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Justice Minister Chris Grayling's well oiled PR machine has been very active in recent weeks with plenty of media coverage of plans to toughen up prisons and remove legal aid for 'criminals'. While all of this is concerning none of it is particularly new. What did catch my eye however was mention of plans to locate youth criminal justice services within schools – effectively opening prisons inside schools.
In an interview to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) magazine last week Grayling suggested that there could be scope to locate 'youth prisons' within the grounds of schools. He told the magazine that he is concerned that prisons are failing to offer education and skills that young people need to survive in the outside world – rather than stay on the straight and narrow they end up back in prison. In addressing this educational failure penal reformers have responded with alternatives. The first, outlined in the TES article is to not send young people to prison in the first place (aka the 'Swedish' approach where the age of criminal responsibility is set at 15 and children are diverted away from contact with the criminal justice system). The second, the 'California' approach, is to improve access to education. High schools are set up within prisons to offer young people a form of mainstream education.
Grayling's proposal is a somewhat novel (and worrying) third way. Why take the teachers to the prison when you can simply put the prison in the school? I can see the common sense here; children in prisons would benefit from mainstream education opportunities. But this proposal sets off a number of alarm bells. The idea that prisons should have educative and rehabilitative intentions is not new but whatever the educational goals, the punitive dimensions have always been to the fore and relatively transparent. By encouraging mainstream schools to house punitive institutions we risk blurring the lines between education and punishment. Arguably this blurring has already started – the use of CCTV cameras in schools, security guards and regular reliance on police to help manage behaviour is already widespread. Placing a prison within the walls of a school is perhaps just a natural next step.
Such a move would increase the presence and threat of punishment to young people who step out of line – and in particular children from certain communities already the focus of much criminal justice interest. The threat of the penal institution would loom even larger and offer a seamless transition from school, to pupil referral unit to prison. My guess is that poverty stricken areas and inner cities would be deemed most suitable for these 'prison in a school' institutions. I'm also left wondering who would run these institutions – Ministry of Justice? Department for Education? Or perhaps G4S or Securicor might want to set up a (not so) 'free' school? My heart sinks at the thought of the education system becoming closely aligned to criminal justice.
All children deserve an education – including children in prison. We should be looking at ways of keeping young people out of prisons and treating them as children first. Schools should be places of learning, safety and growth – not punishment, security and control.
Rebecca Roberts' article first appeared on the Reclaim Justice Network. For more information about the Network, to read other articles and find out how to support the campaign visit: here
One of the more enduring and troubling images in the public imagination, often used in a morally censorious way by sections of the media and politically motivated policy makers, has been that of the 'welfare scrounger'. Listening to a recent over-heated radio debate on this issue, I was reminded of the scene in the 2000 political thriller The Contender in which the actor Gary Oldman (playing Sheldon Runyon) opines, 'people will believe me because I'll have a very large microphone in front of me'.
This brought to mind my supervisory contact whilst working as a probation officer with Roberta (not her real name). I had been allocated a pre-sentence report on Roberta who was due to appear for sentencing at a local magistrates' court for false representation. That is to say, she had legitimately claimed entitlement to social security but had not informed the Department of Social Security (now the DWP) of a change in her circumstances, and as such was being prosecuted. It proved to be a difficult interview, less due to the complexities of the case; prima facie the prosecutorial burden had been proved. But the emotional impact of this prosecution (attempts to arrange repayments without the shame of prosecution proved fruitless) was immediately and distressingly apparent.
The court followed the proposal in the report that a period of supervision was appropriate (on reflection this might well be construed as too onerous given the facts?) and an ancillary penalty known as a Money Payment Supervision Order (usually employed for fine defaults) was imposed. Although Roberta's circumstances remained precarious, she was able to agree that supervisory contact, whilst aimed at reducing the risk of her reoffending, was also an opportunity for her to access the assistance of an able welfare advisor, who offered targeted support with money management. The beginnings of the order seemed to herald a straightforward supervisory experience and Roberta cooperated and appeared to recognise that the shape and frequency of future meetings (home visits included) would be determined by her continuing good progress. What was less apparent at the time was the very real difficulties she began to have in coping financially: a situation made more challenging with the arrival of her first child. The office meetings began to assume a more fraught and unsettled aspect and the modest repayment schedule had to be renegotiated via the court.
