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.