angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Restorative Justice

In memory of a remarkable man who knew instinctively the power of forgiveness

My blogger’s brain seems to be in recess along with parliament and my own little ‘bong’ has been temporarily silenced along with Big Ben’s. August has not been the time to focus on any of my usual themes – prisons, rehabilitation, Art, WW2 Germany, Remembrance, memorials and forgiveness – so I will not waffle simply for the sake of fulfilling my goal to publish a monthly blog.


Instead I would like to use this platform to share the following heartfelt TRIBUTE by Marina Cantacuzino, founder of The Forgiveness Project, to Shad Ali who died unexpectedly and suddenly earlier this month. As you will read, he was a truly remarkable, beautiful and inspirational human being who I had the honour of meeting and working with last May at HMP Parc while he was co-facilitating one of the Forgiveness Project’s prison RESTORE programmes. I wrote about the experience back in my May 2016 blog.

Shad was a huge contributor to the different programmes run by The Forgiveness Project. Based on story telling, all their work seems to come effortlessly from the heart. It listens to and talks from the heart. Shad was no different. Badly injured in an unprovoked attack he forgave his attacker almost immediately. His subsequent story is extraordinary and bears witness to the power of forgiveness and love… even for those actions or people that seem unforgivable or unlovable. The loss of Shad is great for all those whose lives he touched deeply, just by being who he was.

The Forgiveness Project’s 7th Annual Lecture The Politics of Forgiveness is at 7pm on 11th October at the Royal Geographical Society in London.


I applaud these Prison Reforms, but the crucial element to bringing about real change is still missing

I am no fan of David Cameron and the Tories, but I’d like to give credit where it is due. And his Prison Reform speech on Monday, though flawed in places, does deserve applause. After decades of Michael Howard’s delusional “Prisons work!” approach, we finally have a prime minister who is talking some sense.

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I started working in prisons back in 1987 and the same backward ‘hang’em, flog’em’ method of dealing with offenders has largely prevailed until now. The terror of appearing “soft” on crime has led to our system being the “scandalous failure” that it is now proclaimed to be, even by the very government that has contributed to prisons being “at their worst level for 10 years”. Successive governments have preferred to continue pumping more than £13 billion a year into an over-crowded, under-staffed, under-funded, violent and ineffective system, which even fails its primary goal of helping prisoners “to lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release” in more than half of all cases it handles.

So, it is music to my ears to hear some sensible reforms outlined that could make a difference (see below links for details and analysis). And hearing both Cameron and Michael Gove openly appreciating the issues prisoners have – mental health, drug addictions, traumatic and dysfunctional childhoods, illiteracy etc – and being genuinely committed to “finding the diamonds in the rough and helping them to shine” is truly heartening. BUT, and it is a big but, nothing anywhere has been said about what in my, and other’s experience, is the most crucial part in the multi-layered process of preventing re-offending. You can give a person a qualification, a job, accommodation, financial support… but none of it will stick if the “underlying problems that caused the offending in the first place are not addressed.” (Frances Crook, Howard League for Penal Reform).


It is the mental and psychological make up of a person that will ultimately enable them to hold these things down… or not. I have seen in Germany how offenders were provided with all these (outer) props on their release only to then fail because they lost it with their boss, or found working to earn a wage so much less profitable than stealing, or became bored as they didn’t have as much fun as when they were getting high on drugs. Talking to hundreds of prisoners as I have done, you can hear how often they feel justified in what they have done. There’s usually someone else to blame or it isn’t really that bad: “The insurance will pay for the handbag and money I stole”; “She was asking for it”. I’ve heard a man who dropped breeze blocks on the heads of prostitutes claiming “Well, prostitutes are scum, the world is a better place without them”. And with those attitudes that diminish, justify or excuse their crimes, people are released back into the community!

So, you people who believe we should be tough on crime, I agree with you, but not by depriving people of education and locking them in their cells to watch TV for up to 23 hours a day in blissful ignorance of the full extent of what they have done. That is letting people “get away with it”, that is the soft option. Instead it is absolutely essential that offenders are confronted with the human impact their crimes have on others, above all their victims. It is essential that their attitudes to what they have done are challenged to a  point where they gain victim awareness and can feel the murmurings of empathy, two critical elements of being a good human being that are so frequently absent in offenders.


This is the process that can take place through Restorative Justice or Art projects tailor-made for offenders. This is what leads to a prisoner saying “Until this day I’ve never felt so much remorse or pain for someone I’ve caused hurt to. I could never do this again…”

“I could never do this again” – that is what will stop a prisoner from re-offending far more effectively than building more prisons, extending the use of satellite tagging and publishing league tables. The government without doubt needs to tackle the huge structural problems in our Criminal Justice System but it is the handling and transforming of the small, negative and (self-)destructive belief patterns, the neglected behavioral issues that ultimately lead a person to reoffend… or not.


Having to tell people you are good… the joys of being self-employed

The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.

Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or  how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.

Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.

According to the schools and the general public, my talk Crime, Prisons and Offenders – the role the Arts can play is: “brilliant”, “fascinating”, “inspirational”, “thought-provoking”, “intelligent”, “informative” and for many, “the best lecture I have heard”. If you book my lecture you will get to know why.

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I am also offering a new talk which I am very excited about: The other side – Germany, looking forward through the shadows of the past. Years of research into my own anglo-german dual nationality give a picture of an ordinary family in World war II Germany. I also reveal many interesting things that the English don’t seem to know about Germany’s post-war burden of guilt and how they are dealing with it. You can read more about it or book it here

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My mother and her siblings, Berlin 1945

As always my paintings are  available to view, buy or commission here.

