A retrospective of 2020
The author Peter Mayle once wrote “The year began with lunch…” which pretty much mirrored mine, although for me it started on Aldeburgh beach in the freezing cold, eating chips, and surrounded by family celebrating my birthday.
Cambridge is a favourite place of mine, having spent hours in libraries, museums and taking in the splendour of the architecture. So in February when I was invited to a seminar in the Institute of Criminology (IoC), I immediately responded. I have entered that building many times, studied in their library, attended seminars and even had tea in Professor Bottom’s office.
The subject was ‘Can Prisons Rehabilitate?’, delivered by Yvonne Jewkes. Rehabilitation is a subject I have thought long and hard about. Whilst awaiting the start, I received a very warm welcome from Rebecca L. Greene, Artist in Residence at IoC. It was good to catch up with those I hadn’t seen for a while, chat to Ben Crewe and have some interesting conversations with students who were keen to engage with me.
Months later Rebecca kindly invited me to take part in the digital exhibition Drawing Connections at the edges, Arts in Prison at the Museum of Cambridge following on from the Festival Of Ideas: Arts in Prisons, what changes can they bring? in 2019. The title to consider was “How did lockdown make you feel?” drawing on experiences of lockdown relating to the perception of my work with people within the Criminal Justice System. For my contribution I decided to write a poem:
Dare I compare my lockdown to theirs?
Can I not reach out to those in prison to manage my isolation and to draw on their resources to get through this challenging time?
Perhaps this has been a way to understand their hopes, fears and feelings too, leading to a breakdown of mental and spiritual barriers between us.
No longer is it just about reaching out to those in prison, instead it is an opportunity for us to be reached out to, from those within the prison walls.
Their voices illuminating
Their voices resonating
Their voices compelling
Are we not all part of society?
Has lockdown reinforced this?
Can freedom come from within and can freedom come from without?
I invited Rebecca to say a few words for inclusion in this retrospective and this is what she wrote:
“I was honoured to be asked by Faith Spear to write a short piece on how we met for her blog: as the year which has proved challenging and complex for everyone in myriad ways draws to a close, it seems hard to believe it was only in February of 2020. We met, when I welcomed her to a Public Seminar presented by Professor Yvonne Jewkes’ Can Prisons Rehabilitate?, hosted by the Institute of Criminology, my place of work. Faith’s ability to speak clearly and concisely has meant her work is something I have taken an interest in since my first engagement with the CJS through Learning Together in 2016. The material Faith shares on Justice and Social matters is done so, I feel, with fairness and truth and since our meeting this has been further enhanced through a shared love of the Arts and their restorative qualities.” (Rebecca L. Greene)
Poetry played a major role in my activities this last year. After being approached by Gerry Hamill, @FirstTimeInside, I became a panel member and part of a community for a Hidden Voices project with HMP Edinburgh. This was a poetry competition open to men and women entitled ‘Saughton Sonnets‘. The prisoners were asked to express their feelings on lockdown and Covid-19 and how they have been affected by this crisis. For 5 weeks a new batch of poems were sent to us to judge, score and comment on. Each weeks winners were then scored to find an overall winner. It was brilliant to work alongside other community members and to discover the amazing potential in those that are so often overlooked. The finale was to see these sonnets in print and to hear how those that had taken part had been encouraged to continue to write.
Writing is steadily becoming a passion for me, and I have been fortunate enough to have two book reviews printed in the InsideTime newspaper:
In June 2020 edition: ‘Can I have a word Boss’ written by Phil O’Brian after 40 years within Her Majesty’s Prison Service. His passion and drive come across in every chapter. Sadly, this kind of experience is now fading as his calibre is being replaced by those with little experience in the world, let alone within the justice arena. Is this a good thing? Only time will tell.
In November 2020 edition: ‘The Grass Arena‘ written by John Healy is a book centred round a world I thankfully have never ventured into – either by choice or circumstance. Drink, drugs, vagrancy, death, prostitution and money – the somewhat graphic portrayal of a life I can only describe as ‘brutal’. This book was recommended to me by Charlie Ryder after having read a blog I wrote the previous year “A Conversation with: Erwin James“.
Erwin kindly sent that review to John Healy and days later I received a supportive and positive response from John inviting me to keep in touch.
Sadly many conversations have not been face to face, with numerous events cancelled, meetings postponed and travelling almost non existent. Instead we have all embraced/tolerated/accepted, zoom, video calls and the old fashioned just picking up the phone to communicate. For example, I had a zoom call with Chris Daw QC, quizzing him on his new book ‘Justice on Trial‘ and trying to find the answers to so many questions I had.
During the year, I have written about two conversations with amazing individuals and their enthralling journeys in life.
The first was “A Conversation with: Phil Forder“, we chatted for hours, a remarkable man. When I asked “Who is Phil Forder?” the response was brilliant:
“My job title is community engagement manager at HMP Parc but as you so rightly said previously. ‘There is more to an individual than their job.’ I’m also a painter writer and woodcarver. LGBT rights supporter. Environmentalist Nature lover. Lecturer, etc.
But in a nutshell
“Just a bloke doing what I think is right and enjoy doing”
I asked Phil if he would like to say a few words for inclusion in this retrospective. This is Phil’s contribution:
“Over the years I had read so much about conditions in prisons on social media, most of it not good, that as a person who works in one I decided to launch my own account in 2017. Although a lot of what was being written about was true, I also knew there was another side to it where positive initiatives and positive people were striving to make a difference under increasingly difficult circumstances. So I put my head above the parapet, using my own name, and began to try and show another side to prison life, of which examples were daily. Twitter can be a pretty ugly place as I soon found out. There were times aplenty I was disheartened and tempted to stop as I began to receive flack from all directions but then I noticed it wasn’t all bad as a lady called Faith was following me and what’s more she had started retweeting my work and making constructive comments too. Although not alone in doing so, as there were others, that constant support was, and still is, invaluable in putting out the work that I do. As anyone who follows Faith will know, she is pretty fearless in her pursuit of Truth and not someone to take lightly. But what is so refreshing, especially on social media, is to hear a voice that is not only honest and always well-thought out but one that is objective and well-balanced too. Through her insights, Faith has proved herself, again and again, a valuable member of the prison community that we are lucky to have in such a complex prison system. And as for me personally, she continues to be a constant source of inspiration and support”
My second “A Conversation with Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Penal Reform Solutions” was equally inspiring. I felt that her overall message was one of HOPE:
Sarah said: I believe in people
I don’t quite believe in the system yet.
I have hope in individuals.
I believe in them.
We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”
I have hope in people.
We talked about rehabilitation, complexities within the prison estate, radical reforms and so much more. But the question to her that I received the most feedback on was: “Do we need more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?”
“Yes to both. We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.
Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes”
As I have mentioned before, we all know the saying ‘action speaks louder than words’ yet often you have to speak before any action can take place. So this year I was pleased to work together with a number of charities in the justice sector to write a consultation submission to the Ministry of Justice. In addition, I have offered advice and encouragement, assisted in media articles, proof read books, edited web sites and also shared a bit more of my story for Female Leaders At 50 – Women Behind the Network Series.
But the cherry on the cake for me was to be invited to write the forward for a book. Phil Martin published in November ‘The People in Prison and their Potential: Insights into imprisonment and true stories of rehabilitation’. As I have discovered for myself, the potential in prisons is vast and this book highlights what can be achieved. We appeared to be on the same wavelength here. Those with convictions do have potential, deserve to be given opportunities and can be valuable members of society. Many are willing to change but are we willing to accept them?
This is just a snippet of what became a challenging year both personally and professionally. Yet I enter this new year 2021 with anticipation, a renewal of energy and a continued determination in speaking truth to power. I will not be on mute.
