided opportunities to give Chris Grayling, possibly the most unpopular Secretary of State for Justice in history, a good going over with the public chiming in.  I do not see Cameron giving Grayling a thrashing, I saw Cameron thank Grayling and Clarke for the work they had started. Grayling in my view cares not a jot for what people think, he did what he did with a guillotine the size of Greenland and sliced up areas of Justice. However one feels about that. It happened. I feel it time to move forward.

 So you won’t hear me arguing to neuter judges’ sentencing powers or reduce their ability to use prison when it is required.

Yet, the above statement has me toiling arduously on sentencing. In November, I was a co-speaker at the University of Worcester on women supporting women. Organised by Beverley Gilbert, this event had Kristy O’Dowd speaking about her experiences on domestic abuse, Clare McGregor, the author of Coaching Behind Bars and the Managing Director of Coaching Inside and Out, and Lucy Baldwin, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at DMU, the co-author and editor of Mothering Justice.

Lucy Baldwin, in Mothering Justice has produced the first book that explores Motherhood in both Criminal and Social Justice Settings. Through the chapters written by practitioners and professionals, Mothering Justice gets down to the nuts and bolts of the impact on children of mothers in prison, suffering with post-natal depression, mental health problems and those in the grip of substance misuse along with detailed analysis and critical thinking on how the Judiciary as a whole treats mothers.   At the Q&A of the event, Lucy explained her vision for challenging the sentencing framework of mothers and I agree. Cameron’s statement above does not leave much room for discussing this. However, use prison when it is required is worth a poke around and provides some wiggle room for discussion as today proves.

Now we are 48-hours in from Cameron’s speech, having read various articles on the planned reforms, I don’t feel quite so uptight as I did on Monday when the damn thing aired. His speech has opened dialogue and from researchers to journalists and bloggers, a raft of scathing to critical to slamdunking him with one of Boris’s water cannons, has been rapid. But interesting views from all.

Habilitation not Rehabilitation

There is a rather fabulous group on women on Twitter and we have all experienced the Criminal Justice System in one way or another. With this in mind, a dialogue opened that was powerful, creative and suggestive of ways forward to challenge perceptions and do some critical thinking of our own. This thread began with a question two days ago asking if women are more likely to be sentenced to custody for a first time offence than men? There’s nothing like a gender discussion to get hearty debate going. Dave said debate was to be reset. Well reset the debate we did, Dave. You came out of our debate, unscathed.

Opening the dialogue was @A4587GA, Candy and what she said was bang on. She offered up dialogue on critically thinking rehabilitation, employment, policy in its current form. I didn’t need much convincing I was onto something good here. Candy mentioned resilience and skills. Something I tapped into myself when faced with a journey through the CJS that impacted my life deeply. Then along came @kallyann73, wanting self-employment training for women prior to leaving prison. Bringing up the centre of the debate were the fabulous women from @WomensPrisonsUK throwing in some excellent comments on resettlement, isolation of women in Wales on release and the difficulty in gaining employment. @WorkingChance explained the issues they felt affected women’s chances of seeking gainful employment on release and the difficulties with ROTL or should we say the lack of. ROTL are taking six weeks to and Working Chance explained employers were frustrated with the length of time ROTL arrangements take.

I threw in comments on education at secondary school level, politics onto the curriculum, talk to young women and challenge our thinking. Together the group found positive ways to form new thinking, new approaches and lessen a growing dependency on systems. Throughout the debate there was a hearty thrust that was powerful and engaging. We explored new ways of working, systems all have flaws, yet systems don’t care for us. That’s our job. Any woman that emerges from prison, should begin new journeys, find their path. Of course, mandatory attending of Probation appointments should factor in. In the time of the lifespan of the SHE Project, I have found smart, resourceful and eager women ready to put their lives in a new direction.

This got me thinking, throughout the dialogue, thoughts were written on policy, resettlement packages, which are all the remit of Probation. In my journey, I had to find my way through and out of every ten decisions, I have made seven bad ones. No more so in the infancy period of SHE. The project has been faced with challenges, I have been. But each day, I carry on and with great support, I am able to feel more grounded and level-headed. Between us today, we tore up systems and looked at the strengths of women-supporting-women and the sunshine broke through.

I have never once supported the word rehabilitation. What are we rehabilitating to???

Rehabilitation is not a word I have ever used. I haven’t returned to my former self. I have come through more educated, my eyes are opened, I have embraced challenges that five years ago could have set me back. I have navigated my way through barriers and no longer am I afraid to challenge myself and others on problems.   I have completed my literature review for my Griffins Fellowship on women and homelessness. I have a fantastic supervisor and confidently presented my progress to date.   I have a new contract I am working on… It’s a whole new life for me – still beset with pain, but I am finding it easier to live with.

