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Penitence versus Redemption in the Criminal Justice System: Unedited

I once entered a cell of a high-profile prisoner; his crime had been blazoned on every national newspaper and was serving the last few months of his sentence as an education orderly. He sat on his raised bed, his legs dangling over the menial storage where he had meticulously and precisely arranged his pairs of trainers and invited me to sit on the only chair in the cell. During our 20-minute conversation, he was pensive and reflective, looking down all the while, except for when he raised his head, adjusted his glasses, then looked me straight in the eye.

“Don’t count the days, but make every day count,” he said, his voice monotone and hushed. Yet behind him, I noticed a calendar marked with neatly drawn crosses. He was clearly counting down his days, paying his penitence until his eventual release from prison.

As an independent criminologist, I have met many who feel a deep-seated obligation to “pay back” continuously in some way to society or a higher power. Those who are caught and convicted for committing a crime experience punishment in some form or other, but when should that punishment end? Is it once a sentence has been served or longer?

Over the last 12 years, I have visited every category of prison in England and Wales and monitored a Category D prison for four years. In all that time, I have encountered hundreds of inmates, many struggling with the punishment, not only that of the sentence given by the courts, but the continual punishment they experience as they serve it, as well as after release and beyond.

The Ministry of Justice proudly states on their website that their responsibility is to ensure that sentences are served, and offenders are encouraged to turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens. Apparently, the Ministry has a vision of delivering a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society, and one of four of their strategic priorities is having a prison and probation service that reforms offenders. 

But I am not at all convinced by this hyperbole. In my opinion, we must stop the madness of believing that we can change people and their behaviour by banging them up in warehouse conditions with little to do, not enough to eat, and sanitation from a previous century.


If true reform is supposed to be achieved through time served, then a former inmate emerging from prison with a clean slate would be ready to contribute fully to society. Yet beyond prison gates people who have served their time all too often live under a cloud of penitence, suppressing a sense of guilt for their deeds.

Many of the formerly incarcerated insist on a daily act of penitence, a good deed, even raising money for a worthy cause. For onlookers, such acts carry an air of respectability, but it is important to understand what is really happening on the inside because some of those who engage in them do so as a form of self-punishment. The punishing of self both physically and mentally.

They sense they must compensate.

Their account never fully paid.

Lifelong indebtedness.

And of course there are those who appear to genuflect to the Ministry of Justice and the Criminal Justice System; a sign of respect or an act of worship to those always in a superior position.

On the balance of probabilities, it is more likely than not that some penal reform organisations and some individuals with lived experience approach the Ministry of Justice with such reverence showing their cursory act of respect.

The same act of penitence or faux reverence ingrained into them whilst they served their custodial sentence.

For others penitence is an act devoid of meaning or performed without knowledge.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of penitence is “the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong, repentance, a public display of penitence.” In addition to the formal punishment they endure, many prisoners engage in penitence both physically and mentally during and after serving their time, which keeps them from moving forward with their lives and is damaging to their sanity.

According to a 2021 report by the Centre for Mental Health, (page 24) “former prisoners…had significantly greater current mental health problems across the full spectrum of mental health diagnosis than the general public, alongside greater suicide risk, typically multiple mental health problems including dual diagnosis, and also lower verbal IQ…and greater current social problems.”

In my work, I have found that some people who have broken the law want others to know that they are sorry, whilst at the same time feel the pressure to prove this to themselves. In such cases, their penitence becomes a public display for families, caseworkers, and those in authority.

Witnesses to this display of penitence often think these people are a good example of someone who has turned their life around, but often, these former prisoners find themselves stuck in the act of penitence. Rather than turning their lives around, they are trapped forever in their guilt. In these cases, the act of atoning becomes all-consuming, an insatiable appetite to heed the voices in their soul that tell them, “you must do more and more, it’s not enough, I’m hungry.”


When I speak to those who are serving a whole-life tariff, I know that their debt to society can never be repaid: they are resigned to a lifelong burden of irredeemable indebtedness. But many of those who are released from prison remain incarcerated by their own guilt, feeling as if they must hide any hint of happiness they may find in life after prison so as not to be judged. 

For example, in 2019, I interviewed Erwin James, author, Guardian columnist and convicted murderer, who had just come out with his third book, Redeemable: a Memoir of Darkness and Hope. When I asked him, “What makes you happy?” he replied: “In the public, if I am laughing, I feel awful because there are people grieving because of me. Even in jail, I was scared to laugh sometimes because it looked like I didn’t care about anything.”

Just like I saw with the prisoner sat on his bed, I have witnessed a cloud hanging over many, especially when redemption, or the act of repaying the value of something lost, relates to acceptance and society’s opinion of you.

There are of course prisoners who have the intellectual capacity to learn from their mistakes, have the emotional capacity to adapt to their situations and – not forgetting – the spiritual capacity, a dimension that can lead to a voyage of self-discovery. But by no means all.

Unfortunately, in the UK, paying back to society can either be the light at the end of the tunnel, or a tunnel with no light.

I believe we live in a punitive society in which the continual punishment of those who have offended is tacitly endorsed. In so doing, society inadvertently encourages the penitentiaries of this world to hold offenders in an ever-tightening grip.

Even a sentence served in the community—a sentencing option all too often shunned by magistrates—can carry an arduous stigma. In a public show of humiliation, the words “Community Payback” are garishly emblasoned on the offenders’ brightly-coloured outerwear, announcing their status as a wrongdoer to all who see them. Basically, this is society’s way of saying, “we want you to be sorry, we want you to show you are sorry and we will not let you forget it.”

Statements such as “the loss of liberty is the punishment” become fictitious, enabling punishment in its various form to continue throughout the sentence served and even after release.

Let us no longer have this traditional stance, rather should we try to embolden others to move on from their actions?

And can groundless nimbyism be finally assigned to history?

I am mindful that pain and grief still abounds, that some crimes will not be erased from our minds, and that crimes will stubbornly continue. But surely, the answer cannot be to condemn those who have done wrong to a lifetime without forgiveness.

To move forward as a society, we need to discourage the continual need to offer an apology, and instead accept when former prisoners have paid their dues and served their sentences. Only then will we move from a vicious cycle of unending penitence to a world in which reform and redemption is truly possible.


An edited version of this article was first published on 28 February 2022 by New Thinking.


IMB Soap Opera

Is the IMB like liquid soap?

Not the wonderful clear stuff which has a beautiful fragrance and an antibacterial effect on everything it touches.

No, not that.

More like that gawd awful stuff you find in greasy dispensers at motorway service station toilets, where hygiene means tick boxing inspection sheets on the back of the door. Its colour an insipid artificial pink like slime from old boiled sweets left too long in the sun, and its smell nauseous like cat sick.

But it is its opacity that irks me.

Designed to deliberately obfuscate, smother and shroud all that has any proximity to it, you never truly know whether it has any cleansing properties at all.

I neither like nor trust opaque liquid soap.

I happily tolerate the clear stuff, so long as it really is clear and totally free of nasty microbeads, creaming additives and fake foam.

It would have been far better for the IMB if it had been a bar of soap. At least you know where you are with a bar of soap. Visible, tangible, relatable, practical, and likeable. A bar of soap has these and many other qualities about it which reassures me of its fitness for purpose.

From the moment it is unwrapped and placed at the side of the sink, its very presence reassures you. Sitting there unblemished and ready to serve, a fresh bar of soap exudes a sense of personalised attentiveness and an unwillingness to be corrupted by falling into the wrong person’s hands.

