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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.
In the space of 6 weeks I have written an article which has been published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, just before the Prime Ministers speech. I have been interviewed by Ian Dunt with an article put on politics.co.uk, been in my local paper with a 2 page spread, had a front page article in Converse prison newspaper, had an interview with another newspaper with an article ready for the next months edition… If I can achieve all this in just 6 weeks, just imagine what could be achieved in 6 months or a year?. It’s all about going at pace.
It’s not always about what you have achieved in the past, although it does help. But it’s about what you can/will/want to do in the future.
Can’t abide being held back because of what I haven’t done yet. Especially when I’m at the start of something significant and have plenty of passion, energy and drive for what is to come.
And despite the knock backs, to keep a sense of humour.
Yes I have mainly worked with vulnerable adults and children before, but we all have a vulnerable side to us. Some are able to reveal it, others not, some it leads to being a victim and others it leads them into criminal activity.
Have you noticed how quick some people are to judge others, put you into boxes and to categorise? I hope you won’t judge my life by the chapter you just walked in on.
Prisons are no different.
Many problems arise when people enter the prison system and then leave in a worse state than when they arrived.
Why after all the money pumped into prisons is this happening?
Profits are made out of prisoners, we all know that.
How many reviews, reports can you count over the last say 10 years that involve prisoners?
There have been countless
How many organisations do you know that work hard to bring reform to prisons and prisoners?
There are countless
How much money has been spent on prison reform?
On 8th February, the Prime Minister set out a vision for prison reform. Mr Cameron said:
This system will be hard to change because it is, in some ways, still stuck in the dark ages – with old buildings, old thinking and old ways of doing things.
So I don’t want to go slow here – I want us to get on with proper, full-on prison reform.
Today, 27th May the Public Accounts Committee report warns that the criminal justice system is close to breaking point:
- The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.
- Lack of shared accountability and resource pressures mean that costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another and the system suffers from too many delays and inefficiencies.
- There is insufficient focus on victims, who face a postcode lottery in their access to justice due to the significant variations in performance in different areas of the country.
Criminal justice system “already overstretched”
- The system is already overstretched and we consider that the Ministry of Justice has exhausted the scope to make more cuts without further detriment to performance.
- The Government is implementing reforms to improve the system but we are concerned that users of the system won’t see the full benefit for another four years.
- There are opportunities for the Ministry to make improvements before then, including better sharing of good practice and making sure that everyone is getting things right first time.
But what is the answer?
(If I had the answer I would be a very rich woman!)
Over the last few years I have visited every category of prison, YOI and Women’s. I have sat behind the Right hon. Michael Gove MP whilst he has been in front of the Justice Select Committee twice. I have attended meeting after meeting in Westminster, attended conferences, training courses, lectures, seminars etc. at my own cost.
I want to learn, I want to understand but most of all I want answers to the questions I have posed.
I also want to be a part of the change that is so desperately needed in our prisons.
We don’t just need a vision, we need a cause!
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
Houston, B. (2001) For this Cause: Finding the meaning of life and living a life of meaning. Castle Hill: Maximised Leadership Inc.
It is always good to reflect back on experiences.
Well here goes
Yesterday I attended the G4S AGM at the Excel Centre in London, I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced. I felt oppression as soon as I entered the building; it was as though I was being ‘kettled’ into an area to be contained. Security was very tight and uncomfortable, my every movement was watched, and it was intimidating! Before being allowed into the actual room for the AGM, G4S security eye-balled you, the atmosphere was heavy and everyone remained silent!
I sat down 5 rows from the front on the left and quickly the seats were filled around me. I felt nervous, apprehensive and uneasy. A G4S security guard sat beside me and another guard that was lined up along the wall had his eyes focused on me. I had dressed smartly in a suit, was polite, yet I seemed to be targeted by the staff. Within minutes of the start of the meeting I saw the heavy-handedness of the G4S security staff and after only 20 minutes or so 3 shareholders had been pulled and dragged from beside me. One man was dragged over my legs pinning me to my seat and I was unable to move away. I was horrified as the staff showed no respect and no due care and attention. The majority of the board of 12 members in front of us remained silent. To be honest I felt rather scared and wondered if for my own safety I should leave at that moment. I was visibly shaken by the whole experience, but I was determined that I would put my question to the board so I pulled myself together and prepared for my opportunity.
When the Chairman John Connolly finally noticed my hand I took the microphone, stood up and addressed the board by saying “I would like to go back to the subject of caring for prisoners…
One year ago (10–21June 2013) the Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Oakwood by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons stated that…
“Against all four of our healthy prison tests, safety, respect, activity and resettlement, the outcomes we observed were either insufficient or poor”
Why is it that after a year, there are still major issues within that prison? An example is that the Government released figures in April revealing that more than 600 incidents of self-harm had been recorded in HMP Oakwood in 2013, yet the web site for HMP Oakwood states: we aim to inspire, motivate and guide prisoners to become the best they can be.
My question was not answered, the CEO said that he was aware of the recommendations of the report and that it was normal to have teething problems with a new jail. In reference to the alarmingly high levels of self harm all that was said was there are self harm issues in all prisons.
I was closed down and unable to respond to his feeble answer, twice!
There was no remorse for what was happening in this prison, the CEO didn’t seem to be that concerned even though we are talking about lives.
On the train heading home I re-lived the afternoon and was still shocked at what I experienced. I am not put off, I plan to follow through my genuine concern for how G4S runs prisons in this country and I will be better prepared for next year’s AGM.
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/