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I’m fulfilling something that has been on my wish list for over 20 years… meeting Terry Waite.
Many years ago, as a young Mum, I was eager to find something more substantive to read than Fireman Sam. I borrowed ‘Taken on Trust’ from the library and was riveted by his harrowing story of being a hostage.
Reading about Terry Waite re-ignited my preference for non-fiction and an individual’s personal journey. What stood out to me was his resilience and courage but so did his humanity and his deep faith.
I’m not familiar with the layout of Westminster Abbey and certainly not The Cloisters. Many people who enter are tourists fascinated by the scale of this architecture which commemorates the births, deaths and marriages associated with it. But not me, not on this occasion.
Walking towards my destination, I am suddenly aware that Terry Waite has been a part of my own journey. I say that because the inhumanity that he endured for 5 years mainly in solitary confinement had a lasting impact on me and still today raises many questions, such as:
Why do we put the vulnerable in isolation in our prison system?
Why do we as a society accept it as an inevitability for some?
I’m clutching my copy of his new book ‘Solitude’ where he explores various accounts by those he has met on his travels of being solitary.
Just checked my watch, I’m early, I’m usually early.
Peeking through The Cloisters, there is an immaculate quadrangle where the grass is surprisingly green and a small water feature bubbles away and a fresh breeze bringing a well needed respite to the heat and humidity of London.
Even the event organiser’s choice of location spoke to me of hours and hours of quiet contemplation.
Taking our seats, we were reminded that this was the route historically used by monks from their dormitory to the refectory and this site has always been “a place of power” and a “place of faith”. It’s humbling.
“I witnessed those killed before my very eyes”
“When law and order break down, all hell breaks loose”
These were some of the first words Terry Waite said as he stood to address the audience. He was dressed in a simple pale blue shirt, black trousers, cream linen jacket and a blood red tie. At 6’7” Mr Waite’s command presence was even more imposing than the ancient wooden doors framed by the solid stonework behind him.
Taken on Trust
“If someone turns to the Church for help regardless of whether the Church can help them, the Church should help them”.
He was deeply sincere.
He went on to explain his experience immediately before and at the point of being taken hostage in Beirut, January 1987.
He came face to face with hostage takers and knew he was facing the possibility himself of either being killed or captured. Trust between himself and the captors broke down. Being alone, not knowing and the uncertainty brought feelings of anger towards himself and anger towards the captors for breaking their word, having promised safe conduct.
He recounts his own experience of torture, mock execution and hours of interrogation whilst being shackled by his hands and feet to a wall.
With no companionship and extreme isolation, he found a deeper form of solitude and counselled himself to do two things:
“Live each day at a time, as it comes. Live for now”
“Try and take it as an opportunity to take an interior journey, get to know yourself better”
Endeavouring to find inner harmony he began to write in his head.
“Pools of solitude and places of solitude help you to get to know yourself better and in so doing you are able to have a deeper understanding of others”.
Without a hint of arrogance and self-effacing I found Terry Waite’s words to be profoundly challenging. What he said and the way he said it drew a sharp contrast to a society which is generally irreligious, insular, and impatient.
He concluded his talk with the following, poignant words:
“The power of compassion is greater than the power of evil in this world”
Terry Waite then took a few questions, including one from me, where I asked for his views on solitary confinement in prisons in England and Wales. With an authoritative voice and immediacy, his answer to me was beyond dispute:
“It is cruel and must be stopped immediately”
In a personal conversation afterwards, Terry Waite was kind enough to sign my copy of ‘Solitude’, a gift to me from SPCK.
After being inundated with tweets concerning Feltham YOI, it’s time to take a step back and consider what really is happening and what could be done about it.
…Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release http://hmprisonservice.gov.uk/abouttheservice/statementofpurpose/ Believe it or not this is part of the statement of purpose for the prison service! This clearly is not the case.
There are limitations to current penal system with problems of overcrowding and high levels of recidivism. But that is no excuse for locking up children for at least 18 hours per day. How can this treatment help in the rehabilitation of young offenders? And what about them leading “law-abiding and useful lives in custody”?
According to the Independent : http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/inside-feltham-why-londons-young-offender-institution-is-one-of-the-scariest-prisons-in-britain-8788635.html Last month, though, the present chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, wrote what the Howard League for Penal Reform called the worst dispatch from any such institution in more than a decade. “There is no concealing the fact that this report is one of the most concerning we have published recently,” Hardwick wrote. He painted a picture of aimlessness, and hopelessness, and endemic gang violence. If you were a parent with a child locked up there, he told this newspaper, “you would be right to be terrified”.