I don’t think it is too much to ask that a bar of soap is fresh and that I am the first person to use it. There are some things that are unacceptable to pass around.

Even if we were to believe all they tell us then, at best, IMB would resemble a remnant of used soap, cracked and old. Once so full of purpose, now degraded in the hands of multiple ministers and permanent secretaries. Put on the side, its usefulness expended but its stubborn existence more a token gesture of monitoring rather than an effective part of the hygiene of the justice system.

It is an exhausted specimen of uselessness despite what its National Chair, Secretariat, Management Board would have you believe. They justify their own sense of importance with the sort of job roles that place them on a pedestal. But in reality it all just smacks of self aggrandizement; as they say in Texas – “Big hat, no cattle.”

Where once I bought into this whole parade, now I see it for the parody that it is. Where once I was pleased to serve, now I call out the servitude that the system enforces on those who work within it.

Where once I would write the annual reports, now I challenge the pointlessness of recording observations and making recommendations, an utterly futile exercise because there was never any intention by the Ministry of Justice to do anything about them.

A fresh bar of soap has an impressive versatility about it. It can give you clean hands, yes, but it can go a lot further than that. It can be carved, shaped and fashioned into an object of extraordinary beauty.

Some people serving their time in prison surprise me when they produce such intricate objects crafted from something as humble as a fresh bar of soap; an allegory of their own lives, in some cases I have known. Arguably a work of art to be admired and cherished.

Whereas an old, cracked bar of soap has no such versatility or value, and does not merit being kept.

If you can’t wash your hands with it, you should wash your hands of it.

In its present form, the IMB needs to be replaced.


A conversation with: Lady Val Corbett, passionate about prison reform, empowerment of women and kindness in business

Lady Val Corbett, a feisty woman, with determination to rival most, striking red hair and a penchant for wearing bright scarves, is one way of introducing my latest “A conversation with…” Having known Lady Val for 6 years, I have found her to be compassionate, hilarious, focused and above all, a friend.

Lady Val Corbett

Her career in journalism started in Cape Town but with moving to the UK it was impossible to continue without being a member of the National Union of Journalists. Eventually she worked for the Sunday Express as a weekend reporter; a Features Editor of a noteworthy Furnishing Magazine; Editor of a magazine Woman’s Chronicle for the Spar customers and grocers which then led to becoming the consumer columnist on The Sun. With the birth of her daughter, Polly, she invented herself several times!

“I wrote a column for Cosmopolitan and for national papers and magazines plus scriptwriter for BBC TV then became one of the founder directors of an independent TV production company which sold programmes for major broadcasters – highlight was a six-part BBC1 series called Living with the Enemy on teenagers as I was struggling with mine at the time. I was a volunteer at the Hoxton Apprentice, a training restaurant for long term unemployed and saw how people could change direction. After that I co-wrote six novels with two friends and in between was an MP’s wife and later the PA for Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, when I regularly gave notice or got fired.”

That’s quite a résumé.

Val had a chance encounter on her first day as a features writer, which led to 42 years of happy marriage.

“On my first day I was having second thoughts about a new dress I had bought. Going to the canteen for lunch I paused at the door and asked my colleague: “Does this dress make me look dumpy?”  To which an amused male voice said: “Yes it does.” I looked up – my 5ft 2” to his 6ft 3” – and thought he was the rudest man I’d ever met. He called me Dumpy for ages.”

Her husband, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, sadly died on 19th February 2012.

Did you personally have an interest in politics?

Not for party politics. I knew apartheid was wrong, unfair, and cruel. My first time voting as a British citizen was in Fulham when I put my cross next to Major Wilmot-Seale whom I believed was the Liberal candidate (party allegiances were not then on ballot papers). He was the National Front candidate and garnered 45 votes of which mine was one. Robin never let me forget this. Over the years he became my political mentor because he thought going into politics was because you wanted to change the world. And goodness how he tried!

When Robin decided a cause was just, he was not swayed from the path, do you feel you have taken on that mantle?

I could have chosen from several of his crusades – his Private Members Bill which became law, granting lifetime anonymity for rape victims in courts and media was one but he was also active in prison reform during his 34-year parliamentary career. Chairing the All-Party Penal Affairs Group for 10 years until his death made him realist how much there was to do in the criminal justice system.

He used to say: “Prison isn’t full of bad people; it’s full of people who’ve done bad things and most need a chance to change direction.” 

Was it a mantle you were willing to take on?

Yes, when I heard a man say on TV “All men die but some men live on.” I wanted Robin’s legacy in prison reform to live on. Though a novice in prison reform I immersed myself in prison reform in 2013 and though I am still learning now feel I am no longer a novice.

What makes you laugh?

I laugh a lot particularly at short jokes and always tell one or two at my professional women’s network events.  

What makes you cry?

Anything concerning cruelty to children.

Since 2016, I have been part of Lady Val’s Professional Women’s Network consisting of female entrepreneurs, senior women in business, the arts, government, investment, HR, and many more diverse professions.

How can I help you and how can you help me?

It’s a forum for women in business looking to further their careers by focusing on leadership skills, self-confidence, and other key areas of personal development. Meeting five times per year for lunch, each event starts with an icebreaker “How can I help you and how can you help me”, a simple formula which encourages meaningful connections. This is followed by an inspirational speaker, a leader in their field sharing business knowledge and expertise.

The professional networking lunches are all about business and not entertainment, how do you reflect that in your choice of speakers?

I choose keynote speakers with care. Most speakers have been leaders in their field of business: marketing, fin tech, green economy, Lloyds of London, Abbey Road Studios etc. We had Michael Palin and Jon Snow, both prison reform campaigners, also Prue Leith and Jeffrey Archer. They attracted large audiences, but the Network is a business one, not an entertainment one… So, we are going back to basics, with speakers appealing to businesswomen.  I’m happy that through the contacts not only have networkers gained business contacts but also friends.

We are all in this together and if women don’t help each other, who will?

What in your opinion are some of the barriers for women to advance in their professional lives?

The main barrier is a lack of confidence. The glass ceiling is there to be smashed but   few women want to. This is changing though not fast enough for me! I count myself not as a feminist but as an equalist and am proud that the network voted me one of their 50 Trailblazers in gender equality.

Face to face events are planned from April, are we all zoomed out after 2 years?

Zoom has become increasingly unpopular, and I hope we can go back to somewhere near our normal lives. I am worried that although the stats of Covid are decreasing, they are still worryingly high. On April 21st we are going back to Browns Courtrooms to restart our lunches with keynote speaker James Timpson who’ll be talking about kindness in business.  

This network is not for ladies who lunch but ladies who work.

A donation comes from each booking going to our work on prison reform.

How did the Robin Corbett Award come about?

After a loved one dies, people gather around giving you sympathy and many cups of tea. A few weeks after the funeral they seem to think you will be able to manage but it is then that you are at your lowest. It was at this point that inspiration struck. As I mentioned before, the sentence I heard on TV: “All men die but some men live on.” was a eureka moment making me decide that I wanted Robin’s legacy to live on.

The Robin Corbett Award celebrates, supports, and rewards the best in prisoner re-integration programmes. Each year we donate funds to three charities, social enterprises or CICs whose mission is centred around giving returning citizens a chance to reintegrate back into society. The presentation is at the House of Lords.

The Robin Corbett Award for Prisoner Re-Integration was established by members of Lord Corbett’s family in conjunction with the Prison Reform Trust in 2013. It is now administered by The Corbett Foundation, a not-for-profit social enterprise.

