Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Full Circle

This time six years ago, 9pm on May 22nd 2013, I had just arrived at HMP Bronzefield, having spent several hours in a sweatbox. I had spent six weeks fighting for my life, an innocent in crown court.
I was now sitting on a hard plastic chair, contemplating how I had ended up in a large, grey prison holding room in Surrey, surrounded by women of all shapes and sizes, who were sharing out their hidden treats, secreted in their bras. My first introduction ever to drugs. And to hiding contraband in your bra!
As I sat there I could not quite believe that the Criminal Justice System had allowed me to be convicted of a crime I had not committed, a crime that in reality did not even exist!

The world is round (sorry flat earth society ) and my life has gone full circle in the last ten years.

In 2009 I was running a successful youth theatre company and Saturday school. I was working on local shows. I was teaching piano and singing, and had a large circle of work contacts and friends. Life was OK, well it was good; but always stressful and hard work due to having children with autism, adhd, hearing loss, ME and various physical issues. But we were a team, and I had spent many years making sure my children had every performing opportunity despite their additional needs. I was the forerunner of the relaxed performance! I was "inclusion" before it became a buzzword!

My house, and my family's home, was raided in November 2009; if you are a reader of my blog you need no more explanation. For those of you who are new, please do take the time to read my earlier blogs.

Here I am in 2019:

I am running a youth theatre company and Saturday school.
I am teaching piano and singing
I am running local shows
I have a large circle of work contacts and friends

Sounds familiar?

I still have children with additional needs, however they are young adults now. And sadly they have more needs now, due to the trauma they suffered at the hands of the CJS.
No thought is given to the children of suspected offenders. No thought is given to the children of convicted offenders.
No thought is given to the children of released prisoners.
My children will never forget the two van loads of  police and DWP officers who flooded into their home, early on a Monday morning. It was the first day back to school after October half term. It is embedded in their minds. The sounds, smells, the thoughts, the terror.
They will never forget being lined up and filmed and asked to state their names
They will never forget the shame when their friends' parents posted the news on social media when I was sent to jail.
They will never forget prison visits and being searched.
They will never forget being investigated by social services
They will never forget mum disappearing without warning after dropping them at school.
They will never forget losing their home
They will never forget knowing their mum did not commit the crime she was convicted of...... because the crime was about them.... and they knew they had additional needs. (As adults now they are even more sure of the needs they had and have, which makes them so incredibly angry about all we went through)
They will never trust the Criminal Justice System, police, the DWP or authority.

I don't really blog much now, maybe because I am not so angry any more. Although writing this tonight is making me angry again. I can feel the panic, my heartbeat is racing, I am sweating, I start to feel scared. I cry.

My two autistic boys got their benefits back when I went on "holiday",with the help of adult social services. In fact at a higher rate. Irony. (I am not laughing, funnily enough)
We did not pursue it for the younger two, too terrified. And my very Aspergic eldest daughter had to make that decision for herself.
But we are fighting again right now for my eldest son (24 and very autistic), back to zero points for PIP after the latest assessment. (Down from 26 points... oh wow he is cured!)
But I know that this time, at least, it is not due to "mum's conviction for benefit fraud". That was thrown out instantly at the last tribunal. Instead it is just the uselessness of ATOS, and he is just one of the tens of thousands of disabled people who are at the mercy of this terrible and dishonest system. The system that claimed that "I" was the dishonest one.

Slowly life gets better and better. But I am still so affected.
I am really successful in my work life right now.... but spend so much of my time terrified.
What if?
Could I cope if it all happened again? It seems that you can be arrested, charged and convicted so easily of a crime that does not exist; a crime that did not happen. I am too scared to be happy. Too scared to be proud of myself.

I have a video doorbell, because I am frightened of answering the door.
I don't answer the phone unless I recognise the number, something I am working on now as I am running a successful talent agency and have to answer calls.
If I see a police car I have a panic attack.
I have nightmares, every night, without fail.
My childhood attachment issues from growing up in care, were not helped by being betrayed again by a government department. This affects every area of my life. My relationship with my wife, my relationships with my children, my lack of trust.

I panic easily. I recently received an email out of the blue from an ITV Crime and Punishment researcher, and immediately my panic went into overdrive. Although we have a press ban in place to prevent the children being identified until my youngest is 18 years old, I was convinced that ITV wanted to make a programme about me. I had the biggest emotional meltdown I have had since leaving prison. This would be all my good work overturned. It took a lot of support from my children to help me to deal with this. Do journalists have no clue about the trauma that we go through? They even emailed my workplace! I eventually realised they were probably making a documentary about Jo Dennehy; she and I became friends at Bronzefield, and I suspect a member of staff had leaked that info to ITV. We exchanged a lot of letters over the years. Of course I would have had nothing to do with this programme. You don't do that to your friends, even if they are a convicted serial killer.

