Justice

When One Gate Closes, Another Six Open…

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

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

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

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

This is what we did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHE Project Greenwich opens in June 2016.

 

 

Women Coming from Prison – Challenging Support Frameworks

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

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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 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?”

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.

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”

 

 

Empower Women – Resist Justice – Transform Lives

Determined womenEmpower Women – Resist Justice – Transform Lives (click)

 

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has launched a call-to-action for interested parties to build a network of people in order to get to the root of problems faced by women in the criminal justice system. Of course, this is a matter close to my heart and is no secret. Women are shoehorned into a justice system designed by men for men. I am not a feminist who is ranting that women are treated unfairly in comparison to men, I believe that both genders should be treated fairly. I am a woman and I have been through the justice system and I have direct experience to understand what challenges are faced by women in the CJS. In particular, older women, such as myself, who do not fit into the youth offending age range. There are very few services out there who have refined their services enough to drive down to the direct needs of women.

The Centre for Crime & Justice Studies was one of the first organisations I contacted last year post-sentence who actually listened to me around what I found was lacking not only in services, but in the justice system as a whole. The system fails those it can help the most. Help to keep families together, to ensure that children are cared for and to truly enable women who are in the hands of justice, to empower themselves to rise again and lead a decent and workable life where they can care for their children and sustain themselves.  The MoJ’s mantra, “Justice must fit all” isn’t working and nor will it ever while women are shoehorned into the current system.

The Centre for Crime & Justice Studies have collaborated with Women in Prison to form a strong network of willing people and organisations to tackle and prioritise the needs of women rather than CJS objectives.

It is time – justice is about help, support, empowerment and dealing with injustice. I wholly support this and it means so much to me as a woman who has journeyed through the CJS. Let us support Women in Prison and CCJS as they have set the foundation to bring about some change and justice for women in a system that largely ignores women.

(more…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author – JP Riley