Later Nick Hardwick stated…“I don’t think this is just a Feltham problem, it’s a wider problem. We need to get our heads around what we are going to do with these very damaged boys, because simply punishing them, well, it doesn’t work. It absolutely doesn’t work.”
According to the Halliday Report (Home Office, 2001)
- Sentences are more severe
- Judges and magistrates award more custody
- Average length of custodial sentences are 50% longer then 10-15 years ago
- Magistrates sentencing significantly higher proportion to custody
So what now?
The Howard League is driving a campaign for justice for children. They want to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility and ensure that society engages the child behind the crime. They also believe that too many children are in prison. Through their projects such as U R Boss they aim to give children a voice and work to improve the treatment and conditions for children in custody. http://www.howardleague.org/key-issues/
Send in the dogs?
YOI Warren Hill in Suffolk houses young offenders with a variety of problems and backgrounds. It is here that an old dog known as Eddie visits each week to help those inmates that need a bit of therapy. Eddie is part of the “Pets as Therapy Dogs” and gives the lads the unconditional love of an animal that is one of the things that are most missed aspects of their lives when they enter prison.
Home Office (2001) Making Punishments Work. London: Home Office [Online] Available at: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/halliday-report-sppu/
A theme that is close to my heart is the reduction of the prison population, unfortunately the Government has other ideas. Chris Grayling MP in his speech to the Centre for Social Justice on 20th November stated the five priorities that he has given to the Ministry of Justice for the remainder of this Parliament, priority three included
“We have to focus on making the prison system cheaper not smaller”.
In addition Jeremy Wright MP at the AGM for the Howard League for Penal Reform on Wednesday 21st November 2012 said that the Government has no plans to reduce the prison population and it is the sentencers not the Government who are responsible for the prison population as it stands today.
Maybe we should look at simplifying the Criminal Justice System by reviewing historical scholars. In On Crimes and Punishment and Other Writings (1764), Cesare Beccaria critically challenges the current thinking of the 18th Century by putting forward his theory of Criminal Justice from an enlightened perspective as he himself searched for truth (Bellamy, 1995). He concluded that:
“In order that punishment should not be an act of violence perpetrated by one or many upon a private citizen, it is essential that it should be public, speedy, necessary, the minimum possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crime, and determined by the law”
What is clear is that the objectives of sentencing have changed over time, with different priorities being given by different policy makers. The criminal justice system has been reduced to a managerial system rather than improving on a punitive system. In other words, policy makers are more interested in assuring that the system works than assuring that the punishment works, which totally misses the point of crime and punishment as Beccaria saw it.
Bellamy, R. (ed.) (1995) Beccaria: On Crimes and Punishments and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
‘Prisons: cheaper not smaller’ by Richard Garside. UK Justice Policy Review. 20 Nov 2012. click here
‘An open letter to Chris Grayling from an ‘old lag’ ‘Downsizing Criminal Justice. 28 Nov 2012. click here
Last year I presented a poster session to cohort and faculty at my local university. The poster was the most visible infographic in the room. It acted as a magnet for attendees. Its immediacy communicated right to the heart of the issue and triggered some substantive discussion. And so it should. Latest figures available from Ministry of Justice shows that over 86,000 people in England and Wales are currently serving custodial sentences.
Frances Crook (@FrancesCrook), Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform said that many of these people should not be in prison at all; many offenders, particularly those serving short sentences, would be move effectively punished using community sentences.
She has a point. If offenders can be more effectively punished using a sentencing strategy which not only costs around one tenth of the cost of a prison place, but also controls prison population at the same time as being in the better long term interests of the offender, then it deserves serious consideration.
“It isn’t crime that puts people in prison – it is policy that puts people in prison.”
In my experience dealing with a range of offenders, I can see that sentencing strategy, in some cases, causes “penal excess”. This phrase means different things depending on your standpoint. For example, to a probation officer it may mean a harsh sentence behind bars. To a politician, it may mean “…it is the sentencers not the Government who are responsible for the prison population as it stands today” (said Jeremy Wright MP, 21st Nov 2012, speaking on the occasion of the AGM of The Howard League for Penal Reform).
Don’t you think the person is more important than the policy?