prison

When One Gate Closes, Another Six Open…

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

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

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

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

This is what we did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHE Project Greenwich opens in June 2016.

 

 

Women Coming from Prison – Challenging Support Frameworks

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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.

 

 

 

Coaching Behind Bars….. By Clare McGregor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Clare Mc

Clare’s book can be purchased here

SHE Project. Halfway Mark for First Members

SHE has a few members now. The very first members came to us via the Gateways Project & Lancashire Constabulary.

Our first two women were released from prison in August. No strangers to prison cells, SHE’s women are tough & resourceful.  Naturally, issues have flared up. Our women are firstly human beings who have served their time and deserve support & encouragement. They both needed a home and SHE was able to provide this. SHE offers stable accommodation for six months, with support to maintain the accommodation. We also offer an office where our members can use the telephone to make all those ridiculously expensive calls to the DWP et Al.

Together, as a project, we have learned from each other. These women showed us what they needed and SHE as a project, gave them the space & time to find their feet.

Over coffee today, I approached with our women that we were at the halfway mark of their accommodation six-month period.  I asked our women to think about the road ahead & their plans for when their six-month period was at an end. I offered our continued support if they felt they needed this and we had a unanimous, resounding “can we stay on the project & have another six months?”

With my utmost pleasure, ladies, you can indeed. As our flagship members, these women are settled, have been given the independence they sought, treated as human beings & they have a lovely home in which they are safe & protected.  Oh & Mr Grayling? Two more to deduct from those pesky reoffending figures.

All of this was achieved from a tatty notepad, on a canal bank when I experienced first-hand the effects of homelessness and the Criminal Justice System.

Good news is. SHE has members bringing up the rear. Our males on INCAS are doing well and we have more women who have joined up for support & housing.

We are soon to open a five-bedroomed unit which will serve as temporary accommodation for women coming from prison. This will enable us to assess and prepare people for our project and offer what is a growing way of offering stable accommodation.

I have dragged myself through from a notepad, an idea and 18 months of writing about my experiences as a woman in the CJS. Our services are now being recognised, I have come up against a system that fails those it could help the most.

Were it not for the support of Burnley, Pendle & ROSSENDALE Council for Voluntary Services, the incredible sassy, professional and wonderful team who give their time freely to the project, SHE could not deliver as she does.

But SHE does. Because SHE can.

GETTING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM WE CHOOSE Part 3: The Philosophy of the Criminal Justice System:

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Mark Fletton writes:

 Let me pose another question. What do we mean when we say ‘the criminal justice system’? It would be an interesting experiment to simply stop now and invite responses. It is a phrase which is used frequently, and yet we rarely stop to consider what it actually means. If we want to feel ‘safe’, and maybe not think too much, we could simply go to one of the many online or ‘hard copy’ sources and lift a definition. If you do that, you will probably find a definition along the lines provided, for example, by Oxford Dictionaries which provides that a ‘criminal justice system’ is ‘The system of law enforcement that is directly involved in apprehending, prosecuting, defending, sentencing, and punishing those who are suspected or convicted of criminal offences.’

All very neat, isn’t it? In twenty-five words we have encapsulated the essence of one of the most vital components of our society: one that deals with protecting the citizenry from all manner of ‘harms and wrongs’ and ‘punishing’ those who perpetrate those wrongs. And it covers a huge production line, from initial apprehension of suspects (normally undertaken by an organisation established and dedicated to that purpose) to those who undertake and dispense ‘punishment’, and all stations in between. The same dictionary uses twenty-eight words to define ‘elephant’.

‘Systems’ are good. A system is a set of things working together as parts, forming a complex whole. A watch is a system, the pipes which bring water into your home comprise a system, and your body is a system – a system which contains many other systems. Notice anything about these systems? Well, they all work together with a simple purpose. If a spring goes in your watch, you can’t tell the right time. If a water-pipe bursts, you can forget a cup of tea in the morning. And if your blood gets infected, you are going to need a doctor, quick.

