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An interview with Phil O’Brien by John O’Brien
Phil O’Brien started his prison officer training in January 1970. His first posting, at HMDC Kirklevington, in April 1970. In a forty-year career, he also served at HMP Brixton, HMP Wakefield, HMYOI Castington, HMP Full Sutton, HMRC Low Newton and HMP Frankland. He moved through the ranks and finished his public sector career as Head of Operations at Frankland. In 2006, he moved into the private sector, where he worked for two years at HMP Forest Bank before taking up consultancy roles at Harmondsworth IRC, HMP Addiewell and HMP Bronzefield, where he carried out investigations and advised on training issues. Phil retired in 2011. In September 2018, he published Can I Have a Word, Boss?, a memoir of his time in the prison service.
John O’Brien holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Leeds, where he specialised in autobiography studies.
You deal in the first two chapters of the book with training. How do you reflect upon your training now, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in the service?
I believe that the training I received set me up for any success I might have had. I never forgot the basics I was taught on that initial course. On one level, we’re talking about practical things like conducting searches, monitoring visits, keeping keys out of the sight of prisoners. On another level, we’re talking about the development of more subtle skills like observing patterns of behaviour and developing an intimate knowledge of the prisoners in your charge, that is, getting to know them so well that you can predict what they are going to do before they do it. Put simply, we were taught how best to protect the public, which includes both prisoners and staff. Those basics were a constant for me.
Tell me about the importance of the provision of education and training for prisoners. Your book seems to suggest that Low Newton was particularly successful in this regard.
Many prisoners lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. For anyone leaving the prison system, reading and writing are crucial in terms of functioning effectively in society, even if it’s only in order to access the benefits available on release.
At Low Newton, a largely juvenile population, the education side of the regime was championed by two governing governors, Mitch Egan and Mike Kirby. In addition, we had a well-resourced and extremely committed set of teachers. I was Head of Inmate Activities at Low Newton and therefore had direct responsibility for education.
The importance of education and training is twofold:
Firstly, it gives people skills and better fits them for release.
Secondly, a regime that fully engages prisoners leaves less time for the nonsense often associated with jails: bullying, drug-dealing, escaping.
To what extent do you believe that the requirements of security, control and justice can be kept in balance?
Security, control, and justice are crucial to the health of any prison. If you keep these factors in balance, afford them equal attention and respect, you can’t be accused of bias one way or the other.
Security refers to your duty to have measures in place that prevent escapes – your duty to protect the public.
Control refers to your duty to create and maintain a safe environment for all.
Justice is about treating people with respect and providing them with the opportunities to address their offending behaviour. You can keep them in balance. It’s one of the fundamentals of the job. But you have to maintain an objective and informed view of how these factors interact and overlap. It comes with experience.
What changed most about the prison service in your time?
One of the major changes was Fresh Start in 1987/88, which got rid of overtime and the Chief Officer rank. Fresh Start made prison governors more budget aware and responsible. It was implemented more effectively at some places than others, so it wasn’t without its wrinkles.
Another was the Woolf report, which looked at the causes of the Strangeways riot. The Woolf report concentrated on refurbishment, decent living and working conditions, and full regimes for prisoners with all activities starting and ending on time. It also sought to enlarge the Cat D estate, which would allow prisoners to work in outside industry prior to release. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t yet come to pass sufficiently. It’s an opportunity missed.
What about in terms of security?
When drugs replaced snout and hooch as currency in the 1980s, my security priorities changed in order to meet the new threat. I had to develop ways of disrupting drug networks, both inside and outside prison, and to find ways to mitigate targeted subversion of staff by drug gangs.
In my later years, in the high security estate, there was a real fear and expectation of organised criminals breaking into jails to affect someone’s escape, so we had to organise anti-helicopter defences.
The twenty-first century also brought a changed, and probably increased, threat of terrorism, which itself introduced new security challenges.
You worked in prisons of different categories. What differences and similarities did you find in terms of management in these different environments?
Right from becoming a senior officer, a first line manager at Wakefield, I adopted a modus operandi I never changed. I called it ‘managing by walking about’. It was about talking and listening, making sure I was there for staff when things got difficult. It’s crucial for a manager to be visible to prisoners and staff on a daily basis. It shows intent and respect.
I distinctly remember Phil Copple, when he was governor at Frankland, saying one day: “How do you find time to get around your areas of responsibility every day when other managers seem tied to their chairs?” I found that if I talked to all the staff, I was responsible for every day, it would prevent problems coming to my office later when I might be pushed for time. Really, it was a means of saving time.
The job is the same wherever you are. Whichever category of prison you are working in, you must get the basics right, be fair and face the task head on.
The concept of intelligence features prominently in the book. Can you talk a bit about intelligence, both in terms of security and management?
Successful intelligence has always depended on the collection of information.
The four stages in the intelligence cycle are: collation, analysis, dissemination and action. If you talk to people in the right way, they respond. I discovered this as soon as I joined the service, and it was particularly noticeable at Brixton.
