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Unlocked Grads: Does it raise more questions than it answers?

What is the Unlocked Grads programme?

According to the website for University of Suffolk (10 September 2018) :

“Unlocked Graduates is a two-year programme and students who complete the programme are awarded an MSc in Leadership and Custodial Environments from the University of Suffolk”

https://www.uos.ac.uk/news/increased-interest-prison-officer-programme-partnership-university

When you look past all the ‘blurb’, in a nutshell, the programme starts as a Summer Institute comprising two week’s training as a prison officer and the beginning of a Master’s degree, followed by a two-week placement in a prison and finishes with two more weeks training. The taught modules at the Summer Institute leading to Prison Officer Entry Level Training (POELT) are based at the University of Suffolk, Ipswich.

It’s especially surprising to see that it is positioned as “a prestigious programme with influential supporters” when it is based here as the University is ranked 128 out of 131 Universities listed by The Complete University Guide.

https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings

Advice given for recruitment: “Fundamentally they need to be made of the right stuff to survive on the landings from Day 1… only a fairly ruthless and demanding selection process will guarantee you have the right people”

Part of the interview process includes having an interview with a former prisoner, but questions have been raised as to how this would be perceived and if unskilled interviewers could get the best out of the candidates.

unlockedgrads dot org dot uk our organisation [recommendations] screenshot 22 Sept 2018

Website, 22 September 2018

 

The 2017 Cohort

The 2017 cohort started in Summer 2017 with placements in HMP Brixton, Coldingley, Downview, High Down, Isis and Wandsworth.

I was invited to sit in on a training session at the Summer Institute in 2017. I spoke with staff members to get a feel and understanding of the programme. I had a one-to-one with Natasha Porter, CEO of Unlocked Grads.

But I came away with so many questions.

Why were those prisons selected and why were they all in the South of England?

So how can the safety of these young novice trainees be assured? In the latest Government Annual Prison Statistics, it shows that Brixton is rated 1 for safety with Wandsworth and Isis rated 2.

Again, in the same report, looking at stats for Purposeful Activity, Brixton, Isis and Wandsworth are rated 1; that’s an awful lot of people likely to be stuck in their cell, frustrations brewing, leading to mental health issues. Not forgetting the domino effect upon families of prisoners and families of staff.

So that’s the prisoners but what about the staff in these prisons.

Staff sickness for Wandsworth shows that 5918 days were lost in the 12 months to 31st March 2018 that’s on average 12.4 days lost per FTE. High Down is not much better with 4146 days lost in 1 year on average 10.4 days lost per FTE.

Whilst it is unclear why so many days are lost to sick leave, you can imagine that many of these sick days are as a result of the stress placed upon the officers, the increased violence on the wings, inhaling psychoactive substances and the exhaustion.

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/annual-hm-prison-and-probation-service-digest-2017-to-2018

But if there are such acute staff shortages how is replacing experienced members of staff with newly qualified Unlocked Grads going to make a positive difference?

Andrea Albutt, President of the Prison Governors Association spoke out last year and said:

“large numbers of new recruits can actually add to the instability in prisons rather than improve it”

https://www.channel4.com/news/prison-governors-association-chief-government-overhaul-is-perverse

 

So, what exactly is this programme wanting to achieve?

We are told that the Summer 2017 candidates in the 1st cohort all passed their POELT training. Was the bar set too low, it makes you wonder? However, the first cohort 100% pass rate did not include those who dropped out early on, after their first visit to a prison.

One of the first sponsors wrote: “This is clearly an incredibly challenging leadership programme. Unlocked Grads will have to develop advanced communication skills, diplomacy and resilience as well as the creative entrepreneurial flair to bring new ideas to prisons. These are the skills I look for in my sector.” (Sir Martin Sorrell, former CEO of WPP).

Sounds all well and good, but there’s no scope for entrepreneurial flair inside a prison; it’s a process driven role, dependent on regime and written Prison Service Instructions (PSI’s).

The candidates didn’t appear to be encouraged to stay once they acquired their master’s degree.