I am moving on. I run a very successful inclusive theatre company. I have the knowledge and experience to do this due to my own performing disabled children . The very thing that caused me to be convicted of fraud. I am championing inclusion. I run an inclusive theatrical talent agency. All my disabled clients receive disability benefits. They also all perform. It is irrelevant. Without the benefit support they would not be achieving at that level. Achievement is not a valid reason to take that support away. The support is needed to ensure they achieve!

If I was fighting my case today I would deal with it in such a different way. Although I am damaged by all that happened it has made me stronger. I have insight that I would never have gained. I have experiences that have shaped my future. I met people I would never have met. I have an understanding of the corrupt CJS that makes me want to scream, and makes me determined to play my part in change.

So here I am 10 years later; married, running a successful business, with so many more friends, living a good life, looking to the future.

Me: 1    CJS: 0

Thank you all for reading my blog. This will probably be my last as I need to move on from my "ex-prisoner" status, and, as you all know, I never did manage to break into the clique of CJS reform charities. I have found my place, back doing the thing I love and the thing I am truly amazing at. I am really grateful that I met so many amazing people while in prison and afterwards. I am pleased that I made a small difference while inside and out; with Keep Out, User Voice, Clean Break and Synergy. I tried my best to give my skills and talents wherever I could.

Please do keep in touch with me. My inclusive company is going places. And my own children are fantastically successful.
Screw you CJS and DWP!!!

Monday, 27 August 2018

Who Am I?

I am many people

I am the small baby born to my genetic parents, the product of those genes with all that it entails:the mental health issues, medical complaints, historic background. 

I am the young child who is affected by all the attachment issues of being born to those parents and then neglected through infant-hood. 

I am also the frightened and confused child who went through the care system, who was sexually abused in a children's home, physically and mentally abused by relatives, and then palmed off into the 1970's care system

I then become the intelligent (off the top of the scale) child who is forced to become the product of an upper middle class, educated foster family. The trophy child. Well spoken, with a good education; and no heed paid to being emotionally screwed up. Emotional health is not a consideration in this family.

Sent back to the birth mother aged 13 and I become, again, an abused child. Verbally, emotionally and phsyically. 

Living alone from sixteen I re-invent myself again as yet another person. Lonely, needy, sexually provocative, desperate to be wanted and loved. 

Then I became a mother. My biggest challenge and my greatest gift. 

But with no family background, no traditions or experiences to call on, I became an improvisor. 

Who am I now? I am the product of all those people. The scared, abused, neglected child. The lonely, needy, vulnerable young adult. The young inexperienced parent who is winging it. 

My mind whirrs constantly. I don't know who I am. I am such a mixture of different backgrounds, different experiences. I have no security and no grounding. I have nobody to ask. Nobody with memories of me to call on. 

I cry.

Late at night, on my own, I cry. 

I am a strong person, but I need to know who I am. I crave security. I crave the feeling of belonging. I walk past houses at night, I look into their front windows and I just want to be part of that family. 

Am I working class or middle class?
Am I educated or uneducated?
Am I a professional?
Am I nothing?

I have invented myself. But that doesn't stop the pain
I have amazing children who are my world. But that doesn't stop the pain.
I have a wife. But that doesn't stop the pain
I have amazing intelligence and talent. But that doesn't stop the pain. 

It eats away every day.
Every day.
Every single day.
Every hour of every day.
Every minute of every hour. 

When an abused and neglected child is taken into care, professionals need to take their family background and upbringing on board. Although it seems idylic to foster children into lovely middle class families, this then leads to adults who don't know where they belong. I don't want to be the product of my birth parents..... but I am.

At 48 years old I don't know where I come from. I have no parents, no grandparents, no aunts or uncles. I have nobody to share my children with. Nobody to offer support. 

I am sad. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Chaos & Crisis, Learning from Lived Experiences

This is the speech I gave at Chaos and Crisis - Can Prison Be Better than This?, at the University of Warwick on January 17th 2018.

Interesting facts about me: 
I was a scholar at St. Paul's Girls School in London (consistently top of the league tables), I was a musical prodigy, my maths skills at 6 were better than that of the average adult and my IQ is 20 points above that needed to join MENSA.
I grew up in care, I was physically emotionally and sexually abused, I have 8 children (all my own and no twins!) the oldest of which has a first class degree from this very university; and I have spent two years in prison. Living.... not working (as is often assumed!) I was sentenced, in 2013, to four years in prison for a fraud I did not commit.