What also began to intrude into our discussion was an altogether more testing understanding of her index offence and the emotional attributions that she now felt. 'Disgusted' with herself, Roberta believed that being labelled a 'welfare cheat' was somehow going to irreparably trap her in a 'loser' identity.
The order was concluded successfully and the repayment schedule (although extended) was eventually paid. However, the impact of the prosecution and the fall out from what she perceived as her 'welfare cheat' identity somehow morally excluded from making good on her intentions to lead a 'good life' with her newborn child. It led me to think just how have such stereotypical representations permeated the current deliberations of the future of welfare reform? Of course amongst other things critical attention needs to be given to the intersecting links around class, race and gender.
Roberta shared an insight at one of our supervision sessions in which we looked together at some of the ways she might shake off the emotionally laden 'welfare cheat' identity, which is so powerfully exploited in popular debate, and she said: 'surely a label cannot control me?'.
I was a youth worker in a variety of settings for many years.
I was trained and experienced in developing clear and safe boundaries within which to do my intensive, one to one and group work. I had a great deal of opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t with different people in different situations; management and young people alike and I had some great exposure to the best and the worst of practice and policy.
I realise on reflection that despite the many organisational and safeguarding responsibilities I had for upholding a range of ‘rules’, I actually had two of my own. I used to tell young people there were only two things they were not allowed to say to me:
‘I don’t know’ and ‘I can’t be bothered’.
These rules emerged out of my experience of talking to young people about both simple (‘what do you think about that?’, ‘what did your social worker say?’, ‘why do you think you got sent out of your lesson today?’) and more complicated issues (‘what do you want to do about that?’, ‘can you imagine how your teacher might have felt?’, ‘do you think you did yourself justice with that reaction?’) and getting the standard response to each question: ‘I don’t know.’
‘I need you to think about it because I am asking you a question’. ‘When’, I would say, ‘you say "I don’t know", what I think you are really saying is, "I don’t want to think about it" and that shuts the conversation down. You don’t have to talk to me, but if you want to, it is going to be difficult unless you engage’. Often, I would ask the question again and get an entirely different response.
So, my first rule became ‘Please don’t tell me you don’t know the answer to a question there is no simple answer to.’ Of course, sometimes we don’t actually know ‘what time is it?’ or ‘what’s for dinner’; but most open questions require some thought before an answer and my rule was an expectation for young people to think with me.
The second rule emerged out of a similar dynamic. A young person would present a situation and we would begin a Socratic dialogue about it. At some point, I would ask something like ‘why don’t you do that then?’ (not very Socratic, I admit) to which, the stock response would be given: ‘I can’t be bothered.’
For some young people, the situations and levels of responsibility upon them meant that no amount of external support from Social Services, Housing, YOT workers, Leaving Care Teams, teachers, head teachers or family members was going to be effective without a great deal of effort on the part of the young person themselves. I was often aware of the injustice of the situations faced by many of the young people with whom I worked. My job was to support the young people I worked with to develop those skills, reflect and become aware of their own abilities, capacities and potential and find the motivation to, having identified it, plan and strive to achieve it.
‘I can’t be bothered’ was never going to get us anywhere. Although I usually completely understood the sentiment; too much to do, overwhelming pressure and demands, more responsibility than imagined and often enormous odds stacked against success - I insisted on my second rule: that young people did not tell me they ‘could not be bothered.’