This seems incredibly short-sighted of the MoJ. Why are they investing in these grads yet encouraging them to move on after two years and not retaining them?

Sam Gymiah, the then Prisons Minister wrote:

“Some bright, passionate & capable recruits joining the prison service to help fix our prisons. Well done @unlockedgrads” (Twitter, 21 August 2017)

Hardly able to “fix our prisons” just through this two-year scheme.

I was informed by Natasha Porter that these grads were not included in the 2,500 new staff members that were being recruited.

 

The 2018 Cohort

This year 105 candidates attended the Summer Institute and yet again Ipswich was suddenly the place to be, a tourist attraction for anyone in the ‘Justice arena’. Now that HMP Berwyn in no longer ‘flavour of the month’, Ipswich appears to be the place to be seen.

Between 29th July and 6th September, guest speakers galore appeared at the University to give talks: from Gethin Jones to Michael Spurr to Erwin James.

Unlocked Grads Neptune Quay Ipswich

Neptune Quay, Ipswich – August 2018

Recently, when visiting the Ipswich Waterfront, I spotted dozens of mainly young men and women dressed in standard issue prison officer uniform complete with boots. Some were hiding their epaulettes with their hands and others showed their key chains.

It was the next instalment of the Unlocked Grads programme.

They were milling around on a lunch break (see photo) so I went and had a chat. I asked how they were finding the course and we briefly discussed the crisis within the prisons, as the HMIP report on Birmingham had just been published.

One of the 2018 Cohort said: “Oh but that’s just the media,” dismissing the squalor, violence and drugs in prisons as if it was some sort of fallacy.

Seriously, are they being taught about the reality of what is happening inside prisons?

Another eagerly said: “We are going to do something different; we will be on the landings, but it will be based on rehabilitation.”

If the Unlocked Grads are focusing on rehabilitation as “something different” then what is everyone else doing now?

And how many of them will stay long enough to make this “something different” happen?

If they are going onto the landings and have been told they will be focusing specifically on rehabilitation how will that go down with other members of staff, when they are so stressed that even the minimum requirements are hard to achieve?

Will there be a clash in their work expectations, disruption or problems with team dynamics, an “us and them”?

 

What people are saying about Unlocked Grads

I asked a former Prison Officer about his thoughts on this scheme, this is what he said, word for word:

“Hi Faith, my feelings are that most of them will be eaten alive by inmates, as grads won’t be from the same background as most inmates. A lot of grads would have been brought up with a “silver spoon in their mouths” and inmates will spot this a mile off and some inmates will sense this and will make their lives hell, I can’t see grads staying in the job for long, HMP need to employ people who are over 25 years old with some life experience”

I also spoke to someone who has been working in Education in prisons for years. They told me:

“The YO’s will make mincemeat of these university kids. And the older men will not like being told what to do by a kid. The whole enterprise seems absolutely mad, ill-thought out and with absolutely no thought given to basic – really basic – psychology”

Another quote, this time from a senior civil servant within the MoJ, who told me:

“the ideological approach is now wearing very thin”

One of the 2018 Cohort told me Unlocked Grads have a contract for 6 years and they described the 2017 Cohort as “guinea pigs”.

Michael Spurr

Michael Spurr at ICPA, London 25 October 2017. Pic: HMPPS Twitter

A few said they were going to be working in HMP Wandsworth, and they seemed somewhat amazed that I could describe in clear detail the layout, and the condition I personally encountered there at Wandsworth on numerous visits I had made.

Yet not one of them asked me who I was.

Curiously, I was told by a speaker at ICPA 2017 that, in his plenary address Michael Spurr said, without actually name-dropping Unlocked Grads, that he didn’t believe the principle of employing grads was the answer to the issue.

Given that Mr Spurr was invited to speak at Unlocked Grads Summer Institute in front of both the 2017 and the 2018 Cohorts, this is utterly remarkable and serves to remind us that Unlocked Grads doesn’t appear to have universal acceptance – even within HMPPS.

