Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Does it Ever End?

Here I am again. I thought this door was closed. But it keeps being forced open by those who do not have permission to open it. 

Twice recently, I have been called out on social media. Once a few weeks ago, by a prosecution witness at my court case in 2013 (an ex friend), who lied her way through her evidence, and then again today, by someone who obviously is very right wing, led by reading false media, and who has a massive grudge. 

Social media is such a useful platform. And it is also so dangerous. 

I am always open to sharing my history, my emotions, my hurt, my past, my pain, my thoughts, my opinions, my beliefs. Sometimes I get responses I don't agree with. Sometimes I get responses that are painful. Sometimes people are simply unkind. Sometimes, most of the time, I get support, because I am very careful to evidence what I say, and to not be personally unkind. Because I know how that feels.

Mostly I pick myself up and move on. 

But my traumatic PTSD from my wrongful conviction and the treatment of my family leaves me shaking today, ridden with anxiety and fear, and it does not take much to set it off. No matter how well I am doing, how hard I am working, it just takes that one social media reference to my past to send me back to the period of 2009 to 2013, and the hell that we all went through. Why not 2015 you might ask, after being released from the gated retreat? Well, the time I spent inside from 2013 was actually OK. They believed me. They saw my evidence, met my children, spoke to me, and they believed me. Not hard to believe when you see all the evidence in front of you. They supported me, understood how terrible the whole situation was, and helped me as much as they could. 

But today I am sick with fear. Riddled with anxiety. It leaves me feeling very unwell, imagining driving to the top of a local beauty spot, and making it all go away. 

Would anyone care? 

The people who feel the need to remind me, all these years later, of that awful event, well I don't think they would care.

The person who started off this particular sequence of events, with posts on a Facebook status, he wouldn't care. He is simply making everything worse with his need to justify himself and rally his troops. 

My family? Well Lockdown has been hard. It has broken us all to a certain extent. We definitely aren't where we were. We need some massive therapy and support, to try to work through all the trauma and damage caused by DWP and the media. My adult children, who now have worse needs due to what happened to them, need therapy and support. I wouldn't want to leave them alone. 

But how long do I have to put up with this?

My life is filled with helping others, always has been. I support so many families of children with needs. My whole life is filled with trying to help and support others. Even when I was on my holiday, I spent all my time helping. Wing rep, teaching ladies to read, being a Maths mentor, taking food to women in their rooms, cleaning for others, working with charities, the list is endless. It is who I am and what I do. So why is it acceptable for people who do not know me, to call me manipulative, narcissistic and a bully! Have I not spent my life being bullied? Putting up with abuse? Do I not self-analyse enough already? Self-blame, dislike myself, struggle to sleep through all the nightmares?

It takes a lot for me to trust anyone. And I trusted and it failed. And now I am being hurt. Again. 

Where do I go from here? Is this the rest of my life? Does this hang over me like the gallows, always pushing me back into that dark space?

Even if I was a guilty person, surely the time was done, it was paid for?

What would have happened though, if the raid on my home was today? I do believe there would be a completely different ending. I am part of support groups now, the children are older and fully aware and able to talk about their difficulties, I have a network of friends and colleagues who know them well and can evidence and witness for them honestly. I've always maintained my innocence and always told the truth, It doesn't really help in a criminal court, it's a joke really. But I would be just as honest and truthful again. But with a support network wrapped around me. 

So I will block the haters, the ones who have their own agenda to fit, and again pick myself up and move forward. Today will be my terrified and anxious day. And tomorrow I will try again. I will continue to share my story, in the hope it will resonate with others. If my pain makes one other person's pain better? Then I didn't lose. I won. 

Monday, 20 April 2020

Lock-down, Lock-up, Love and Life

I dreamed about my mother last night!

I am not sure if I have written about her in this blog, after all it has been almost a year since my last entry and, funnily enough, I don't spend hours re-reading my own ramblings! In fact this is the first time I have accessed this page since last year. But I have probably mentioned her....

