Sentence

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unpopular Causes – What is One?

I’ve been in a few discussions recently over unpopular causes.  I compared SHE’S fundraising campaign to that of a journalist’s to live tweet from the hacking trial. We raised £65 and his campaign received well over £10,000. I’m thoroughly grateful to the wonderful people who gave generous donations and that money has been used wisely. We have almost got everything we need for our next house and we have five rooms now available for those leaving prison without a home to return to.

During the development of SHE, while I recognised services were patchy to say the least, there are some brilliant support networks for women leaving prison.  Some of the women housed with SHE are hooked into Lancashire Women’s Centres and other agencies which means the level of support is strong. The fact I encourage this widely is because I was desperate for support and at that time my fragility of mind meant I could have easily become dependant on anyone or anything.

Our men’s project, INCAS, is spearheaded by men. Men developed the project based on their experiences both of the CJS & society.  In the town of Burnley, services for men are as rare as rocking horse shit. Our first member of the projects was male. Released from prison after serving nine weeks of an 18-week sentence, this man had no home, was suicidal and came to us shaking and terrified.  Our chairman spent time with him, playing chess, talking and supporting him. We managed to find him emergency accommodation until his property was ready. We got him hooked into services and he took it upon himself to sign up to the Revolution team from Lancashire Police who offer support to prison leavers.

INCAS is soon to be starting a men’s group. Men, unlike women, can isolate and withdraw which is dangerous particularly when simply dumped outside a prison gate with nowhere to go. Men are much less likely to draw empathy from society than women are. It is no secret men are more likely to take their lives than women. Men struggle to ask for help and reoffending is often their only option to survive.  Going a step further,  the CJS was designed by men for men and it shows. Not because it is unsuitable for women, (it is)  but there is not the support for men which is why the CJS is one big monstrous mess. Women are far more likely to be further up the sentencing tariff,  than a male for a first offence, particularly mothers, as middle class Magistrates judge the woman as opposed to the crime. Men will climb the tariff and have more custodial increments than women.

During a meeting on Friday with a probation officer who is joining our management committee, I discussed with him early intervention in domestic abuse incidents and the possibility of the INCAS Project coordinator working with him on this area for men. Probation agreed it was an area he (bearing in mind his demanding full-time role) would put time into.  My default setting is keeping the family unit intact where safe to do so. At the first sign of abuse, intervention at an earlier stage is vital. I have read some excellent work on early intervention in domestic abuse situations and I fail to see how more work in this area should not be explored. Ignoring abuse at early stages has cost lives, split families and caused generations of children to suffer as adults after witnessing domestic abuse. I witnessed my mother attack my father with a knife as a child, I’ve never forgotten this as an adult.

The support in place for victims of domestic abuse is highlighted often.  But the problem will never be eradicated or solved if only side is supported and the perpetrator isolated. To raise awareness and truly take the bull by the horns, we have to, for the sake of our future generations, look at pathways to step in at a much earlier stage. An unpopular cause? Very much so. I’ve seen resistance to the research on restorative solutions in domestic abuse. As unpopular as it may be, we at INCAS are willing to explore this area. INCAS & SHE are fortunate in that we have a management committee with a lot of experience in a vast range of areas including unpopular causes.

For the sake and safety of our next generation, we should be looking at earlier interventions to keep a family together and show that solutions are possible. Unpopular as this may be, our children deserve at least further exploration.

 

 

Prisoners are a part of Society. Time to face this fact..

stock-photo-lonely-woman-is-walking-through-dark-tunnel-to-the-light-52591162Six weeks in from launching SHE, I have reflected on society’s perspective of prisoners and prison.

The Prison Estate is needed in any society that has laws & a justice system. Prison protects the public by removing those who are a danger to society and as a reasonable woman, I will not argue otherwise.  Any offence committed should be punished & dealt with by a justice system that is fair and dispassionate from the reasons why an offence has been committed.