What are the criteria to being a member of the Corbett Network?

The Corbett Network is a coalition of charities, social enterprises, community interest companies, non-profit organisations and businesses with a social mission who work with those in prison and after release. (Individuals are not eligible). These decision makers are dedicated to reducing re-offending by helping returning citizens find and keep a job.  Some members offer mentoring, coaching, training or education.

How many members are there?

Currently there are 108 with four waiting to be introduced to their fellow members.

This network has expanded rapidly over the last few years, is this due to prison reform taking a greater platform?

Once the Robin Corbett Award was established, I kept on meeting people working in their own small pond, so to speak. I thought we could crusade better in a sea and invited them to join us. Since then, together we have created a powerful lobbying voice heard at the highest levels of government and recognized by those in the criminal justice sector as a force for change. I do sense that the media tend to focus on the problems.

Where do you see the Corbett Network positioned in the justice arena?

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust told me that The Corbett Network is the only one of its kind in the UK. It sits alongside the Criminal Justice Alliance and Clinks which concentrate mainly on policing, courts, prisons, probation, and human rights. The Corbett Network are members of both these organisations.

What are your hopes for the future of this network?

To crusade effectively. To effect changes desperately needed in our prison system. To change public perception of people who have been inside – they are not sub- human. Since the Network started in 2017, we now have over 108 members, holding both face-to-face, virtual meetings, conferences and, crucially, encouraging greater collaboration across the work we collectively do. Together, we have created a powerful lobbying voice, heard at the highest levels of government, and recognised by those in the criminal justice sector as a force for change.

“Prisons should not be society’s revenge but a chance to change direction.” Robin Corbett

This interview was published to mark International Women’s Day 2022.

All photos courtesy of Lady Val Corbett. Used with permission.

Should inmates be given phones?

Offenders who maintain family ties are nearly 40% less likely to turn back to crime, according to the Ministry of Justice. With secure mobiles being rolled out in prisons we ask…

Should inmates be given phones?

This was a question posed to me back in November 2021 by Jenny Ackland, Senior Writer/Content Commissioner, Future for a “Real life debate” to be published in Woman’s Own January 10th 2022 edition.

Below is the complete article, my comments were cut down slightly, as there was a limited word count and reworked into the magazine style.

Communication is an essential element to all our lives, but when it comes to those incarcerated in our prisons, there is suddenly a blockage.

Why is communication limited?

It is no surprise that mobile phones can serve as a means of continuing criminal activity with the outside world, as a weapon of manipulation, a bargaining tool, a means of bullying or intimidation.

But what many forget is that prison removes an individual from society as they know it, with high brick walls and barbed wire separating them from loved ones, family, and friends.

There is a PIN phone system where prisoners can speak with a limited number of pre-approved and validated contacts, but these phones are on the landings, are shared by many, usually in demand at the same time and where confidentiality is non-existent. This is when friction can lead to disturbances, threats, and intimidation. 

Some prisons (approx 66%) do have in-cell telephony, with prescribed numbers, monitored calls and with no in-coming calls.

Why do some have a problem with this?

We live in an age of technology, and even now phones are seen as rewarding those in prison.

If we believe that communication is a vital element in maintaining relationships, why is there such opposition for prisoners?

In HM Chief Inspector of prisons Annual report for 2020, 71% of women and 47% of men reported they had mental health issues.

Phones are used as a coping mechanism to the harsh regimes, can assist in reducing stress, allay anxiety and prevent depression.

Let’s not punish further those in prison, prison should be the loss of liberty.

Even within a prison environment parents want to be able to make an active contribution to their children’s lives. Limiting access to phones penalises children and in so doing punishes them for something they haven’t done. They are still parents.

Art for arts sake/prison for prisons sake: Part 2

Emerging from the Westminster tube station, the blue sky is a welcome sight. Trees shedding their leaves by the chilly winter winds. Wrapped up against the elements I hastily head along Victoria Embankment and climb the steps to cross the Thames toward my chosen destination – The Southbank Centre and Koestler Arts exhibition. A celebration of Art, Music and Writing.

The ‘I and the We’, curated by Camille Walala and Sarah Ihler Meyer.

With the strapline: ‘Unlocking the talent inside the criminal justice system’

It’s a strapline I have often read, but how many truly believe it is possible?

Unlocking: who is unlocking and who is being unlocked?

Unlocked, unlock, unlocking…its endless, often words chosen by cjs charities and organisations.

But to unlock you need a key.

A key can be a person or an opportunity. Here it is both.

We write off so many due to their circumstances, but a bit of creative encouragement can achieve much.

I try not to over-analyse each exhibit, but it is tempting, with titles such as ‘Too Late‘ and ‘Perspective‘ it is a little hard not to be intrigued.

Talent: is there really talent within the criminal justice system?

This question is easy for me to answer, a resounding yes.

Others may think differently, usually from a position of ignorance in my view. The average person still knows so little about what is happening behind prison walls.

Art is a form of expressing what is happening within or without. In a nutshell a way of communicating to others in an illustrative way.

Art is not judgmental like right or wrong, nor is it binary like black or white.

I was attracted to a striking entry from HMP Garth called ‘God’s Words’. A simple graphic featuring biblical words applied using rudimentary materials; a marker pen and cardboard. Definitely makes you think.

Slowly moving through the room, many exhibits caught my eye, some making me feel rather sad and others bringing a smile to my face and even a laugh. But that is the beauty of Art.

Bold statements

Become the fire‘ HM Prison Eastwood Park, Painting, 2021

“Some Women fear the fire, others simply Become It” such poignant yet powerful words. I wonder what the story is behind it. All I know is someone called Jacqueline painted this acrylic on board from HMP Eastwood Park. No other words are really needed.

Wise words

If We All Stand Together We Can Do Anything‘ Thornford Park Hospital, Sculpture, 2021

As I considered the work called ‘If We All Stand Together We Can Do Anything’ there is a sense of togetherness within this exhibition, maybe we can all learn from this simple sculpture. Thank you Michael.



beyond these grilles

behind this door

and walls within my view

I’ve fought my demons

and done my time

ready to start anew.

I’ve used these bricks

to build new walls

and found something true

I’ll rise to freedom

And find my voice

Well beyond this view.

I sat on a bench in silent contemplation of these four verses, unmissable alongside other poems on the wall ahead of me.

It was well worth taking the time to read every carefully chosen word.

Here is talent. It has been unlocked.


‘The I and the We’ 2021 UK exhibition at Southbank Centre
Curated by Camille Walala and Sarah Ihler-Meyer
29 October – 5 December 2021. Mon – Wed 10am – 6pm, Thu – Sun 10am – 9pm*
Exhibition Space, Level 1, Royal Festival Hall, London


Who watches the Watchdog?

The website for the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) states:

“Inside every prison, there is an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) made up of members of the public from all walks of life doing an extraordinary job!

You’ll work as part of a team of IMB volunteers, who are the eyes and ears of the public, appointed by Ministers to perform a vital task: independent monitoring of prisons and places of immigration detention. It’s an opportunity to help make sure that prisoners are being treated fairly and given the opportunity and support to stop reoffending and rebuild their lives.”

Anyone can see this is a huge remit for a group of volunteers.

IMB’s about us page also states:

“Their role is to monitor the day-to-day life in their local prison or removal centre and ensure that prisoners and detainees are treated fairly and humanely”

Another huge remit.

For those who believe they can make a difference, and I have met a few who have, the joining process is quite lengthy.