Mothers come in all shapes and sizes; the good, the bad and the ugly. My mother was not a good one. Well not to me. Nor to my older brother. Nor it seems to my younger half-brother, as they are not in touch anymore. However, she must have done something right with my youngest half-sister, as her three children (my nieces) are my mother's profile picture on Facebook, and I have seen lots of "love you so much Nanna/love you so much Mum" posts between the pair of them.  Not that I should know this, as I am blocked on social media by both of them. But in today's internet age it is very easy to stalk someone, as I found out this morning when I woke from the dream where my mother died, and felt something was telling me to check her out. 

In my dream it was left to me to clear her house. A house I always hated, as it had so many dark, abusive memories. In my dream I hunted through drawers filled with letters, searching, I think, for something to explain away my childhood, my adulthood, her behaviours. I felt bereft in my dream. I was crying in my sleep. I felt I would never have the chance again to ask her why.

My ex-husband, Pete, died suddenly in February. He was the father of my older three children, my teenage best friend. I miss him like I would miss my legs. I invited her to his funeral; the funeral of her grandchildren's father. She didn't know it was me messaging her. She replied and said it was very sad. She didn't turn up. 

When you have been let down consistently by a parent for nearly 50 years, why is there that glimmer of hope?

So today I stalked. (Well you know what i mean, before you start phoning 999!). I found out she and her husband have moved from that terrible house, the place they've lived in for nearly 30 years. About two years ago. Moved to the place she lived in when she was married to my father. A man she hated. A man she has always lied about. A place she always claims is her happy place, yet a place that must have been so sad for her. A place where my brother and I lived with my Mum and my Dad together; a traumatic, difficult, emotionally scarring time, with parents who could not stand each other, where she had affairs, he gambled, and they lost the house. Where she gave away her children. Me and my brother Alan. I was four years old. 
According to the wonderful world wide web, she is becoming very active locally. She posts messages on the local grapevine site, goes for beach walks, visits and reviews the local cafes, has had photos of the view published in the paper. A "normal" grandmother with three lovely granddaughters. Facebook friends who tell her what a great nanna and mum she is. 
But.... that's not true is it? She has ten other grandchildren who do not appear on her social media. That she has no contact with. She has two other children (other than my older brother who died in Australia about 12 years ago) who do not appear on her social media. That she has no contact with. 

I do not often think about her. But this dream has really thrown me today. And more so, I think, because we are in lock-down due to Coronavirus. It has made us all feel vulnerable. It has rocked the stability we have often taken years to achieve. And this dream has rocked my fragile stability. 

I left the gated retreat in May 2015, five years ago now. And it mostly seems a distant memory. As I sit here now, and think about all those 81,454 members of our society locked away, without the ability to keep themselves safe right now, or make any decisions about their lives, I worry. I don't care that these people may or may not have committed a crime. How terrifying must it be right now to be a prisoner. In the media, here on the outside, our lock-down and self-isolation is compared to prison.... the utter naivety of those who have not faced the total despair of a prison sentence.

I stopped blogging last year. I gave up trying to infiltrate that closeted and incestuous world of those working in reform charities and groups. 
But, despite the brick walls from my own community, the CJS world, I am a success. My theatre company goes from strength to strength. We are a family. Tight. Our coronavirus NHS toilet roll challenge video has had 30,000 views in three days! It has become my life, 24/7. A life I love, and one which makes me happy. 

Yet here I am, a mum aged 50 (oh my word, 50 was positively ancient when I was young), still so mixed up from her traumatic childhood. And still with that self-critical and judgmental narrative, constantly running in my head. 