In the context of a blog like this, it’s possible to only mention a fraction of the workload, time and miles covered. For obvious reasons you will appreciate I’m unable to share the full extent of everyone I have met or all that has been done.
In her Twitter bio it states: A passionate prison reformer. Interests: collaborative research, personal growth, creative action research, relationships, Nordic prisons, prison reform.
Just reading this I knew we would have a connection and a great conversation together.
What does it mean to you to be a prison reformer?
What I do has meaning, consumes me, its a purpose that is constantly in my blood and mind.
Collaboration matters to me, so does inclusion and having an unconditional regard for people. My inspiration comes from Elizabeth Fry, however, there are many with her passion. We need to work together to make a collective impact, not rely on one individual to drive change in prisons. I also believe that reform is not only situated in prisons, but in the community at large.
I don’t want to consistently bash the Criminal Justice System, but we need to be realistic about the problems whilst instilling hope. We need to meet people where they are at.
Prison reform needs to be a social movement in order to create a climate outside of raising awareness and drawing people together for a common purpose.
Prisons can be a transformative place.
Do we need any more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we just need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?
Yes to both.
We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.
Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes.
Do you see yourself as an academic?
Yes, but I’m a bit of an odd ball in academia, being an academic is part of my identity, but it doesn’t define me.
You mention personal growth, can you elaborate on this?
Growth for me is inclusion, growth in the community and families. People can reform, but you need to create hope and invest in unconditional relationships.
Growth, which includes love, acceptance and trust is also about unconditional support, nurturing and building relationships.
How important is it to establish relationships with prisoners/prison staff?
From determing the level of trust, to how people talk about their feeings, their fears and trauma. It’s the key to prison reform, desistance, cleanliness, safe environment, trust and many more…
What are some of the elements from the Nordic prisons that can be easily incorporated into prisons in England and Wales?
To never enter a prison and think people are broken with no hope.
Would you describe yourself as resilient?
I’m strong through stubbornness, but I am focused on what I want to achieve. Resilience means you bounce back, I’m susceptible to tiredness and pain due to health conditions, but this won’t stop me. I refuse to give in, so by overcoming obstacles I adapt to my environment.
Where does your strength come from?
My husband is my rock, my team, friends and importantly my sense of direction.
In an article in the InsideTime newspaper, June 2020, Sarah stated:
“My lifelong mission is to create a more humane system, which provides conditions where people can find meaning, have hope in the future and be happy”
In relation to this statement where do you see the prisons in England and Wales?
We are far away from that, further than we think. We have the ability to change, yet we underestimate the collaborative abilty of staff and prisoners alike. Culture and climate are important. A more humane system will not happen on its own, we need investment and training.
I have 100% hope in the future, that’s my logic.
We want people to live and not just survive.
With your work in schools, do you believe it is possible to instil meaning, hope and happiness into children’s lives?
From my experience it is easier to teach children than adults. The idea of the “Growth Project” at Guys Marsh was one of nurture, principle of growing and a purpose and peace in children. Divert them from prison by focusing on these building blocks around relationships, in order to protect them in later life.
You mentioned the “Growth Project”, how did this come about and how do you see it progressing?
The Norway Project took place in 3 Norwegian prisons and started as a photographic exhibition about how I captured collaboration. I spent 3 years researching Norwegian prisons and during the fieldwork I created a research team to understand their exceptional prison practices and priciples of growth. Out of this the Growth Project was born in England and Wales. We now have a collection of passionate people forming a steering group with prisoners and their families involved. We discuss issues such as diversity and inclusion in both prisons and society alike.
The aim of the “Connection Campaign” is to bring the inside and outside together, how are you managing to break down the walls to achieve this?
We are looking at where there is disconnection and the needs of young people. We magnify a voice that is quiet from various criminal justice areas. But we are not about blaming or shaming prisons. We wanted senior management to have conversations with prisoners families. Our strategy is to meet people where they are at and how to be a bit more compassionate, a critical friend.
Is rehabilitation possible within the current prison set up?
They need to be habilitated in the first place. Rehabilitation is a managerialistic term which often sets people up to fail. Like a game of trying to catch people out which is not conducive to change and no growth can happen. It can be harmful as no one wins.
Do we need radical reforms, if so what are the possibilities, if not, why not?
We need an authentic meaningful longterm investment in those principles that are encouraged in the Nordic model, applying the principles of growth in a meaningful way within our own context.
Irrespective of ideology, we want to strive for a just and humane system. This needs to happen, we need to change the narrative around prisons, prisoners and prison staff. But it must be sensitively executed. It’s not just about success stories.
Working within the prison estate can be rewarding but also can be disappointing, exhausting and demoralising. How do you deal personally with the complexities you face?
I see and hear a lot of stuff. However, I have such a strong mission.
Yes it is. Absolutely.
We have lost 2 growth members, 1 person through suicide after prison and 1 whilst he was in prison. It was a painful experience, I knew their families and the ripple effect was hard because their lives matter.
The question I really wanted to ask Sarah was: Is your underlying message of hope?
I believe in people.
I dont quite believe in the system yet.
I have hope in individuals.
I believe in them.
We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”
I have hope in people.
I was delighted when Phil Forder agreed for me to interview him. There is always a lot more to a person than their job so I wanted to learn more about him. When I asked why he agreed, he responded:
“Because you are a speaker of truth”
So, who is Phil Forder?
“My job title is community engagement manager at HMP Parc but as you so rightly said previously. ‘There is more to an individual than their job.’ I’m also a painter writer and woodcarver. LGBT rights supporter. Environmentalist Nature lover. Lecturer, etc. “
But in a nutshell
“Just a bloke doing what I think is right and enjoy doing”
One thing we have in common is our association with Suffolk, I believe you were born there?
“I moved from Suffolk at 3 weeks old. Mum and Dads parents were from Suffolk, we then moved to Somerset and to Harlow in Essex where I grew up. I am one of six children.
Just before lockdown, I found the time to go through my mum’s memories she had written down before she passed away.
Mum grew up as a child in Beccles, Suffolk. Working class, brought up in the country before 2nd World War.
Grandfather prisoner of war in Germany, but never spoke about it.
Dad was a strict Catholic and worked at Downside Abbey, in Somerset and whilst there trained in teaching.”
“We moved to Harlow on the outskirts of London, in limbo between two worlds and was voted as the 2nd most boring place in British Isles.”
But Living in Essex Phil felt excluded because of his sexuality and tried to avoid facing up to it.
Whilst searching for his own identity and a way of fitting in somewhere and searching for a way out of Harlow, he decided to train to be a priest, but 3 months later he realised that was not the direction for him.
Before college Phil hitched to Afghanistan then blagged his way into Art college without an interview even though he had failed most of his exams. During his time, he managed to get a sabbatical and hitchhiked a second time to Kashmir.
Was he running away again?
But the problem is you can’t run away from self.
Back to Art college to finish his course and was voted Student of the Year.
He decided to live in isolation in a caravan and worked in a wholefood shop and then was promoted to managing it. But still there was a struggle within as to who he really was and what he should do in life.
There were many changes in the pursuing years including being a father, wanting a different kind of education for his child led to home-schooling and eventually attendance at an alternative Steiner School. This somewhat alternative way of educating was based on the idea that a child’s moral, spiritual and creative sides need as much attention as their intellect.
Helping out in Kindergarten as an assistant influenced Phil to train as a Steiner teacher in alternative education.
“But after 8 years, I wanted to do something completely different”
“A friend who was a magistrate phoned me up and said there was a job going as an Art teacher at HMP/YOI Parc, talk about a baptism of fire”
Such a contrast from working in a nurturing environment where parents cared for their children, were financially secure and where children grew up in a healthy environment.