Overall, it all appears to be secretive, behind closed doors; many in the Justice sector I speak to about it is saying the same.

 

Media Coverage

On 9th September, I listened to the BBC report by Danny Shaw about the Unlocked Grads and questioned whether it was advertising? Where was the balance, where was the incisive journalism we have come to expect from BBC News’ home affairs correspondent?

In his report, Danny Shaw said: “Governors have found it hard to find and retain staff.”

Governors need to find and retain staff, right, but are the Unlocked Grads planning to stick around?

Also, I noticed in that report a focus on ‘Sophie’ from the 2017 Cohort deployed at HMP Coldingley. Half way through the video reportage where it says: ‘Now Sophie is helping to train the next set of recruits’. This seemed a bit odd; how developed is her jail craft after one year and why is someone who is not fully trained themselves, not a qualified trainer or an instructor, doing the training?

Further on in the reportage, Natasha Porter says:

“If you can deescalate a landing full of prisoners…”

That’s a big expectation, placing massive pressure on you as a new recruit.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-45455884/the-prison-job-attracting-graduates

It appears to me that the Unlocked Grads leadership scheme encourages the participants to see it is a stepping stone to a career elsewhere. This follows the same pattern that has occurred in the MoJ over the last few years with a continuous change of Secretary of State for Justice and Prisons Minister.

Does this just perpetuate the problem of lack of continuity in the Justice sector?

 

Retention, Retention, Retention

Unlocked Grads Programme purports to fill a gap in frontline prison staff but if these grads walk into other opportunities after 2 years, with other Government departments or with Private sector sponsors, then it defeats the objective of positioning it as anything with real-world ‘Custodial Environments’ credibility.

One young man on the 2nd Cohort said to me he hadn’t made up his mind if he would stay after the two years. Another said:

“I’m going to be Prison Officer for two years”

Therefore, if they are not contributing long-term, are they inadvertently placing a drain on already-scarce resources?

 

Academic standards and expectations

Unlocked Grads is delivered mainly as an online programme to an MSc with a summer school at the beginning of year one and the chance to write a policy document in the second year.

Job adverts have been posted asking for criminology dissertation supervisors that don’t necessarily have to be academics.

So apparently now we have those that are not trainers, training and those that are not academics supervising academic work at a Masters degree level !

Is it a prison officer training programme or an educational programme?

Job Advert

Click to Enlarge

A member of Unlocked Grads staff said to me last week that the Ministry of Justice will no longer evaluate the programme. So how will it now be evaluated and by whom?

https://www.jobs.ac.uk/job/BMK940/criminology-dissertation-supervisors

[If the link has been taken down, just click on the image here to read what the job advert said]

The University of Suffolk has been chosen to run this top-flight programme for training prison officers, yet where is any information?

If such a “prestigious” course is being run there why is nothing about it shared with the local press?

Local media were unaware of the start of the second cohort.

Were Sandy Martin MP for Ipswich (in whose constituency the University of Suffolk is located) or Tim Passmore, Suffolk’s Police and Crime Commissioner, invited for the launch?

What is it really all about – filling up desk spaces inside Petty France with Faststreamers?

Or is it even a short-term solution for Prison Officer shortages?

Yes, we do need leadership but that has to come through experience, surely?

 

Governance

Unlocked Graduates is currently incubated within the registered charity called Catch 22 Charity Limited, Charity Number 1124127. It is not a stand-alone charity even though on the Unlocked Grads website it states:  “Unlocked is a charity…” (see image below).

unlockedgrads dot org dot uk what is unlocked [charity] screenshot 22 Sept 2018

Website, 22 September 2018

It is funded by Unlocked Graduates which is financed by the Ministry of Justice.

In other words, these young people are being offered Master’s level qualifications paid for from the public purse.

This necessitates openness and fully transparency, doesn’t it?