Once you have completed the online application form, bearing in mind you can only apply to prisons which are running a recruiting campaign (that doesn’t mean to say there are no vacancies in others) the applicant is then invited for an interview and a tour of the prison.

So, what is wrong with that you may ask?

At this point NO security checks have been done, so literally anyone can get a tour of a prison, ask questions, and meet staff and prisoners.

This is surely a red flag.

And then there is the ‘interview’.

Two IMB members from the prison you have applied to and one from another prison take it turn in asking questions. It is basically a ‘tick box exercise’; I know this because I have been involved myself, sitting on both sides of the table.

It is based on scores, so if you are competent in interviews, you will do well. With IMB boards desperate for members it means that as long as your security check comes through as okay, you will have made it on to the IMB board.

However, no references are required to become a prison monitor. NONE.

A red flag too?

One of the main problems I encountered was that if the IMB board member comes from a managerial background they will want to manage. But the IMB role is about monitoring a prison and not managing it. I have seen where members and staff have clashed over this.

Well done, you made it on to the board, what next?

Back to the IMB website:

“You do not need any particular qualifications or experience, as we will provide all necessary training and support you need during a 12-month training and mentoring period”

The first year is the probationary year where you are mentored, accompanied, and trained. To be accompanied for this period is unrealistic, there are insufficient members having neither the time nor resources to get new members up to speed before they start monitoring.

In addition, induction training can be between 3-6 months after joining and can be said it is at best haphazard.

As reported Tuesday by Charles Hymas and others in The Telegraph newspaper, and citing a set-piece statement from the MOJ press office, “a spokesman said that although they had unrestricted access, they were given a comprehensive induction…”

I beg to differ; the induction for IMB board members is hardly comprehensive.

I believe this needs to change.

For such an essential role, basic training must take place before stepping into a prison. Yes, you can learn on the job but as we have seen recently, IMB members are not infallible.

Membership of the IMB is for up to 15 years which leads to culture of “we’ve always done it this way”, a phrase all too often heard, preventing new members from introducing fresh ideas.

Spear: “Complacency has no part in prisons monitoring”

What if something goes wrong?

Not all IMB members have a radio or even a whistle or any means of alerting others to a difficult situation or security risk. If for any reason you need support from the IMB Secretariat, don’t hold your breath.

The secretariat is composed of civil servants, MOJ employees, a fluctuating workforce, frequently with no monitoring experience themselves who offer little or no assistance. I know, I’ve been in that place of needing advice and support.

What support I received was pathetic. Even when I was required to attend an inquest in my capacity as a IMB board member no tangible help was provided and I was told that IMB’s so-called ‘care team’ had been disbanded.

From the moment you pick up your keys, you enter a prison environment that is unpredictable, volatile and changeable.

As we have seen this week, an IMB member at HMP Liverpool has been arrested and suspended after a police investigation where they were accused of smuggling drugs and phones into prison.

This is not surprising to me and may be the tip of the iceberg. IMB board members have unrestricted access to prisons and prisoners. As unpaid volunteers they are as susceptible to coercion as paid prison officers.

Radical change needs to be put in place to tighten up scrutiny of, and checks on, members of the IMB when they visit prisons either for their board meetings or their rota visits.

In 4 years of monitoring at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay I was never searched, and neither was any bag I carried. In over 10 years of visiting prisons, I can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of times I have been searched. When visiting a large scale prison such as HMP Berwyn I only had to show my driving licence and the barriers were opened.

Whilst the situation at HMP Liverpool is an ongoing investigation and whilst the outcome of the investigation is not yet known, I do urge Dame Anne Owers, the IMB’s national Chair, to look urgently at the IMB recruitment process, at the IMB training and at the provision of on-going support for IMB board members.

Complacency has no part in prisons monitoring.


Hidden Heroes: Why are they hidden and why are they heroes?

Today, 29 September 2021, is the second Hidden Heroes Day. An initiative of The Butler Trust it aims be “a National Day of Thanks for our #HiddenHeroes across the UK”.  As well as Hidden Heroes Day, there is a dedicated website and social media account.

“While most media coverage of the sector focuses on the negative, the @HiddenHeroes_uk Twitter account is used to share positive stories about prisons, IRCs, probation and youth justice services, and the #HiddenHeroes who work in them.”

Why is it that our prisons, IRCs, probation, and youth justice services is apparently full of hidden heroes?

It is one thing calling them heroes, but why are they hidden?

Who has made them hidden and what is keeping them hidden?

Are they hiding and if so what from?

Are they hiding something or from something?

Are they hidden because they don’t want a fuss or hidden because they don’t want people to know?

In this day and age, why is the harsh reality of prisons so well hidden?

How can it be that the average person still knows so little about what is happening behind prison walls?

Direct experience

It has been more than 10 years since I first stepped into a prison. The unfamiliar surroundings can quickly intimidate and unsettle you, and the smell can be nauseating.

Back then, I had to hide my job role. Some of my thoughts on my way to do my monitoring rota at a prison once were: “I need to get petrol for the journey to work, so I had better put my belt and key chain in my bag this morning as I don’t think I am supposed to let anyone see it. No one has said anything, and I haven’t read any rules about it, but I’ve got a feeling that it should stay hidden until I get to the prison car park. That’s the thing about being a prison monitor, there seems to be so many unwritten rules and regulations.”

How many paid staff feel that they too must hide the job they do from others?

I remember visiting a high security prison, for an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) tour of the prison. We walked together as a small group and headed into a workshop. It was an example of one of those mind-numbingly boring workshops found in nearly every prison where they perform so-called “purposeful activity”.

As we entered escorted by IMB volunteers I was told by a member of staff that within that large room there were two blind spots. In a hushed voice they said:

“We are not responsible for your safety if you walk into a blind spot.”

The problem was that they avoided telling us where the blind spots were, for fear of being overheard.

Is that what is meant by hidden?

Yes, it can be a dangerous for staff but so too for those living inside.

Prisoner-on-staff attacks are counted, and stats reported. And they should be. Prisoner-on-prisoner attacks are also counted, and stats reported and they should be too. But have you ever tried to get stats for staff-on-prisoner attacks?

Along with others, perhaps yourself included, I took the time to review the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report in August 2021 on HMP Chelmsford. The report said:

“Almost half of the prisoners said they had been victimised by staff, and those with disabilities and mental health problems were significantly more negative.”

How can you call them hidden heroes when reading something like this?

Should that be hidden too?

Can those who do such things really be heroes?

Opinions differ

Whilst preparing this blog, I decided to ask people for their views on Hidden Heroes.

Dita Saliuka told me:

Prison staff get the good coverage in the media most of the time anyway and the public praise them for ‘doing a difficult job’. It’s more the prisoners that are labelled all sorts whether they committed a horrendous crime or not people just say all sorts just because they are a prisoner. I hate the word ‘hidden heroes’ so much as PPO (Prison and Probation Ombudsman) and Inquest clearly state that most deaths are due to staff failures so how is that a heroic thing? It’s disrespectful to us families that have lost a loved one in prison due to their neglect, failures and staff abuse.”

Phil O’Brien, who has a 40-year career in the Prison system, told me:

“I think it’s an excellent initiative. It quite rightly concentrates on the positives. But sometimes doing the dirty stuff can be equally effective and necessary but can’t be ‘celebrated’ because it’s not as easy to explain, not as attractive or appealing.”

