angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Michael Gove

There’s an unhelpful form of Tourette Syndrome lurking within certain British men…

What is it about some British men? It’s as if they have a form of Tourette’s that makes it impossible for them not to heed Basil’s advice and not mention the war. Smug winner syndrome, even 70 years on. I mean is it really a good idea, Boris Johnson, is it remotely mature or diplomatic to respond to a perfectly reasonable suggestion that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside, by equating such an approach to “punishment beatings… in the manner of some world war two movie”? (The Guardian, 18.01.17)

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It honestly makes me wince, not because it’s insensitive, antagonistic or unnecessary, but because it is so unbelievably, pathetically childish. I once laughed at Will Self’s brilliant verbal portrait of Boris as “an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion” but I don’t find him remotely enigmatic or amusing anymore. Just dangerously out of date and out of touch.

Then shortly after Boris had demonstrated his true nature once again, another national embarrassment came to his rescue in the form of Michael Gove tweeting: People “offended” by The Foreign Secretary’s comments today are humourless, deliberately obtuse, snowflakes – it’s a witty metaphor ‪#getalife

Witty? It’s such an old hat trick to try and stand on the head of ones opponent to make oneself taller when they are winning the argument, that any residual humour was sucked out of it decades ago. Are such British men – and I say men because (correct me if I am wrong) I’ve never heard a woman say such things – remotely aware of how stupid they look harping on about WW2 so long after the event? Especially at a time when our country is a total mess, while the losers of the war have long since brushed themselves down, built their country up, learnt the lessons of the past, apologised for it with deep earnestness and humility, and are now trying to move forward in ways informed by the kind of maturity that arises out of darkly, sobering experiences.

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An Antiques Roadshow episode on BBC 1 was recently dedicated as a Holocaust Memorial with survivors telling the stories behind the extraordinary, treasured and priceless ‘bits and pieces’ they had salvaged from those dreadful times. It was deeply moving and stood in such stark contrast to the flippant and thoughtless comments by our own homegrown, floppy-haired idiot.

So, apologies for not “#getting a life” in the way Michael Gove would like me to. I’ve tolerated such jokes and references since I was little and trust me they get very boring indeed. And we as a nation are made to look ridiculous, and have been for years, when allowing our integrity to be debased by cheap jibes at old wounds. I once felt ashamed of my German roots for obvious reasons. But right now, with some of the people we have front-lining our national face to the rest of the world, I feel fortunate to be able to look to Germany and Angela Merkel for some of my sense of national pride.

 

 

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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.

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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.

What are the collective nouns for a mass of unknowns or a pile of question marks?

I think I am politically depressed!

As a new academic year kicks off for another round of the seasonal clock, I find myself back behind the steering wheel and darting all over the country to deliver my talks. A busy lifestyle but it has always felt worthwhile. Even just knowing the next generation of school leavers will launch themselves into the world with at least a tiny awareness that our prison system is a disaster and most prisoners are not monsters but people, with stories and needs for help rather than punishment. That’s always been enough.

Something has changed though. In the rare moments of stillness between bookings I’m noticing the edges of a void appearing, a new blackness where the lights of the future once twinkled. It is as if the stars have been dimmed and the clanking sounds of activity muffled. I can’t hear a single strong voice of leadership I want to follow. I can’t see any sharp outlines defining a destination I want to reach. I can’t get a sense of where we are going and even the vocal activist in me feels subdued, as if there is no longer much point contributing to the discourse, it’s all happening as it is anyway. Does anyone else – or does everyone – feel like this?

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A friend recently articulated that this is the first time in her politically aware life that she doesn’t feel represented in parliament. I feel the same. And I’d take it further. I don’t feel represented anywhere in the world. As I see it, there’s Trump and Clinton presenting a both farcical and terrifying picture of a Superpower gone mad; admirable, grounded Angela Merkel is slipping down the slope of political decline; humane Nick Clegg and the liberal Lib Dems have all but evaporated; and Michael Gove’s self-implosion lost him the position as the most forward thinking, compassionate Justice Secretary we have ever had. And with him go many of our excited hopes for imminent and radical prison reform. Then there’s unelected Theresa May offering an increasingly scary version of the right and Jeremy Corbyn a worthy but slightly lack-lustre left and hovering around them in the wings are Putin, Assad, ISIS, Chinese-controlled Nuclear Power Stations… But above all, there’s this thing, this – what is the collective noun for a mass of “unknowns”? Like the carnivorous algae island in The Life of Pi, the ground we have taken for granted for so long, has become a heaving jellyfish that consumes existing strategies and ideas; a bouncy castle that is hard to walk on without slipping down the sides; a brexit of unknowns.

Maybe that’s what it is! Maybe, above all, it’s this post-Brexit / pre-actual Brexit place we are now in that is preventing so many of us from moving forward with the confident strides we used to. We are collectively fumbling in the dark, uncertainty everywhere creating a fertile ground for hesitation and indecision, which can easily grow into inertia and despondency until a sense of helpless despair stops people dead in their tracks. We are facing years of disruption both to the enormous mechanisms of our society as well as the minutiae of everyday life. Change is good, I am so for change, and life is good in so many ways, but this, this blobby no-man’s land littered with question marks is distracting too much from the urgent issues affecting some peoples’ lives right now and temporarily shelving reforms for a day when the ground stops moving. Which is… when…?

Ok, I am definitely politically depressed! Take no notice of me. It’ll pass.

 

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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