angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Criminal Justice System

What can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.

Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then,  with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).

  • You can donate money or time to one of the many charities supporting prisoners and their families.
  • You could send a donation to The Forgiveness Project for their excellent RESTORE programme
  • You could sponsor an award for the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition (on now at the Southbank until 15th November)
  • You could volunteer to help prisoners learn basic numeracy and literacy skills (65% of adult prisoners have a reading age of an 8 year old and 50% can’t write)
  • You could write to your MP to voice your concerns.

All the answers are valid but, apart from donating money, quite hard to implement. So what else could you do to make a difference? David Cameron’s 2006 “Hug a hoodie” campaign was, at best, unrealistic, at worst wholly unadvisable, but, in its sentiment, it was getting close to something.

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Yesterday, I was talking at Forest School on the edge of Epping Forest. It has a particularly effective formula for getting its students to really think about the issues raised by their visiting speakers. After the hour-long presentation, all 300 of them disappear into smaller groups and discuss some pre-suggested questions around the topic. After twenty minutes they return to the hall and, those who want to, can ask the speaker their own personal questions. As a result, the questions were thoughtful and considered:

  • In times of cuts, can the government justify spending money on prisoners when the NHS is in such need?
  • Can one art project prevent re-offending?
  • Is there enough help for prisoners when they are released?
  • Do women respond to art projects as well as men?

And then there it was again:

  • What is the most important thing we / I can do?

Yesterday I found myself replying to the last question in a different way. It suddenly seemed obvious: The most important thing we can do is to start to move away from the black and white thinking that divides people into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. To stop lumping all our prisoners into the ‘evil’ category of murderer, rapist, child abuser or terrorist – all crimes that inspire merciless cries of ‘bang’em up and throw away the key’, and place the perpetrators at the bottom of our deserving-of-sympathy lists. We need to start differentiating between those who really do need to be locked up and those who urgently need something different.

As a civilised society and as educated and/or privileged individuals, we must start taking into consideration the journeys and decisions people have made that land them in jail. Did you know that:

  • many offenders started their lives as victims: of sexual abuse, violence, neglect, drug addiction, abandonment…
  • that 52% of them are dyslexic and probably didn’t get the help they needed
  • that 42% were excluded from school and
  • 47% have not one single qualification
  • that 67% of women in prison were in care
  • that 75% of young offenders had an absent father and 33% an absent mother
  • that 41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as children
  • that 70% have some sort of personality disorder or mental health issue…

The list goes on. And once you know that, doesn’t it become glaringly obvious that a different solution is needed? Do we really need a serious crisis to force the nation to collectively wake up to the shame of our prisons? We know we can’t rely on the ever-changing politicians to sort things out. And when it comes to dealing with crime, they are generally responding to the public’s baying for harsher punishments. So it is up to all of us to start seeing nuances in the widespread, over-simplistic, binary judgment of who is good and who is bad in our society. We need to listen to prisoners’ stories, understand that they didn’t set out to be bad. Many of the people locked in our jails, often in terrifying, squalid, drug-ridden and violent conditions, were once sensitive  children whose anger, violence, or despair were quite possibly normal reactions to the dysfunction of their lives.

We don’t need to hug the hoodies we meet, but we, both collectively and individually, must stop seeing them as “other”, as all-bad, or as somebody else’s problem to fix. Condemn and punish their crimes but don’t condemn them.

So, what do you think is the most important thing you can do?!

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Wish for 2017: Keeping alive Winston Churchill’s unfaltering faith “that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.

This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education ReviewUnlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized. One meeting rapidly followed another until I found myself sitting at a round table in the Ministry of Justice next to Ed Vaizey, (Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Andrew Selous, (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation) and leading representatives from the main Arts charities and organizations. It was a unique gathering of brains stuffed with experience and insights, and muscle–toned limbs used to pushing open locked doors to deliver the goods. Together the ideas expressed by each person in turn formed a blissful chorus of logic and humanity.