He was then faced with dysfunctional families reminding him of his upbringing in Harlow that he had fought so hard to leave behind.
“Many of the lads in the YOI had known poverty, had mental health problems, history of abuse, came from dysfunctional families, history of crime in their family, history of substance misuse in their family and had poor education”
“Look what they were born into, their formative years. These young men then become society’s problem by falling through every net and ending up in prison”
Phil’s job changed when he became Equalities Manager and as he aptly said to me:
“To make an impression on a person you have to work with them and not against them.”
He developed a course to help the inmates engage and address their behaviour as most courses focus on what is wrong with them. But some are so ashamed of what they have done they cannot talk about it or even admit it. Phil wanted them to focus on what was good about themselves, what they had achieved, and only then when in a position of strength and comfortable can you tackle some of the issues.
“I brought a three day course into prison “The Forgiveness Project” founded by Marina Cantacuzino. It’s an amazing course, it’s important to put yourself with the prisoners and teach by example”
“I joined the Sports Council for an equalities point of view and invited a gay football club (Cardiff Dragons) and a gay rugby team (Swansea Vikings) to play against the prisoners. I wanted to break down stereotypes”
Who has inspired you?
“One of the most influential person has been Barbara Saunders Davis, her life very much influenced by Rudolf Steiner, came from an aristocratic family having studied in Paris and lived on her estate in Pembrokeshire. She taught me self-worth, life, Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophy (a philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) which maintains that, by virtue of a prescribed method of self-discipline, cognitional experience of the spiritual world can be achieved) I was honoured at her funeral to read the eulogy”
In your Twitter bio you have an impressive list apart from your work. Can you expand on some of these?
“In 2015, I wrote a book “Inside and Out”, a compilation of writings from LGBT people within HMP/YOI Parc, both prisoners and staff alike”
This book was featured in the Guardian in an interview by Erwin James.
His boss at HMP Parc, director Janet Wallsgrove, expressed pride in what Phil and his colleagues achieved.
“This book is a statement,” she says.
“It’s saying that we at Parc recognise and support everyone’s right to be respected as an individual. It’s both about tackling homophobia and challenging people who express views that are unacceptable and about getting people to feel comfortable with themselves and more motivated to buy into a rehabilitative culture in prison and in society.”
Another book Phil wrote was:
Coming out: LGBT people lift the lid on life in prison: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/12/lgbt-people-prison-struggle-book
“When I first started working in the prison, I realised there was no art available on the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit. As there was no classroom available, I taught art on the wing, with up to 30 men although resources were scarce”
“Over the years I have been asked to lecture on various aspects of prison life mainly to do with LGBT in prisons”
“I am a trustee of two charities, the first FIO a theatre company that tells stories that are or would otherwise go untold or unheard
and the second is the Ruskin Mill Education Trust for young people with learning difficulties.”
The last words go to Marina Cantacuzino:
“In the 10 years I was closely involved with several prisons in England and Wales I met three exceptional staff members who worked far and beyond what was expected of them, and were responsible for supporting charities like The Forgiveness Project to deliver their programmes to help change prisoners’ lives. The other two people burnt out – and left the prison service but Phil is still there! He seems to have reinvented himself a couple of times but his complete dedication to supporting prisoners is I think unprecedented. I don’t know what it is about him – is it his sense of humour, his deep creative/artistic streak, his compassion, his humanity, all of this! – that allows him to continue and keep doing outstanding work in this field. I now follow his progress on Twitter but for a long time he was our mainstay in Parc prison – the person who brought in the RESTORE programme and ensured it continued even when he was no longer in charge of this area. A wonderful human being!”
Thank you, Phil.
Photo credit: contributed by Phil Forder
I have been waiting eagerly for more news as to how the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) would operate ‘indirect monitoring’ of prisons and places of detention as it had stated on its website on 30th March 2020: “This is a fast-moving situation…” but there has been nothing for 4 weeks.
When a new hotline initiative was first mentioned by the National Chair in an update on the IMB website it claimed:
“We are in discussion at a national level with specialist contractors about the possibility of freephone lines to enable applications using in-cell telephony and the additional telephone capacity proposed by the Prison Service”
Seeing the headline on their website this morning, “Independent monitors launch new hotline for prisoners to report concerns during pandemic”, I was relieved. That is until I read the detail.
A few things about it stood out to me.
First, this hotline will only be available to 13 prisons, around 11% of the entire estate.
The prisons taking part are Wayland, Pentonville, Lewes, High Down, Berwyn, Woodhill, Eastwood Park, Bronzefield, Durham, Buckley Hall, Swinfen Hall, Onley and Elmley.
The hotline will be part of a new pilot scheme running for 6 weeks.
Ten thousand prisoners will be able to call for free from a phone in their cell or a communal phone.
That’s a start, but what about accessibility to the IMB in the meantime for the other seventy one and a half thousand people in prison?
Lines will be open, with a voicemail service, from 7am-7pm seven days a week.
In other words prisoners will not actually be able to talk to someone; it’s an answerphone and their message will be recorded.
Second, the actual process.
The prisoner’s concerns will be passed on to the relevant board, who will respond through the ‘email a prisoner’ service, or through the normal IMB routes or the IMB clerk.
It doesn’t say who will pass on the prisoner’s concerns and to the relevant Board. Presumably a member of staff will have to listen to the message and then write out the complaint/concern and send it to the relevant Board via email. Replies from IMB to the prisoner will then go through the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service.
Incidentally, the ‘Email a Prisoner’ website states:
“We are sending your messages to the establishments daily, as normal, but please note that prison staff are very compromised at the moment, so there may be instances where messages and replies are unfortunately delayed”
I cannot see how using an already saturated system will be particularly efficient.
Moreover, giving staff an additional task of transcribing the messages and sending them to the IMB would not be seen as a priority.
Even using the IMB clerk, which I’m aware happens in some prisons, is not the best way as they are HMPPS staff. In fact I know of one IMB Board where the clerk was closely related to one of the Governors at the same prison.
Like calls to the Samaritans, these calls will be confidential, and not recorded by HMPPS
Third, how can these recorded calls ever be considered confidential?
A prisoner telephones the hotline and has to leave a message on an answering service as the hotline is unmanned. The prisoner will have to leave personally identifiable information: their full name, their prisoner number and the name of the prison they are in. No mention is made in the announcement as to where these recorded calls are stored or for how long, nor who has access to them.
Someone has to relay these to the relevant IMB Board which means either sending a copy of the digital recording or transcribing them. Either way the confidentiality which should exist between a prisoner and a Board member is broken and trust is compromised.
Once the message is in the hands of the relevant IMB Board, assuming it reaches the correct one first time and does not go astray, the IMB must then find the information and respond to the prisoner.
The reply from the IMB to the prisoner must be made via the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service, which as everyone knows is a web based email service that depends on a member of the prison staff logging in and printing off to hardcopy all the individual messages sent to prisoners.
This step breaks for a second time the confidentiality that should exist between a prisoner and the IMB Board. Please don’t tell me that messages arriving for prisoners are not read by staff.
One more point worth making here is that only 9 out of the 13 prisons in the pilot have in place the ability for prisoners to reply back to messages from the IMB using the ‘Email a Prisoner’ platform. In other words, there will be 4 prisons where prisoners will have to start the process all over again should the response from the IMB not answer their concerns.
(Immigration detainees can already email IMBs directly which surely must be a much easier solution, and far more likely to be confidential as well as quicker)
Whereas it is only a pilot and teething troubles will naturally be ironed out, this system is fundamentally flawed from the beginning.
For it to have any credibility in effective monitoring the prisons in England and Wales the IMB must urgently rethink what it considers to be acceptable ‘indirect monitoring’.
