My year opened memorably
In January, the Prisons Minister, Sam Gymiah, wrote to sack me from my role as a Chairman of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay and to ban me for 5 years from IMB membership. I spoke out in the public interest for prison reform, highlighting key weaknesses I found in the MoJ. They shot the messenger.
I’ve written extensively on the reasons for this as those of you kind enough to have followed the story will know only too well.
No doubt the MoJ and IMB hoped they had heard the last from me.
I have not shut up and I have not gone away
In fact, if anything, as a direct result of media interest from radio, tv and the local and national press, my voice became heard more widely. I was given many chances to raise important issues on the state of prisons in England and Wales and I took them.
In April, I learned that I had been nominated for The Contrarian Prize 2017. It is a prestigious prize for those who have shown independence, courage and sacrifice. Those who nominated me liked the fact that I was unafraid to speak the truth to those in power, talking about the criminal justice system in the public interest. They recognised that doing so came at a huge personal cost including a face-off with the ‘goliath’ of the Ministry of Justice.
Also in April, producers at the BBC brought me onto a live link on BBC News Channel to talk about the problem of drones bringing in banned items into prisons. When presenter Julian Worricker asked for my take on it, I was able to outline the context of the issue and that it was impossible for all the drugs, phones etc within a prison to have been delivered via drones and that the new task force to be set up by the MoJ may have limited results. After working within the prison system for several years I was convinced that visitors and staff were likely routes in for contraband, yet security continued to be somewhat limited.
In May, I was delighted to join Lady Val Corbett, at her invitation, to attend the first of three ladies executive networking lunches. Each one inspired me and brought me into contact with remarkable women. Nicola McCalliog and Jo Apparicio are two women who I met through the lunches and who I especially admire; I look forward to the opportunity of working with them in the coming year. I have been amazed by the interest that was expressed in my own story and experience.
In my opinion, Lady Val has such determination, persistence, and guts! I thank her for accepting me into the Corbett Network as an associate member, it’s great to play an active part of something so vibrant.
In July, an article by Laurence Cawley was published on the BBC website. Here, the journalist wanted to explore in greater depth my experience with the IMB and the MoJ. The editorial team expected the article would get around 200,000 unique views. In fact, it reached 690,000 unique views on the first day and am told it was ranked the 8th most read article that day globally on the BBC. It was then I realised that there was a thirst by the public for coverage on justice matters.
In its mission statement, her Majesty’s Prison Service for England and Wales states that it:
“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.”
But it is shameful that HMPPS has fallen so short of its own mission statement. The situation in our prisons is worsening and really has become a humanitarian issue.
Also in July, I was invited to appear live on BBC News, this time in the studio, for an interview with Ben Brown about young people and children caught in the vagaries of the Criminal Justice System, highlighting the lack of care for these vulnerable individuals. This coverage proved a valuable opportunity to remind the public about the issue.
In August, I was invited to London to be interviewed by leading journalist, Simon Israel, who wanted to discuss the treatment I had encountered with the MoJ which tried to prevent me from speaking the truth concerning the prison crisis.
The interview went out on Channel 4 News causing quite a stir.
In the Autumn, I was part of one of the most important documentaries to be screened throughout the country. Here the theme was injustice and involved those from various angles within the Justice system. I was so delighted to meet those that had supported me over the last 18 months and together our voices were heard. There are more screenings planned for 2018.
This year new friendships were formed including Jane Gould (Clean Sheet) who works tirelessly in providing jobs for those that have been within the system and are often overlooked and penalised for having a criminal record. I joined her at the House of Lords for a tea reception.
My coffee and cake buddy Justin Williams has been a great friend. He has been a sounding board and has supported me when I have come under attack from those who have disagreed with my stand for prison reform.
On a lighter note, I was invited to the Opening Concert for Malta’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union by my friend Trevor Peel. Other invitations included ‘Why me’ evening at Clifford Chance with Peter Woolf and Mel Giedroyc; Probation Institute launch of Probation Services for Armed Forces Veterans under Supervision; ‘Fighting for Prison Reform’ at UCL and Robin Corbett Awards.
I have also taken up my usual seat at the Justice Select Committee on numerous occasions, the most memorable being when the IMB and AMIMB were in front of the committee. I listened carefully and made copious notes when the IMB President John Thornhill gave evidence. This man had caused so much harm to me and yet he was unaware that I was sitting right behind him. When he was informed who I was his face was like a rabbit in headlights. His plan to get rid of me had backfired, I was still there!
There were so many other events, meetings, coffee and cake times with those that have walked with me through 2017. I thank them all.
Richard Rowley, Daniel, Cranni, Jonathan Robinson, Jonathan Aitken, Unsound Robin, Charlotte, Khatuna, Chris Moore, Michael Irwin, Tracy Edwards…and more.
I started 2018 by celebrating with my twin sister our birthdays.
This year represents a year of great opportunity.
I intend to seize it with both hands.