I want to talk about the reality of being in prison, at the present time, specifically with respect to female offenders and about the diversity within jail that is not addressed or recognised.

The perception from the general public is that the prison population is made up from lower or working class, probably uneducated, repeat offenders who are mostly in addiction. People with no boundaries, who consciously choose to commit crime. I have seen this repeated across Twitter in the last few days. One particular thread from a persistent and judgemental tweeter, following an ex-prisoners blog and interview, sadly showing the ignorance that often surrounds how and why crimes are committed.

I am a well-educated, usually well spoken, intelligent, articulate professional person, and I met many ladies like myself in my gated retreats. I spent time in three of these across the south of England. All of us had similarities in both our sentencing and our judges’ attitudes; we were condemned for being intelligent and it was assumed that we should "know better". Currently, high profile cases such as the student doctor at Oxford would appear to show a leniency in sentencing intelligent or professional defendants. However, I personally found the opposite to be true, definitely in my case, and also in the cases of many professional and educated women I met in prison. And referring to Jon Collins’ previous talk today about pre-sentence reports, my judge just didn't allow them for me. The assumption was that I had no needs or issues that should be considered when sentencing, just intelligence!!

Yet, once sentenced to prison you enter a one size fits all environment. Being an intelligent and capable prisoner is seen as a negative. It is assumed that you will be manipulative. Knowing the rules and PSis makes you a "difficult" inmate.You are always under suspicion. Especially if, like me, you start to send the SOs' notices back with the spelling and grammatical errors ringed in red pen!!

I knew nothing about prison before I went. I'd never met anyone who had been to prison, I only knew what I had read about in books and newspapers. I now have lived experience, from my four years on bail, two years in prison and two years on licence in the community. And boy does it differ from what I read about!

This lived experience is absolutely vital when learning about diversity and difference within the CJS. To most, a middle aged, white, professional woman wouldn't really fit into an image of a diverse person. However, in jail, I was definitely different, and diverse! In actuality we were all diverse, but the system uses the commonality of being convicted, when it chooses how to judge and treat its prisoners.

Prison is about addressing offending behaviour and being rehabilitated. To do this you are sent on courses. (Otherwise known as tick boxes within the prison community). Now, I like to educate myself, I enjoy learning and growing, and I really love to self analyse, but a Level 1 course in Money Management isn't really going to do it for me! I do appreciate that some people will need this. And it is vital that courses are available at this level. But what is also vital is that courses are differentiated for ALL abilities and needs. I came home with a folder filled with level 1 and 2 certificates. Totally useless to me, but I ticked the boxes. It was a boring, time wasting and meaningless waste of tax payers money. And this is the same for most inmates, as we are all considered to be the same. We are just criminals. Boredom, due to a lack of appropriate education, work and opportunity, was my biggest problem, and if I was a person prone to be badly behaved, well I definitely would have been! There are too many hours of wasted time spent in jail, just sitting on a bed drinking coffee and watching tv.

One of the things that really hit me was the unfairness of the one size philosophy. When I first arrived at Bronzefield, I landed a job in Induction. My own experiences, within my family and youth work, of autism and mental health issues, meant I was seeing many prisoners coming through the door who very obviously to me fitted into one of these groups. I would despair at the way anxious and vulnerable ladies were firstly left in the health care wing (one flew over the cuckoos nest comes to mind) and then dumped on a main wing to be cared for by other prisoners. Now admittedly some of the ladies I met were probably swinging the lead, acting out in some way, but even that is a mental health issue and needs treating as such. Don’t forget that hypochondria is an illness. Punishments were doled out with no respect for the diverse nature of personalities and emotional states, with behaviours becoming more and more erratic and punishments becoming more and more severe. I was called upon by the head of education to pick out, at induction, those who I believed to be on the spectrum and that department, at least when I was there, seemed to want to try to give appropriate input. I didn't see this care, though,in the two HMP jails I subsequently moved to.

I believe that many of the ladies I met did not need to be in jail at all. Very few were a risk to the general public. Many had issues such as domestic abuse, addiction, a deprived or difficult childhood, culture or language difficulties and gender or sexuality confusion. Putting these vulnerable and diverse people into a rigid, unempathetic environment and expecting change, rehabilitation and achievement is idiotic.

To move forward and change the system, to end the chaos, and to achieve a reduction in crime and successful rehabilitation, we need people like us. People who can see it from the inside, who have felt and lived it. We are the experts, not the MPs, not the VIPs who are named on reform charity websites, not even the Prison Officers and Governors, although some of them really are trying to enact change.

Women with the lived experience of the criminal justice system know where it's going wrong. Put us in places where we can make it change. Employ us, because we are good, and we know what we are doing. Let us in.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

You Never Get Over It

On Monday my social media threw two things at me, both of which affected me on a personal level. 