Update: A short message I received from Sarah Clifford, IMB Head of Policy and Communications:
Hello Faith – Just wanted to clarify that the IMB freephone pilot is a live service, staffed eight hours a day by IMB members with voicemails as a back up. I have added a note to the IMB website announcement to that effect: https://www.imb.org.uk/independent-monitors-launch-new-hotline-for-prisoners-to-report-concerns-during-pandemic/. Many thanks.
This is incredible that this clarification was needed. This should have been on the website from the start without myself having to point it out in a blog. There was an uproar when I copied the IMB plans straight from their website. There was no hint at all that it would be a live service, staffed eight hours per day by IMB members. This was an essential point that was ommited.
Lets hope the IMB itself becomes a little more transparent and accountable.
It is 4 years today that I put pen to paper and wrote about the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) from my direct experience and my perspective as a prison monitor. My article “Whistle blower without a whistle” published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, sent shock waves across the criminal justice sector, locally, nationally and internationally.
When you feel so passionately about a cause it is very hard to keep quiet, I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. I was given the opportunity and used my voice.
First, I had to weigh up the risk of possibly causing offence versus the need to speak up in the public interest.
What I didn’t expect was it resulting in a prejudicial character assassination, a fight to clear my name, being gagged by a grooming culture within the IMB, being investigated twice by UK Ministry of Justice, a disciplinary hearing at Petty France and the involvement of not one but two Prison Ministers. I felt that I was on my own against a bastion of chauvinism. Not the last bastion of their kind I would come across. Welcome to the IMB!
Maybe the problem was that the IMB and the MoJ didn’t expect someone like me to put their head above the parapet or to dare voice an opinion. Yet we all have a voice; we all have opinions and we should not feel the need to suppress them. I did, I felt that I couldn’t really express myself, would anyone listen?
Faced with adversity, people either ‘fight, flight or play dead’. I made the decision to fight. I have no regrets.
People started listening, taking notice and lending their support. Above all, they agreed with me but felt unable to say anything publicly themselves for fear of reprisals.
We all know the saying ‘action speaks louder than words’ but often you have to speak before any action can take place. So, I spoke out and expected results.
Since then I have written on many occasions about the IMB, its lack of effectiveness, lack of diversity and most troubling of all its lack of independence. The IMB Secretariat is staffed by MoJ civil servants, the National Chair is an MoJ employee, the purse strings are held by the Permanent Secretary of the MoJ and Board members expenses are paid by the MoJ.
“I’m finding the working environment intolerable and detrimental to my health, and part of me would like the IMB to recognise this as a symptom of its unsustainable system and the pressure it puts on people (but they probably won’t care)”.
Sadly, when I continue to receive messages such as this one from a serving IMB Chair, I realise very little has changed.
Even with a new governance structure, the appointment of its first National Chair and a written protocol between the MoJ and the IMB, none of these has persuaded me that there is enough independence, effectiveness or impact.
If there are concerns and issues that don’t add up, instead of staying silent, ignoring the facts or even dismissing them, it is imperative to ask questions.
As I have seen first-hand with the relationship between the IMB and the MoJ where they appear to be marking their own homework where monitoring of prisons is concerned, I noticed another irregularity.
During 2019 whilst attending sessions of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Miscarriages of Justice, I noticed something of vital importance about the composition and scope of the inquiry of the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice, which states:
“Given that there are serious misgivings expressed in the legal profession, and amongst commentators and academics, about the remit of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and its ability to deal with cases of miscarriages of justice, and given that perceptions of injustice within the criminal justice system are as damaging to public confidence as actual cases of injustice, the WCMJ will inquire into:
1. The ability of the CCRC, as currently set up, to deal effectively with alleged miscarriages of justice;
2. Whether statutory or other changes might be needed to assist the CCRC to carry out is function, including;
(i) The CCRC’s relationship with the Court of Appeal with particular reference to the current test for referring cases to it (the ‘real possibility’ test);
(ii) The remit, composition, structure and funding of the CCRC
3. The extent to which the CCRC’s role is hampered by failings or issues elsewhere in the criminal justice system;
and make recommendations.”
But between 2010 and March 2014 Dame Anne Owers who currently sits on the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice “established by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice (APPGMJ) with a brief to investigate the ability of the criminal justice system to identify and rectify miscarriages of justice”, was a non-executive director of the CCRC.
Public purse. Public interest.
I have a problem with a system that allows for a person to occupy a role paid for from the public purse who then later occupies a separate post, albeit as a volunteer with expenses paid from the public purse, which is meant to scrutinise the work that has been done previously by that same person.
This is utterly incompatible because of the risk that the full truth of what was done or was not done previously may never see the light of day. I believe it is in the public interest to ensure that officials never get the opportunity to mark their own homework. This is especially true when it comes to the substantive issues of miscarriages of justice.
We are talking about miscarriages of justice. We are talking about lives that have been ruined. We are talking about lives which have been lost and about families that no longer have their loved ones.
Deciding to ask someone with a link to a current CCRC application, whose opinion I trust, if they would see the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice differently should a member of its commission have had previous links with the CCRC, their response was startling and very revealing:
“I certainly would Faith. A commission looking at the inner workings and efficiency of the CCRC should be totally independent looking at the watchdog with open and unclouded eyes. I dread to think which kinds of bias would come into play if somebody with a past association to the CCRC were allowed to be part of the investigatory commission”
Separately, as a friend once said to me:
“Faith has stood her ground where many others have feared to tread and of course I admire this characteristic immensely but more than that, she has survived and continued her quest with renewed vigour”
I am nobody’s fool and the Ministry of Justice has left me with no alternative than to continue to take more robust action in the public interest. This in part means being willing to ask probing questions whenever I discover irregularities in the Criminal Justice System, and fully intend to continue to do so.
Photo is copyright and used with permission.
Paragraph 18. “also paid for from the public purse” deleted and replaced with: “albeit as a volunteer with expenses paid from the public purse,”
This week I was sent information issued by Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) Head of Policy and Communications Sarah Clifford, to IMB Regional Reps, Chairs and Vice Chairs detailing guidelines for all Board members.
“Following the Prime Minister’s announcement last night, Boards should not visit the establishment they monitor for any purpose and should move fully to indirect monitoring. This includes serious incidents, during which Boards should arrange to be kept in contact with the command suite via telephone. We will review the position if the Government’s approach changes following the initial three-week lockdown period.”
Indirect monitoring? There is no such thing.
Board members will now have to rely on the prison staff to pass on information, further removing any semblance of independence it ever claimed to have had.
“It is important to maintain active contact with the establishment by phone, email and other electronic means. As a minimum, Boards should ensure that every member is receiving the daily briefing from the establishment and, for prison Boards, any updates to the regime management plan”
Keeping IMB up to date
Whereas it is essential that individual boards are kept up to date indirect monitoring will, at best, be from the prison’s perspective and biased as a consequence. Very little can be verified when you are outside a prison.
On 25th March, all members were sent a comprehensive letter from the IMB Secretariat. In that letter, under the heading “Impact on prisoners/detainees – reporting mechanism”, there was this statement:
“We will be gathering Boards’ serious concerns about deteriorating conditions and treatment for prisoners/detainees caused or significantly exacerbated by the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak so we can bring these to ministerial/senior level attention”
How on earth are monitors meant to collect and collate information such as this if Board members cannot go into prison for their own safety?
Indirect monitoring is complete nonsense.
Under the heading “Board meetings via teleconference/videoconference” the letter stated:
“Boards now each have dedicated teleconference lines to enable meetings to take place by phone. Please note that only Skype has been cleared by the MoJ for use for Board business”
I have been informed that dedicated teleconference lines are completely different technology to Skype, which uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) running over the public internet and which is susceptible to hacking. Confidential information of a serious and official sensitive nature should not be discussed using Skype.