I worked with young people to come up with alternative answers. Often that involved breaking down the tasks ahead and making manageable plans that were do-able. We would make sure there were some immediate results we could ensure quickly, so young people could be motivated by the fruits of their labour. Each small activity led to the next and the ticks on the to do list became an aspirational device. Young people would start to make their own, more complicated to do lists as they saw themselves getting stuff done and goals being acheived. And, magically, young people became more and more bothered. They started to do things without being asked, pre-empting the list making with me and getting straight to the reflection and next planning stage.
I stopped being directly involved in face to face youth work many years ago and now work in an organisation whose programme delivery focus has, for a long time, been adults.
Recently, I was lucky enough to work with a group of adult men in HMP Wandsworth on a trial of our new programme, Man Up. Man Up is a short, intensive group work programme dealing with the cultural and social norms that impact on masculine identity.
I was invited to co-facilitate the first and last sessions of the Wandsworth trial and was very happy to do so. I have a vested interest in the programme’s development, the quality assurance of our prison based delivery teams and the impact of the new material.
The Man Up trial was a really useful opportunity to validate a lot of the work we have done on the design, pace, content and methodology of the programme. We believe the performatory element of our work contributes to not only desistance for people in prison, but to a sense of achievement, an external expression of confidence, team work, completion of a process and of sharing with others, known and unknown. We include it in all our programmes because we believe it’s part of the challenge of personal development- pushing ourselves to do the things we find hardest and doing them well, being praised for them and wanting to do them again (or at least being less scared of them for having done them before).
So, on the day of the Wandsworth presentation, Sharon, the tutor at Wandsworth took me to the mobile in the education department where we had been working all week for us to set up and wait for the group to arrive.
I walked in and welled up. The classroom was organised, tables moved away for space to perform and for an audience; seats had been arranged and, and this is what made me cry; the floor had been swept and mopped.
In terms of ‘being bothered’ that, to me, was the epitome of an outcome.
I have never been imprisoned. I have never been found guilty of a crime, been before a jury, been held in custody or subject to the kinds of regime our Prison System involves. But, I have experienced moments of finding it hard to do things. Of not wanting to make the extra effort I know I should make. Of having to do things I don’t want to do.
For a group of men in prison to work together to sweep and mop the floor of a classroom to me, signified a level of ‘being bothered’ I would never have expected.
I am bothered because I care about what I do. Because I am clear about what I want to achieve, how prepared I am to put the work in and how important it is to me that I do what I believe to be right.
If any of the people I work with are bothered enough to do the things that no one notices; to sweep and mop the floor so that other people can come in to their performance space and feel welcome and comfortable; then I can only be more bothered to keep being bothered.
Nic Groombridge: Too many moral panics not enough folk devils. Was Stan Cohen wrong about his own work?Written by Nic Groombridge (23/05/13)
This is a short blog post, not a doctoral thesis. I cannot come close to doing justice to the extensive primary and secondary literature on moral panics. So apologies if I missed the very article or paragraph that says exactly what I say here. But no apologies for running the argument as I feel it is under represented. That argument is that the term ‘moral panic’ is overused. That may be contested by few. More contentious is my argument that even the late Stan Cohen misused it
Rather than engage textually with many examples I offer, unusually for me, a bone-headed, positivistic, empirical account. A search of Lexis Library of UK newspapers shows 107 mentions of moral panics for the year 2012 (choosing the last 12 months throws up Stan’s obituaries) but only 22 of folk devils. This is even replicated in the book with 83 mentions of moral panics against 44 of folk devils. So to some theory.
Angela McRobbie and Sarah L. Thornton (1995: 559) argue that:
'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were; they not only find themselves vociferously and articulately supported in the same mass media that castigates them, but their interests are also defended by their own niche and micro-media.
And even more importantly for my argument:
this approach challenged moral guardians by suggesting that their overreaction was counterproductive. The media coverage of deviance acted as a kind of handbook of possibilities to be picked over by new recruits (McRobbie and Thornton 1995: 561).
