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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.
First published 05 January 2017 in East Anglian Daily Times under the headline ‘Prison reform is taking too long, say ex-Hollesley Bay IMB chairman and former inmate’
Had the authorities listened to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Birmingham the riot on 16 December maybe could have been prevented. In their annual report the IMB wrote:
“the increasingly difficult behaviour of individual prisoners coupled with staff resource constraints give the Board cause for concern… Many staff are now concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of the prisoners… A solution is required urgently.”
Instead what happened was described by the Prison Officers Association as the biggest prison riot since Strangeways in 1990.
So why have prisoners behaved in this way?
Sentencing guidelines have placed more people in prison for longer periods of time and has, therefore, inflated the prison population to record numbers. This in turn has given rise to overcrowding, and together with under-staffing and the emergence of psychoactive substances also known as “legal highs”, our prisons have become places of deprivation on a record scale. It’s a toxic combination.
Less well publicised factors such as restricted access to education, to facilities, and the right of association with one another add to the frustration felt by those living inside. People being locked in their cell for 23 hours every day or sometimes for days on end during “lock down” creates a volatile atmosphere.
A high number of people in custody suffer from genuine mental health issues. They are imprisoned sometimes to protect society. But those are in the minority. Many people in prison with mental health issues are only there because the courts have no idea what else to do with them. For their sake and for the sake of society in which we all live, it is entirely the wrong place to send them.
IPP is defunct
Others are in prison under the now defunct rules on Imprisonment for Public Protection, known simply as “IPP”. These people don’t have a release date. Many prisoners today under IPP have already served time far beyond the normal tariff They are left to languish until the parole board decides it is safe to let them out.
I’m not saying we should open the prison doors and let everyone walk out. That would be reckless and irresponsible. But I am saying it is time to speed up the process of evaluation to make sure that those who don’t pose any risk to the public be allowed to go home as soon as possible.
What concerns me most is the utter boredom that so many of people in custody must endure. They are invariably portrayed as having a low IQ, a high percentage with a reading age of an 11year old; many have been in care and come from seriously complex situations. What isn’t realised is that many people in custody are intelligent, well-educated and have skills that could benefit other prisoners and need something worthwhile to do.
In other words, purposeful activity whilst in prison must be a priority. Lives are wasted here; I see it all the time.
So many organisations are involved in the ‘prison industrial complex’. Big money is made from those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Everyone wants a slice of the profits, but too little is re-invested in the prisoners and in the conditions in which they are held.
There are not enough links with the outside community, with colleges and University. 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.
Beyond the Gate
I have seen the crushing stigma that ex-prisoners live under on release; the failure of a system that is meant to be there for them beyond the gate, the lack of accommodation, the difficulties of finding work, the list goes on.
It’s time for society to think differently towards people who find themselves in prison.
“Our prisons are in crisis and prison reform is taking too long.”
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.
I seem to be making a habit of this; on Wednesday 16th March I attended the Justice Select Committee for the third time, again listening to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP being questioned by a team of MP’s.
I sat behind Mr Gove and watched as he interacted with the committee. The meeting can be accessed from this link: http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/e67772ca-8c75-4112-853a-0fbd80688389
The first question he was asked was “How would you encapsulate the overall purpose of the thrust of the Government’s prison policy”? Michael Gove replied “In a sentence, it is about turning prisoners from liabilities into assets”. Interesting use of language I thought.
He continued by stating that…”the critical thing is to make sure that during their time in prison there is purposeful activity…” I have come across some excellent forms of purposeful activity but to be honest there just isn’t enough going on. Is it all down to money? If millions can be found to build new prisons then surely purposeful activity has to be included.
The stories coming out of many of the prisons in England and Wales are appalling, locked up at least 22 hours a day, rat infested are but a few I have read this week.
When will we see real progress?
The most successful custodial establishment according to Nick Hardwick former chief inspector of prisons was the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) in Colchester. However, in October 2015 there were 35 being held at the MCTC, hardly an example to compare. The ratio of staff to detainees is far higher than within the prison estate which is surely a factor along with greater governor autonomy that contributes to its success. I have visited it and was impressed by the order, cleanliness and regime. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/484448/Detainees_Military_Corrective_Training_Centre_Colchester.pdf
But how do you really measure success?
Michael Gove gave an example of Bronzefield prison as being a very successful female prison, yet this week one of the main stories I have read is about staff giving out sleeping bags to women released with no accommodation. It doesn’t add up!
I want to read more success stories, see real progress and watch as these “liabilities are turned into assets”
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…!