I am going to argue that the criminal justice ‘system’ (if we adopt the simple definition above), as it has evolved, is really not a ‘system’ at all. I would describe it more as an ‘industry’, although in many ways an industry at least seems to have the advantage of having some idea of the reason for its existence and its primary goals. The car industry exists to produce metal boxes with wheels to make people’s lives more comfortable and enjoyable, and to make as much financial profit as possible whilst doing it. The management and employees all know what they are striving to achieve and generally all pull in the same direction to achieve it. The criminal justice ‘industry’ is a huge undertaking, mainly financed from the public purse, and employing an eye-watering number of people. There are some 130,000 serving police officers, for example, and that is before we begin to count the number of Police Community Support Officers and staff in support roles. Then you have court staff up and down the country, the CPS and its support staff, solicitors, barristers, judges, prison staff, probation staff and on and on. This is, on any view, a sizeable enterprise.

Criminal legislation generally begins in Parliament, when the governing political party, or parties, decide that a particular activity or behaviour should be deemed a criminal offence. This is often, though by all means not always, driven by what they perceive the general public consider as important (and which political party wants to dent their prospects of electoral success?) or as a response to specific events (eg terrorist attacks – consider the volume of criminal legislation this has driven in the past thirteen years!). Of course, the politicians would say that they are taking steps to protect the public; which, by happy coincidence, helps to obtain the support of the electorate if they can convince them they have protected them by passing the legislation, and shown them they are ‘tough on crime’. The police, of course, have the task of apprehending those who they deem to be breaching these laws. They then pass the person accused of a crime to the court system, where eventually evidence is tested and guilt established, or not, as the case may be. If guilty, the convicted person then moves into the ‘punishment’ regime, the sausage meat end of the process.

I suggest that any system is ordinarily judged by success in achieving what it is designed to do. A watch is designed to tell the time, water-pipes to deliver water, and your body to stay alive, and if any of these things don’t result we would have no hesitation in saying the system has failed. The failure of one component in an integrated task will defeat the purpose. But what is the purpose of the ‘criminal justice system’, and what are the criteria for ‘success’?

Although some readers may regard it as cynical, a government passing laws will see the success of what they are doing in essentially keeping the electorate happy, and getting re-elected. The police will see success in terms of arresting people they believe have broken the law, and hitting their ‘targets’ as efficiently as possible. The Crown Prosecution Service, charged with the task of prosecuting those in the court system, sees ‘success’ as achieving as many convictions as they can. Defence solicitors and barristers see ‘success’ as the acquittal of as many of their clients as possible. Judges see ‘success’ as passing what they deem to be a sentence ‘in accordance with the law and guidelines laid down’ to the point where they are not the subject of too many successful appeals. Those involved in running the prisons see ‘success’ as implementing a regime where prisoners are kept secure and don’t escape. Probation officers, and probably prison governors also, may see ‘success’ as their charges not returning to a life of crime. Of course, each one of these integral parts will say they don’t view ‘success’ in the way I have suggested: the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, will try to suggest that ‘success’ is in ensuring only the guilty are convicted. This overlooks the fact that they are not ultimately responsible for that outcome; a jury or bench of magistrates are, and all the CPS can do is ask itself ‘is there a reasonable prospect of conviction of person X on the evidence we have’ and, if so, try to secure a conviction against them; otherwise why bring the case? It can be seen that the criminal justice system really is not an interlocking mechanism of parts all vital to produce a successful outcome. It is a smorgasbord of bodies and people who have different aims, different interests, and who have different primary outlooks on what counts as a ‘success’.

I would liken the criminal justice system to a pantomime horse. It is a combination of parts, none of which quite know what the other is exactly doing, or more importantly why. What holds it together and provides it with some semblance of cohesion is a great brown big cloth, designed to create the illusion of a horse. The reality of course is that we all know it isn’t a real horse but is just doing an impression of one. All we need to do is suspend our disbelief for a while and our imagination can do the rest. For a time, the two people bent double under the cloth and moving on stage are a horse.