I initially read the first edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers (the link here is to the third which can be recommended for Stan’s own thoughts on the development of the term). My reading was after the first ‘moment’ of mod: indeed after I gave up riding a stripped down Lambretta TV175. I also sported, at that time, what purported to be a Korean War surplus parka and a ‘suedehead’ haircut. I further mangled sub-cultures by wearing the same gear on the Matchless 250 (a motorbike, the staple of ‘Rocker’ style) I rode after the scooter packed up. So I was old enough to remember the events described by Stan as described by the media. And I had personal access to the ‘handbook’ to which McRobbie and Thornton refer.
I may have come too late to mod but claim to have become sociologically aware early (through my reading of the alternative press, mostly Oz, see this post) that as a young person who dressed in certain ways I was in danger of being stereotyped (see also this on beards and tattoos).
My argument is that the first part of the couplet ‘Folk Devil/Moral Panic’ has been paid insufficient attention. In particular, their articulation in the subtitle ‘the creation of the Mods and Rockers’ (emphasis added). I know from the standpoint of a young person at the time that Mods and Rockers and other youth tribes in many respects created themselves but in an asymmetric relation to the media and authority. They may have come up from the streets but they entered most young people’s consciousness through their parent’s condemnatory media. Their parent’s Durkheimian moral boundaries may have been reinforced but their’s were expanded.
With his emphasis on deviancy amplification I believe that Cohen is arguing that the moral panic is counterproductive because it creates folk devils who attract adherents. So joining a youth tribe, taking ecstasy or legal highs might meet such a definition of a moral panic featuring a handsome devil but becoming a sex offender does not. So it is disappointing to find Stan discussing the Cleveland sex abuse scandal thus, ‘the resulting moral panic became a pitched battle of claims and counter claims’ and goes on to talk of ‘satanic abuse’ cases as ‘more fictitious and one of the purest cases of moral panic’ (2002: xvii).
For me those events were media frenzies involving moral entrepreneurs and media in an amplification spiral that did not generate deviance but more victims. The paedophile is not a ‘folk devil’ but a bogeyman or ‘boo’ figure. Being so reviled attracts no adherents. In the case of media drugs frenzies the ‘boo’ figure is the ‘evil dealer’ but the ‘folk devil’ is more often the booze, the weed, the Es or the legal highs rather than the wasted junkie (though fashion is sometimes accused of pushing this line).
So I believe that to follow Stan requires a parsimonious definition of a ‘moral panic’ and that one handy rule might be that if the media use the term it isn’t one.
Jock Young has offered many telling insights into crime, power and class structure and recently wrote a fascinating profile of the rise and fall of financier Bernie Madoff (in How they got away with it: white collar criminals and the financial meltdown). This reminded me of my time as a probation officer when I was given supervisory responsibility for Brian (not his real name). Brian's financial transgressions, although on a considerably more modest scale than Mr Madoff, in stealing a significant pot of money from his employers accentuated some pertinent themes arising from white collar crime. When Brian arrived for his appointment for the preparation of a pre-sentence report, his smart, articulate and affluent bearing appeared to sit uneasily with many of the presuppositions that often frame these meetings.
The custodial sentence, as the judge noted, was an 'inevitable outcome' as this was a 'grave breach of trust'. My first post-sentence prison visit to meet Brian was a curiously unsettling experience. The oppressive interview room with all the noise and pent up frustration together with Brian's unflappable demeanour caught me quite by surprise. He asserted that having 'undertaken national service' was a perfect preparation for a spell inside and he cited the offers of help and assistance that he provided to inmates aware of his professional background with letter writing and appeal hearings. The circumstances of his offences appear to owe more to a sense of misplaced loyalty than any narcissistic plundering of the firm's books for personal gain. He politely requested that I make discrete enquiries to ensure that his property remained secure and that I support, if needed, his transfer to an open prison. When next we met it was indeed at the open prison: suitable for his designated cat D status (lowest risk of harm and not likely to mount an escape attempt). By this time Brian had reached a point in his sentence when early release on licence was soon to be realised. His achieved status as a white collar prisoner had, it seemed, resulted in a largely untroubled (outside of the pains of confinement) sentence progression.