And yet in the Annual Report and Accounts to 31 August 2017 for Catch 22 Charity Limited, Company no. 6577534 there is a simple mention of Unlocked Grads on page 21 and page 25 but there is no reference to the specific activity of Unlocked Grads in Notes to the Accounts, either as restricted funds or as unrestricted funds.

http://beta.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-details/?regid=1124127&subid=0

https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/06577534/filing-history

 

Misrepresentation

The Unlocked Grads website asserts that:

 “The Unlocked Graduates programme was one of the key recommendations of the Coates’ Review of prison education, a report that argued that education needs to be put at the heart of the prison service if Government is serious about the rehabilitation of prisoners.”

I have read the Coates’ Review, and nowhere in the review does it cite that the Unlocked Grads programme was a key recommendation. In fact, the publicly available version of the Coates’ Review doesn’t include the words “Unlocked Graduates” at all, anywhere.

Therefore, this is a misrepresentation of what the review states. Below is the actual recommendation:

“Key recommendations

  1. A new scheme to attract high calibre graduates to work in prisons for an initial period of two years should be introduced. The role should be as a prison officer with an additional remit to support education at the heart of the prison regime.”

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

Natasha Porter, CEO of the Unlocked Grads programme, was on the review panel for the Coates’ Review and Dame Sally Coates is on the board for Unlocked Grads.

How very convenient.

The Coates’ Review was published on 18th May 2016 and the Unlocked Grads scheme was launched on 21st Dec 2016. Why are these dates important, shouldn’t this exceptionally rapid time to market be commended?

In normal circumstances, yes, such as in the private sector, but this is Government and we all know that the government rarely, if ever, moves that quickly on justice-related issues. Take for example, the Corston Report ‘A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system’ from March 2007; on the shelf for over 11 years and counting.

As this is a Government contract, and we have learned they have it for 6 years what was the procurement process and where is the publicly available tender?

I cannot find it on Official Journal of European Union (OJEU). If it was a non-competitive tender, why was only one private-sector provider aware of it? No other educators I have spoken to were ever approached.

Surely nothing is stopping any other private education company from setting up a similar training scheme. BPP University was the first private educator to be granted the ability to award recognised degrees in 2013. What is stopping them, or a similar organisation, coming up with a Graduate programme using prisons?

Launched so quickly after the publication of the Coates’ Review, it is completely out of character for public sector procurement processes to have been satisfied within such a short timescale.

Which leads us to have to question whether prior knowledge played a material part in either the establishing of the Unlocked Grads programme or the inclusion of Recommendation 11, or both, or neither.

 

Wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Is now the time for a scheme like Unlocked Grads to place quantities of inexperienced officers in the frontline when the Inspectorate have just issued their 4th urgent notification to Secretary of State for Justice?

In the latest urgent notification for HMP Bedford, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, states:

“A lack of staff and experience undermined the work of the offender management unit.

…77% of available officers had less than one years’ service. There was a corresponding lack of experience at all levels, and it was clear that this was having a significant impact on many areas of prison life”

Download PDF https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2018/09/7-Sept-UN-letter-HMP-Bedford-and-debrief-FINAL.pdf

One young female Unlocked Grad in the 2018 Cohort told me her parents were worried about what she was doing. I’m not surprised, as a parent I would be too.

It made me think why is the Unlocked Grads scheme putting young people’s lives in possible dangerous and hostile surroundings such as HMP Wandsworth after only a few weeks training? They are ill-equipped and not sufficiently trained for what may lie ahead.

 

Final thoughts

We have unskilled interviewers marking candidates on their suitability, we have untrained trainers training the latest cohort, and we have the possibility of non-academics as supervisors for the Master’s dissertation.

In addition, we have a course led by a member of the review panel of the Coates’ Review.

Moreover, was recommendation 11 of the Coates’ Review written to fit the Unlocked Grads Programme or was the Unlocked Grads programme written to fit recommendation 11?

In the public interest, I think we all have the right and duty to question this to assure that Government reports have not been manipulated by private sector commercial interests or non-government organisations.

The question needs to be asked and the answer given, in plain English that everyone can understand.