Tough at the top

We have probably all read in the media this past week that there is a new Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab MP, appointed on 15 September in the reshuffle. But did you also see that he has been quite vocal on what he really thinks about prisons.

Mr. Raab has said: “We are not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places. That’s the point of them”

Compare that with the official line that Ministry of Justice takes: We work to protect and advance the principles of justice. Our vision is to deliver a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society.” And, according to its 4 strategic priorities, “a prison and probation service that reforms offenders”

We are yet to learn the full extent of who is hiding what from whom at Petty France.

Mr. Raab will have to confront a few bastions of power there which prefer things to be properly hidden.

End of the day

#HiddenHeroesDay will come and go. Some people burst with enthusiasm for it, raising lots of money for great causes and all that is, of course, to be commended.

But at the end of the day the fact remains that the enduring problem of the criminal justice system, and daily for frontline workers in particular, is the pervading culture which dictates that everything remains hidden.

If we are to celebrate anything, wouldn’t it be better to celebrate openness rather than that which is hidden?

But within the justice arena so many tragedies stay hidden. Too many lives ruined, too many suicides, too many people suffering with mental health issues. And it is worsening by the day. That is the stark reality. And the reason things are hidden.

The Butler Trust, in creating the initiative, no doubt has the best of intentions.

In celebrating Hidden Heroes Day are we not in fact perpetuating the very problem it is trying to solve?

~ ends ~

Guest blog: Being visible: Phil O’Brien

An interview with Phil O’Brien by John O’Brien

Phil O’Brien started his prison officer training in January 1970. His first posting, at HMDC Kirklevington, in April 1970. In a forty-year career, he also served at HMP Brixton, HMP Wakefield, HMYOI Castington, HMP Full Sutton, HMRC Low Newton and HMP Frankland. He moved through the ranks and finished his public sector career as Head of Operations at Frankland. In 2006, he moved into the private sector, where he worked for two years at HMP Forest Bank before taking up consultancy roles at Harmondsworth IRC, HMP Addiewell and HMP Bronzefield, where he carried out investigations and advised on training issues. Phil retired in 2011. In September 2018, he published Can I Have a Word, Boss?, a memoir of his time in the prison service. 

John O’Brien holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Leeds, where he specialised in autobiography studies.

Phil O’Brien

You deal in the first two chapters of the book with training. How do you reflect upon your training now, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in the service?

I believe that the training I received set me up for any success I might have had. I never forgot the basics I was taught on that initial course. On one level, we’re talking about practical things like conducting searches, monitoring visits, keeping keys out of the sight of prisoners. On another level, we’re talking about the development of more subtle skills like observing patterns of behaviour and developing an intimate knowledge of the prisoners in your charge, that is, getting to know them so well that you can predict what they are going to do before they do it. Put simply, we were taught how best to protect the public, which includes both prisoners and staff. Those basics were a constant for me.

Tell me about the importance of the provision of education and training for prisoners. Your book seems to suggest that Low Newton was particularly successful in this regard.

Many prisoners lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. For anyone leaving the prison system, reading and writing are crucial in terms of functioning effectively in society, even if it’s only in order to access the benefits available on release.

At Low Newton, a largely juvenile population, the education side of the regime was championed by two governing governors, Mitch Egan and Mike Kirby. In addition, we had a well-resourced and extremely committed set of teachers. I was Head of Inmate Activities at Low Newton and therefore had direct responsibility for education.

The importance of education and training is twofold:

Firstly, it gives people skills and better fits them for release.

Secondly, a regime that fully engages prisoners leaves less time for the nonsense often associated with jails: bullying, drug-dealing, escaping.

To what extent do you believe that the requirements of security, control and justice can be kept in balance?

Security, control, and justice are crucial to the health of any prison. If you keep these factors in balance, afford them equal attention and respect, you can’t be accused of bias one way or the other.

Security refers to your duty to have measures in place that prevent escapes – your duty to protect the public.

Control refers to your duty to create and maintain a safe environment for all.

Justice is about treating people with respect and providing them with the opportunities to address their offending behaviour. You can keep them in balance. It’s one of the fundamentals of the job. But you have to maintain an objective and informed view of how these factors interact and overlap. It comes with experience.

What changed most about the prison service in your time?

One of the major changes was Fresh Start in 1987/88, which got rid of overtime and the Chief Officer rank. Fresh Start made prison governors more budget aware and responsible. It was implemented more effectively at some places than others, so it wasn’t without its wrinkles.

Another was the Woolf report, which looked at the causes of the Strangeways riot. The Woolf report concentrated on refurbishment, decent living and working conditions, and full regimes for prisoners with all activities starting and ending on time. It also sought to enlarge the Cat D estate, which would allow prisoners to work in outside industry prior to release. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t yet come to pass sufficiently. It’s an opportunity missed.

What about in terms of security?

When drugs replaced snout and hooch as currency in the 1980s, my security priorities changed in order to meet the new threat. I had to develop ways of disrupting drug networks, both inside and outside prison, and to find ways to mitigate targeted subversion of staff by drug gangs.

In my later years, in the high security estate, there was a real fear and expectation of organised criminals breaking into jails to affect someone’s escape, so we had to organise anti-helicopter defences.

The twenty-first century also brought a changed, and probably increased, threat of terrorism, which itself introduced new security challenges.

You worked in prisons of different categories. What differences and similarities did you find in terms of management in these different environments?

Right from becoming a senior officer, a first line manager at Wakefield, I adopted a modus operandi I never changed. I called it ‘managing by walking about’. It was about talking and listening, making sure I was there for staff when things got difficult. It’s crucial for a manager to be visible to prisoners and staff on a daily basis. It shows intent and respect.

I distinctly remember Phil Copple, when he was governor at Frankland, saying one day: “How do you find time to get around your areas of responsibility every day when other managers seem tied to their chairs?” I found that if I talked to all the staff, I was responsible for every day, it would prevent problems coming to my office later when I might be pushed for time. Really, it was a means of saving time.

The job is the same wherever you are. Whichever category of prison you are working in, you must get the basics right, be fair and face the task head on.

The concept of intelligence features prominently in the book. Can you talk a bit about intelligence, both in terms of security and management?

Successful intelligence has always depended on the collection of information.

The four stages in the intelligence cycle are: collation, analysis, dissemination and action. If you talk to people in the right way, they respond. I discovered this as soon as I joined the service, and it was particularly noticeable at Brixton.

Prisoners expect to be treated fairly, to get what they’re entitled to and to be included in the conversation. When this happens, they have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It’s easy to forget that prisoners are also members of the community, and they have the same problems as everyone else. That is, thinking about kids, schools, marriages, finances. Many are loyal and conservative. The majority don’t like seeing other people being treated unfairly, and this includes prisoner on prisoner interaction, bullying etc. If you tap into this facet of their character, they’ll often help you right the wrongs. That was my experience.

Intelligence used properly can be a lifesaver.

You refer to Kirklevington as an example of how prisons should work. What was so positive about their regime at the time?

It had vision and purpose and it delivered.

It was one of the few jails where I worked that consistently delivered what it was contracted to deliver. Every prisoner was given paid work opportunities prior to release, ensuring he could compete on equal terms when he got out. The regime had in place effective monitoring, robust assessments of risk, regular testing for substance abuse and sentence-planning meetings that included input from family and home probation officers.

Once passed out to work, each prisoner completed a period of unpaid work for the benefit of the local community – painting, decorating, gardening etc.

There was excellent communication.

The system just worked.

The right processes were in place.