As I mentioned in Part 1, there are plenty of people who will try and convince you that the criminal justice system, as it may be traditionally understood, is based on Judeo-Christian values. For a variety of reasons that I need not go into, I don’t subscribe to that particular piece of casuistry. I do, however, concede that there is one element of the Judeo-Christian tradition which has been the bedrock of the criminal justice system for many centuries, namely that individuals have been born as moral free-agents, possessing absolute free will when it comes to thought and action. The Judeo-Christian theology, which has permeated every part of the life and culture of England and Wales, again for many centuries, is predicated on the notion that everyone is free to think and act as they wish. Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a list of ten holy commandments, among them several ‘thought crimes’, including coveting your neighbour’s goods and his wife. The last two parts of this series have attempted to provide cogent reasons why thoughts are out of your control, and why you cannot be ‘blamed’ for them. And yet our entire system of ‘justice’ rests upon assumptions about human nature, and principles carved out of stone by the finger of God on a mountain several thousand years ago; namely the notion that you can control your thoughts, and your actions (and I will return to address that in a later part), and that if you don’t you will receive punishment, and the moral outrage of your fellow citizens. We have allowed Bronze Age assumptions to journey with us unthinkingly through thousands of years, never putting the bags down long enough to ask whether they actually reflect what human beings really are and how they really operate, within the context of how best to protect society from ‘harm’.

Borrowing from the publication that brought us Moses and the holy commandments for a moment, in Matthew 7:24-27 we are taught the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Essentially, if you build your house on a foundation of sand, sooner or later it is going to be found out by an influx of water. I have long argued, rather like Noah, that the rain is coming and that eventually the cracks in the ‘criminal justice system’ will be too large to ignore. If the ‘system’ is predicated on a premise that is false, the conclusions will be flawed and the outcomes will not be ‘justice’. If free will is the illusion I contend it is, then ‘punishment’ is futile, and indeed the very word becomes meaningless. This is not to say that society does not need either laws or procedures in place to both protect its citizens and, wherever possible, to remove as far as possible the risk of those who have caused harm from doing so again. But if free will is an illusion, we need a new approach and a new vocabulary for the reality we actually face, rather than continue to suspend our disbelief and seeing the pantomime horse as the real thing.

Very few people want to lift this particular stone for fear of what they might find underneath. It is far easier to keep holding the security blanket of history and the overarching, but rationally and scientifically threadbare, beliefs which now seem ingrained into our psyches. So instead of asking ourselves what this ‘system’ is trying to achieve, and by extension asking ourselves how we are going to achieve it, we just ignore the issue and carry on, but in an increasingly frenzied way. What ‘justice’ meant for the Blair administration, for instance, was to pass some three thousand new criminal offences in a nine year period. During this ‘law-fest’, activities such as selling grey squirrels and impersonating a traffic warden became criminal offences. Had a law been passed making it compulsory for traffic wardens to impersonate human beings, I might have had rather more sympathy. But the prevailing attitude now for some time has been to increasingly regulate people and their behaviour by the creation of criminal offences, to the point where you begin to ask yourself whether the true intention is to ensure that everyone secures themselves a criminal record sooner or later, with all the baggage that brings with it. What is really needed is to ask ourselves ‘what are we trying to achieve by doing this, and what is the best way of doing it, based on hard realities and a true assessment of ourselves as human beings?’

And if free will is an illusion then, as I have suggested, ‘punishment’ becomes futile, and we need to look afresh at what we are trying to achieve in each individual case. We send people to prison, only to find out they are released and ‘reoffend’. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice in 2013, one in four ‘criminals’ reoffend within one year, committing five hundred thousand offences between them. For those leaving the prison system, the reoffending rate was 47.2%. Is this meant to represent ‘success’? Bearing in mind the statistics are not broken down by individual offences, it is hard to know how many of these ‘reoffenders’ fall into the category because they sold a grey squirrel or acquired a fetish for traffic warden uniforms.

What religion and the criminal justice system have in common, for sure, is that they both rely on faith to survive. As long as you have faith that what you see is a horse, you will ignore the brown cloth and cardboard face and continue to try to feed it a sugar lump. What is not so sure is how much longer faith can be maintained in the face of the overwhelming evidence that the ‘system’, from first to last, is deeply flawed and operating against the very thing it should be doing, namely protecting the public.

Mark Fletton is a former barrister, a hardened and devoted Sheffield Wednesday FC supporter. He is now a writer/researcher and lives in Exeter, Devon.

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.

Why are there more Fathers Rights’ Organisations than Mothers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My message to Father’s Groups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women In Prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

opinionatedplanet

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

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