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In previous speeches since July 2015, Michael Gove had been setting a compassionate tone for the reforms to be made: The most important transformation I think we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the souls of its inmates. Revolutionary words for a Conservative Justice Secretary, welcome words for all of us who have worked for decades to get this message to policy level. And in February 2016, as the first Prime Minister in over 20 years to do so, David Cameron had made a speech wholly dedicated to Prison Reform in which he finally dashed all die-hard claims that “Prison Works!” and condemned them as a scandalous failure, finally shifting the emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation: In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed”.

So there we were, on July 14th, a harmonious choir of top experts and government ministers, all singing from the same song sheets, endless verses of ideas that would work; that would reduce re-offending rates, make prisons safer, more productive and cost-effective; that would help prisoners learn their way out of their cul-de-sac situations and find their potential to be their better selves. Hallelujah indeed! But outside the vultures were circling above the exit to St James’s Park tube station where the Evening Standard headlines screeched like car brakes: GOVE SACKED.

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In his own words several months on, “No matter how many times you rerun the movie, it has the same ending: me driving 100mph and crashing into a brick wall”. He hadn’t only written off his own position and career though, he had also blown up his own vision leaving our song sheets fluttering in the wind. The very next day Ed Vaizey, who had been nervously consulting his phone throughout the meeting, had lost his post and shortly after, Teresa May’s government asked Andrew Selous to step down too. In one clean wipe of the round table, the vital government hands and arms of the ideas were gone and with them many of the hopes for imminent reform. In their place we have an as yet unimpressive Liz Truss, moved from her position as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – a position of staggering irrelevance to her new clientele. And while she commissions yet more reviews, people in our prisons riot, commit suicide and die violent deaths.

3B736C9F00000578-4040512-image-a-4_1481918876335.jpgriot officers at HMP Birmingham, December’16

British prisons are in more dire need of reform now than when I started my career in the 1980s. They are inhumane, illogical, ineffective places that cost us all a fortune. They do not work because the ideas that were sung around that table are being shuffled back to the bottom of the pack in favour of the crisis management sticking plasters that constitute normal reforms. We need radical visions, a change of attitude and approach. We need that Rehabilitation Revolution we were promised. And above all we need to treasure hunt in the heart of our prisoners, for, once they have discovered their own treasure, they will not re-offend.

INSIDE – an exhibition where art replaces prisoners and visitors can feel how tiny a cell is

“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897

IMG_9031.jpgReading Prison

People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.

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“When one is in prison, the most important thing is the door.” Robert Bresson

IMG_9043.jpgJean-Michel Pancin – the original door to Oscar Wilde’s cell C.3.3.

The clank of bolts and metal doors slamming open and shut, open and shut is replaced by absorbed voices of visitors wandering the wings, dipping in and out of cells in a new form of free-flow. Which one was Oscar Wilde’s? Cell C.3.3. now Cell C.2.2. on the second floor, no different from the rest. On the ground floor below, looking up out of wooden cabinets, mugshots of the others who shared his time with him, breathing the same thick air.

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This is the now-closed Reading Prison, home to the site-specific INSIDE exhibition commissioned and produced by the innovative ArtAngel and to which artists and writers from all over the world were invited to submit work. Reading Gaol was a state of the art Victorian prison opened in 1844 its cruciform architecture designed to move the inmates out of dormitories and into the isolation of individual cells. Locked in for up to 23 hours a day there was to be no contact with other prisoners. This was to be the end of prisons as schools of crime, part of a progressive mission to not solely lock up prisoners but also to reform and improve them.

IMG_9078.jpgSteve McQueen, gold-plated mosquito net

From the raised viewpoints of our contemporary thinking we look back at Victorian institutions as belonging to a distant history, times that were largely more barbaric, inhumane and backward than ours today. And yet, until 2013 Reading Prison was in full operation, latterly as a Young Offenders Institution, but often with two, sometimes three, 18-21 year olds sharing the space specifically designed for one. All around the UK there are others still in operation except now they are plagued with the additional elements of ever-increasing overcrowding, underfunding, understaffing, drugs, suicides and violence.