To what extent do you feel you were good at your job because you understood the prisoners? That you were, in some way, the same?

I come from Ripleyville, in Bradford, a slum cleared in the 1950s. Though the majority of people were honest and hardworking, the area had its minority of ne’er-do-wells. I never pretended that I was any better than anyone else coming from this background.

Whilst a prisoner officer under training at Leeds, I came across a prisoner I’d known from childhood on my first day. When I went to Brixton, a prisoner from Bradford came up to me and said he recognised me and introduced himself. I’d only been there a couple of weeks. I don’t know if it was because of my background, but I took an interest in individual prisoners, trying to understand what made them tick, as soon as I joined the job.

I found that if I was fair and communicated with them, the vast majority would come half way and meet me on those terms. Obviously, my working in so many different kinds of establishments undoubtedly helped. It gave me a wide experience of different regimes and how prisoners react in those regimes.

How important was humour in the job? And, therefore, in the book?

Humour is crucial. Often black humour. If you note, a number of my ex-colleagues who have reviewed the book mention the importance of humour. It helps calm situations. Both staff and prisoners appreciate it. It can help normalise situations – potentially tense situations. Of course, if you use it, you’ve got to be able to take it, too.

What are the challenges, as you see them, for graduate management staff in prisons?

Credibility, possibly, at least at the beginning of their career. This was definitely a feature of my earlier years, where those in the junior governor ranks were seen as nobodies. The junior governors were usually attached to a wing with a PO, and the staff tended to look towards the PO for guidance. The department took steps to address this with the introduction of the accelerated promotion scheme, which saw graduate entrants spending time on the landing in junior uniform ranks before being fast-tracked to PO. They would be really tested in that rank.

There will always be criticism of management by uniform staff – it goes with the territory. A small minority of graduate staff failed to make sufficient progress at this stage and remained in the uniform ranks. This tended to cement the system’s credibility in the eyes of uniform staff. 

Were there any other differences between graduate governors and governors who had come through the ranks?

The accelerated promotion grades tended to have a clearer career path and were closely mentored by a governor grade at HQ and by governing governors at their home establishments and had regular training. However, I lost count of the number of phone calls I received from people who were struggling with being newly promoted from the ranks to the governor grades. They often felt that they hadn’t been properly trained for their new role, particularly in relation to paperwork, which is a staple of governor grade jobs.

From the point of view of the early 21stC, what were the main differences between prisons in the public and private sectors?

There’s little difference now between public and private sector prisons. Initially, the public sector had a massive advantage in terms of the experience of staff across the ranks. Now, retention of staff seems to be a problem in both sectors. The conditions of service were better in the public sector in my time, but this advantage has been eroded. Wages are similar, retirement age is similar. The retirement age has risen substantially since I finished.

In my experience, private sector managers were better at managing budgets. As regards staff, basic grade staff in both sectors were equally keen and willing to learn. All that staff in either sector really needed was purpose, a coherent vision and support.       

A couple of times towards the end of your book, you hint at the idea that your time might have passed. Does your approach belong to a particular historical moment?

I felt that all careers have to come to an end at some point and I could see that increasing administrative control would deprive my work of some of its pleasures. It was time to go before bitterness set in. Having said that, when I came back, I still found that the same old-fashioned skills were needed to deal with what I had been contracted to do. So, maybe I was a bit premature.

My approaches and methods were developed historically, over the entire period of my forty-year career. Everywhere I went, I tried to refine the basics that I had learned on that initial training course.

Thank you to John O’Brien for enabling Phil to share his experiences.

John O’Brien


A conversation with: Barry Thacker, Deputy Chief of Police, The Falklands, South Georgia, and South Sandwich Islands


It’s May 1982, holidaying in Somerset, where new friendships in the making were overshadowed by the Falklands War. Faith, Pam, Mark, Sally, Denise and Barry …

Each day we bought and read together the Times newspaper, the broadsheet format detailing the horrors of war, the loss, the gains, the heartbreak of lives sacrificed, the images of destruction. The Falklands War will forever be etched in my memory. We all kept in touch for a few years, but then we all went our separate ways.

Faith, Pam, Mark, Sally, Denise and Barry, 1982

Fast forward almost 40 years.

I’m sat at my computer engaging in a zoom conversation with Barry Thacker, Deputy Chief of Police of the Falkland Islands. Reminiscing about that holiday back in 1982. Barry was 18, I was 17 with our lives ahead of us. Never knowing that all these years later our paths would cross again.


Tell me a little about your family background.

I am from a small mining village on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border. My dad, a miner all his life, died prematurely at 69 with pneumoconiosis. My mum is still going well at 90. I am the youngest of 4 and had a comprehensive education.  Life was a little tough during 1984 and the UK miners’ strike but as a family we got through it. My wages kept us and some friends afloat. 

When you left school what was your first job?

Fruit and veg assistant at a local wholesaler. It was where I met Ivan Bamford, my supervisor, who was a special constable.  After a few weeks, an opportunity arose on a government YTS (Youth Training Scheme) at the police station, I felt it would give me experience into a career I really wanted to pursue. It wasn’t long into the YTS that I was taken on full time as an admin clerk and when I hit 18 there was no recruitment so I joined the Derbyshire Special Constabulary working for Ivan again.

Why were you unsuccessful in joining the Police Cadets, did you ever think of giving up and choosing a different path?

I know it is a cliché, but I always wanted to be a cop after receiving a police pedal car for Christmas one year.  When I left school there were still paid police cadets, so when I was in the 5th year (Y11 now) as Nottinghamshire police were recruiting cadets, I applied and was successful with the entrance exam. However, I wasn’t successful in my ‘O’ level (GCSE) English so was told to wait until I was 18 and try straight for the regular police.

You eventually started working for the police by finding another route. Do you think that part of your character is to not give up but find alternatives to situations?

I am a big believer in things happening for a reason and although not knowing at the time as you reflect on your life things become evident.  Whatever setbacks we have in life I always try to see the good and by entering the police at the bottom, so to speak, I can appreciate the frustrations of all ranks. It is that emotional intelligence which I like to think has got me to where I am today looking after the policing for 3 overseas territories, The Falklands, South Georgia, and South Sandwich Islands.

Partnership Office, 2014

You were presented with a silver baton, explain what that was for.

I attended my initial 14-week training at Ryton on Dunsmore police college. As it had taken me many setbacks to get where I wanted to be I was determined to prove myself, I focused my efforts and became class leader and never scored less than 90% on my weekly and course exams.  At pass out I was awarded the Commandant’s baton for top student on the course.

My initial posting as a regular PC was the East of Derby City, a multicultural deprived area of the city.

Being brought up in a small Derbyshire town was a far cry from working in Derby. What were some of the challenges you faced?

The innocence and trust I was used to in a small village was a far cry from inner city Derby.  I wasn’t averse to deprivation and need but the support of a village wasn’t always there in an often faceless city.

It was my first time away from home, living in a small council owned flat. Initially I had litter, food and other unmentionables posted through my letter box, everyone knew it was a police flat. The anti-social behaviour towards me was short lived, I became established in the estate, I think like life in general it’s very much how you interact and deal with people that gets you results; yes, I was a cop, but I was their cop and they often sought my advice ‘off the record’ but with the understanding I was still a cop and on occasions had to take action on what they told/asked me.

Over your 32-year career with Derbyshire Constabulary, you received 8 commendations for your work. Can you expand on a few?