I visited Brian after release at his flat close to a busy London landmark and his hospitable offerings by way of lunch made for a stress-free interview. He complied with his reporting requirements and was often seen unhurriedly walking his dog in an adjacent park. The loss of income and livelihood was much more difficult to negotiate for him. There appeared to be no artifice to Brian's return to the community and his modest outlays in rent and subsidence suggested that he had not squirreled away any ill-gotten funds. I remained bemused that Brian appeared to cope with his fallen status and did not adopt the rhetoric of victimisation when faced with the challenge of regaining employment (he was approaching retirement age). Brian's well adjusted and solid persona helped him to re-integrate into society after his time inside. Maybe greed and excess entered into Brian's actions when faced with easy access to financial dealings. The losses sustained by his insider fraudulent behaviour were covered by the firm's indemnity fund and far from 'getting away with it' he was apprehended, prosecuted and jailed.
After one home visit Brian pointed towards a framed certificate on his wall, 'I got that after two years' National Service, maybe you should get a certificate that says you have done your time'!
Democracy in action: Public Criminologist versus Publicity Commissioner, or vice versa?
On Monday night, 15 April 2013, I attended a lecture at the University of Hertfordshire given by David Lloyd, Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Hertfordshire. Like 40 other areas it differs in its police governance from the Met in having a PCC. Given its size and functioning bureaucracy it is no surprise that the Met has an extensive plan and even publishes the comments they received on the draft.
Lloyd’s speech was very wide-ranging, as is his police plan. He received some publicity in January for his plan to 'Make suspects pay for police cell stay', and his call for more citizen action has been picked out by some for coverage. I am mulling responding to him on the speech (beyond my live tweets @criminology4u) but more specifically on the plan as a resident (it’s my money) and as a criminologist (many of the schemes appeal to the populist). I should not be surprised about Lloyd’s populism as the wordle produced by the Association of PCCs (APCC) shows, ‘Victims, Community Engagement and Cutting Crime’ all feature. And this clearly feeds into their priorities (it is less clear why the page title is a quote from Desiderata) which are, in order and excluding those below 50per cent: Public engagement (73 per cent); Neighbourhood Policing and Volunteering (68 per cent); Victims (68 per cent); multi-agency cooperation (56 per cent); ‘front line’ visible police (51 per cent) and Cutting Crime/increasing safety (51 per cent).
The PCCs were meant to be more democratic than the Police Authorities but only achieved about 15per cent turnout, apparently the worst since 1918 and worse than the 2010 X Factor’s estimated 23per cent.
The APCC summarise the results:
31.7 per cent previously involved with the police authority (12 members and 1 staff member).
8 PCCs are former Police Officers (19.5 per cent)
6 women (15 per cent)
19 Current or former Councillors (PCCs may retain their council seats) (46 per cent)
6 Former MPs (15 per cent)
16 Conservative PCCs (39 per cent of 41)
13 Labour (31.7 per cent)
12 Independent (29.2 per cent)
Overall vote share:
33 per cent Labour
27 per cent Conservative
22 per cent Independent (Independents did not contest 7 of the 41 areas).
Lloyd sits in that venn of Conservative, men, who was, and hopes to continue, as a councillor and was Chair of the Police Authority. With a turnout of 14.5 per cent he beat the Labour candidate Sherma Batson 65,585 to 42,830. Other candidates were from UKIP and Lib Dems.
But back to some aspects of his speech, the evening and a small confession. Whilst far from convinced about the plans for PCCs I did look up how to become one and even jestingly touted my potential candidature on Twitter. If I were to look to a party to support me I’d pick the Green Party but they, for similar reasons to mine, (including the £5,000 entry fee - would the ESRC have funded me as research?) decided against standing; though one Green Councillor in Middlesborough, Joe Michna did.