The current prison crisis, (and there is one, Mr Grayling, not quite sure how long the sand will keep your ears warm) has not just happened since 2010.  The Corston Report as an example, was written on the back of six female suicides in 2005 who were imprisoned at HMP Styal in Cheshire. Yes, six women in one year. Six. Under the Labour government. Sadik Khan may be fighting the corner of Probation as the meat cleaver comes down on the service, held by the hand of Mr Grayling. But, The Corston Report is gathering dust and we have a crisis on top of a crisis. A total fucking mess.

The British are well known as a public for being curious about prison & prisoners. I see campaigns for more people to be locked up counter-acted by campaigns for less punishment and more rehabilitation.  Whichever way the coin is turned, there is a crisis. Prison is part of our society and it costs money. As a tax payer, I’m content that my hard-earned contributes to keeping a prisoner safe and where necessary, away from the public. On the back of this, I’d go further to say, I’d pay more tax so those who leave prison have a pathway whereby they have a shot at becoming working members of the society I live in.

One of the biggest questions I have been asked since launching live delivery of SHE, is “How do you get on with women who have left prison? ”

I’ll tell you. These women are human beings. They laugh, they cry, they get mad when people clutch their personal belongings as though Satan is in their midst. These women have the same travails that any member of society has. Living on a pittance, waiting for six weeks so their rent can be paid, wondering if their landlord will place an eviction order on them.

These women were still a part of Society when in prison, for non-violent offences. No agency went into help them with resettlement.  In fact one of them was on remand for eight months & found not guilty.  She was dumped outside the gates without a £47 grant and no home to return to. She had the clothes she was standing up in.  She has dangerously low blood pressure and has had to wait for six weeks for a GP appointment. She has never sought action to shout about her situation on being incarcerated for eight months. She’s the least self-indulged person I know.  SHE team have supported her (no payment received) and she’s soon to be engaging in a market stall to be guided in retail skills. A normal woman who has been discarded by a society that claims to care.  She is part of Society. Yet never asked for anything apart from a home where she could build a life.  SHE gave her this.

I was discarded by society in 2013. I never stopped submitting a tax return, I worked and while I was given a custodial sentence, I served a suspended sentence which carries as much weight as a custodial sentence in terms of disclosure requirements. I gatecrashed my way back into being a functioning member of society. Members of SHE will do so too.

So, when campaigners are fighting for more prison sentences for people, remember, it costs money, and all very well locking people up and feeling satisfied when this happens. But 95% of those people at some point will return to society and that society has a duty to ensure help is there to facilitate progress.

Prisoners are part of our society and it is time society wakened from their slumber so that prison leavers are able to move forward.

 

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.

SPEAK NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR JUSTICE OF THE PEACE

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Until last week, Abid Sharif was a magistrate who had been appointed to the Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale bench in Lancashire. Following an investigation by the Conduct Panel, Mr Sharif was removed from the Magistracy with the approval of the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice.

The Conduct Investigation into Mr Sharif was in relation to comments Mr Sharif had made to the press* , including the allegation that what he described as the “slap on the wrist” justice system threatened to make vigilantes of householders, that police cutbacks were “crazy”, and apparently that criminals knew more about human rights law than their legal representatives.

On the face of it, Mr Sharif was just the kind of ‘ordinary bloke’ that many people would want to see more of in the magistrates’ court. He is a bus driver and family man, and far removed from the type of stuffy middle-class image that many have of those who sit on magistrates’ benches up and down the country. And in many ways, Mr Sharif was simply expressing views that may well be shared by a substantial number of people up and down the country. So what, exactly, was the problem here?

Well, firstly, Mr Sharif had been the recent victim of a domestic burglary himself where those responsible had stolen some £10,000 worth of electrical items and his wedding ring. Mr Sharif told the press that had he confronted the perpetrators in flagrante delicto and used force to confront them, then he would have been sent to prison for assault. He said “If I had been in my house when these people came in and I had knocked one of them out I would be inside for assault and I don’t think it’s fair.”