Firstly I was hit with the news that another performing arts mum had passed away, in her 50s and far too early. She leaves two children and a husband, and an extended family of performing children from her many years as head of a dance school. Cancer is a hateful, indiscriminatory disease, and it stole the life of someone who did so much good in this world, enabling young people to achieve and gain skills and  confidence. RIP Liz, you were an amazing person and will aways be remembered. You made your mark on this world and left behind many who love you dearly. 

Secondly, I was bombarded with newspaper articles about a missing girl. The headlines screamed about the need to find this young lady who "spent five years in prison for murdering her friend's boyfriend". Yet again, the emphasis from the media was on the criminal connection rather than the vulnerability of the missing person. This particular girl, I will call her X, is someone I knew very well in my time in the gated retreats. X was convicted of murder in 2010 and sentenced to life with a minimum of nine years to serve. It's a complex case. After all, she did kill someone. But is that murder? How do we determine the difference between murder, manslaughter, self defence, accident, joint enterprise......

This case focuses on domestic violence and self defence. It also encapsulates the incredible difficulties of having mental health issues and how this effects the way you deal with difficult situations. X was a 17 year old, incredibly naive, child, with very obvious ADHD and personality issues, which were all later diagnosed in jail. When I knew her she was 23 and 24, but appeared to me to still act and think like a young teenager. A prolific self-harmer, she attempted suicide on numerous occasions. Yet, whenever I saw her she would sing like a small child and sit cross legged on the tables in the library, chatting away about a cartoon film or a children's comic book. 

When I read about her disappearance I used social media to contact her. And thankfully it paid off. We have chatted on and off since she was found. I quickly learnt why the media was used so quickly after her disappearance. After all, an adult who runs away, or fails to return home, isn't usually considered missing for at least 24 hours, if not longer. But in this case the missing person had escaped from being a psychiatric in-patient (something not mentioned in the papers), which didn't surprise me at all. Five years in jail would leave anyone needing psychiatric support, even though the support you are "supposed" to get in jail and afterwards on licence should negate this. This support is non-existent in today's CJS and HMP climate.

I am sure the Daily Mail readers of this world would assume that a release from prison, after a wrongful conviction, would enable the person to be happy, thankful and to simply continue on with their previous life. 

Prison is about addressing offending behaviours. Prison is for punishment, public protection and rehabilitation. Those who have a wrongful conviction really struggle. As I have mentioned before, maintaining innocence is very hard work and very painful in jail. How can you take part in an offending behaviour course if you don't have any offending behaviour? X was very aware that she had killed a man. She was distraught that she had killed a man. But that act happened when she was protecting herself and a friend from violence. It was never murder. How many of us would allow a man to kill us without fighting back? What a brave child she was at 17 to cope with an awful situation. I have a 17 year old son, he's just a baby, I cannot imagine how he would cope with a friend's partner attacking them and him. 

X said to me today "Just had bad after bad since coming out of prison". Two and a half years after release from a wrongful conviction she is still being sectioned to a psychiatric unit. Jail effects everyone. Don't believe the right wing press about holiday camps. Jail is dire, tragic, painful, depressing, threatening, corrupt, pointless, demeaning, failing, dark, lonely and a million other adjectives; I could carry on forever. 

I spent two years in jail for a wrongful conviction. That is bad enough. It broke my heart and destroyed my children while I was inside. A pointless waste of tax payers' money to incarcerate someone who was zero risk to the public. But X spent 5 years inside. And I was in my 40s, a capable and intelligent adult and parent, able to compartmentalise the situation and use and abuse the system to update my qualifications. X was a child. 17. A child. 

The impact of spending time in jail is never ending. I have PTSD. I have nightmares most nights about being back inside. Being in jail for a crime you haven't commited is heartbreaking. Thankfully I have enough mental strength to cope. I have my children, my new wife, a future. But it is still so hard.

X, heartbreakingly, is still unable to cope after two years back with her family. I want to go to her and wrap my arms around her and tell her she is loved. That she matters, that I care. But why would she believe it? When a jury has found you guilty, and you have then listened to a judge summing up about just how appalling a person you are, how can you ever believe that you are not?

I am standing with Injustice Documentary to open the world's eyes to the corrupt and failing criminal justice system. I met children and adults like X many times. It needs to stop. Now.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Addressing Autism & Arresting Attitudes

Autism..... where do I start with describing this condition, and the impact of autism on the autistic person themselves and on those around them?

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, characterised by deficits in certain areas. Every child or adult with autism is different, however, each will have persistent difficulties with social communication and relationships, social imagination, repetitive and/or obsessive behaviours and sensory sensitivities. 