102 Trust.jpgRelief stone-carving project, HMYOI Reading, 2004

Just back in 2004 I wandered these corridors myself meeting the young men who, with hammers and chisels and blocks of stone, participated in one of our Learning to Learn through the Arts Scheme 5-week projects. I have been into so many prisons, they have never fazed me and yet, each time I am struck by the same sense of utter illogic, injustice and tragic waste, human waste. We need prisons, of course we do, but as they are, how can they possibly really help these people? They are just making things worse.

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Here in Reading Prison art works replace prisoners as artists strive to find meaning in the dark corners of our society where at times there seems to be none. Our thinking has got stuck with devastating results and what Oscar Wilde could articulate then, so many prisoners still feel but can’t express: “In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers as of a thousand lifeless lives.” Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 79812

 

If a majority in Turkey votes to re-instate the Death Penalty, what does that say about the concept of democracy?

My last blog, a gentle exploration of the IN/OUT decision that faced the UK in June, now resembles the deceptive calm before the storm. It displays the totally misplaced confidence in a ‘Remain’ outcome anticipated by so many around the world. Collectively we have since been tumbled in a political maelstrom, gradually washing up tangled and disorientated on unknown beaches. And as journalists and political commentators create mind jams of informational traffic and kaleidoscopes of emotion, it is the assurance of Democracy that urges us to our feet to take the first wobbly steps towards the blurry horizon of our new destiny.

With so much that could be said I will stick to the general themes of my blogs, for there is a particular issue on which I have questions, but no answers. It’s to do with the whole abstract concept of “democracy”. Does, can, or should the view of the majority always guarantee that the action to be taken is the right thing to do?

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At every opportunity we are being reminded of the almost sacred and unquestionable rightness of the democratic process: “the rule of the majority”. I am sure it is a sound basis upon which to make decisions… most of the time. But are there ever times when democracy, or the views of the majority, doesn’t reflect the right thing to do? Is there even an objective “right” thing to do?  Or are there just consequences?

Take the case of Turkey. If the Death Penalty is re-introduced in the wake of the coup – because a majority wants it – does that make it right? After all, the majority used to vote against the abolition of slavery, women’s votes, aboriginal rights, gay marriage… Surely getting it right is down to education and consciousness?

Taking the area of society I know and understand best as an example, namely our Criminal Justice System (CJS), I can say, with some degree of certainty, that when people vote for the largely punitive approach to offenders that we have today, they are voting for the wrong thing. It may serve their own feelings for justice and vengeance that are fed by the media, but it does not serve the more objective and complex mission of the CJS “to help prisoners lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release”. However, it is only now, thanks to the increasingly widespread acknowledgement and evidence that the current system is a “scandalous failure”(David Cameron, 2016), plus the vision of a Justice Secretary with an open mind and genuine will for rehabilitation, that the public are beginning to be in an informed enough position to vote for the things that will work more effectively.

Last year Michael Gove and his team at the Ministry of Justice took on the unprecedented task of consulting and listening to the experts on the ground: charities, artists, educators, prison officers, even me! Most importantly, they also acted on the knowledge and advice they received. Similarly, audiences of my talks on the subject emerge more educated on an area of life they previously “had no idea” about. The facts, statistics, evidence and the alternative ideas presented all place them in a position from which they can evaluate and decide, with a greater conviction and degree of accuracy, what is “right”. However, those  people who are educated in the complex issues and solutions, are as yet still in the minority, so the will of the majority, who will still be voting from a more emotional, media-spun, regressive perspective, will win.

If Turkey votes for the reinstatement of the Death Penalty by a majority vote, has democracy been successful? Or is it flawed in a way that needs to be addressed? Fairly urgently.