Posters have been issued to be stuck onto IMB application boxes showing inmates the changes in dealing with their applications. One notable detail is this:
“We will still get daily updates from senior managers, so we know what is going on in the prison”
In other words, senior managers will tell IMB only what they want them to know.
IMB boxes will be emptied by IMB clerks (MoJ staff) or prison officers (MoJ staff). The IMB clerk or member of administrative staff will scan the application and email it to the prison’s IMB who will investigate concerns.
Responses may be emailed to the IMB clerk or member of administrative staff and delivered in an envelope or it may come direct from the IMB in an envelope. But not all Boards have access to a clerk.
Many members of the IMB may be in the high-risk category due to their age, others may have children to look after. Therefore, it is inevitable that changes will need to happen to safeguard prisoners, detainees, staff, and IMB members to minimise the risk of spreading infection.
Although the situation is changing daily, I think it’s safe to say:
All scrutiny of prisons is lost for the foreseeable future
The IMB has placed itself in an impossible position; the failure of the Secretariat to assure a sufficiently diverse membership is only one of a set of longstanding issues which the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing in the full glare of public attention.
IMB National Chair Dame Anne Owers, who holds ultimate responsibility for the organisation, must urgently rethink how the IMB is to fulfill its statutory obligation to provide monitoring of the prisons in England and Wales.
UPDATE 3rd April 2020
According to www.imb.org.uk. the message has now changed:
“Dame Anne Owers, IMB National Chair, has today (30 March) written to stakeholders to update them about monitoring of prison and immigration detention during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 epidemic:
Given the significant health risks for prisoners, detainees and staff during the current COVID-19 crisis, and following the Government advice issued this week, direct monitoring activity in prisons and immigration detention has inevitably been restricted.
Boards will be able to carry out some limited on-site work where it is safe and feasible to do so. However, we have also developed remote methods of providing some independent assurance at a time of heightened concern for prisoners and detainees. This is a fast-moving situation, but we have advised Boards as follows:..
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affecting prisons, a change of direction such as this raises serious questions. How is it safer than a week ago for Board members?
Photos of Dame Anne Owers by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission.
People working within the Criminal Justice System will have noticed how writing or making recommendations carries little or no weight any longer. Defined as “a suggestion or proposal as to the best course of action, especially one put forward by an authoritative body”, a recommendation has few or no consequences for those delivering them or for those receiving them.
Yet those who write recommendations have no power to mandate them.
Prisons are bombarded with recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Independent Monitoring Boards, and a host of so-called arm’s length bodies.
It is remarkable that their recommendations in reality are routinely ignored, albeit officially named differently as you will see in the table. Since there appears to be no recourse and no accountability, why continue to rely on this method of scrutiny which has become ineffective and, therefore, a waste of time, effort and money?
Surely if all No 1 Governors were held personally accountable for enacting recommendations given to them then maybe there would be more action. Instead it is like a carousel, where certain Governors get away with the appearance of activity before being moved to another prison or a newly created role at HQ. After all, why work hard on recommendations when you can use a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card? Meanwhile, the mess they leave behind them is inherited by successive Governors.
On 25th February 2020, I attended the ‘Keeping Safe’ conference organised by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP). I’m telling you this because it perfectly illustrated to me how recommendations in and of themselves are futile.
For example, under the section on the agenda ‘Learning from reports and recommendations to prevent future death’ we heard from representatives from four prominent organisations, including Jonathan Tickner representing HM Inspectorate of Prisons who stated that in the last reporting period 14 prisons were inspected and none had been rated “good” in the safety aspect.
In each inspection recommendations are given. I decided to look at recommendations and to analyse how many were achieved. I chose those same 14 prisons inspected in 2019 and noticed huge variations which I’ve summed up in the table below:
Sue McAllister, Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), raised some relevant points about policies not being good enough on their own and action plans not being good enough in response to PPO recommendations, like a tick box exercise. However, if there is no follow up on whether recommendations have been adhered to, or no consequences of not following up recommendations, then nothing has been achieved and the whole process is worthless.
In the 12 months to September 2019 there have been:
308 deaths in custody (6 every week)
90 self-inflicted deaths (1 every 4 days)
8 deaths in women’s prisons
We should be ashamed of ourselves. Those of us working in or for the Criminal Justice System must share a collective burden for the failure to keep people safe, sometimes from themselves.
According to ‘Deaths in prison: A national scandal‘ published January 2020 by Inquest:
This report identifies areas for the immediate reform within and outside of the prison system and concludes with recommendations to end deaths caused by unsafe systems of custody. (Inquest, 2020, p. 3)
As you can see, there is no shortage of recommendations.
Nobody knows which custodial sentence will become a death sentence.
The point is some do but none ever should.
Is it any wonder the MoJ has reformulated its mission statement from:
“Her Majesty’s Prison serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release”
To how it reads today, portraying itself as a sterile, uncaring, faceless organisation.
“The Ministry of Justice is a major government department, at the heart of the justice system. 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”
“The organisation works together and with other government departments and agencies to bring the principles of justice to life for everyone in society. From our civil courts, tribunals and family law hearings, to criminal justice, prison and probation services. We work to ensure that sentences are served, and offenders are encouraged to turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens. We believe the principles of justice are pivotal and we are steadfast in our shared commitment to uphold them”
When you look long enough at failure rate of recommendations, you realise that the consequences of inaction have been dire. And will continue to worsen whilst we have nothing more compelling at our disposal than writing recommendations or making recommendations.
Recommendations have their place but there needs to be something else, something with teeth, something with gravitas way beyond a mere recommendation.
Show me a system where action is mandatory, where action has a named owner assigned to it, where action has a timeline attached to it, and where action is backed by empowerment to deliver it and I’ll show you a system which functions better than the one in operation today in the Criminal Justice System obsessed with recommendations.
Culture is what you do when no one is watching.
Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.
I found it very telling that the most poignant part of the conference came with the stories and sadness from families who had lost loved ones and to learn that every 4 days a person takes their own life in custody. If the changes being recommended were changes being mandated, who knows how many deaths could have been averted?
Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, arrived early enough to have heard from those family members. He talked about working together with shared humanity and wanting to be notified personally of all deaths and the circumstances surrounding each one, which of course he already is. In closing his speech Mr Buckland said:
“As we continue to work together during my tenure as the Secretary of State, please know that my door is always open to those who want to make a difference”
It’s time to put him to the test on that.
But don’t go in with recommendations; go in with a plan for action.
Photos of Robert Buckland QC MP and Sue McAllister, both by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission.
Monopoly Board Game, 2006 Hasbro. Photo by the author.
For many years I have struggled with the concept of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) being actually independent.
This is an organisation which was based at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) HQ, Petty France for many years, but now shares open plan offices in a Government Hub at Canary Wharf alongside HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), Parole Board for England and Wales and the Lay Observers Secretariat.
The introduction of IMB’s new Governance structure, where the role of President was replaced by a Chair and an additional layer of management, has failed to persuade me otherwise.
Dame Anne Owers, formerly Chair of The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and prior to that Chief Inspector of Prisons (2001-2010), took up the role of National Chair of the IMB in November 2017.
We appear to differ on the definition of independence. Or do we? Across a committee room in the House of Lords, she and I exchanged glances as soon as the word “independence” was mentioned. I get the impression she knows it’s not.
Does it matter that the IMB is not independent?
It unquestionably matters because an application to the IMB requires a response within a certain time frame from an “independent” voice. But as the IMB is a department of the Ministry of Justice any problems or issues highlighted cannot be dealt with in a proper manner if they are basically monitoring themselves. The phrase “marking their own homework” comes to mind.