In some ways I feel a little sorry for Mr Sharif. On the one hand he was simply displaying his human nature openly, and for all to see. He was honest enough, in the light of what is the obvious trauma of having your home and privacy invaded and personal items taken, to express how frustrated he felt. If he had not been quite so honest he would perhaps have held his tongue, and would now still be sitting in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale – but still harbouring all these opinions that he publicly aired. And in that circumstance he would, of course, still be sitting in cases involving burglaries, day in and day out, which according to the press report occupied in his experience a good part of the court day.

It is clear that what Mr Sharif said creates an issue in relation to his suitability to continue to sit. At the end of the day, all parties to a criminal case need to know that those who are deciding their guilt, and their punishment, are as free from personal bias against them as possible. Can anyone really say that if they were to appear before Mr Sharif accused of burglary any time soon they would be expecting a fair trial?

Mr Sharif was clearly frustrated by many things, from police response times to incidents, to the powers of householders to protect their homes, to the powers that the law gave him and other magistrates to deal with those who came before him. I don’t doubt that many lay magistrates up and down the country share his sentiments and frustration. It is simply that those who play the game and keep their frustrations to themselves are still sitting in judgement on those that come before them, and Mr Sharif has surrendered to his humanity and told us explicitly what we already know: that the criminal justice system in this country is a source of frustration and is, frankly, in a bit of a mess.

* The original press report is to be found at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10610025/Magistrate-warns-of-Britains-slap-on-the-wrist-justice-system.html

About the author: Mark Fletton is a former barrister.

The End – A Woman’s Journey in the CJS is complete. It’s not over till the Disclosure & Barring Service Sings

ImageThe journey is complete. I have been through the grubby hands of Mr Grayling’s department for a year. And what a journey. Homelessness, a trip up the M6 in a “sweat van” bringing my business back from the brink of collapse and myself back from the edge of brinkwomanship. (Not a word, but it is now)

I have also watched Probation (sadly) as we once knew it, end. My journey has been well-documented in various outlets connected with the CJS and I have learned a new skill or two.

There are positives despite what the tyrannical risk-aware DBS says about me. I have sent out my CV as an experiment to various job advertisements detailing the gap in 2013-14 as being in The Criminal Justice System. I added “Further details to be disclosed at interview”  The response? I shall update here if I hear anything back. This is to look at the discrimination that is not always evident but is hidden away as let us face it, companies are hardly going to admit to discriminating against a person with convictions are they?  Given a quick Google of my name leads back to everything I have written about the CJS,  my court appearances and sentence, why would I not offer up the information? This really will prove whether I shall be discriminated against. Having spoken to one HR department of a local company, they were unsure of their own policy and I was told the usual “Each case is based on the circumstances”  This was the same when I asked Fostering Solutions for a discussion on their policy on fostering with convictions. Aside from the obvious that any person with offences against children would not be considered, the same answer: “It depends on the offence, when it was and what it was”  Given the climate of risk-aware DBS, I’d like to think that Fostering Children Solutions were able to deliver concise and up-to-date information on their screening process over the telephone. Seemingly not… Yes, for Fostering Children…

Essentially, what stands out for me is the lack of knowledge that is still in place around disclosure. There is little room for discussion and while I am not looking for a job as in paid employment, I know the rules around this data. I have studied it for a year and what a knotty topic it is. Frankly in my experience and my full-time work does not require me to disclose information, the most people who know about the DBS are those who are concerned about it the most. Those whose hearts sink with a thud when the “have you ever” question appears.  My regular clients are fully aware of my history and have no problem with it. In fact two of them had no idea what I was talking about in terms of DBS. As I often work in a supply chain, the end user in two projects I work on, is the employer. He needs to learn about this and we are currently working on this.