 

In reality, very little real information is available in the public domain about the Unlocked Grads programme. In drafting this blog, I have taken great care to gather, collate and corroborate information in which I could personally have sufficient confidence. The objective of this blog is not to criticise any individual but to question the soundness of this programme and the way in which it is conducted. I commend the young people for their ambitiousness and intellect; the issue is not with them. It is with those policy makers, who have approved this programme – they are the ones to whom questions should now be addressed.

 

SITUATION UPDATE 28 SEPT 2018

Subsequent to publishing this post on 22 September 2018, it has come to my attention that the leading local newspaper East Anglian Daily Times has published not one but two articles about Unlocked Grads.

27 Sept 2018 ‘‘No substance’ to claim uniform policy threatens prison guard trainees‘ by Tom Potter (tweeting as @TomPotterEADT)

28 Sept 2018 ‘Could Netflix’s Orange is the New Black be attracting more British women to become prison officers‘ by Jessica Hill (tweeting as @jessjanehill)

This is an astonishing turn of events. Either Unlocked Grads and University of Suffolk have moved quickly to resolve the question I asked “If such a “prestigious” course is being run there why is nothing about it shared with the local press?” and to dispel concerns of secrecy, or these were pre-scheduled PR pieces.

Either way, it raises more questions.

~

StandOut: Giving prisoners another chance

I am relieved that the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke has at last addressed some of the fundamental issues that prisoners face; job opportunities can be scarce and are often limited on release from prison.

His speech at the Education and Employment Strategy Launch at HMP Isis on 24 May 2018 entitled “From the wings to the workplace: the route to reducing reoffending” stated that the first step is education.

I have noticed prisoners are invariably portrayed in the media as those having a low IQ and a high percentage with a reading age of an 11 year old. Yet, what they don’t report on is that there are intelligent prisoners, having skills that could benefit other prisoners and need something worthwhile or in other words purposeful activity to do whilst in prison.

I once spent time talking to two prisoners, both were sentenced for fraud and both were so bored. They didn’t want to retrain in bricklaying or painting and decorating or learn how to clean different types of flooring! They wanted to use their brains, but prison and especially resettlement prisons do not cater for that.

The second point David Gauke raised was moving from jobs on the wings to jobs in the workplace. Unfortunately, there are not enough links with the outside community, and too few businesses are willing to give prisoners another chance, but without a fresh start it is impossible for them to be reintegrated back into society.

For some picking up where they left off is not an option due to the nature of the crime, family circumstances or health.

But if we build a barrier to those who pose no threat to society which prevents them from re-joining their work sector then are we continuing to punish?

On the Unlock Opportunity, David Gauke continued to say:

“…I want more employers to look past an offender’s conviction to their future potential.

How do we do that?

Well, we do it by working more closely with employers, so they open their eyes to the benefits of hiring ex-offenders.

Our New Futures Network will do just that. It will create stronger links between prisons and employers, championing prisoners and acting as a broker between prisoners and employers.”

I am encouraged by this, but I feel there is something missing.

Does departure from a society that has basically forgotten your worth expect a re-introduction without barriers?

Those that have served a prison sentence often have a loss of confidence, self-esteem, and motivation, which can make the job market difficult to access.

Any course that can help navigate and offer guidance for this can only be a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to HMP Wandsworth to attend the celebration of trainees completing the StandOut course by a friend Penny Parker.

Wandsworth Prison by Derek Harper CC BY-SA 2.0 geograph 1030498 450px

Photo: HMP Wandsworth by Derek Harper CC BY-SA 2.0

It is designed to equip people with the tools and skills to gain employment using coaching techniques to build self-confidence and self-esteem, to raise aspirations and motivate trainees to release their potential. This is done by challenging mindsets and attitudes, encouraging teamwork, leadership and developing communication skills.

Straight away I could see such a great rapport between the attendees and the trainers and for a moment I forgot I was in a prison. The celebration was a way of giving the men a chance to have their say and receive encouragement through positive recognition.