I live with this 24/7, not my own diagnosis, but the reality for four of my children and also my partner, who recently became my wife. After a lifetime of dealing with a diagnosis of both anxiety and depression and a personality disorder, she was finally 'correctly' diagnosed with autism earlier this year. A welcome and life-changing result after 30 years being failed by various NHS Mental Health departments. 

As I type this blog entry it is midnight, and I am sitting downstairs alone, taking a break from the constant demands that come from having an autistic family and more recently an autistic partner. I am hurting from her lack of empathy, I am worn out from meeting her needs, I am exhausted by having to pre-empt situations all day every day....not just for her, but for my autistic children too. I love my wife and my family, unreservedly and without condition, but life can be very difficult in this autism bubble. I am sure it is equally difficult for them, but in different ways. 

And then my thoughts, as always nowadays, turn to the 87,209 serving prisoners, locked away in their gated retreats. (Figures from NOMS 
Population and Capacity Briefing for Friday 25th August 2017)

When I worked in the Induction department at HMP Bronzefield, I very quickly identified the ladies coming in who appeared to be on the autistic spectrum. Having lived with autism at this point for about 23 years, I was well served to spot the signs. The head of prison education soon realised I was doing a good job and asked me to refer these ladies on to her for support. However, it was a heartbreaking situation I found myself in. These prisoners usually came in confused and distraught. Much of the time they had little understanding as to why or how they were in prison. Their crimes tended to be down to their autism and lack of understanding, rather than a chosen and planned criminal behaviour. Sadly it was incredibly common in Induction to welcome new inmates with mental health problems and learning difficulties, and many of these seemed to have undiagnosed autistic difficulties or traits. Most ended up that first night on the Healthcare wing, which was a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Awakenings! Definitely the worst place for somebody with sensory difficulties and a lack of social awareness. 

The thought of my autistic children or my partner ending up in jail is terrifying. Being stressed by overpowering noise and smells, with restricted eating habits, a lack of social communication skills and in need of a safe and secure routine and familiar environment; prison is a living hell for people with autism. 

The British Medical Journal published a report in 2016 (BMJ 2016;353:i3028) in which the researcher, a forensic psychologist, discusses the over-representation of autistic prisoners in HMP settings, currently about 2.3% of the prison population as opposed to 0.99% of the general population. And this is just those with a diagnosis, the figure will be higher, as so many prisoners seem to be undiagnosed. The article states:

"ASD is of specific concern among prisoners because it can slip through the gap between learning disabilities and mental health diagnoses, for which more formal assessments, in addition to liaison and diversion schemes, are being developed in forensic services. Identification of ASD at the earliest possible stage in the criminal justice system could allow for better assessment and management of challenging presentations and minimise the risk of additional mental ill health"

Most of my fellow gated retreat customers who I identified as having autistic spectrum condition or ASC traits, were instead perceived to have mental health problems, for which there was very little help in the prisons I was a guest at, and even less so for someone who is misdiagnosed. The therapy for personality disorders, depression and other mental health difficulties are usually unsuitable when dealing with a person with autism. These incredibly vulnerable ladies were often considered, by untrained and often ignorant staff, to be manipulative and "putting on" their behaviours. A lady screaming and crying all night because her routine had been altered without warning was instantly and cruelly punished. Restricting access to cleaning materials for an ASC lady with severe OCD was a tactic I witnessed being used to mentally torture another fellow inmate. 

One of the most important abilities you need to survive in jail is a skilled set of finely honed social skills. A new prisoner needs to be able to quickly assess other people, to be able to read facial expressions and tone of voice, The ability to make appropriate comments to both cellmates and staff is paramount. So how does this fit in with the intrinsic behavioural deficits of an autistic inmate? Well, it doesn't, leaving autistic prisoners open to bullying and abuse from all they come into contact with.

What is the solution? 

Firstly we need to have significantly better, and compulsory, training for the police, usually the first point of contact within the criminal justice system. My very autistic 23 year old son, if questioned by our boys in blue, would be incredibly anxious and would take everything very literally.He would be so easily manipulated into admitting guilt. He would assume that a policeman, who is in authority, would know better than him. He trusts those in charge to protect him and make decisions for him. His behaviour may appear odd and can sometimes draw unnecessary attention, but as autism is often a hidden disability it may not be immediately obvious to other people that he is disabled.

The National Autistic Society explains well the reasons why an autistic person may become involved in the Criminal Justice System: (

Social naivety. The desire to have friends has led some autistic people to be befriended by criminals, and become their unwitting accomplices People on the autistic spectrum often do not understand other people's motives. 