My own children, the younger ones, don't see their Dad. He decided to disappear about 4 years ago, when the mediation, that I arranged for my children's sake, told him how to be a proper parent. Needless to say he didn't agree, and instead, he decided the best parenting technique was to dump his children. At the time, I have to say, I was relieved. But again, with Covid-19 in the air, I am now concerned. No matter how awful a parent he is, he is still the other person who created my children. He is also a type 1 diabetic and that is currently a risk factor. As is our youngest son, although his Dad does not know that, as he was already long gone when the diagnosis happened. I know his children are now thinking of him too. Why could he not be a parent? Am I the only person to feel this pain when parents cannot put their children first?

As I get older I become more frustrated with people. Personally I am loving the enforced lock-down because it means I don't have to be around people! I am enjoying the break I think we all need. The calmness. The lack of demands. The peace. 

But I am still sad. For the life I didn't have. The decisions I couldn't make. The options that just were not there for me. 

A couple of years ago I wrote to my foster family. In France. My foster sister who had been my hero, and her husband who I had adored. And my other foster sister, 8 years older than me, who had the bedroom next to me, who I irritated and annoyed with my piano playing and loud singing! I tried to explain that they had been my real/only family. That I missed them. That they were the ones in my childhood memories, the memories that nobody can share with me anymore. (which is actually really hard to deal with). After all, I lived with them from the age of 5 to 13. And stayed in touch for a while after. I wrote about how that felt, to lose the only family that had been there. They wrote back, with little empathy or interest, and said "I had made my own decisions".....
How does a traumatically damaged child, with major attachment issues, who becomes an equally damaged adult, have the ability to make well-thought out and conscious decisions! I have spent my adult life surviving! Simply managing from one day to the next, with no childhood pattern to rely on.Trying to give my children everything I didn't have, while coping with children on the autistic spectrum, with other needs, with no family support at all! 

I still feel I run my life in survival mode. Does that ever stop?

Oh and in case you are wondering? I am blocked by my mother on social media because I didn't send her a Mother's Day card. She reconnected with me when I was publicly shamed in the tabloid press, for that crime I didn't actually commit back in 2013. It took me a long time to allow her back in, she came to visit me in the gated retreat, and it wasn't too bad. But, I can never think of her as a mother, in the way my children see me as Mummy. Which is why I did not send her a mothers day card in 2014. And never will. 

She left me (and my brother) when I was 4 years old. From birth to that time my life was traumatic and I was neglected. I then spent 10 years in foster care followed by two years back with her, in a very, very emotionally and physically abusive situation. Throughout my adult life I wanted to connect (God knows why, but as I always tell people who adopt and foster, the child will always crave their birth parent). She would come in and out of my life. There was always a banal reason for her to walk out each time. And out of my children's life. As a mum myself, I know it is the parent's responsibility to always be there. No matter what. And the same for a grand-parent. So how can she be a "mum" to me?

As for my own love life? Well I have been pretty honest so far in my blogs. I mean, what's the point in being otherwise? Since my last entry in 2019 we have moved house, and separated from my older children. A new start. 
What I didn't write about, before, was that in 2018 the wife and I separated. And then in December 2018 she ended our marriage, and broke off all contact. It was such an incredibly hard time. I broke. After a few months we did get back together to try again. And to be fair, she has tried. It's difficult. It is up and down. I am someone living with serious abandonment issues, So I am not doing great with it. Some days I think it will work. Some days I am sure it won't. I am damaged and hurt. I am a product of my traumatic, neglected childhood. She doesn't know how to love, to give, to put the other person at the top of your list. All the things I need. 

Maybe this will be my second "last entry" in my blog! All I know is, I was so disturbed by my dream, and by my stalking today, that I felt this was my way to deal with it. To write and to get my emotions and thoughts out there. 

Lock-down continues; I wish you all safety and health. Lock-up continues for many of our friends and family, I think of them often and continue to fight prejudice on a daily basis. I wish them too safety and health, and a future. Love goes from me to every one of you who supports me and who reads my blog, and please, I beg you, live a life that is exactly what YOU want it to be, and not what anyone else thinks it should be. 

Love your life, but more than that, love yourself. I am trying to. 

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.