As a young cop I was sent to a boy/girl friend splitting up and when I arrived the young man had poured petrol over the girl’s car and was going to set it alight.  Following a struggle which resulted in us both getting covered in petrol from the can he had used I had, for the first and only time in my career, struck someone with my truncheon – proportionate force – to make him release the lighter he was trying to use to set us and the car alight.

A businessman was kidnapped as he left his factory in Leicester and driven to Birmingham with a demand for £1.5m from his family for his safe release.  I was appointed negotiator coordinator for the 5 counties of the East Midlands and had to staff this incident through mutual aid between all the forces, as well as maintain trained negotiators to respond to others calls for negotiator input.  At one stage I was managing the kidnap in Leicester and 2 suicide interventions in Nottinghamshire and Northampton.  This was I think one of the most stressful yet rewarding parts of my career, saving all lives. The 3 offenders from the kidnap received a total of 90 years imprisonment.

Accepting a Commendation

You received a Certificate in Counter Terrorism from St Andrews in 2007, what led you to study?

As part of my role as County Partnership Inspector, part of my portfolio was that of the prevent part of the government’s Contest anti-terrorism agenda, the other parts being prepare, pursue, and protect. I had to coordinate police and partner agency resources to prevent the threat of terrorism within the county.  So, to increase my knowledge and support my role as a Home Office terrorism trainer, I did the course.

Serving 32 years with the Derbyshire Constabulary is quite a commitment

Yes, I had some good times with amazing people and some truly inspiring leaders.  The police service isn’t just a job but a calling, a family atmosphere of mutual respect and willingness to help and support each other; there are some terrible incidents officers witness. I’ve had numerous ones. For example, I’ve been handed a severed head in a carrier bag, you need that support to get you through.  There is a lot of media negativity and society kick back to the police, but we are the ones who are there to always give that help and support to others putting our own feelings aside until the job is done. 

Meet the Governor, 2020

You took retirement around your 50th birthday. Did you plan it that way?

That is the way the police pension works; you pay in 14% of you pay throughout your 30-year career to retire at this age.  I did the extra 2 years to establish a project I started of a multi-agency web-based information sharing system.

From having active roles in the community for so long how did it feel for that chapter in your life to close?

It was difficult and takes time to get over the fact you have no powers, handing over my warrant card after so long was a big thing.  But the constabulary try to prepare you and, as I have said previously, the support of family and network of friends gets you through it. 

How important has it been for you during your police career to be authentic?

I owe a lot to my humble beginnings and how my parents raised me and the standards and morals they instilled in me.  My faith has been tested at times but I have always come through and grown through life lessons; at times it was the only thing keeping me going.

Retirement did not last long as you “missed the buzz of the Police” So, you applied for a very unusual position, far away from friends and family and initially became Senior Constable with the Royal Falklands Police on a 2-year placement. So, what changed as you are still there?

I saw the advert on LinkedIn and fancied an adventure and the experience of a Southern Hemisphere life.  I also thought of the experience I could bring to the role and so an enriched service to the community.  I thought what an opportunity to forget about budgets, staffing, politics, policies, etc and returned to the role of Constable where I started many years ago.

The Falkland Islands is a truly awesome location. The scenery, wildlife, sunrises and sunsets, and amazing stars at night together with a lovely community.  So a 2-year contract was signed. After just 9 months I was promoted to deputy Chief of Police and a further 2 year contract was signed, so I’m currently in my 3rd year here finishing at the end of 2022. Then let’s see what the next chapter of my life has in store.

I have had the privilege of meeting the Chiefs of the other Overseas Territories and I feel blessed to be looking after the ones I do, but who knows? Maybe somewhere a tad warmer next?  

How different is policing on the Falkland Islands?

I have policed deprived areas, I’ve policed affluent areas, and everywhere in between. Each area is unique and there is good everywhere, sometimes a tad more difficult to find but it will always be there.  The Falkland Islands has a population of around 3,000 (by comparison Derbyshire Constabulary had more staff working for them) is very much a community that people reminisce of; the community is great and most people know each other.

Port Stanley, 2019

There is very little aquisitive crime and people are honest and genuinely care about their lifestyle, each other, and the environment they share with the wildlife.  There is also a military camp and I have developed an exceptional working relationship with them, something I couldn’t have done in the UK and the experiences I would never have been exposed to in the UK.  

Being personal friends with His Excellency The Governor and his wife are, again, the sort of opportunities I couldn’t even dream about in the UK.  However, with the island being so law abiding, any breaches of the law are magnified in ways which they never would be in the UK.

Liberation Day, 2019

I am very much aware of the privileged position I hold and the additional restrictions that puts on my social life in addition to those of a regular police officer. 

You once wrote “I am passionate about community work especially giving a voice to the most vulnerable and believe in the encouragement and mentoring of young people helping them to achieve their full potential” how are you able to put this into practice where you are now?

I continue to believe in community which I hope I have demonstrated throughout this conversation. During my time as Senior Constable here I took on the role of school liaison. I have been able to be there for these young people, helping them continue their studies in the UK and have enjoyed watching some of them grow into independent adults. 

If I can help guide and break down any barriers between young people and the police then that must be a good job – as with the rest of the community – to be appreciative of their lives, to take an interest but be firm and fair; enforcing the law without fear or favour, malice, or ill will.

Community policing, being Santa, 2019

To summarise I have had a fulfilled career as a UK officer and still doing the job I love helping and supporting people in need. 

We all carry hang ups, problems and insecurities and not everyone knows how to deal with their own issues and interactions with others. Someone once told me people will forget what you say to them but not how you make them feel. 

Compassion and understanding go a long way to endear us to each other.


All photographs used with the kind permission of Barry Thacker


A Conversation with: Keith Fraser, Chair of the Youth Justice Board

Keith Fraser

In July 2020 you were appointed as a Commissioner to a new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, what do you hope to bring to the table?

My professional and personal experiences, rooted in supporting many charities, being part and in and around the criminal justice system for just over 34 years, our independence of thinking and hopefully visionary approach which is not dependent on the support and expectations of others.

Young people’s pipeline to youth justice services – impact of words and actions, we have more power than we realise. Can you expand on this?

As my knowledge of people, children, adults, increases, I’m actually getting to understand the science better behind human relationships and also our development. The maturity of a person’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 24 years. Therefore, any interactions that we have with a person during that 24-year period, can have and does have a significant impact on their development and their actions. It’s possible to physically change the wiring of a person’s brain, when it’s in that developmental stage. Basically, people under the age of 25 are likely to be less risk averse, more impulsive, take risks and more easily influenced by their peers and their surroundings.

Children are children whether they are in the justice system, or not. Their vulnerabilities, education, keeping them safe and supporting them into a future life whether they feel part of society is important for all children.

Look for the potential, don’t judge young people by their sibling’s actions, there is a better way. A few points you recently raised with me. Can you give examples?

This is just as a result of people I have met who told me about many instances in which they have been judged because of the behaviour of their siblings. E.g., their sibling could be in and around the justice system and they get seen through the same lens as this sibling. I remember one individual who told me about how teachers judged him because of his brother and their expectations of him were reduced as a result. It was one teacher who showed that they cared which enabled him to go on and complete a degree, even though it appeared that the teachers in secondary school had written off.

What matters to you?

Family, friends, loyalty, trustworthiness and sticking up for those that others might overlook and seen the value in people.

Trust is especially important, you mentioned in a previous conversation that during our afternoon of talking and sharing together a level of trust was built up between us, can you expand on this?