Difficulty with change or unexpected events. An unexpected change in the environment or routine, eg a public transport delay, may cause great anxiety and distress, leading to aggressive behaviour. 

Misunderstanding of social cues. For example, many autistic people have difficulties with eye contact, which may be avoided, fleeting prolonged or inappropriate. This may be interpreted as making unwanted sexual advances. 

Rigid adherence to rules. They may become extremely agitated if other people break these rules. For example, an autistic man was known to kick cars that were parked illegally.  

Not understanding the implications of their behaviour. Due to difficulties with social imagination, an autistic person might not learn from past experience. They may repeatedly offend if not offered the correct support and intervention. 

These situations can also occur in prison, causing the autistic prisoner to be treated badly by staff and punished unnecessarily. Prison staff are not currently well enough trained to deal with the multitude of mental health problems and other disorders they will come across in our failing prison system. There is a chronic lack of funding, and the educational entry requirements for a prison officer are far too low in my opinion. Putting a young person, possibly just 18 years old, with very little knowledge of the world and human differences, in charge of a wing, is just asking for the officer/prisoner relationship to fail. 

On my social media feeds I follow many families of prisoners fighting against wrongful conviction or inappropriate sentencing. One of the common themes in many of these cases is autism. One very young life-sentenced, joint enterprise, male prisoner has been diagnosed with autism subsequent to his trial. He was lucky enough to have the UK's top expert, Simon Baron Cohen, assess and diagnose him. Yet the court of appeal refused to believe a report from this renowned clinical psychologist and professor.......... and sadly it is incredibly common for courts to dismiss an autism diagnosis. 

Autistic defendants and prisoners are suffering at the hands of an out of date criminal justice system, which fails to understand quite how autism infiltrates every single part of an autistic person and their behaviours. It isn't a part time disability, dealt with by medication or therapy. It is a complete way of being, which will never change, improve or get better. Autistic people need understanding and strategies in order to cope with our confusing world. 

It is time, in 2017, to once and for all fully address the needs of our autistic population, and then to support them appropriately, thus reducing the risk of wrongly criminalising autistic people for behaviours beyond their control, and hopefully ending the incidents of re-offending in those already convicted. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

My dream in May 2015, when I left the gated retreat, was to change the system, I had managed to achieve changes inside, but on release I was hit by the reality. The best laid plans.....

I spend far too much of my time these days on social media. But it seems, in this warped "prison and prison reform" world, I am not alone. Those of us trying to change the HMP chaos seem to be inordinately active on Twitter and Facebook. Little did I imagine, this time five years ago, that my social media feeds in 2017 would be filled with such issues as the need for prisoners to have email addresses, the appalling neglect and abuse of disabled inmates and  the unacceptable overcrowding and terrible conditions in the UK prison system. And that's without taking into consideration the problems with freely available drugs inside, the smoking ban currently being implemented and the constant media reports about the frequently corrupt HMP staff!

My frustration is immense. I read posts avidly and greedily, and want to be a part of the solution, a solution that I believe is possible. My desire to help gyrates in my brain 24/7. I blog, and share, and re-tweet, yet I cannot seem to infiltrate the very charities and reform groups I would absolutely be a game changer for. 

It's a confusing world. All of these charities employ a variety of paid staff. Many of these, I am sure, have absolutely the best intentions and want a solution. Yet, how do you, as a prison leaver, get into these very positions that would enable you to enact change? That enable your voice to be heard? The only solution seems to be volunteering, as mentioned in my last blog entry:

Being an "ex-offender" charity volunteer is seen far too often as the charity actually enabling the vulnerable, deprived, incapable prison leaver to have "meaningful and purposeful" activity. But what about the service users and prison leavers who are more than capable? The ones who are intelligent and focused and have come from a professional background? How do we break through into this secret society?

It seems the solution is to start yet another charity or reform group. But surely it is better to focus on having less groups who can help more people?

Today my Twitter chat was with the CEO of a prison-leavers charity I hadn't heard of before. Their issue of the day was to ensure that all prisoners leave jail with an email address. Sounds sensible and achievable, and necessary,  unless you have actually been a guest of Her Majesty. Mention internet access when in jail and you are grounded, nicked and possibly put in Seg! Internet access terrifies security in prison, yet in reality many of the men in jail have it anyway, through secreted mobile phones. My Twitter feed has many serving prisoners on it, and I am so incredibly grateful for the reality of their input. During my two years inside the female estate I didn't even get a whiff of a mobile, and only ever heard about one lady who had managed to hide one for two years! Men's jails, it seems, are very different!