Is this the reason why the IMB does not have any real powers?
The IMB was established by statute (Offender Management Act 2007, Section 26), unlike the National Chair or the Management Board, neither of which are statutory entities. IMB responsibilities within prisons are set out in Section 6 of the Prison Act 1952 (as amended), Prison Rules Part V 1999, and Young Offenders Institution Rules Part V 2000.
In addition, IMB responsibilities in the Immigration Detention Estate (IDE) are set out in Section 152 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the Detention Centre Rules Part IV 2001 and the Short-term Holding Facilities Rules Part 7 2018.
In Summer 2019, MoJ and IMB co-produced a 23-page document “Protocol between The Ministry of Justice as the department and the Management Board of the Independent Monitoring Boards” A copy is available via this page of the IMB website.
This is where it gets interesting.
This protocol was drawn up by the MoJ and the Management Board of the IMB, setting out the role of each body in relation to the other. Furthermore, it sets out the responsibilities of the principal individuals running, sponsoring and overseeing the IMB Secretariat.
At this point, it’s relevant to look at the IMB structure:
First, we have the National Chair: Dame Anne Owers, appointed by the Secretary of State for Justice (Ministerial appointment) and a non-statutory public appointment
Second, there is the IMB Management Board, appointed by the National Chair which sets out the overall strategy and corporate business plans for the IMB (Protocol, p. 2: 1.3)
Both work with and through a regional representative’s network also appointed by the National Chair, providing support and guidance to the IMB.
Third, we come to the IMB Secretariat, a team of MoJ civil servants providing the IMB with administrative and policy support. This team is tasked by the National Chair and Management Board
It is the National Chair, Management Board and regional representatives that have the responsibility for the operation of this protocol. Yet with all the effort in its production this protocol does not confer any legal powers or responsibilities (Protocol, p.2: 1.6).
This protocol is approved by the Permanent Secretary of the MoJ, who is Sir Richard Heaton, and the sponsoring Minister. It is signed and dated by the Permanent Secretary (i.e. Sir Richard Heaton) and the National Chair (i.e. Dame Anne Owers).
But why should the independence of the IMB, the National Chair and the Management Board be of paramount importance? (Protocol, p.4: 3.1)
Let me try to answer this succinctly.
The IMB is part of the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), designated by the Government to meet the obligations of the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).
To be part of the OPCAT, it is necessary to be independent (Part I, Art 1; Part II, Art 5.6; Part IV, Art 17; Part VII, Art 35).
NPMs are required to be functionally and operationally independent. Therefore, the IMB is required to be functionally and operationally independent.
IMBs are sponsored by MoJ
National Chair is a ministerial appointment
IMBs receive funding through the MoJ and the Home Office
MoJ is responsible for ensuring the use of funds meets the standards of governance, decision-making and financial management, as set out in Managing Public Money 2013 revised 2018
The head of the IMB Secretariat accounts to the Principal Accounting Officer (PAO) for the appropriate use of resources
The PAO is the Permanent Secretary of the MoJ (Sir Richard Heaton) and is responsible for ensuring that IMB meets the standards set out in Managing Public Money
MoJ has appointed a sponsorship team
The sponsorship team is drawn from the Sponsorship of Independent Bodies Team in the MoJ’s Policy, Communications and Analysis Group. Its policy responsibilities are to act as the policy interface for the IMBs and assurance responsibilities are to act as a “critical friend” to the IMBs
The Head of the IMB Secretariat is a civil servant and employee of the MoJ and has accountability for IMB finances
It appears throughout this document that the MoJ exerts operational and functional control of the IMB. If that is the case then it is not independent, cannot call itself “Independent” and questions should now be asked concerning its membership of NPM and OPCAT.
IMB is not some vanity project for Ministers to appoint people to and to dismiss people from. Neither is it an arms-length body of any central Government department to sponsor in a whimsical way for its own ends.
MoJ and HM Inspectorate Prisons Download PDF
Dated: 10 Oct 2019
Signed: Heaton 30 Sep 2019 and Clarke 14 Oct 2019
Can you see the common denominator between all these protocols?
NB. The Protocol between MoJ and HMI Prisons was promised by the Ministry to the Commons Justice Select Committee back in March 2016.
A retrospective of 2019
It was a year of challenging the norms, exploring the Arts and Media and pushing some boundaries. It has had its highs and lows with times of difficulty and frustration yet amongst it all there have been moments to celebrate, moments of laughter and new friendships made.
The year began at one of my favourite places, the beach at Aldeburgh on the beautiful Suffolk coast, wrapped up against the elements, a brisk walk with my family and then tea in the warm. Perfect.
My first trip of the year into Westminster was for the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice, at a session entitled: ‘Aftermath of Wrongful Convictions: Addressing the Needs of the Wrongfully Convicted in England and Wales’. We were reminded that half of all victims of miscarriages of justice were homeless within six months of their convictions being overturned.
According to ‘Supporting Exonerees’ a JUSTICE report published 2018, in the last five years only five people have received compensation from the Ministry of the Justice after having their convictions overturned and not a single person in 2018. By contrast, between 1999 and 2004, there were 162 successful applications.
Across the year there were four sessions of the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice, all of which I managed to attend. These were co-chaired by Baroness Stern and Lord Garnier QC, and featured members including: Dame Anne Owers, National Chair of Independent Monitoring Boards; Michelle Nelson QC, Barrister at Red Lion Chambers; Dr Philip Joseph, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist; and Erwin James, Editor-in-Chief of Inside Time.
My sincere hope is that the work performed by this APPG, even though it has no statutory powers, will be effective in some way and not evaporate like a silent conversation that never happened.
It was also a pleasure to attend a joint Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) and Ministry of Justice event, held at Petty France, London to discuss the aging population in prisons. It’s well known that the level of healthcare and social care within prisons is inconsistent and all too often not fit for purpose.
This was the first of six CJA round tables and meetings I attended and participated in during the year, including their AGM.
Not all my work is in Westminster or even in London. For example, as a part of the Female Leaders at 50 (Twitter: @femaleleaders50), I was able to share part of my story, listen to others and enjoy a fantastic evening reception and dinner in Cambridge. Thank you to Ciara Moore, looking forward to our next gathering this year.
Being recommended for membership of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) was a highlight because it showed that what I am able to contribute to society has value. In fact the letter I received from the RSA included a copy of the statement by the person who recommended me, saying:
“Faith is a very potent voice and commentator on prison issues. Her blog https://faithspear.wordpress.com/ has quite a following. She is an accomplished writer and speaker and has huge respect in prison reform circles.”
In the letter, the RSA said:
“I believe that you have an important contribution to make in supporting our work, and that you will be a valuable addition to our diverse and influential movement of like-minded people committed to building a better society”
I was so delighted and can assure you I’ve already begun to make good use of my membership to this prestigious organisation. Planning, sharing ideas and debriefing after meetings. The RSA provides an excellent space to meet and greet at its venue in central London which is very convenient given the nature of the work I am asked to do.
The Spring season was busy both personally and professionally. Dr Marianne Colbran kindly invited me to attend an LSE media event: ‘Breaking prison narratives’. The event produced interesting conversations, some heated debate, and time for participants to reflect individually on what the day meant for them. It was eye-opening and definitely an event I was pleased not to miss.
The Executive Ladies lunch with Lady Val Corbett later the same month featured guest speaker Michael Palin. Michael was very engaging to listen to, with anecdotes of his life and adventures. He showed particular patience afterwards as many asked for a memento selfie photo. Networking, raising funds for prison reform and for the Robin Corbett Awards always makes it a working lunch with a clear and meaningful objective. The help, strength, encouragement and inspiration that people derive from these lunches is priceless. And that was exactly how it was when Prue Leith joined us as guest speaker later in the year. What an entertaining and fascinating woman.