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37˚ and rising 76x76cm (mixed media with oil)

And my forthcoming art course on the Island of Skyros from 6-19 July will be truly wonderful for anybody who would still like to book. It is a unique opportunity to learn some of my techniques (Read about them in the article in July’s edition of The Artist magazine) and to spend delightful days bathed in sunshine, warmth, laughter and tzatziki.

Oh roll on Admin Week and get me out there.

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Why is Restorative Justice and the power of apology not fully integrated into our justice system?

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I never seem to stop being baffled by aspects of our society. But more than anything else, I’ve been baffled by the illogic of our criminal justice system since I was able to think for myself. Last night I co-facilitated a Restorative Justice conference that brought it home to me once more how important a role apology has in the process of repairing the harm caused to another.

In so many cases the victim, the most important person within the context of a committed crime, can be hugely helped by the “simple” act of a genuine apology. Isn’t that precisely what we are taught to do as children when we have done something bad? And yet as we grow up and do more seriously bad things, the role of apology is largely replaced by punishment, a revenge of sort that responds to and feeds a victims’s natural and justified anger but contributes little to the easing of their pain. We’ve seen examples of apology countless times in politics: Ireland’s decades of pain-filled longing for an apology from the British government for Bloody Sunday in contrast to the hugely powerful yet simple gesture in Germany in 1970 when Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt at the memorial to the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. No words were needed and it was accepted by the world as a public acknowledgment of wrong – no excuses, no justifications, just a silent and humble act of apology.

So why, why aren’t we integrating the format that offers the perfect forum for an apology to take place, into our over-burdened, hugely expensive and largely ineffectual prison system? Why isn’t Restorative Justice practiced at every opportunity? I know you cannot force anyone to make or accept an apology, but what I witness in the RJ process is a softening of all concerned. An awakening to and deeper understanding of both sides of the story; the possibility to feel empathy, compassion, even forgiveness towards each other; the chance to move forward in a new and different way. These are true human qualities, the absence of which lies behind so many crimes.

“Born to lose, built to win…”

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Mural in Cologne Prison, Wing 3

On Friday I saw the documentary “One Mile Away” portraying the efforts of two warring gang members in inner city Birmingham to form a truce between the B21 and B6 postcode rivals. A couple of the gang members were present for a Q&A session afterwards; brave, brave men, lit up by the desire to bring about change and to prevent the pointless feud infecting their children. In this case there was nothing more than the difference in postcodes and the dividing road between that caused a sense of territorial animosity between people otherwise of the same cultural heritage, ethnicity and age.

“Born to lose, built to win” was one of the rappers’ lines that struck me with its potency.

I wondered how I would be as a young, black boy moving through life in constant fear of being “licked” (shot), feeling powerless so reaching for the status and “respect” promised by the knife or gun. I wondered, as I did during the 2011 riots, how you would make sense of the world when every message signals that you are a nobody without those trainers, this phone, that car. Yet the only paths to get them are controlled by the drug dealers, the shine of their bling obscuring the trip wires of violence, time inside or death.

It’s so easy from my perspective to see a way out of such a feud; to think I would never even get sucked in. But can we ever know how we would be if… if… if…


My week evidencing what works and what doesn’t

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Painting: Where am I?  by a young offender

Last week I was invited to witness and experience the work of The Forgiveness Project (TFP) first hand. It was nothing less than extraordinary. Every single person in the room was profoundly moved and affected by the brave story tellers describing their experiences, either as a victim or perpetrator of various crimes. The absence of anger, self-pity, self-loathing, and blame was palpable. The presence of self-awareness, understanding, empathy and personal growth equally so. This is the potential transformation brought about by  forgiveness, a quality that I recognise from my own experiences of it. It offers a way through otherwise seemingly impossible situations – cul de sacs of crippling grief, suffering, guilt, anger.
The Forgiveness Project runs a 3 day project called R.E.S.T.O.R.E in prisons and elsewhere. I can only encourage you to read more on their website. It has had impressive results and we could all see why.

Then on Monday I watched BBC1’s The Prisoners following a handful of prisoners on their journey towards release and  life on the outside. After more than 20 years of being actively involved in the Criminal Justice System myself, there was little new for me there. And yet it still baffles me that so little progress has been made in fully integrating some of the brilliant schemes on offer into the very fabric of our prisons. How can anybody today still think it is logical, acceptable, or even effective to release a mildly or severely institutionalised prisoner into the world with just £46 in his pocket, often homeless or disconnected from all support systems and usually having learnt nothing about how to really change their lives? And then to expect him / her not to re-offend? And despite there being enough anecdotal evidence to fill a house if not a street, arts-based projects and  programmes like  TFP or the gardening training shown on BBC1 that offer real and bigger chances of a reduction in reoffending, are still not being taken as seriously as they could and becoming embedded into our system. Surely we have reached a point where gambling at the chance that these things might work is more logical than plugging away at procedures that can’t possibly work?

And finally my week ended on a great note at a wonderful evening hosted by the Koestler Trust. Here we heard more heart-warming stories of prisoners’ lives turned around through their involvement in the Trust’s annual competition and exhibition of prisoners’ art and the mentoring scheme that follows. I met Shaun Attwood, who has become a successful speaker and a poet whose animated reading of his poems should be heard on stage. Art helps people come alive and want to change and lead meaningful lives.

Could BBC1 do more programmes about what really works maybe?

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