angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Prison Reform

Minefields of ticking time bombs just waiting to explode

Pentonville Prison is “crumbling and rife with vermin”. HMP Birmingham is in a “state of crisis”. Prison staff protest over “unprecedented violence” in jails. “Biggest UK prison riot in decades could and should have been prevented,” report finds.

We have been reading one such headline after another for months now, actually years, probably decades. Almost everything about our prison system is failing and contributing to this dire state: chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of purposeful activity, easily available drugs, squalor, rises in violence, self-harm, suicide… they are all interlinking, poisonous contributors to what is becoming a system wholly unfit for purpose. Yet still nothing substantial is done.

Artwork from this year’s Koestler Exhibition on the Southbank

We, as a nation, as a society, are continuing to sleepwalk into a crisis that can only end in a Grenfell Tower-like nightmare scenario brought about by cuts and neglect; brought about by certain groups of people not caring about the well-being of other groups. After the event, it will come out that people had been warning the government, councils, officials of the inevitability of a tragic or dangerous outcome for years. They will describe how all their suggestions had been continuously ignored. There will be anger. There will be a promise of an inquest. Apologies will be made, lessons will be learnt, new standards will eventually be put in place. All after the event that could have been avoided in the first place through the use of a tiny bit of common sense.

Another artwork from the Koestler Exhibition

These are human beings’ lives we are ignoring. Not just the lives of the prisoners, but the officers, the families, the victims, the members of each and every community… We as a nation need to understand that it is in EVERYBODY’S interest that we change this country’s policies on the main purposes of prison. That we listen to the experts like the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust. That we stop changing Justice Ministers every five minutes and develop a new vision in which the rehabilitation of prisoners rather than their constant degradation and punishment is seen as the logical way forward for us all. Because releasing even angrier, more humiliated and degraded people back into society does not make sense for anybody.

The Koestler Trust Exhibition can be visited on Level 1 of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre until 4th November. Open 10am-11pm daily.

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Good news and great ideas… or just bleedin’ obvious and long overdue?

 

So there’s good news and bad news on the prison front this month.

The good news is that the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has declared that “there is a role for the arts” in criminal justice. He believes it’s a good idea. In an interview with The Times on May 25th, Mr Gauke said “the creative sector is a big employer, you hear stories of someone involved in a prison production who ends up in the West End as a lighting technician…” He wants “a culture of rehabilitation” that encourages “drama, writing and painting in prisons.”

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For a prison service that is close to breaking point, this is good news indeed. And Mr Gauke is making sense in other areas too. Twenty five years ago the prison population was 44,000, now it’s 84,000. He wants it to drop. He recognizes that in terms of rehabilitation, short sentences do not work. Tagging could be one alternative to incarceration. There should also be alternatives for many women and mentally ill prisoners. He believes in the power of work to change people’s lives. Apparently he also wants to start a wider debate about “what punishment means”.

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It’s all good stuff. So what’s the bad news?

It’s not exactly bad, it’s just not as good as it sounds. Mr Gauke is the fourth person to occupy the position of Justice Secretary in the three years since Michael Gove (love him or hate him) self-imploded taking with him all his well-received proposals for prison reform. Mr Gauke’s ideas are not new. They are ideas that most people in the sector have been voicing for decades. Fighting for even. For many of us, they are so obvious that it is baffling that politicians are able to voice them with the earnestness that they do.

Reforms like these have been promised again and again but nothing ever actually gets done. So while I welcome Mr Gauke’s words and intentions, I will only applaud them and regain hope for our dire prison system when I see action. That will be the genuinely good news so many of us are waiting for.

 

To read more:

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/from-the-wings-to-the-workplace-the-route-to-reducing-reoffending

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/24/david-gauke-prisoner-employment-strategy

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-and-employment-strategy-2018

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/david-gauke-interview-it-s-the-carrot-and-stick-prisoners-need-to-have-a-sense-of-purpose-2mp5qt0kx

 

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?!

“Britain’s Shame” – the price for trying to be “Great”?

Last month I wrote about how the words “Britain” and “shame” rarely appear in the same sentence. This month the two words have been inseparable. “Britain’s Shame” even became the title for BBC’s Panorama programme on the horrifying and heartbreaking fire at Grenfell Tower on 14th June. The programme opens with the accusation that shoved these two words together to sit unwillingly and uncomfortably side by side for all the world to see: “They were warned several times, countless times; they were warned probably until the day before the fire…”

IMG_1336.jpg‘Falling on deaf ears’, Koestler Trust entry from HMP Standford Hill

I don’t feel in any position to write about the tragedy that has ended or blighted so many innocent peoples’ lives. It is too sad and it is too soon. But I do feel in a position to talk about the shame that surrounds it, the shame that needs to be looked at and above all felt so that vital changes can be swiftly made before another tinderbox of neglect ignites.

For well over a year, with Brexit and the recent elections, we the British public have been being fed narratives about what will make us “great”. Boil them down and they are usually about economics and what apparently will make life better, above all, for “hard working families”. I don’t agree. No country can be great while a large proportion of its population have to foot the bill for the high standards of a minority. So many people in this country are living in sub-standard, unsafe conditions and struggling to make ends meet in spite of working their bollocks off. Our prisoners are too. And like our fire-hazard clad tower blocks, prisons are also just waiting to combust.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers knew this. They knew that for a country to be truly great, you have to look at the standards of life of the poorest, the most vulnerable, the weakest and the troubled. And when we do that, Britain falls very short of the greatness to which it so aspires.