What else have I learned? Lots. I have learned as an “ex-offender” (a term that should be abolished to the nearest bin with immediate effect) if you have knowledge of how the CJS and the rehabilitation process works, this is the biggest obstacle. If you’re not willing to confirm to the standards and “volunteer” I have gained from my journey, I’ve about as much chance as becoming the Governor of the Bank of England with a fraud conviction than I have of ever providing a service to other women in the hands of the CJS. But, I can certainly look at alternatives and emerge from the ether. I am nothing if not a little resourceful. There are some excellent services out there to help those who are in the community and soon about to be given 12-month’s supervision. I know many of these services do work yet we are still missing the bigger picture. With the best will in the world, only those who carry out acts of criminal behaviour, can stop doing what they’re doing.

But the biggest area in which I have learned is that the system is so hard. It in many ways makes it harder because connections with other systems are swamped with people. The creation of new services is all very well and there are many fantastic opportunities out there for people released from prison or on a community sentence. But we are still missing the largest area of any person’s life on where they are to build a future. That of homes. Any person cannot build anything if they are sofa-surfing or in hostels for long periods. We have to find a way of getting things the right way around. A training course is pointless if a person has nowhere to call home and the rental market is so hungry, landlords can cherry-pick the best tenants. A person who is released from prison, with little more than £47 in their pockets needs to have any housing issues dealt with first and foremost before a journey can begin. I have recently seen a woman passed around from department to department and endless trips to housing benefit departments. She has had an unsettled history, has forsaken many tenancies previously, there is not a landlord around who is going to accept a person unless they have clean and healthy past. The private rental sector has become another monster and during my research, even those who are renting rooms in their homes are asking for a month’s rent in advance. Because of my history, I had to have a guarantor. Fair enough – a landlord should have his/her rent paid when due and be assured that his tenants are going to look after his/her property/home. I was lucky, I had people around me who were happy to support and guarantor my home. If the rental criterion remains as strident as it is currently and with more people ending up in the hands of justice, then we are going to end up with an even bigger homeless situation.

Everything I have come across takes me back to education and those around me as a child. Fair enough, my parents were not quite tooled up to have a child, I was a mistake and a shotgun wedding followed quickly. Two people who should never have married and even more importantly never had a child together. By today’s standards, I’d have been whipped into care and that is one awful system from what I have read and spoken about with little support for care leavers. I had grandparents who saved me as my parents entered a bitter war in the seventies that took me to Ireland and back many times as my parents battled it out viciously over me. My grandparents protected me and ensured I had an education. Educated enough to not break the law – but I did and I knew I was breaking the law. That’s why I pleaded guilty, eventually. to what the acts I chose to do. There is much about rehabilitation in prison and what is not happening. In my experience, I have seen more educated people who have been in prison and emerged from those gates as educated and smart people who I would and do trust implicitly. So something goes on behind those walls.. Those who are illiterate went in illiterate.  Nuff said…

Am I free? Free of the CJS now. Or will be on Friday. There are endearments to be felt of the amount of support I have had from friends and family. It has been a journey and a new journey begins with added knowledge of the CJS. Rehabilitation from behaviours that are against the law can only be actioned by the person who commits them. Support is plentiful in moving forward, some of it misplaced but with the best interests at heart. Rehabilitation comes from inside the person who really does want to change their life for the better.

One thing I am not, is an ex-offender. This is a manufactured term which has become a money-making gravy and ketchup train. I am still the person I was before, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend. Older, a little wiser, happier and sure of my own territory. I have left the past where it belongs, and can move forward and no doubt I still cause a twitch of a net curtain, but I cannot change other people’s opinions of me and I cannot change the acts I once committed.

I paid the price and I have served my sentence. When I wake up on Saturday, it will be as any other member of society… What the DBS sings about me is of no relevance unless I choose to make it relevant. It might sing the joyous tone of my criminal acts but it’s just data used in a society that is over-burdened with risk assessing. Risk-assessing is data gathering and only data gathering for the purposes of monitoring. Given I was not monitored in the last year, the DBS can fuck off with their singing. :)))

 

Rehabilitation… What is it?

