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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.
With my kids no longer in education my summer doesn’t have a definite start or finish date any more. Summer just happens.
I’m not one to sit around and do nothing or to sit on the beach or by the pool changing into a darker shade of lobster. No that’s not for me. Here are some of my highlights.
So, I will start on 16th May at the David Jacobson Gallery. Contrarian Prize giving.
This was an extraordinary event and I was privileged to have been nominated for this prestigious prize. A few months earlier I had met the founder Ali Miraj and had prepared a short bio to be shown to the invited guests. It was a great evening and even though I didn’t win I was delighted to have been a part.
Two days later I attended a networking lunch with Lady Val Corbett, Professional Women’s network designed as a way for Executive ladies to support one another whilst raising money for the Robin Corbett Awards. I have attended these awards for the last two years and to be part of this network is something I am proud of. I was introduced to the group of ladies by Lady Val which stimulated much conversation afterwards.
This month revolved mainly around coffee and food.
Coffee with Hugh Fraser, actor, and crime writer (Captain Hastings from Poirot) He was such a gentleman and we talked about crime, prisons etc
Lunch with Chris Moore, Chief Executive of the Clink Charity at Brixton Prison. Great food great company and lots to catch up together.
Dinner with Peter Holloway CEO Prison Fellowship England and Wales
Other stuff included:
Giving a talk to a local group on Restorative Justice
Being interviewed by a German journalist from DIE ZEIT
Started the month at a Rick Astley concert with my closest friend Helen, our dancing to 80’s hits was a sight for sore eyes!
Coffee with Zahid Mubarek Trust
Lunch with Ali Miraj (Contrarian Prize)
On 12th July BBC article by Laurence Cawley which he expected to get around 200,000 unique views, in fact it reached 690,000 unique views on the first day and was the 8th most read article that day globally on the BBC.
In Westminster for the launch of Proof magazine with the Justice Alliance
18th July Interview by Ben Brown live on BBC News Channel
Met up with a friend who works in Petty France, good job walls don’t have ears!
Met Natasha Porter (Unlocked Grads) spent the morning chatting with the team and observing some of the training in the form of workshops
Interview with Injustice Documentary for a blog promoting new documentary out in October
Tea with a journalist friend in London for a catch-up
Travelled to London to be interviewed by Simon Israel for Channel 4 News at 7pm
Afternoon tea with a friend, an ex-offender working within the prison system has a lot of experience and a true gentleman.
Bloomsbury book launch for Michael Irwin, meeting with other Criminologists and chatting over a G&T, perfect.
Lunch with various charities, yes food again including Jane Gould (Clean Sheet)
But now as Autumn has arrived there is work to do.
I am a woman on a mission.
Watch this space!
The Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) and the Association of Members of the Independent Monitor Boards (AMIMB) have been invited to give oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee on Tuesday 31st January 2017.
We will all watch with interest.
Especially since neither IMB or AMIMB have a voice.
The two bodies have not conducted themselves well in my opinion and in my experience. And have been ‘at loggerheads’ with each other for years.
Lack of support they show for their members is as shocking as it is lamentable.
It’s clear that I’m far from alone in thinking this; many others know it to be true but are, for the moment anyway, unable to vocalise it publicly for fear of reprisals, similar to those dished out to me.
UPDATED Wed 1st Feb
Well, did you attend or watch online?
In your opinion, how did they do?
Today, the Ministry of Justice has left me with no alternative than to take more robust action in the public interest.
Officials in Petty France have brought a disciplinary hearing against me. They accuse me of misconduct as a result of speaking out for prison reform.
An investigation into my behaviour was conducted at tax payers’ expense and brings into question my independence and my integrity. I am woman volunteering with the Independent Monitoring Board and I hold a public office.
The Ministry of Justice has chosen to disregard the evidence I provided of real misconduct including leaked emails between others in the Independent Monitoring Board.
This just scratches the surface and is a matter of substantial public interest.
Therefore, in front of the disciplinary panel and without permission for legal representation, I will disclose why the decision of the then prisons minister Andrew Selous MP six months ago was based on a prejudicial character assassination of me by those who want me to shut up and go away.
I am not shutting up.
I am not going away.
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.
This morning I was pleased to attend the Justice Select Committee meeting. It was the first one with Rt Hon Michael Gove MP being called as a witness in his new role as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.
The session was recorded on video. Watch it here.
Getting down to business
After an exchange of pleasantries and mutual congratulations on appointment, the committee set about putting forward questions on important issues such as safety in prisons, rehabilitation, absconds from Open Prisons, court closures, and court and tribunal fees. This was good to see; Select Committees sit to scrutinise Government policy and progress.
This Justice Select Committee meeting came just a few days after the publication by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales’ Annual Report 2014-15, in which Open Prisons have been highlighted once again.
On the same day as the HMIP Annual Report, Nick Harwick also published the unredacted version of the report on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) featuring three high profile cases of prisoners who each committed awful crimes whilst out on ROTL has challenged the current risk assessment within prisons.
The cases of Ian McLoughlin, HMP Springhill, Al-Foday Fofanah, HMP Ford and Alan Wilmot, HMP North Sea Camp were highlighted by Hardwick of where those on ROTL committed the same offence as they were sent to prison for in the first place, giving rise to questioning on whether there is ‘Rehabilitation’ in prison.
You can read the report here.
This was raised by Philip Davies MP when asking Mr Gove “what are you doing to protect the public from these future awful consequences?”
His reply was “…transfer to open prison should only follow an appropriate risk assessment.” He then added …”there will always be cases where there are individuals even if they have committed very serious offences may be suitable for a transfer to an open prison. Each case has to be judged on its own individual merits”. However, the underlying message was that public safety is paramount.
It was clear that Mr Gove was new to the job, there were many err and ums in his answers, but he did assure the committee that he would be happy to return when he had reviewed various aspects within the justice system.
So will I.
Tuesday 9th September 2014
Entering into Westminster Hall with its stone floor, places where famous people have stood and given speeches and seeing police with weapons can make you wonder where on earth you are. But walking up the steps at the back you enter a statue lined corridor and then you enter the lobby, beautiful architecture which never ceases to amaze me. I half expected to see Nick Robinson conducting an interview, instead I met Jonathan Robinson, an ex-prisoner, now author and prison reform campaigner.
Jonathan Robinson along with Paula Harriott, Head of Programme, User Voice, Angela Levin, former Chair of HMP Wormwood Scrubs Independent Monitoring Board, and Deborah Russo, Prisoners’ Advice Service were witnesses giving evidence on Prisons: Planning and Policies in front of the Justice Select Committee. The complete oral evidence is available from the following link:
I decided to sit in the public area and hear each witness in order to gain insight into what is actually happening in prisons. It is important that prisoners are rehabilitated whilst inside and one way is through using the skills that are present within the prison population itself.
The Toe by Toe project run by the Shannon Trust is an excellent example of this, where literate prisoners help those that are illiterate. This is a peer-to-peer mentoring program. Not being able to read has a negative impact on job prospects and also self-esteem. It’s quite shocking when prisoners that have been in the prison estate many years face release unable to read!
Jonathan Robinson has spent the last three years pushing for prison reform, he has written on his own personal prison experience and is a voice for those inside. He champions mentoring and is on the Advisory Board for NoOffence CIC!