Large parts of my work can be challenging and distressing. Sometimes it can be harrowing.
I attended the inquest into the death of a young man, Thomas Kemp. The Suffolk area coroner, Jacqueline Devonish, recording narrative conclusions, said: “Kemp stabbed his wife to death during a psychotic episode when she tried to prevent him from harming himself. He then took his own life.”
The fact that he killed his wife and then himself was widely reported, including in my local media because he worked at the local university. But his full connection with the justice arena was not mentioned. I first met him back in Summer 2017 when visiting the University campus because I was invited to observe training of graduates. Thomas was employed by the University of Suffolk as an administrator. He worked on the Masters programme called ‘Unlocked Graduates’. After his death, his name was rapidly erased from the university’s website and, to the best of my knowledge, no acknowledgement of his tragic death was ever published on the Unlocked Graduates website.
Let’s hope the memory of Thomas Kemp has not been totally erased. Whilst I do not condone what he did, as someone who appeared to have serious mental health issues, it is clear that the system failed him and his wife.
I have subsequently learned that many involved in the teaching of the Unlocked Graduates programme at the University of Suffolk have themselves had to take time off due to stress. For me, there are many questions about Unlocked Graduates which remain unanswered and I know I’m not the only one.
The Creative arts in prisons is an area which interests me greatly. So, this year it was particularly interesting to have visited Snape Maltings for the celebration of their 20-year collaboration with HMP Warren Hill. The day was made up of performances, art exhibition and workshops showcasing the role of music and arts in rehabilitation with their partners Koestler Arts, The Irene Taylor Trust, Clean Break and Fine Cell Work.
Entering the main auditorium, I noticed someone waving at me and was surprised to see it was Dame Anne Owers (Chair of Trustees, Koestler Arts). We sat together to watch the performance; at one point, they handed out percussion instruments and everyone was encouraged to join in with creating improvised music. The whole event was one of inclusion, acceptance, hope and the potential of those currently serving sentences. It was a privilege to speak afterwards with some of the musicians and singers.
From that event came an invitation by Fanny Jacob, Creative Project Leader and Julian Earwaker, Writer in Residence at HMP Warren Hill to an art exhibition and fundraiser. A fascinating afternoon was spent with around 30 guests including the local Mayor. I chose to support the Families In Need (FIND) charity by purchasing one of the works of art.
I wanted to explore a little more about what role the Arts play within the prison estate. For that reason, I attended another Koestler Art exhibition, this time on London’s South Bank entitled “Another Me”.
Some people visit these exhibitions in groups, others in pairs but I prefer to visit alone so that other people’s initial reflections don’t become mine. For me it’s not just the pieces of art that can stop me in my tracks but the titles given to the pieces. For example, this year I discovered works of art called “Stand Alone”, “Consequences”, “Innocent Man” and “Woo Are You Looking At?”.
From matchsticks to J-cloths, from socks to gold leaf, such variety of materials used with such ingenuity.
But the question that stayed in my mind was:
“Are these exhibits examples of escapism or expressionism?”
I took this question forward and developed it when having the opportunity to interview the writer Erwin James. Choosing a venue familiar to me but unfamiliar to Erwin, my motivation was to try to explore the impact on a person who becomes a prisoner of being categorised and given a number and watched by security; just like works of art in galleries. An interesting parallel that I have tried to explore in the past.
This is the amazing feedback from Erwin:
“One of the highlights of my year in 2019 was being interviewed by Faith in the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve been interviewed many times over the years by press, radio and tv – but what I liked about Faith’s approach was that she wanted to introduce art as our common ground as well as our interest in prison reform. I’ve known and admired Faith for a number of years. We haven’t always agreed on prison reform issues, but I’ve always respected her integrity, which shines in her writing, her passionate crusade for a more humane and effective prison system – and above all her indomitable spirit. I’m just glad we’re on the same side…”
My return visit to the Bernard Jacobson Art Gallery in London was on a warm summers evening. It was the occasion of the bi-annual Contrarian Prize, for which I was pleased to have been nominated in 2017. The gallery was full and I met some real and would-be contrarians. The winner was Katherine Birbalsingh (Twitter: @Miss_Snuffy), founder of Michaela School and the prize was awarded by Jeremy Paxman. Chatting afterwards, Jeremy told me he had heard of me, which was somewhat astonishing. But the conversation with him was good and far from superficial.
It was also a genuine pleasure to catch up with my friend Ali Miraj, founder of the Contrarian Prize.
Being met in the entrance hall at the Lebanese Embassy by His Excellency the Ambassador for Lebanon to the United Kingdom, Rami Mortada, was an unexpected and memorable moment. Having received an invitation from Dr Lewis Owens the evening reception was arranged for former hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy to meet on Lebanese soil together for the first time since their kidnap. It was a proud moment for me to meet them both, Dr Waite for the second time, and to have the opportunity for a short conversation. The ordeal of these remarkable men, imprisoned against their will, provides us all huge lessons about incarceration.
This year it has once again been a pleasure to be an associate member of The Corbett Network. It’s founder Lady Val is an inspirational woman, who I am pleased to call a friend. Her determination to promote reintegration and to support those released from prison into meaningful employment is exemplary. She has gathered around her a group of people who share this vision. Among them is Jo Apparicio, Business Management Director at The Chrysalis Programme, with whom I share the same passions and sense of humour, and to whom I leave the last words of this blog.
Thank you for reading.
“I was first introduced to Faith in May 2017 at a Networking event. I was immediately struck by Faith’s absolute passion, drive grace & unconquerable spirit in ensuring that individuals caught up in our judicial system are listened to, given a voice opportunity & support to reintegrate back into their families & communities in a positive & sustainable way with dignity as returning citizens to our society. Working with Faith over the past couple years in this environment sharing many common goals & thoughts I am in constant awe of Faith’s passion & drive and feel a great privilege to call her a dear friend. Faith is indeed a rare lady & a real woman of substance & I have no doubt that with her drive & passion she will be instrumental in the future in helping change the judicial system & prison reform for the better supporting individuals both in the prison system & also on release reintegrate and return to our society in a positive way”
In the context of a blog like this, it’s possible to only mention a fraction of the workload, time and miles covered. For obvious reasons you will appreciate I’m unable to share the full extent of everyone I have met or all that has been done.
Busy London streets
I made my way out of the crowds towards my destination: The National Portrait Gallery, London.
Although this will be a time to indulge my love of Art, I’m actually here to interview rather than be an interviewee.
I arrived early and found a quiet(ish) corner of the café to collect my thoughts, helped enormously by the Earl Grey tea and slice of orange and polenta cake.
Two days previously I attended the Koestler Art exhibition on the South Bank entitled “Another Me”
I prefer to visit alone; I don’t want other people’s initial reflections to become mine. For me it’s not just the pieces of art that can stop me in my tracks but the titles of the pieces. This year I discovered “Stand Alone”, “Consequences”, “Innocent Man” and “Woo Are You Looking at?”.
From matchsticks to J-cloths, from socks to gold leaf such variety of materials, such ingenuity.
But the question that stayed in my mind was:
“Are these exhibits examples of escapism or expressionism?”
I made my way up to the large information desk at the National Portrait Gallery and sat patiently awaiting my guest.
Ten minutes later, he arrived looking rather bemused at my choice of venue to interview him.
Erwin James followed me up a flight of stairs where we slowly wandered around looking at portraits of people, from HM The Queen to Zandra Rhodes and every conceivable individual in between.
Trying to get my bearings, we turned a corner and entered the Statesmen’s Gallery, lined on each side by a series of white marble busts on projecting plinths in between painted portraits. It looked outstanding.