One attendee commented:

“I learnt resilience, learnt about the skills I already had. I feel like have been rehabilitated and that I have the tools to make it”

Each attendee, some with more confidence than others stood up in front of us and shared what the course had done for them. It was then the mentors turn and each described how they had witnessed the attendees moving forward week by week, celebrated their strengths and instead of just shaking their hand and giving out the certificates they paused and gave each one a challenge.

It wasn’t a well done pat on the head and then let’s move on to the next. It was a way of helping each one progress to the next stage in their journey.

The second and third stages of StandOut are the continued support (essential) through one-to-one coaching until release from prison, and then on a voluntary take-up basis, for as long as each trainee wishes after release.

I will finish on this StandOut story:

Ryan completed the first ever StandOut course in Wandsworth HMP in March 2017. He had been persuaded to come along to the course by a friend and wasn’t entirely sure what he was signing up to. His family kept his incarceration a secret from everyone and when he would call his mother would say he was calling from university. Ryan had never had a job before.

Ryan quickly began to engage with the StandOut course, enjoying the challenges of presentations, mock interviews and writing his CV and disclosure statement. He also grew in his desire to take responsibility for his choices and became determined to make positive steps when he returned home.

Once released things weren’t immediately straightforward for Ryan. A lead with an employer who had promised him a role ended in a dead end and despite showing initiative and determination he also failed his first attempt at his CSCS card.

However, Ryan was determined to prove his resilience and kept on pushing doors. All the time he was in contact with StandOut, asking for advice and keeping them informed.

We recently spoke to Ryan and he has now secured not one but two jobs. He is working as a courier and has also secured a job as a concierge. The concierge job was given to Ryan partly because he had the guts and honesty to hand the interviewer his disclosure letter. Ryan is now enjoying getting up at the same time as the rest of his family and joining them as they all leave for work

 

The Power of the written word

5Wz24Tyw.jpg

Richard W. Hardwick (@RWHardwick) asked me recently if I would consider writing a review for his new book The Truth About Prison in the form of a blog. So here goes.

Reading this book is like listening to myself as Richard writes like I think!

Richard

This is a compilation of journeys of many people within a prison environment with a reoccurring theme, the truth about prisons. Truth can be hard to swallow, it can be hidden, but it’s there if we take the time to find it.

I know that speaking the truth can come at a personal cost.

Truth also hurts. But should we ignore it, should we cover it up? No, certainly not.

Walking into a prison is like opening that door C.S. Lewis wrote about and entering another world. A world without the same rules regulations or expectations. To start with its rather strange, almost intriguing and no day is ever the same. Conversations are limited, people are watching you and waiting for you to make a mistake as you are expected to know the rules, but when they are unwritten how can you? It’s like you walk into someone else’s life

old man in prison

When you start reading this book you open in your mind that wardrobe door. If you have never visited a prison you begin to visualise what really happens, who lives and works there. Most importantly you begin to wonder what are the benefits? What is its purpose? And just Why?

Questioning the stories, the anecdotes, the nitty gritty of prison life changes you. Once you open that door there is no going back. From then on, the reader cannot say “I never knew” as you have just begun to learn and hopefully understand about prison.

On release why does punishment continue?

Sentencing removes many from society and places them in Prison.

But what happens when they are released back?

With their belongings in a bag and a small grant off they go back to the society that removed them in the first place.

Then what?

Due to the nature of the crime or the often-complex background many face the prospect of no real home and no job.

I speak at every opportunity of my frustration that skills acquired in prison are seemingly just worthless on release. The skills need to match the work available. However, I have seen excellent examples of tutors training those in prison and encouraging them to reach standards that they never thought possible. I have read letters and cards sent to these tutors in thanks for believing in them and helping to achieve qualifications that have led to decent jobs on release.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough.

What about those with existing skills that have had to lay dormant whilst they serve their sentence?

How can they re-join the workplace?

Should they be able to go back into their old job or field?

For some picking up where they left off is not an option due to the nature of the crime, family circumstances or health.

But if we build a barrier to those who pose no threat to society which prevents them from re-joining their work sector then are we continuing to punish?