From today, we are launching The Habilitation Focus Group – this will explore women’s issues in the CJS and discuss ways in which we can support women from the CJS – whilst supporting each other in our own enterprises. We emerged as women who felt strongly, the only way to begin to gain change was by being positive. Once we gather support, we will look to begin to channel all that dialogue. Bringing together powerful narratives is a way of moving forward as a group but also as individual women.

So Dave, not quite what we were expecting from you. But it’s opened up some avenues and started dialogue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding The Wave

NHS Criminal Liaison and Diversion Team Conference at Lancashire Police Headquarters brought lively discussion and presentations…

Early interventions in Criminal Justice are not new, I found out last week. NHS England have been involved in this as far back as the late eighties and East Lancashire have a new initiative focussing on the needs of men and women in the CJS.

Police custody is not a pleasant environment for the hardiest of people, therefore it was pleasing to see this thorny topic high on the agenda at the conference. The order of the day focussed on mental health in police custody and the great moves made in this area. Largely due to police training and a much more compassionate approach to the needs of those with mental health needs in the care of Police.

I have written previously on my experience in police custody. It is safe to say, I was not a person with a mental health problem. I was anguished and scared, but at no point was I in need of a doctor and was under no medication. I was cared for in an impassionate environment. Treated with care and placed away from the more rambunctious of “guests” for the night. At a time in my life where I was broken, police custody was on the whole, the most compassionate of my experiences in the CJS.

However, this is not the case for those with mental health problems. At the conference was a woman, called Tracey who works with police and closely with Manchester University on the needs of women in Police Custody. Tracey relayed a brutal, candid account of her experiences following arrests throughout her younger years. She spoke of being held down by male officers having her clothes removed. This was for her own protection. Tracey faltered at this painful memory and in no way was she complaining, but as a woman, I could feel her sense of indignity at this memory. She bravely went on to say how she felt and following years of mental health difficulties, prison and finally a diagnosis with the right treatment set in place for her. It was then her offending behaviours ceased. She now supports and leads on actions to support women in prison and custody. A prolific self-harmer, Tracey also works with women in prison on camouflage cosmetics so women can cover the signs that are familiar to most people who work with people in prison, the scars of self harm. I never fail to be moved when I hear a story of someone who has come from a challenging time in their life to helping other people who are suffering the same difficulties.

Next came Kevin. A film regarding his experiences in police custody silenced the packed room. In the interval, Kevin spoke from the heart about his misdiagnosis for many years of his mental health state. He was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and he sustains a life supporting others in the CJS with mental health conditions following years of prison and police cells. Kevin has not written a book and made millions from his background and acute condition (a la Fry and Campbell – wags finger) No, Kevin has worked tirelessly with Police, NHS and people to offer first-hand support and guidance to those suffering.

Mental Health is rarely out of the public eye and rightly so. Even in the 21st century, mental health provokes strong debate. And no more than in the CJS. This week we have seen one of the most appallingly handled PR exercises ever on the matter of Peter Sutcliffe being miraculously cured of paranoid schizoprenia. According to BBC et al, Sutcliffe is “no longer mentally ill”  The Mirror ran their usual shabby article on his cushy life in Broadmoor with his TV, Playstation, Chocolate and endless privileges provided by that ol chestnut, the tax payer. As usual, I am in the thick of these conversations on Twitter and I came across Suesspiciousminds, a blog I have followed for two years. Sue, (I don’t know her real name) succinctly put across to a fledgling discussion, Sutcliffe should be in prison and he has not been cured of paranoid schizophrenia, he has been deemed fit for prison.  I have seen various threads on the topic from hanging the bastard to throwing away the key to misunderstandings on the miraculous cure rolled out by the media. It was astonishing to say the least, how many people were astounded at him being cured. To add, I watched an interview with a son of one of his victims who was dignified in his delivery of how the news had affected him. He was five when Sutcliffe barbarically took his mother from him.

Moving back to the conference, it was interesting to hear from the Police on their approach to those placed in their care for numerous reasons. It is not always a criminal act that brings somebody to a custody suite. In some cases, it can be for the safety of a person and that of the public. The bed crisis is no secret in hospitals and when my mother was in hospital, I often saw Police vans arrive with a huddled, distressed person, enter the locked ward only to come back out with the same person due to a bed shortage. What gives? Police custody is no place for a poorly person, but when left with no alternative? Its sometimes the only option.

I am impressed with the slow yet visible moves within the Police Service towards mental health of people in custody. The conference last week brought a fresh approach that is to be worked upon and the Police are willing to do this. With the support of the Liaison and Diversion Teams, there is renewed hope we, as a society are waking from a long slumber in the mental health needs of people in communities who happen on the police radar.

A great conference and initiative hopefully leading to better outcomes for vulnerable people who for whatever reason have slipped through the radar of mental health services. It should not have to come to a police cell to make it happen, but if it does, the Police’s input might just be the wake up call needed.

 

 

 

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.

1400 Children and Questions that Need Answering writes JP Riley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRISON CRISIS? YOU CAN SPRAY THAT AGAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

wave-of-the-hand

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…