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Where’s Mum?…she’s in prison with an author and an actor off Eastenders!

Daughter: Did you just say Mum’s visiting a prison in London with an author and an actor off Eastenders ?

Son 1: If I stop someone from killing someone else and in so doing I kill them, am I a bad person or is it just what I have done bad?

Son 2: Did you really sit in a room with prisoners, what if they were murderers?

Boyfriend of daughter: Wow, you were in the audience and sat with prisoners?

Are these the kind of conversations you have with your family?

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Over the past four years I have met many prisoners who all had one thing in common: they just needed someone to believe in them, to listen to them and to help them whilst in prison and once their sentence had ended.

I’ve found that, for some of them, criminal activity had become a way of life; they knew nothing else and would most likely continue in the same way after release. For others, falling into crime was a result of a stupid decision or action, often spontaneous, which had got them in to trouble with the law, convicted and sent to prison; they felt a debilitating remorse and that they had let themselves and their families down.

Crisis – what crisis?

We read that the prison population continues to rise, overcrowding in prison seems to be the norm rather than the exception and violence, suicides and self-harm are weekly occurrences. There is tragedy after tragedy yet we are told that there is no crisis in our prison system.

So what should we do? One solution is to accept the status quo and keep our heads in the sand. Another is to actually address the issues. But, as I keep hearing, this has to be a coherent team effort.

Not settling for the status quo

In January, I visited a London prison and was accompanied by NoOffence! Patron, actor Derek Martin (Eastenders’ Charlie Slater) and author Jonathan Robinson (@IN_IT_THE_BOOK) from their Advisory Board. I’ve already blogged about the visit and the lessons I took away from that experience.

At a peer mentoring conference last year, I met with Rob Owen OBE the chief executive of St Giles Trust, an Ambassador for NoOffence!

St Giles Trust aims to help break the cycle of prison, crime and disadvantage and create safer communities by supporting people to change their lives.

Next week, I will be meeting Geoff Baxter OBE the CEO of Prison Fellowship who is also an Ambassador of NoOffence!

This is just a small sample of the organisations that work to improve the lives of offenders, there are many more.

I’d dearly like to explore how these organisations can find more ways to work together; these plus leaders such as Howard League perform outstanding work as organisations in their own right. Just imagine what could be achieved if new ways of working could be agreed to improve the Criminal Justice System.

In December 2012 I was accepted by the Secretary of State to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of an open prison. To carry out my duties effectively, the role provide the right of access to every prisoner and every part of the prison I monitor, and also to the prison’s records. Independent monitoring ensures people in custody are treated fairly and humanely; I take this work very seriously.

When I started working in prisons it was as a group facilitator for Sycamore Tree, a victim awareness programme teaching the principles of restorative justice. For many offenders on Sycamore Tree one of the most powerful element of the programme is when a victim of crime visits to talk with the group how crime has impacted their lives. In week 6 of the programme, participants have an opportunity to express their remorse – some write letters, poems or create works of art or craft. Members of the local community are invited to the course to observe the many varied symbolic acts of restitution.

I’ve seen some remarkable lives turned around among offenders who make it to this stage of the programme. Okay, you argue, there is no way these outcomes can be achieved in 100% of cases. I agree.

But programmes that provide education and encouragement have to be a more purposeful activity and more effective towards increasing the chances of better outcomes with more offenders than them simply being banged up for 23 hours a day with the TV.

But all it takes is a bit of coherent team work.

I like what NoOffence! says in their mission statement and vision:

Mission Statement: NoOffence! will encourage, promote and facilitate the collaboration of organisations from the voluntary, public and private sectors to address the issue of reducing crime and reoffending.

Vision: To be the leading online criminal justice communication, information exchange and networking community in the world. Our vision for NoOffence! has always been to bring justice people together to overcome barriers to rehabilitation. We believe the solution to complex justice problems lie with the people…

They have got a point, haven’t they?

I for one would be open to try to forge more collaboration than we see today. And I know I’m not alone in that view; many others are prepared to voice a similar willingness and appetite for supporting each other.

Actions speak louder than words. Let’s get on with it.

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