And, shame, I did not know about the lecture until his team picked up on a tweet of mine and invited me (see how I repay them). It was a public meeting but it felt very corporate, very inclusive of its ‘members’ and exclusive of others - if name badges were anything to go by.
In the Q&A I asked him about comparisons between Saudi and Herts crime figures. He had made much of how low they were in Herts and still intended to drive them lower. Saudi figures are believed to be much lower still. He also made it very clear, despite mentions of sociology, criminology etc, that his Hayekian libertarianism led him to believe that people chose crime. That is as an exercise of free will. My intention in the question was to show - by playfully suggesting the people of Saudi might therefore be more moral than us - that factors other than free will were important. He either misunderstood or perhaps politically cleverly ‘reassured’ me he wasn’t going police Hertfordshire in a Saudi way.
Whilst I disagreed with much of what he said I am glad he gave this lecture - more are promised - and he makes much use of social media (@HertsPCC). He courts publicity and here I give him more in the hope of a public engagement. He seems very keen on Policy Exchange’s Citizen Police Academies ‘to train the public – using a mixture of police officers and voluntary groups with relevant expertise – on how to play their part in the fight against crime. They would be taught everything from how to perform citizen’s arrests safely to how to avoid danger when walking home alone.’
Here’s my proposal, a wider education in crime stats and policing etc. Organisations like the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies might be a good place to start.
These were exciting times for me and I took every chance to move on. My Open University studies were the most important thing to me now with regard to my overall rehabilitation to date. Prison industries could not provide me with anything in comparison, only mind numbing work.
Which I was refusing to do now because there was no benefit in it for me, as is the case for most prisoners.
Yesterday I was invited in to a prison by a governor who I met on my travels to help their team to understand the everyday problems of resettlement. One of the things I heard off one of the governors of that establishment was that prisoners get too many benefits being unemployed i.e. free council passes and so on and that the dole is probably the best we can expect in life. I went off it and got into a debate with her, I was fuming!
My argument being: am I not to have any aspirations like wanting to have normal things in life like a relationship, pay bills, start a family and support them? Have a secure foundation after prison so I do not re offend and am a law abiding citizen and not a burden?
This is what we are up against on a regular basis with narrow minded governors, this one worked in a young offenders Institution. So what future prospects have they got when this is the perception of their governor?
After I had a go at her 2 Independent Monitoring Board members come up to me and said what I was saying was having a greater impact on them prior to anything they had heard before.
At these events I call myself an 'ex-offender'. Another governor who I know through my travels does not like me to describe myself like this, but after yesterday's debate, that divide is still there. Them and us. She has just affirmed that with her beliefs of what we are and what to expect - nothing.
But, getting back to prison.
I could see light at the end of this long dark tunnel and even start planning for my future release.Time was flying past.
I was in the prison badminton team and we used to stay out until 11pm in the prison and were told to make our own way back to our cells. I didn't need to ask permission to go anywhere. You were responsible for yourself and everyone embraced it. The opportunities were unbelievable, paid work, college, Prince's Trust, voluntary work - basically anything you wanted to do the prison was geared up for it and helped you achieve it.
Within days of being there, I had to send my Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) forms to my probation officer who had eight weeks to return them for me to have a full day out with my family. One morning my pad mate came back telling me he was out for the day next week and asked me if I had my ROTL. I chased it up in the wing office then down to the ROTL clerk and anywhere else I could think of. There was nothing there for me so I phoned my probation officer. She was on visits in but was due back in the afternoon. I was missing my deadline date if I didn't get hold of her, when I called back in the afternoon they told me she was on holiday and would not be back until next week.
When I say I lost my head you better believe it!