Prisoners expect to be treated fairly, to get what they’re entitled to and to be included in the conversation. When this happens, they have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It’s easy to forget that prisoners are also members of the community, and they have the same problems as everyone else. That is, thinking about kids, schools, marriages, finances. Many are loyal and conservative. The majority don’t like seeing other people being treated unfairly, and this includes prisoner on prisoner interaction, bullying etc. If you tap into this facet of their character, they’ll often help you right the wrongs. That was my experience.
Intelligence used properly can be a lifesaver.
You refer to Kirklevington as an example of how prisons should work. What was so positive about their regime at the time?
It had vision and purpose and it delivered.
It was one of the few jails where I worked that consistently delivered what it was contracted to deliver. Every prisoner was given paid work opportunities prior to release, ensuring he could compete on equal terms when he got out. The regime had in place effective monitoring, robust assessments of risk, regular testing for substance abuse and sentence-planning meetings that included input from family and home probation officers.
Once passed out to work, each prisoner completed a period of unpaid work for the benefit of the local community – painting, decorating, gardening etc.
There was excellent communication.
The system just worked.
The right processes were in place.
To what extent do you feel you were good at your job because you understood the prisoners? That you were, in some way, the same?
I come from Ripleyville, in Bradford, a slum cleared in the 1950s. Though the majority of people were honest and hardworking, the area had its minority of ne’er-do-wells. I never pretended that I was any better than anyone else coming from this background.
Whilst a prisoner officer under training at Leeds, I came across a prisoner I’d known from childhood on my first day. When I went to Brixton, a prisoner from Bradford came up to me and said he recognised me and introduced himself. I’d only been there a couple of weeks. I don’t know if it was because of my background, but I took an interest in individual prisoners, trying to understand what made them tick, as soon as I joined the job.
I found that if I was fair and communicated with them, the vast majority would come half way and meet me on those terms. Obviously, my working in so many different kinds of establishments undoubtedly helped. It gave me a wide experience of different regimes and how prisoners react in those regimes.
How important was humour in the job? And, therefore, in the book?
Humour is crucial. Often black humour. If you note, a number of my ex-colleagues who have reviewed the book mention the importance of humour. It helps calm situations. Both staff and prisoners appreciate it. It can help normalise situations – potentially tense situations. Of course, if you use it, you’ve got to be able to take it, too.
What are the challenges, as you see them, for graduate management staff in prisons?
Credibility, possibly, at least at the beginning of their career. This was definitely a feature of my earlier years, where those in the junior governor ranks were seen as nobodies. The junior governors were usually attached to a wing with a PO, and the staff tended to look towards the PO for guidance. The department took steps to address this with the introduction of the accelerated promotion scheme, which saw graduate entrants spending time on the landing in junior uniform ranks before being fast-tracked to PO. They would be really tested in that rank.
There will always be criticism of management by uniform staff – it goes with the territory. A small minority of graduate staff failed to make sufficient progress at this stage and remained in the uniform ranks. This tended to cement the system’s credibility in the eyes of uniform staff.
Were there any other differences between graduate governors and governors who had come through the ranks?
The accelerated promotion grades tended to have a clearer career path and were closely mentored by a governor grade at HQ and by governing governors at their home establishments and had regular training. However, I lost count of the number of phone calls I received from people who were struggling with being newly promoted from the ranks to the governor grades. They often felt that they hadn’t been properly trained for their new role, particularly in relation to paperwork, which is a staple of governor grade jobs.
From the point of view of the early 21stC, what were the main differences between prisons in the public and private sectors?
There’s little difference now between public and private sector prisons. Initially, the public sector had a massive advantage in terms of the experience of staff across the ranks. Now, retention of staff seems to be a problem in both sectors. The conditions of service were better in the public sector in my time, but this advantage has been eroded. Wages are similar, retirement age is similar. The retirement age has risen substantially since I finished.
In my experience, private sector managers were better at managing budgets. As regards staff, basic grade staff in both sectors were equally keen and willing to learn. All that staff in either sector really needed was purpose, a coherent vision and support.
A couple of times towards the end of your book, you hint at the idea that your time might have passed. Does your approach belong to a particular historical moment?
I felt that all careers have to come to an end at some point and I could see that increasing administrative control would deprive my work of some of its pleasures. It was time to go before bitterness set in. Having said that, when I came back, I still found that the same old-fashioned skills were needed to deal with what I had been contracted to do. So, maybe I was a bit premature.
My approaches and methods were developed historically, over the entire period of my forty-year career. Everywhere I went, I tried to refine the basics that I had learned on that initial training course.
Thank you to John O’Brien for enabling Phil to share his experiences.
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
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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?
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?
[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?
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).
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.
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:
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.”
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”
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.
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.
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.
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
Reading this book is like listening to myself as Richard writes like I think!
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…!