One perfect example is a man I have known for over 4 years. He is articulate, polite, intelligent, well dressed, always encouraging, constantly pushing for prison reform, and has a network that most would be grateful for. He has been known to take into prisons celebrities such as Russell Brand and Derek Martin and MP’s to encourage those on their journey in life.

JSCforWordpress

He has written two books on his experiences whilst in prison and the challenges he faced on release.

His name is Jonathan Robinson, a former helicopter instructor.

After helping an MP with content for a book, he asked for a reference to get back to the job he loved so that he could once again use the skills which he had acquired over many years. You would think that was a simple enough request. He asked and was told YES.

But then was told NO and was hit by deafening silence that I have personally witnessed on many occasions from MP’s.

His story can be found this morning as a guest blog on www.prisonerben.blogspot.co.uk please read it as one day it may be someone you know facing the same stigma.

If Jonathan was prevented from working what hope have others?

Has prison reform become a humanitarian issue?

Think carefully – why would people who have been released from prison want to be integrated back into a society that thinks it’s okay for them to be locked up for 23 hours a day, with little nutritious food, lack of education, virtually no purposeful activity, squalid living conditions, unsafe, rife with drugs and violence, where staff struggle to maintain order, where corruption, suicides, self-harm and unrest are all increasing, where budgets are cut and staff numbers reduced.

Surely it’s time we asked why?

I think it’s because prison reform should not be just a political issue.

Regardless of who the Secretary of State for Justice is, or who the Prisons Minister is, or what political party they are from, prison reform should not be contingent on who is at No 10, it should be happening anyway.

It has become a humanitarian issue.

Faith Spear 7741 600px

Nominee for The Contrarian Prize 2017

I want to get things done.

I’ve had some prison Governors and Officers talk to me about prisoners and – honestly – I cannot even repeat the words that came out of their mouths.

And yet I’ve had other prison Governors and Officers confide in me about the growing concerns they have for people in prison.

On Friday 28 April, I learned that I was named a nominee of The Contrarian Prize 2017. It’s a prestigious prize for those who have shown independence, courage and sacrifice. I didn’t apply for this or seek the nomination, it found me. And I’m deeply grateful for it.

My fellow nominees are a formidable bunch and we’re all Contrarians in our own way. In my case, I wasn’t afraid to speak the truth to those in power, talking about the criminal justice system in the public interest. Doing so came at a huge personal cost including a face-off with the ‘goliath’ of the Ministry of Justice.

I’d like to use this nomination to propel and advance the issues I’ve been talking about. If it means we can see change and real prison reform by people seeing it more as a humanitarian issue then it has been worth it.

~
Contrarian Prize 2017 shortlist announced here

The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise individuals in British public life who demonstrate independence, courage and sacrifice.

Now in its fifth year, it aims to shine a light on those who have made a meaningful contribution to the public debate through the ideas that they have introduced or the stand they have taken.

Ali Miraj (@AliMirajUK) is the founder of the Contrarian Prize.

~

Volunteering in the Justice Sector

51st birthday

Today I read volunteering is good for your health as you tend to visit the doctor less!

This may be the case and I should know, I have worked as a volunteer for over 20 years and in the Justice sector for over 3 years

A big misconception is that a volunteer just makes tea!

After going to University as a mature student I received a BSc (Hons) in Criminology in Nov 2011. I then spent a year working with my local CAB and completed the course to become a Gateway Assessor as I was told you need to have voluntary work on your CV especially if you have changed direction. This was a real eye opener to the needs of people. After answering an advert in the paper to join the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay in 2013, I started on a very interesting journey. I am now the Chairman.

Apart from the IMB, I have been a group leader for Prison Fellowship England and Wales since 2012 involving managing a small team, all volunteers that deliver the Sycamore Tree victim awareness course in prisons. Meeting monthly and also speaking at various clubs, groups and churches on Restorative Justice and the work I do in prison. I have also been on the Steering Group for the Reclaim Justice Network for over 3 years, attending meetings, AGM’s and supporting events when I am able.

