This article first appeared on the wonderful Russell Webster's website and can be found in its original format at: Russell Webster
A tragic motivation
When I was approached by Russell to write a little something about the struggles I encountered when I was released, I had to ask how many words he wanted me to write. The article could have gone on for pages and pages and been a sure-fire cure for any insomniacs out there.
Luckily for me; Russell only wanted information on the issues I found with the work I do surrounding the criminal justice system. So sit back, relax and grab some tea, this shouldn’t take long at all.
Whilst I was in prison a young man of 24 came in. He had never been in custody before. He asked the staff for help and was more or less ignored with the all too common “I’ll get back to you” response to every question he raised. His helplessness was devastating to watch and he took the horrifying and sad action of committing suicide the next morning when no one bothered to get back to him.
I swore there and then that I would try my hardest to ensure that those coming into custody would not face the same degradation, humiliation and feeling of helplessness ever again. I was not there to judge them as criminals (after all I was one); I was there to help them as fellow human beings.
I started on devising several different Induction into Custody programmes that would ensure that these souls did not fall through the ever widening gap in the prison estate when it came to caring for the men in their charge.
So we fast forward a few years and I am released from prison. What to do with myself? I started writing about my times in prison, about what I saw to be the sheer unadulterated bureaucracy of it all.
I had found a passion. Something that was missing all during my working life and I felt that I could perhaps make a difference. I wanted the prisons to reform, I needed the public to sit up and take notice what was happening in our jails. Most of all I needed people to understand that those that are in prison are indeed human beings and we have a moral obligation to try and help them. To quote one, recently moved on, Executive Governor:
the men being released from custody today could be your next-door neighbour tomorrow.
I wrote and wrote and humbly attracted a few followers both on my blog site and on twitter. I used a pseudonym because I didn’t want my name or my past to be the topic of conversation. Rather I wanted the subject of my articles to be what was discussed at the dinner tables of the nation.
But writing a blog can only bring so much interest to light. What to do? Here’s a thought…why not try and develop what I had done in prison and bring that into the limelight? Why not get prison governors to understand that the best person to advise them on their reception procedures would be someone that has gone through those very same processes? Of course, the staff would know about the rules and regulations surrounding induction but I could show them what a prisoner actually needs to know and more importantly how best to impart that information onto them.
No rehabilitation from the prison service
So after much discussions on the name of the new venture, off I went. Into the world of HM Prison Service, the National Offender Management Service or HMPPS if you will.
I would contact governors on twitter or on LinkedIn and I would ask them if they needed help. I would explain my rather unique vantage point and ask them to read some of my blogs to get a decent feel of where I was coming from.
One of these governors came back to me fairly quickly and asked to chat on the phone. How strange it would be to be nervous about talking business again after so many years.
He was delighted with what I was doing and as one of the newly branded “Reform” prisons was anxious to be innovative. His issue was the public’s perception on HMPS paying an ex offender for advice. “What would the public say?” he asked. I responded that wasn’t it the mandate of the prison service to assist ex-offenders back into employment and how better to be innovative than to bring in an ex-prisoner to help? I was devastated that this forward-thinking person was back tracking quicker than a mouse on a reverse treadmill. It was the image he was concerned about; not the good that could be achieved. I was to come across this many times in the forthcoming weeks but my determination stayed strong. We agreed to try and figure a way out.
No rehabilitation from the voluntary sector
I reached out to a few people who had much better knowledge than I and we came up with the solution of having one of the charities that trains some prisoners pay me for my involvement. A sort of 3rd party agreement (I couldn’t afford to do all the work for free. I needed to at least cover my costs). They seemed amenable, as what I was trying to do fitted in nicely with their programmes in prisons.
Off I went to London to meet them. Regrettably, the meeting was more like a grilling. It felt distinctly that they thought I was treading on their toes. The bonhomie of the telephone calls swiftly went out the window to be replaced with a barrage of negativity. “I don’t think they will go for it!” was the resounding comments from both the Chairman and a director. Not exactly what I had hoped for; I was looking more for the “Let’s see how we can help” response. They did, however, have the impudence to ask if I was in contact with any other Governors that could use THEIR services! Yet, when I set up a meeting for them with the Governor of a new prison they declined by saying they had a “staff meeting.” I sometimes wonder how these people even get past the front gate. Manners, I was told by my father, cost nothing. These people ran a constant over draft!!
My steely determination was not to be diminished however. Off I went to HMP XXXXXXX to meet the head honcho. Suddenly, he wasn’t available and his wing governor would step in. Now, I had spoken to this gentleman before and felt a chill through the phone line that could have frozen the dead sea. However, I was suited and booted and had my presentation ready on how a former prisoner could best advise them on ensuring that the men coming into their care could be better served.
The meeting was to start at 14:00. It ended at 14:03! The first thing this gentleman said to me was:
You are an ex-con, what can you possibly do for us?
I was proud of myself here people, I didn’t use my command of the English language to wipe the floor with him and his supercilious attitude, I simply said:
With that attitude, Sir, I can do nothing
I got up and walked out.
Was this what I was to expect from now on?
I could go on. I could tell you of the new prison that were happy enough to provide them with free training but back tracked on the promise of employment when they ran scared of public perception again. I could tell you of two national charities who responded to my offers of helping expose there services further responded with “Why do you want to help us?” And “You couldn’t possibly help us.”
It was at times like this I was reminded of the phrase:
Some People Try to be Tall by Cutting off The Heads of Others
Rehabilitation from the private sector
Barriers at every turning until….
I wrote an article about my idea of a utopian prison. What a prison should look like, in my eyes.
A week after publishing the article, a message came to me from the Director of Operations for a private prison provider. I called him and never told him my name. The first words out of his mouth were “I don’t care about your past, we need your help”. That was it folks, the response I so desperately needed.
I now work for them redoing their induction processes for all their prisons. It is hard work and I have been at it for 5 months. They took all my suggestions on board and have re-issued a national policy on induction. The first day we implemented it, it worked! It saved someone from going over the edge.
Every one of the people I have encountered in this contract have been welcoming, open and just plain delightful. From the Director’s PA, to his deputy, to the Directors of all the prisons and the staff; not once have I felt inferior to them. They welcomed my experience and my input. Humility is the order of the day for me.
Say what you will about the private estate but they took a chance with me and I am forever grateful. I can only hope that the public sector will put away their pre and mis-conceptions and understand that there are some ex-prisoners out there who genuinely want to put back into the system that saved them.
My advice to any ex-offender who wants to work in the CJS is; you WILL have people who want to knock you down a peg or 6 but if your cause is just and pure you will win out. I am so very lucky that with the backing of my family and their constant advice not to give up, my desire to help has never wavered.
I am happy I have taken all the slights thrown at me over the past year or so, it has made me stronger.