Prisoners need to leave jail with many things in place. Yet, through-the-gate services are dire or non-existent. These prison leavers need an e-mail address.... yes..... but they need the skills to use it! Giving a lifer an e-mail address to use on release, and a web site with the instructions on how to access it, is asking that licensed prisoner to fail! Imagine being transported from say 1991 to 2017 and being expected to instantly use a laptop or iPad or mobile phone, with your future income and housing and job being reliant on this?

In the last few months of a sentence an inmate must be allowed to access the internet, learn to use a mobile phone, apply fully for benefits, visit the local housing department. If we want to stop the revolving door we need to take this much more seriously. Working in the Vision Office in HMP East Sutton Park, trying to support ladies into work, it was almost impossible for me to perform my role without internet access. HMP officers and staff like to be in control, and they would only pass on e-mails etc when they felt like it, which dashed many prisoners chances of meaningful paid employment We need to remember that human behaviours and personalities play a big part in the attitudes of the staff employed to support and care for prisoners. My personal experience is that the majority had very little empathy, which has a detrimental impact on those prisoners trying to better themselves. 

One story featuring massively on my social media feeds at the moment, which truly concerns me, is the treatment of, and attitude towards, a young disabled prisoner. This 24 year old man caused his own life-changing disabilities in a car crash, which tragically killed two teenage boys and seriously disabled two others who were travelling in his car. His crime is hard to forgive, he made incredibly bad choices and has been severely punished by his life long paralysis and other life limiting disorders. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail, for death by dangerous driving. He is wheelchair bound, tetraplegic, doubly incontinent and currently very unwell. 

His mother, understandably so, is at her wits end and is tweeting all and sundry to try to get her son the care he needs. A 2017 UK prison is not the appropriate place for a seriously disabled prisoner. He has become seriously unwell, lost a lot of weight and is at risk of serious injury or death. The lack of funding and staffing in today's HMPS means that many inmates are likely to be on 23 hour bang up, and often ignored by mental health teams and healthcare. But, for such a severely disabled prisoner, the current prison regime cannot possibly provide the care needed. The removal of freedom is the punishment ordered by the courts. Whilst in prison each offender must be treated humanely and fairly, and yet this will be impossible for this young man with such severe and all encompassing medical needs. I have personal experience of the appalling treatment of disabled ladies, many thought to be swinging the lead or hypochondriacs, and very few allowances are made. All prisoners are believed to be deceitful, and the disabled and unwell are not excluded from this! One incident I remember well is accompanying a disabled lady with a walking frame to a church event in HMP Bronzefield, who then could not walk back, Staff refused to help, refused to allow other ladies to help, and ultimately this disabled lady was punished for being unable to return to her wing due to her disability. 

Social Media is cruel and the Daily Mail readers of this world have such hatred for this young man's offence that he, his mother, and his family have received threats and appalling comments online. (Some of the comments are from serving prison officers which is deeply disturbing). I have read many of these, and I despair at the ignorance of the British general public towards prison sentences and their purpose. I pray that this young man starts to receive that '24 hour care by a team of 8 people', as promised by Judge Collier at his sentencing....... It doesn't seem likely. I wonder exactly what rehabilitation he will receive, whilst being seriously ill, profoundly disabled and lacking in basic care? His mum states he doesn't even have a cell call bell......

Britain's prison system is at breaking point. There are many clones of "me" in the community who really want to make it change. The problem is that we are seldom taken seriously. We blog, and tweet, and post, and write books and articles. Yet we are all "ex-offenders" and as such we are unimportant. 

I am reaching out through this blog. I want to be a serious part of the change needed within the criminal justice system, I am available to work with any charities. I blog, I write, I am studying BA Criminology at a red brick uni! But I am not a vulnerable ex offender who needs supporting into meaningful activity. Will you take me up on my challenge? Will you prove I am wrong with my current analysis of reform charities? Will you take me on board with my incredible academic and analytical skills, my ability to problem solve and my personal knowledge of the system? 

I am waiting to hear from you......

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Inevitable Impact of Incarceration

I am a highly intelligent woman. Ask Judge Anthony Niblett... he used this phrase endless times during my court case!

In early 2016, having left Jail a few months earlier,  I was lucky enough to land an interview for the BA Social Work at the University of Sussex, a course you have to sell your soul to get onto (or have incredible academic qualifications which I luckily had). I had started my studies towards this in 2012, by studying on a one year Access course in Health and Social Care, and I had achieved 61/61 distinctions on the course. Pretty well qualified for the degree course, if I say so myself as the entry requirements at this red brick university was 40 distinctions or more.
The interview went well, I seemed to click with the friendly interviewer who had also come to social work as a mature student, and then....... the question....
"Finally, we ask everybody this question, do you have any criminal convictions?"
At this point I was not long out of prison and still relatively naive. "Yes I do" I replied, and that was that! No questions were asked and I was free to go. Having been given a small sheet of paper on which to describe my conviction, and knowing my conviction (although wrongful) would have no effect on my ability to work with children, I wrote my explanatory paragraph, assuming there would, at some point, be further discussion over the actual ins and outs of my conviction and why I maintained my innocence.