I called the Chief Probation Officer for Teesside and she had to do my ROTL, something that had never been heard of then and today. First she did not want to talk to me but I'm persistent and wouldn't be fobbed off. I was in the right and I have waited a long time for this. I refused to work with her any further she had no time for me and vice versa.
My time there was great but, as a resettlement regime, for me it was too far away from home and therefore no long term benefits for my release and I asked the governor for a transfer closer to home.
He gave me another ROTL to make my own way there and told me it was the worst cat D going and I was making a mistake, I was better off there. But I needed to be closer to home.
I was off again.
It takes more than 20 minutes for them all to wander in. There are only ten of them but they come from different wings, and some of them like to wander slowly when they're outside because they get so little chance to feel the breeze or see a full sky. There's no sign of that Monday morning feeling either; not with being locked up for so long at the weekend. Some are full of chat about the football results, but most just want to get on with things.
Within five minutes, the atmosphere is settled, the computers are being switched on and papers are being shuffled. These men are serving at least ten years each, though a couple who have just two years' incarceration left, are on the slow home straight. One is writing his autobiography so that his bank manager dad, who was often absent from his life, can see how he turned out this way. One is writing a novel set in early twentieth century America, with the dawn of silent cinema. Then there's the feller who's writing short stories based on his service in the army, the man who's doing advanced creative writing with the Open University, three men who are doing Level One creative writing and never felt confident at school, one who's writing a film script because he's sick of British films' unrealistic portrayal of black youth, and the man sat in the corner who's writing poetry because it might just stop him from self-harming or committing suicide.
Hardly a bunch of stereotype thugs, I'm sure you'll agree.
This may not be an ordinary class, but it's not unusual in my experience. I teach four lessons of creative writing at HMP Frankland and have done so for over five years. I've been writer in residence at HMP Durham and have facilitated numerous creative projects at HMP's Low Newton, Deerbolt and Northumberland.
Prisoners' writing may be controversial to some, but most prisoners write because, in times of crisis and despondency, the pen is indeed a mighty instrument. When your life is curtailed through incarceration, your future blocked by concrete walls, it is natural to turn backwards and ponder, to investigate decisions and actions that led to such a predicament. And it can often be reassuring and warming to gather up some of those good memories too. Most students write about something that is connected to themselves. I spend time with them, offer editing and advice, read over sections of their life that don't appear on charge sheets, or on psychology files. Frequently, I am amazed at the beauty and power of their work.
Writing is good for them. It is good for all of us, regardless of our ability with literacy, our levels of creativity. In this era of increasing tick-boxes and targets, of huge cuts in funding, the importance of the arts grows stronger than ever. For in difficult times the arts work in ways that speak to the self, and weave paths of understanding that help us understand ourselves and move on with greater confidence.
In Ben Shephard's moving book A War of Nerves he uses a phrase from the WW2 poet Keith Douglas (killed in action in 1944) which immediately evoked a memory from my former experiences as a probation officer. The phrase which resonated so strongly was 'beast on my back' and Duncan's (not his real name) expression came into mind. Our first meeting was unnervingly fraught. The case papers hinted at a challenging and troubled individual whose attempts to remain offence–free were usually undone by alcohol binges when a propensity for violence would surface. There was a clear need to try to engage with Duncan and to steer him towards sustained abstinence as a prelude to harm reduction in the areas of his personal life that excited judicial concern.
The sentencing judges noted that although he showed a willingness to comply with the terms of his current community sentence, he was concerned that without a firm approach underpinned by some therapeutic support that Duncan's bouts of violence could escalate worryingly. Duncan offered some broader reassurances to me, that with a pending offer of employment and the chance to settle down with his partner, any misgivings expressed by others could be safely discarded. I remained unconvinced that he had the drive to achieve his goals without some lapses on the way.
Duncan chided me for my lack of faith and suggested I should visit him at his temporary address which would offer added assurances that he had 'mended his ways'. When I arrived at the home address, I was shaken by the almost impenetrable fug occasioned by the heavy tobacco smoke that Duncan's flatmate was giving off. The elderly flatmate was the flat owner.