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Rehabilitation – the word itself carries so much weight. Mr Grayling uses the term loosely in his revolution and with an array of services, the area of rehabilitation is one of vast proportions.

I am an on the ground sorta gal I like real people who have laughed in the face of adversity, come through their stuff and can look back often and fondly with a smile, a nod, a wink and just an understanding of how to sort their crap out. I met what in politically correct terms, would be a former offender last year while in Malaysia, he was 67 years old and described himself as an old lag. He had been in prison and had one of those faces that told many stories. He had a tale or too to tell me about his time in prison – how he went on to get married, have children and is now retired. We got chatting and like any expat, he engaged with me as I talked about home. He’s always stuck in my mind and occasionally, I reflect on last September, three months post dock when I was just beginning to see the light after my court case had been dealt with.

John laughed when I told him the extent of rehabilitation in the UK. Looking back now, I can see why. Rehab is described for those with addictions. The same word is used for offenders. The money market that is now, the rehabilitation of offenders is huge and the balance sheets are certainly full of a number or two. His words still ring in my ears: “Rehabilitation? What the fuck is that all about? We had nothing after prison and had to get on with it”

My take on Rehabilitation of Offenders given I have offended is quite simple. I am simple in a complicated world. It is down to behaviour. If a person commits a crime, that is a behaviour. The events that contribute to such behaviours are important, of course they are. I refer to my pre-sentence report conducted by a fabulous probation officer who was clearly dedicated and professional at his job. He looked at one simple area. “Why have you done this?” I know exactly why I did it. I would do it all again too. There is not one part of me that would have taken a different path when I signed cheques. Those were the shoes I was in at that time. Confused, hurting, angry, wondering how I was going to survive, not thinking of the consequences of my actions and certainly not thinking about the hurt I was causing the ones who loved me. I did not care. The years preceding those events no longer matter. They have happened and cannot be changed. Yet, rehabilitation has never featured in this, the post-dock period. I simply stopped doing what I was doing, paid the price and with the support of a few people who saw past the behaviour, I built a life. I am not entrenched in struggling to stop breaking the law. I just do not. I have sadness over my children, I miss them deeply and wonder what they are doing. I shed a quiet tear in private for the hole in my soul where I can still visually see them as little people who were once my world, but I function and get through for the most part.

So what is it about rehabilitation that is so hard to get right? Do we rehabilitate to or from? I stopped doing what I was doing and losing everything taught me a thing or seven. I do not want to live on a canal bank. I do not want to stand in a dock again and I do not want to see the inside of a police cell ever again. This one word that causes frenzy, forms businesses, has the House of Commons in uproar and is an area that is immensely popular when it comes to rounds of funding. But what is it that is being offered? Services? What services? Or where there are services, being handed over from one service to another. I stopped offending behaviours. I no longer do the things that put me in the dock of a crown court. I did not need supervising, I am not a risk to the safety of the public and when I place things in a shopping basket, I pay for them before I leave the shop. If I cannot afford something, then I cannot have it.

Rehabilitation is a balance sheet. Some offences deserve the incarcerating of those who commit them. Absolutely they do, who could argue otherwise? The public need protection from those who commit heinous crimes against children and adults. Yet, there is no rehabilitation in terms of a product. We cannot see it, we cannot feel it, we certainly cannot buy it. It is a marketable commodity – but it does not exist. And why doesn’t it exist? It is an inner behaviour and only that. Drinkers can stop drinking – substance users can stop using and offenders and only offenders can stop offending. It is that simple. Yet many say it is not that simple. How hard it is. How it can take years to come away from an addiction. I was once dependent on alcohol, till I went to AA. I got pissed to prove a point after 18 months in AA because I just could not stand this “disease” business. Now, I like a glass of wine to have with dinner and all is well. I have my priorities in order now.