Shortly after my interview I received a UCAS notification, simply stating that I had not managed to gain a place on the course, and I also then received several emails from admissions about my criminal record with regards to the other courses I had been already accepted onto! I immediately asked for feedback on my Social Work interview, and in the mean-time I accepted my place on a different course; Psychology with Criminology. This course did not demand a disclosure which I was very happy to explain to admissions using their own policy documentation! I did not feel able to fight for the Social Work course at this point, still suffering from the PTSD you inevitably suffer after a stint at the hands of the brutal HMPS, and also suffering from low self-esteem. My dreams, for many years, of working in the social work system had been dashed and I must truly therefore be a bad person to be refused the opportunity. However, a year later, I have realised I have still not received that feedback, and am now actively following it up. I am stronger now and more able to fight the system. Why should a conviction for fraud affect my ability to be the most amazing social worker. Surely my background of being a child in the appalling care system for 13 years, my years working with vulnerable adults and children, and my intelligent and analytical mind, and skills in critical thinking be enough to afford me a place on the degree course. Prison destroys your strength and makes you far too accepting of discrimination. Watch this space for my feedback if I finally receive it.

But it is not only in education that this discrimination happens, and where we, as ex-offenders, feel the impact of a prison sentence.

When I was first released I signed up with some employment and job seeking sites. I was head hunted for a job working with children with additional needs, ideal for me as several of my children have additional needs, plus a plethora of experience working with children like this. I attended the interview, they loved me, and I was offered the job on the spot, there and then, at the interview. All was going well until I had to send in the DBS forms. The interviewer (a probation officer for twenty years) was fully aware of my conviction and all the circumstances around it, including maintaining my innocence, however, after waiting many weeks for the DBS to be returned, I was simply emailed to tell me I would not be employed due to my DBS!! My "convictions" have no impact on working with children, and yet this company chose not to employ someone who would have been amazing in the job role, purely based on a piece of paper rather than the reality.

So, as an ex-offender ( a label that I don't actually identify with having not offended in the first place!), your only route seems to be volunteering with charities. For a year and a half I have been involved with a well known charity which believes that only ex-offenders can change the system and stop re-offending. When I first became involved with this charity I believed this was an amazing philosophy. But now I have seen the reality of this charity, which employs mainly ex-offenders in their paid positions, but seems to choose those with the most issues! There is nepotism, breach of confidentiality, erratic behaviours, chaos. Everything I saw in jail, from both prisoners and staff, and wanted to escape from! I have slowly become more and more disenchanted with the charity, which could, in reality,be amazing. However, they belittle their volunteers, making assumptions about their lack of ability due to being an ex offender and refusing to take on board the amazing skills many of these ex service users bring to the table. This charity loses so many volunteers because they often employ those still in chaos to be in team engagement roles, which leads to a lack of committed support. Very recently they employed someone in an engagement role who was sacked within a month due to these chaotic behaviours, and yet there were three other candidates at interview who would have been far more able. These charities need to employ those best for the role rather than the person with the longest criminal record!

The impact of a prison sentence is huge. Where do we go? Employment is often impossible, university is OK as long as you have the qualifications and the course doesn't involve a DRB, charities use and abuse you and believe you to be incapable......

An amazing guy I met through one of the charities I worked with (Pete that's you!)  is setting up his own charity to work with ex offenders on 'through the gate' issues. Through the gate support is sadly lacking, and charities are relied upon to provide a service which, in reality, should be put in place by HMPS and the probation service and CRCs. He has asked me to help out, he recognises my many skills and abilities, and I will gladly do this as I think he is amazing. He is used and abused by the charity he works for, but is going to be a game changer in his own environment.

I have now chosen to study a BA in Criminology, still at the University of Sussex, and maybe an MA in Social Work, which gives me time to fight the discriminatory system. I am supporting "ban the box" and still fighting to help those less capable than me.

Serving your sentence should mean the end. Lets ban the box and stop the assumption that a prison sentence leaves you incapable, deceitful, and unemployable. Surely we, as a society, want ex-offenders to be rehabilitated, and to be working for a living wherever possible. Ex offenders need to be judged on their own abilities and not on their past, and reform charities need to learn that there doesn't necessarily need to be a long sentence to afford a person the ability to work within the system and fight it.

The impact of incarceration should and can lead to a changed, positive and capable member of society. Lets work together to achieve this.