In addition I am a member of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) and the Howard League. I have been invited to visit many prisons and events in the Justice sector and have been an observer at the Justice Select Committee. I have lost count of the number of conferences, lectures, wine receptions and exhibitions I have attended as I try and keep informed. I write a blog and am known on twitter!

I am passionate about wanting change within the prisons, purposeful activity and education are but a few of changes needed. I try to encourage those in prison and those that have been released.

But all of this is as a volunteer.

I have applied for many jobs since graduating but there have been two main problems. The first being the idea that volunteers make the tea and don’t have real input and so can be a bit clueless. The second being I cannot find a more interesting and at times rewarding line of work. I’m not someone to sit in front of a computer on a daily basis. My work is varied and I enjoy the interaction with prisoners, Governors, staff, my team and my many contacts. I like to be organised and punctual. I like tea, but don’t sit around drinking it all day.

Volunteering is rewarding, I recommend it as it’s an essential part of society but I’m ready for a change…!

Purposeful activity in Prisons!

Why is it that so many prisoners have very little to do whilst serving their custodial sentence?

Surely it cannot help their mental health that is often quite fragile anyway when they spend hours upon hours in their cells with nothing to do. With access to workshops, education and the library dependent on the number of staff on duty, prisoners are just locked away.

Prisoners need meaningful activities that serve a purpose not a mind numbing repetitive exercise. I remember having a tour of HMP Whitemoor after a meeting, one of the workshops was dismantling CD’s. Talk about repetitive. Prisoners removed the plastic film, took apart the case, removed the paper inside, and took out the CD for hours and hours on end. Come on I’m sure the prison service can do better than that. Recently I visited HMP Norwich; here they have a fantastic facility for training prisoners in sewing skills using industrial machines. They made prison issue towels and wash bags, however, all the material used was bland off-white no pattern no bright colour. Now I like sewing but staring at the same colour days on end would drive me potty! Why these machines can’t be used for something more stimulating I wonder? The equipment is available, the workforce is trained so…!

In society there are those that are not particularly academic but are very creative, it’s the same in prison.

Many prisoners seem to be placed in prison then spat out at the end of their sentence with not much to show for the time inside. This needs to change, how can prisoners be rehabilitated and not reoffend if they have often no job or education to go to afterward? It’s then a spiral downwards, what a waste of time, money and more importantly the lives of those that have been incarcerated.

There is so much un-tapped potential in prison!

Last weekend I travelled to Tymperley’s in Colchester to see an exhibition and sale of textiles such as cushions, bed-runners and Christmas decorations all produced by prisoners trained through Fine Cell work.

20151128_155151There I met I met a very enthusiastic Lucy Baile, fundraising and administrative assistant.

It was so refreshing to see work produced to such a high standard and it certainly was one of the best examples of purposeful activity I have seen.

Lucy explained that there were around 270 volunteers giving up their time to teach needlework skills both to male and female prisoners so that the many hours spent in their cells are not time wasted.

Why can’t there be more schemes like this?

20151128_155242

Buying a piece is an investment not just in a beautiful object but in people’s lives, to me worth every penny

http://www.finecellwork.co.uk

This is what they say on their website:

OUR MISSION

STITCHING A FUTURE

Fine Cell Work trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. This helps them to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending.

OUR VISION

We wish to build Fine Cell Work as a sustainable charity with the prisoners as stakeholders in the enterprise. We are aiming to become more embedded in the prison system and to guide prisoners towards formal work training and qualifications and to match them up with organisations that can provide support or employment on release.

OUR VALUES

  • Listening and Respect: Inclusiveness, equality and empathy with each other. We are non judgemental and accepting of our difference.
  • Creating Opportunites: We believe in second chances and people’s ability to unlock their potential in a safe, creative environment. 
  • Giving back to Society: Not just us, but prisoners and volunteers too.
  • Collaboration: We have a “can do approach”, we believe in clear boundaries, open, honest communication and in staff, volunteers and prisoners working together to create solutions.
  • Creativity and Enterprise: We take pride in creating products of high value.