When we next met at the office I felt that some greater scrutiny was merited into the nature of this relationship, as the responsibilities of informal carer appeared to be swinging in Duncan's direction. This sense of foreboding remained whenever we met, and the topic of whose care was best handled in such an arrangement met with a sullen refusal to open up the conversation. My efforts to clarify the status of this relationship with the local authority did not elicit much by way of raised concern. Duncan did agree to meet with an alcohol worker, which was an important step showing his willingness to discuss the misuse of alcohol and how this was impacting negatively on his relationships with others. I had shared my concerns with my colleague about this scenario as I believed that money belonging to his flatmate was being siphoned off for the consumption of alcohol.
The pattern of supervision did stabilise the tentative beginnings of a more honest professional relationship, with trust leading to the exploration of changes in his approach to better handling his conflicted feelings - often masked by his alcohol usage. Duncan began to feel more enabled in his supervisory meetings and offered insights into his, at times, very visceral anger. He would sometimes bang the desk as if acting to hold back a distressing and intrusive set of thoughts. What lay behind these wounded mutterings? I was slowly sensing some lived trauma that he felt unable to share and that might require greater therapeutic skill. He did eventually offer a terrifying glimpse of what he was trying to suppress. As a former soldier who was enlisted in a UN mission to secure a safe haven for civilians in a war zone, he had witnessed the aftermath of a terrible massacre perpetrated by militia. These scenes of carnage and naked destructiveness, he had tried to block out ever since. Indeed this was 'the beast on his back' and something he could only admit to after two decades.
Reflecting on how Duncan, and many of those former soldiers who now find themselves on probation caseloads, cope with the trauma of war the prescient words of Keith Douglas may serve to offer an insight into the 'beast on my back':
'I can admit only once to anyone, never to those who have not their own!'
My time in prison was passing well and I was happy. It may sound mad being happy but it was a big part of my life and I made the best of it.
The officers in there were becoming a bit more approachable to me and I ended up getting a bit pally with a PO and luckily for me he was made in charge of recategorisation. There was only one category left for me and that was D. He put me in for my cat D after 4-5 months in cat C and I got it. On top of that he said I could make my own way to the cat D. I could not believe what he was telling me, I thought he was joking.
I put in the paperwork and got a ROTL (Release On Temporary Licence), I had eight hours to get from Leicestershire to Derbyshire. Our mam and my sister came to collect me, it was a beautiful summer's day. You can't imagine my feelings at the time. I had been in prison for nine years so far. My sister put the details for the cat D in her sat nav and we set off. It was the first time I had seen a sat nav and could not believe what I was seeing. It did not take long to get there and we had plenty of time left so we went shopping. I spent a few hundred quid on accessories, a quilt pillows, new ghetto blaster, toiletries and so on.
I loved it, freedom!
I had to be at the prison for 2pm, my family left me there. We were all buzzing, you can't imagine the happiness we all shared together. And finally we could all see this coming to an end.
In reception I had to declare all my stuff. The officer was just looking and he had to go through it all. He kept on asking we where I got all it all from and I kept on telling him my last prison. Until he found the receipt for the shopping, he was alright about it and let me keep everything.
The following day after my arrival I had to go and do my induction. I was given a card with a few locations on it and I had to go and basically see what was going on and what I wanted to do. I went in for cell study and got it but had to do part time education with it.
There was a new education block and it was fantastic, there was no pressure and nothing was a drama. The library was unbelievable and open all day, you could just walk in. The overall facilities for further education were very accessible too.
It was definitely the best prison I have been in for getting people back into society via education, employment and training opportunities for everyone. You only saw officers at role checks through the day and after that they were very hard to locate. The whole emphasis was on you to take advantage of the facilities in a formal constructive way.
It was a very happy prison.