At the far end hung a portrait painting of Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright (oil on canvas, exhibited 1909), militant Suffragette, persuasive speaker and effective strategist. Erwin and I stood and pondered.
In one of the rooms off this gallery we found a bench, sat down and started to talk. Straight ahead was a significant portrait, covering a large part of the wall, entitled:
The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari
Faith Spear: When you look at that picture what does it tell you?
Erwin James: There are people who care about people that others don’t care about. This lady cared for the wounded she didn’t care about the war, she cared about people.
FS: How does it make you feel when you see that?
EJ: My experience of prison was that occasionally, more than occasionally there are people who care about people, about the wounded people in our prisons who need assistance, it’s a challenge for any community or society to think that we should care or help those that have hurt us. But she cared about everybody.
FS: Do paintings like that inspire you?
EJ: I found paintings in prison. I did an Arts degree and I was given this folder of great art; I had never had access to art or that sort of thing, ever in my life until I went to prison. I found art through the Open University.
I have never seen this painting before if I’m honest, but it tells us, “this lady, she doesn’t care who you are. She just wants to heal you.” The Onlookers: What are they thinking, should we help this person? There’s hesitance, others are standing away, observing. But you can’t hesitate or observe when people need help. My feeling about our attitudes to prisoners is that’s it’s a challenge to help people who’ve hurt us but if we don’t help them, they are going to hurt more people. When I look at that painting, I promise you some are taking advantage of the crowd.
FS: That’s interesting “taking advantage of the crowd”
EJ: We do that in our society now, longer prison sentences…we deserve a prison system that hates the crime, perhaps hates the criminal but for Christ sake give the prisoner a chance. That’s my philosophy really.
We slowly moved from room to room admiring and yet questioning the art we saw. Both of us were struck by a painting of Henrietta Maria (1635) and our hidden thoughts became open dialogue
EJ: Look how attractive we are, look how wealthy we are, look how amazing we are
FS: Always trying to prove something
FS: Is that because people can’t accept who they are?
EJ: People seem to want to portray an image that is more than what they are, that is exactly what these people did
FS: It’s not just status is it?
EJ: Status, its look at me, look at us, all the poverty in the country when she was painted.
The poor people, we always looked up to the people doing well, we always aspire to be like them
FS: Always looking down on those that are not doing so well?
EJ: I don’t know why because we are all trying to get up that ladder
FS: Do you think we fall into the trap that we don’t actually accept people for who they are?
EJ: Well we are not sure who they are, all we know is we think we know who we are we want to be better versions of ourselves come what may
There are many self-portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, some more obvious than others.
FS: With a self-portrait you are not necessarily portraying the real you
EJ: No, you are portraying what you want the world to know about you. As a writer I am the same, I’m exactly the same, I want the world to know me through words because the world sort of knew me through the courts through prison through prosecution
FS: So, do you think you were trying to re-invent yourself
FS: But then that is saying previously that wasn’t the true you
EJ: Yes, that wasn’t the true me
FS: Do you think that this is the true you now, what you are doing now?
EJ: Yes, before I became who I think I am, I’m not perfect by any means, but I am my own person and I think lots of people go through life thinking, well is this me? I’m born into this way of living but gradually you think did I decide this. Other people decide our lives and what prison gave me was the freedom to choose my own, if that makes any sense. But even though I am a million miles away from perfect, I am a real person
They all portray dominance over everyone else. The whole purpose of art in these ages was to say look at us, we dominate you – and then the dominated looked up and said, “we are so pleased to be dominated by you”, we didn’t know then that any of us could be dominate and dominated we didn’t realise then before mass education, we didn’t understand that we can all be people with education with skills and abilities
We walked up to level 2, not knowing what to look at first. We entered a small room.
FS: Do you see that painting over there of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with his books showing he is an educated man, well in fact, a poet?
EJ: Books for the educated people? No. books are for everyone, to me Faith, books are a great leveller. If you can read, you can be a King.
By this time, I needed to sit down; juggling bag, jacket, notebook, pen and phone was getting problematic. I found a wooden bench in one of the corridors and with phone at the ready I continued my questions as we sat down.
FS: One thing I am always amazed at in an art gallery is that everything is categorised, often by year, era or by event. Everything is numbered. And there is a lot of security. When you come into an art gallery you are watched by cameras everywhere.
Everything is numbered, everything is categorised exactly the same as it is in a prison.
How did it feel to be categorised and given a number?
EJ: That is a really good question.
Well I was categorised; I was a Cat A prisoner for 5 or 6 years. The system categorises you and gives you a number. I hated my prison number. I was in Devon driving down a lane and I saw a signpost for the B73…, arghhhhhh! That’s my prison number!
It was awful, I had forgotten it, forgotten it purposely. When you are categorised and given a number you become labelled, you’re not human you’re a prisoner. But thank god there are some amazing people that work in prisons who want you to be human. For various reasons you end up there, they work there, and they are there to help you to become like them. Thank god for that. Without those people I would never be here I would never have made it. Teachers, psychologists, probation officers some prison officers…
FS: But when people are reduced to a number do you think that is degrading?
EJ: Well I think the danger Faith, you are asking me something quite profound here, because the danger when we do that, we detach people psychologically from our community. Now prison is detaching. You did harm, you caused pain, grief etc, but what we do with that in our prison system is that we detach further psychologically so the people in prison psychologically don’t feel part of society. Don’t feel part of the community, there’s no sense of wanting to come back.
I want to do some good when I come back, but mostly we don’t want them back. But actually, there’s so many people that do come back do good but it’s the physiologically detachment that presents danger from the released prisoner.
As Erwin is a writer, I wanted to probe a little more into different aspects of his life.
FS: For someone who is setting out on a journey as a writer what advice would you give?
EJ: Well what I would say is first and foremost is tell your truth. But first, you have got to find your truth because if you don’t know your truth you will never be able to share that truth. So, there are a couple of things: have discipline, have courage because when you put your truth out there you are going to get people who hate you and your truth. You need to have courage and be bold, but as long as you know your truth you will have a significant number of people who will accept that. Whatever the obstacles whatever the challenges you just keep going.
I decided to probe a little deeper too.
FS: What makes you laugh?
EJ: You will be amazed how many people in prison laugh, it’s a funny thing in jail you laugh at the most banal things.
FS: But what makes you laugh now?
EJ: My great granddaughter she makes me laugh. “Grandad, grandad look at the chickens” she chases chickens and I run after her and I’m laughing like hell and then she catches a chicken. Then she chases the ducks.
I do laugh but I am a very serious thinker, but I laugh when she laughs, its infectious. I feel safe to laugh with my great granddaughter.
FS: Is that because you are not being judged?
EJ: 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.
FS: What makes you cry, do you cry?
EJ: I cried a long time ago in prison when I came to terms with what I had done with the effects on victims’ families of my crimes. I didn’t cry before that.
What makes me cry now? A good drama where there’s an amazing writer who brings the human condition into our living rooms and shows us how weak, strong, dominant, how we are as humans.
That makes me cry.
My final question was about what others say.
FS: What is one of the most memorable statements about yourself?
EJ: The best thing that’s been said of me, that I am really proud of, I do school talks. I was in a school in Southampton a few years ago, the Headmaster said afterwards:
“It was one of the best talks we have had all year and, for some, will be an abiding memory of school.”
It was time to switch my recorder off, I took in a last view of this amazing gallery and headed outside for some air. After a refreshing drink we said goodbye and I headed for the tube.
What an interesting conversation.
Erwin James is editor-in-chief of ‘Inside Time’, the national newspaper for people in prison and the author of ‘Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope’.
Photos: Copyright © FM Spear. All rights reserved.