 

PRISON: Part 3. I challenge anybody to sit through 3 days of listening to 20 prisoners’ stories as I have just done and come out saying a punishing prison regime is the right solution.

A ten-year-old boy haunted by the face of his mother as she was stabbed multiple times in front of his eyes; a seven-year-old boy sexually abused by a family friend, then repeatedly while in care; an eight-year-old boy in charge of his younger siblings, regularly punched in the face by his terrifying mother… I could go on. These are some of the people I have just met in HMP Parc while participating in The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme. And it beggars the question: is it right to be punishing people who themselves were originally the victims of primary life experiences that were so overwhelming, traumatic and desperately sad?

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The men confirm many of the statistics relating to our prison populations and their stories illustrate the open roads leading to prison onto which so many of them were born. The absence of boundaries, positive father figures and love; hopelessly failed schooling; violence, neglect, fear… they all paint pictures of ill-equipped young boys lost in jungles of testosterone, emotional confusion and familial dysfunction and devoid of the moral compasses so many of us rely on to plot strategic courses through our lives. This is not an excuse for their subsequent crimes, just a fact. How would we have turned out if we had been exposed to even a fraction of what some of them were? And how is being punished in prison going to help? In fact how are even the regular solutions put forward, like education and employment, going to resolve those traumas? Our current system just doesn’t make sense.

RESTORE is a 3-day programme facilitated by The Forgiveness Project in prisons around the country. The officer in my group said of all the courses they run, it was the best, achieving better results in 3 days than other courses achieve over weeks. I can see why. But what are “better results”?

In July 2015, Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, said in his speech entitled The treasure in the heart of man – making prisons work that “the most important transformation…we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the soul of its inmates”. He is absolutely right and what I have just witnessed and experienced in the RESTORE programme achieves just that. As with Restorative Justice the format is relatively simple and involves the perspectives of both victims and offenders. And the core is basically story-telling. One story told by a ‘victim’ who has found their way to forgiveness; another by a former ‘perpetrator’; followed by the stories of each prisoner plus those of the two officers present. Throughout, with exceptional and sensitive guidance from the three facilitators, the men are offered opportunities to contemplate the possibility of thinking and acting differently within their individual situations.

It was extraordinary to witness. The men participated with a hunger for something that extended well beyond the packets of biscuits and cups of instant coffee on offer. You could see their prison pallid faces fixed in concentration as they listened intently while each person talked, their furrowed brows wrestling with concepts and words unfamiliar to them. You could see men who appear fearless in the face of knives, having to dig deep inside themselves to find the courage to overcome their terror of speaking. You could hear heart-felt encouragement in their applauses and you could watch on as their auras of prison grey broke into tentative kaleidoscopes of colour and smiles that shone through broken teeth and wounded eyes.

The silent young ‘murderer’ covered in scars with his head hanging under the weight of his sentence swearing he would not say a word; the ‘perpetual thief’ and ‘heroin addict’ who insisted he had no story to tell as “nothing had happened”; the young ‘armed robber’, his own trauma bursting out of his body; and the man in for “domestic violence” who showed no apparent remorse. All of them transformed and softened as humility, respect, gratitude, courage and awareness replaced their well-worn defiance, shame, blame and anger. Honesty shattered the lies they had told themselves, their stories revealing to all both their inner demons and the damaging impact of their actions on others. And love bounced around the room between the traumas and crimes that had been placed there, gently touching each and every person’s wounds with the balm of hope.

A logical, humane and effective Criminal Justice System (CJS) would do well to re-think how the annual £37,000 costs of each adult prisoner could be spent. For just £300 p/p, each prisoner on this course was given the biggest chance imaginable to change deep inside and find the will to lead a crime-free life. The course is not a magic wand but it does sow seeds of change and equip men with the tools to tend them, and surely that is what the CJS is there for.

To read more or book / hear one of my talks on the subject please go to: www.angelafindlaytalks.com

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