Fyodor Dostoevski: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Winston Churchill: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country…”

Nelson Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”

For years prison inspectors, charities, prison reform campaigners, enlightened politicians, prisoners and officers alike have been warning the government that the prison system is not fit for purpose. Suicide rates have doubled in four years; assaults and self-harm incidents have reached record levels; overcrowding, understaffing, underfunding make our prisons not only unsafe but also “shameful places” of wasted opportunity and wasted human potential; warehouses of broken and dysfunctional humanity being held often in little more than cages, then ejected back into society only for half or two thirds to return within the year.

Last year’s Queen’s speech announced the long promised Prison and Courts Reform bill as the “biggest prison shake-up since Victorian times”. It had made real progress through parliament, received broad parliamentary support and was welcomed by campaigners – like me – who had been consulted and listened to in ways we hadn’t been before. There was a genuine excitement and will to reform our prisons and this law would have required the government to respond to the consistently bad findings of the Prison Inspectors. But, in another U-turn by the Tory Government, it has been omitted from this year’s Queen’s speech. And so once again the momentum behind vital prison reform gets reduced to a stutter as ministers get re-shuffled and implementations of good ideas get delayed.

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The government and those responsible for the mistakes surrounding Grenfell Tower need to feel the shame of the wholly avoidable tragedy. And we as a nation, need to feel ashamed about our treatment of prisoners. It is all too easy to look at them as second- or third-rate citizens, who have lost their right to fair treatment; who are at the bottom of the pile of people to care about just as some of those in power look on the inhabitants of social housing. Some prisoners, yes, it is harder to care about them. But the vast majority are just people, people who deserve help to make their lives work for themselves and ultimately us. They are just people, 70% of whom have some kind of mental health issues, 52% of whom are dyslexic, 50% of whom can’t write, 25% of whom have spent time in care, others who themselves were victims… Disadvantaged people who didn’t have the advantages that so many of us were fortunate enough to take for granted.

Let us feel ashamed for a moment, because shame can lead to genuine humility and lasting change, above all in attitude. Germany’s emergence out of the biggest and darkest pool of shame in recent history is a good example of how facing ones shame can lead to better policies. If any good at all can come out of the devastating tragedy of Grenfell Tower, may it be that those responsible listen to the warnings and pleas for help or change coming from all those affected by, or connected to, the various areas of British society that are not “great”. For to ignore them further would now not just be negligent but criminal.

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

 

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?

1215231_origFrom the Life of Pi

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

PRISON Part 2: People are calling it “the biggest shakeup in prisons since Victorian times”? It’s certainly a welcome start…

Finally, finally, the news is exposing what an appalling mess our prison service is in. For the first time ever the Queen, a Tory Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the BBC, both  prisoners and staff alike are all singing the same tune the pesky Inspectors of Prisons and irritating campaigners – once dismissed as idealistic, bleeding heart liberals and ‘soft’ on crime – have been singing for decades. There’s no going back now and I am in my element!

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Prisons filled the headlines of last week’s media. We saw the rusty bars of our Criminal Justice System being rattled by the Prison Reform Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech and hailed as the “biggest shake-up of the prison system since Victorian times”. There was the BBC’s inside coverage of HMP Wandsworth, truly shocking footage of a lawless human jungle of drugs, violence, squalor and terror, right in the midst of our consumer-, digital- and sugar-fuelled society. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36327325?SThisFB) That the BBC was reporting on the state of our prisons as if it were breaking news, would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic to those of us who have been working or living in these environments for years and saying as much. Never the less, many of us welcome the exposure and the steps being taken, such as giving more autonomy to governors in six Reform Prisons to create their own regimes. But the scale of the problems that desperately need addressing – like sentencing laws, over-crowding, under-funding, under-staffing, the increase in violence through the widespread availability of legal highs like Spice – dwarf the measures outlined in the bill making it look hopelessly inadequate and above all desperately slow.

You can read the main proposals of the Prison Reform Bill included in the Queen’s Speech  here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/biggest-shake-up-of-prison-system-announced-as-part-of-queens-speech. But what I find makes more exciting reading (!) is Dame Sally Coates’s Prison Education Review, which was commissioned by Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, and also released on Wednesday 18th May:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/524013/education-review-report.pdf

I was fortunate enough to have had an opportunity earlier this year to meet her and contribute my ideas on the vital role of the arts within prison education (You can read some of them here: http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com/the-case-for-the-arts/ or come to one of my Talks on the subject http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com/speaker-3/prison-public/ ) So, it was with huge joy that I saw these ideas included in the foreword and dotted throughout the excellent report.

  • “Many prisoners will have previously had unsatisfactory experiences of the classroom. They will need encouragement and support to take their first learning steps. This should include greater provision of high quality creative arts provision, and Personal and Social Development courses. Both improve self-knowledge, develop self-confidence and therefore help tackle reoffending.”
  • “The provision of art, drama and music courses is not a core part of current OLASS arrangements. Where they do operate, and where there have been one-off projects or performances with visiting arts companies, they are often the first thing that prisoners, staff and Governors tell me. The arts are one route towards engaging prisoners when they have had negative experience of traditional classroom subjects, or struggle with self-esteem and communication. They can be the first step towards building confidence for more formal learning…
  • “There should be no restriction on the use of education funding to support the creative arts, Personal and Social Development opportunities. These can be used to engage prisoners in education and support them to make progress against their Personal Learning Plan.”

Dame Sally Coates really listened to all those with whom she consulted. Her recommendations for education – if implemented – would genuinely be the “biggest shake up since Victorian times” and would bring about real and lasting change for everybody: the prisoners, the staff, the government, the taxpayer, and society in general. I just pray they are now taken on without further delay  because as one audience member said after one of my recent talks on the subject: “What you are saying is so bloody logical, such common sense. So why on earth isn’t it just being done?” I had no answer for him.

PRISON Part 3 will follow next week after I have taken part in The Forgiveness Project’s 3-day RESTORE programme in HMP Parc.

 

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