Trust is important to me, it’s one of my values, being trustworthy. I have seen throughout my life how trust has helped to make things happen and the lack of trust or broken trust has made things happen slower or stop things from happening at all. This is true of my personal life and my professional life.

What drives you?

I have an absolute passion for life and for people.

I love people and am fascinated by the different outcomes for different people and what can be done to improve and change that. I’m a real people person which found this lockdown extremely difficult. Meeting people via video call is better than telephone conferencing but it has been difficult over the last year to reduce my level of face-to-face engagement with the different people I meet.

You appear to have a drive for order in your life, is that a true picture?

I don’t think I have a drive for order, my mind is just on fire and I’m excited about the possibilities and problem solving and making things better. It can be a little bit difficult for others to deal with and I feel that it is a central part of my dyslexic brain. I take ownership of my active mind and not try to curb it. Many people can’t deal with the number of ideas and things that I like to talk about or get involved in.

My personality type, using the Myers Briggs indicator is I NTJ, which is introverted – energised by quiet times alone (some might find that surprising) intuitive – sees patterns and possibilities, thinking prioritise logic and reason and judging – prefer structure and order.

How do you compartmentalise your life?

Since I left the police, I found it important to put more structure around how I interact with the world. I’ve had to create strategic bubbles and objectives so that I can understand what I am doing and why. Five years prior to leaving the police I created three strategic bubbles which I now use for the next chapter in my life.

1 – spend time doing the things I like doing such as family and friends, hobbies…

2 – I want to spend a certain amount of my time giving to others in whatever way I can provide benefit, whether it be through a charity, or supporting an individual…

3 – I’d also like to spend time in various paid roles or developing ideas but always ensuring that the things I get involved in sit with my values.

My dyslexic brain doesn’t really struggle with putting things into compartments if I ask it to. I don’t get too stressed out about having a lot of things on, in a certain way it excites me and stimulates me.

Your parents instilled values in you, how has that enabled you in life?

Not just by parents, when you have a loving upbringing and a loving extended family, it provides you with an inner strength and a strong sense of your own values. I was told on numerous occasions I love you by my aunties and sometimes my uncles. Even my cousins would say privately to me that they love me when someone says that to you and you are not expecting it, it is really powerful in a positive way.

Does your drive and determination also come from your parents?

The short answer is yes, although I didn’t realise it until later on in life. People kept on asking me what drives you, what keeps you so passionate, so positive and caring about others. When I was younger, I remember having a conversation with my father “you are going to have to work four times as hard as others to get on”, a conversation that has stayed with me. Once I joined the police, he would always tell people I was one rank above the rank I saw a sense of pride on his face and a little bit of mystery, but he helped drive my career in policing.

When I went for my interview as Superintendent, I wore my dad’s suit, which is older than me, and when I joined the Youth Justice Board and had my first official photograph, I wore one of my dad’s ties. I suppose it was a way of remembering him and keeping him near me although he isn’t physically with me, but up and definitely in heaven.

What obstacles did you encounter with your dream of being a police officer?

Not sure what obstacles I encountered; I was focused from an early age. I first wrote to the Home Office and sent in an application form when I was either 13 or 14. Some unknown civil servant took the time to write a letter to me personally, to encourage me to reapply when I was 18½ and send some information about joining the police. That was enough to continue and drive my passion and vision and becoming a police officer.

I suppose some of the barriers I had I failed getting into the police cadets and I didn’t get into the West Midlands police when I first applied. That is why I went to London. I loved my time in London and I have made really amazing friends. But 20 years later they recognised the error of their ways haha and accepted me as a Chief Inspector and I retired as Superintendent in my home region, where I was born and bred and that filled me with a sense of pride.

“Just get on with it and don’t make a fuss” is that your attitude?

I don’t realise that I have that attitude, but it’s when things are pointed out to you, you realise that’s what you are like.

I remember once during my lunch break, I was getting my car tax from the post office, I was in my civilian suit. Two men armed with a knife in the queue in front of me, attacked another man in an unprovoked and violent way. The post office was rammed with people, I dived at the person with the knife. It was quite a nasty struggle and I was on my own. The whole post office emptied with just one member of the public staying behind to help. When backup arrived, I went back to the office and continued with my work. It wasn’t until the criminal investigation department or CID rang to speak with me that my colleagues in the office found out what had happened. They were shocked that I calmly walked back into the office and got on with my work without saying anything. I was commended by the judge at court and by a senior police officer for my actions.

I suppose getting on with it without making a fuss has its pros and cons, it can lead to people overlooking you and not realising what you are capable of. It is not within my nature to make a fuss of publicity, it’s not my natural environment and I’m definitely not in my comfort zone.

Tell me about your fundraising ventures

I have created an informal organisation consisting of me and whoever I can get to partner with me – it’s called overcoming your challenges to achieve. We have raised, around £33 – £35,000 for different charities such as Sport Birmingham, Birmingham and Solihull women’s aid, Care of police survivors. All achieved through abseiling down one of Birmingham’s tallest buildings. I’m terrified of heights and it didn’t get easier the second time round; in fact, it was worse because I knew what to expect even though I was supported by an amazing para-athlete Christopher Skelley.

I have also been locked in cells overnight and completed Birmingham’s 13 peak challenge raising money for a young child with brain cancer.

Currently I am trying to raise, with others just over £3 million to build a Cenotaph to remember and say thank you to team 999 and all those who are part of our emergency services.

What makes you happy/laugh?

Now this is a hard one I do laugh a lot or smile a lot. I have a very dry and sarcastic sense of humour, which I must control, because it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

Things that make me happy are celebrating family occasions such as birthdays, christenings, also the similar type of things with friends. I enjoy socialising chatting with friends, I love a good debate about current affairs and enjoy objective conversations about what makes the world tick, I think sometimes people find these conversations hard, because they often overlap people values and what they believe.

What makes you cry?

I have found as I get older that some of the injustices and suffering that I see on the news have made me cry, it never used to, but I see more and more how people suffer because of an accident at birth or where they live, rather than anything that they have done in their lives. Those that have made others suffer upset me, especially when you hear the back stories behind the faces you see on the news, I find that extremely difficult to deal with. I do also have tears of joy rather than sadness. I have only cried in work once and that was when I told my line manager, I was dyslexic, and the response floored me.

Who inspires you and how can you or do you inspire others?

People in general inspire me, not just those who have achieved a significant level of fame, but also ordinary people who deal with ordinary issues on a day-to-day basis. Many people I interacted with as a police officer have left a trace on me and supported my onward journey and development. These people have touched and strengthened my life. I might let you Faith answer that question about how I inspire others, I always find that quite difficult to answer, but people have said I’m inspirational and different and I have a positive impact on their lives, but I don’t realise it until people say it. So, it would be nice to hear what you Faith have seen in me and hopefully that doesn’t feel like a copout.

You seem to take all decisions carefully, retirement plans 5 years in advance, exit strategy, giving back, life split into strategic areas very upfront on what work/time you can commit to. If you reach saturation point you are no use to anyone. Is this a good summary of you?

I do think ahead, which is a benefit and a challenge. If I get behind the vision, I’m very passionate about achieving it, but I also have to be aware that my passion may put people off. I am constantly trying to reassure people that just because I’m passionate doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind… It has its downsides too, for example if my vision goes against the prevailing thinking. If it’s irrational and/or unfair I find it difficult to follow, even if it’s policy, law, et cetera. It does not mean that I would go against policies and laws without understand the consequences of them.

I’m not a maverick an organisation cannot trust, but I am prepared to stand up to things which are unfair.