Will I ever stand in a dock again? Who knows, do any of us know? It only takes a moment to go over that speed limit or to say something to someone in a heated argument and have the police at your door. One behaviour could have us in the dock quicker than we can pronounce the word, “rehabilitation”

Probation did not help me to stop my behaviours. They were there to ensure I attended the meetings on my first sentence and sent me on a horticultural course to tick those boxes. I have turned my life from a mess a year ago into one which is lawful and an acceptable existence. It has not been an effort to rehabilitate from one behaviour to another. There was nothing to rehabilitate to and all I have to do now is to check my bank account before writing a cheque. Little bit hard to get away with now, since faster payments have come the norm.

Rehabilitation is a theory – like any theory it can be argued. As John, the old lag stated, truly, “what the fuck is that all about?”

“Sam” – just a name…

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Just a name – not her real name nor is this a picture of “Sam” She is a woman I have never met or spoken with.

Sam has been released from HMP Holloway. I found Sam on a live stream from London Probation Trust. Sam is homeless, we know nothing about Sam, only she is in despair. Sam feels her only option is to commit a further offence in order to be recalled to HMP Holloway. I know nothing of her crime, I know Sam is a mother and that she signed her tenancy over to her partner at some point. Imagine, ensuring her children have a roof over their head. We know Sam has suffered domestic abuse, is mentally suffering and is basically, a woman, who has been abandoned by all but a handful of people.

I picked up on Sam’s story, purely because I know what it is to be homeless. I know how it feels to call many agencies and charities and be told many times over, that you cannot be helped. I know how despairing it is when you sit for hours in a Local Authority office to be told “you have intentionally made yourself homeless” and to be sent away. And I know what it is to be left to the mercy of the outdoors, walk miles everyday and ask for a drink of water.

Three of us today, got our heads together. With the power of friendship, trust and approximately three decades of knowledge between us of how hard it is to face life after prison and suspended sentences, we have hopefully signposted “Sam” to get the ground help she needs. I do not want to see Sam back in HMP Holloway. But I can understand her wanting to go back there. She’s weak, scared, on the edge, she likely has little or no money. I have said it before, I’ll say it again. Without a home, there is nothing. No pathway to benefits, no registration of GP, people walk around you, steer their children away from you. There is nothing.

If Sam’s only “hope” is to be recalled to prison and she feels this is the easiest way, what does this tell me? It certainly does not tell me that prison is a holiday camp. Conditions are terrible. I have spoken with friends who have been there. It tells me everything I have been banging on about for almost a year and then some…. Life after prison is shit. £47 is all you have in your pocket. (If you are on remand, there is not even this and no support from Probation) If you are lucky, there may be a probation hostel. Chris Grayling thinks supervision in the community is going to solve the re-offending problems? Training and education signposting is all very well. But little point without a home. Homes have to come first.

My message to Sam:

Don’t give up – there is help out there and from the unlikeliest of corners. If I could bottle what I have had to do for myself and send to you via LPT, I would happily do so. It is shit right now for you, but there are other options that are easier than going back to Holloway. We do not know you, Sam but for some reason, you’re in my head today as I look around my little home and cherish it as I know how hard I have worked to come through adversity, the crap, the police cell, the court dock and find a life that is rich with peace. Not money, but peace and I can finally hold my head high. Call the lasses at Kazuri, they’ll help you and when you’re through this time, you will get through it, it isn’t easy and it is not pretty, send a message via LPT that you’re on your way up. When you have to build from nothing gal, build the right way.

I have looked back – over my situation a year ago. I was like a house with subsidence. I could no longer plaster over the cracks. It had to come down. Because only then, could I cleanse the wound.

Once that wound is cleansed and the healing process begins, you can dress the wound to protect it as the healing sets in. The ripping of the plaster will make you wince for a moment and then you can step out to a brighter future.

The scar will fade to a fine silvery line and will always be a reminder of this time. You can do this – you deserve a stab at a life. It will not be handed to you on a plate but if you give this a chance, you just as much as the next person, can have a life.

I am willing you on and willing you through, Sam. I know you can do this.

From one woman to another.

TM