Akin, former resident of a ‘foreign national’ prison, on the importance of knowing your rights

Akin, former resident of a ‘foreign national’ prison, on the importance of knowing your rights

No. 11 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Akin spent the last two years of his criminal sentence in a ‘foreign national’ prison. He moved to the UK from Nigeria as a child and has siblings who were born in the UK. In this interview he speaks about his own experience as well as the stories of other people he met and supported while in prison, many of whom were detained for months post-sentence because they were unable to secure bail accommodation or could not afford legal representation. Interview by AVID.

Content warning: This blog includes references to self-harm.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 42, and came from Nigeria when I was a baby. I’ve been in England forever; for nursery, primary, secondary, the lot.

 

Did you expect to move to a Category D open prison for the end of your sentence?

Yes. You do a sentence plan to get to open prison and I had done everything required. At first, everyone signed off, and then, literally like the day before the board, I got a slip saying ‘you’re of interest to the Home Office’.

On the following Friday, they moved me to a ‘foreign national’ prison. So that was a shock. I didn’t even know what a ‘foreign national’ prison was.

 

How did you feel about being moved to a ‘foreign national’ prison?

I’ve never known anything apart from England. So you’re telling me I’m a foreign national? Yes, we’ve done a crime, but people who have committed the same crime as me and are born here can go to open prison, but I couldn’t go. What is the difference?

There was a lot of young people there just like me, who have been here since they were kids. A lot of them feel betrayed because they love England. They say, ‘I’m British I don’t care what you tell me.’ If you’ve been here since you were six months old, how can you say anything else?

 

How is a ‘foreign national’ prison different to another UK prison?

As soon as you go to ‘foreign national’ prison, you lose a lot of things you’re entitled to in a normal UK prison, like legal aid for your immigration case. Because now you’re of interest to the Home Office, you have to pay for everything. It’s very complicated to get a free solicitor to fight your immigration case as you have to prove ‘special circumstances’.

People get stressed and frustrated as they don’t know what is happening in their case, or why they are being held post-sentence and there’s a lot more fights.

 

What was your experience of risk assessments in a ‘foreign national’ prison?

I’ve always been low-risk but when I arrived at the ‘foreign national’ prison they told me I was high risk. Luckily, I’d done my OASys [risk assessment] before I got there and got my solicitor to send them a copy.

A lot of people who get a lesser sentence don’t spend enough time in a UK prison to lower their risk. In a ‘foreign national’ prison, they don’t necessarily get the chance to do the right courses either.

The judge is looking at your record and thinks you haven’t done any courses in prison but maybe you haven’t been able to get on one in time.

 

How did having family support and a lawyer impact on your situation?

I’ve got a lot of family around me, so if I just call them, they just deal with everything. Where, a lot of people don’t have that. And it’s unfair.

For people without family, finding a bail address is extremely difficult, meaning they could still be detained months after the end of their sentence.

I was probably one of the first in that ‘foreign national’ prison to get out on time. Because I was on point. I had my solicitors ready. In the end I only had to spend like two days extra under immigration powers, whereas most people spend five or six months. For some people it can be over a year.

Some people are still there 12 months later because they can’t get legal teams or they can’t get approved addresses and they are stranded in a ‘foreign national’ prison.

Not even like in a detention centre, where you’re allowed a mobile phone. They keep you in a prison even though you’re no longer a prisoner.

 

Can you explain a bit more about the mental health impact of being detained in prison?

Some people do want to go back, but it’s really hard for people who are from here and that’s why people start to struggle with their mental health.

I met a guy who tried to kill himself who said I’m not going to another country, ‘I’d rather die here, and my kids visit my grave than going to a country I haven’t been to since I was six months old. I don’t even have my Mum and dad there. What am I gonna do?’

A lot of these guys are cutting themselves. I know someone who swallowed a blade because he didn’t want to be deported.

Even those who have only been in the UK for 3 or 4 years. Some of them were only stealing because they can’t work and they’ve been applying for leave to remain in the UK for years. It’s crazy because you’ve done something you’re getting 4 months for like theft at Sainsbury’s, but then you’re getting deported for it. These guys, they are the ones that are trying to cut themselves. Because they’ve come from really bad places some of them.

 

What does it mean when someone knows their rights and is able to exercise their rights?

It is so, so important to know your rights. A lot of these kids are lost; they don’t even understand what they are going through. They don’t understand that they need to fight their immigration case.

Charities can help bridge the gap by helping people understand their rights.

At the end of the day someone in detention isn’t a solicitor and they might end up signing papers they don’t understand.

 

What is life like for people who have been granted immigration bail but are still fighting their case?

Originally they said I couldn’t work when I came out. I’ve got a daughter to feed. My solicitor appealed it and we got a letter back saying he’s entitled to claim benefits, but he’s not entitled to work.

You feel like you’re sitting at home doing nothing when you could be helping. I began volunteering because it was something to do, and I can still be helping people.

Some people are just thrown out there with nothing. What do you expect these kids to do? You’re just literally getting them ready to lose, to go through the whole cycle again. And some of them have actually done courses to help themselves to gain something when they come home, but they can’t use the qualification anyway because they can’t work. So, what is the point?

 

What changes would you like to see?

The number one change is that they need more legal aid and representation for people’s immigration cases.

And then more courses so you can reduce your risk. Then letting people work when they are released.

I want to work. I’ve done enough time and done enough courses to turn my life around. I could walk into most places and get a job now.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Bruce Houlder, CB QC, on his work fighting knife crime in London

Bruce Houlder, CB QC, on his work fighting knife crime in London

No. 10 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Bruce Houlder, CB QC and Founder of Fighting Knife Crime London

 

It is Everyone’s Responsibility to help a Lost Generation of Young People

 

I have practised criminal law in Greater London and the South-East in a working life spanning 51 years, as a barrister, QC, and judge.  I have witnessed at first hand the stories of those whose young lives have been damaged, mostly through no fault of their own. The consequence too often is that they went on themselves to damage the lives of others.

We all know the pattern. There has always been something missing and often profoundly sad about the way these young lives, once full of hope, end by being cruelly degraded by circumstances beyond their control. It might be through a failure of family support, environmental conditions, poor educational opportunity, poverty of mind and spirit, often exacerbated by domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, and even sexual abuse.

Some stories are quite beyond our imagination, and they demand some positive action from every one of us.

My professional career, at one time or other, has led me to be the defender of such disadvantaged young people, their prosecutor, and to be their sentencer once convicted. The criminal justice system sits at the end of the line. It steps in only when others have failed. It is rarely an answer, or even capable of producing one, although sometimes we are too ready to speak of the failure of the criminal justice system.

The failures elsewhere are more likely candidates for attention.

Custodial institutions, especially for the young, and despite the best efforts of those that work within them, can claw them deeper into trouble. They often damage young lives further by being unable to offer rehabilitative and life improving solutions to correct the damage already done. Creative alternatives to prison are famously starved of resources, and press comment on new sentencing approaches are too often populist in approach, uninformed, and lacking in nuance.

Young offenders are seen as irredeemable problems, rather than lives that have been failed by others, and in need of restoration.

It is a massive indictment of government imagination, over all recent administrations, and poor investment decisions. Governments have failed to remember that their duty and responsibility is to improve the lives of the next generation, and to protect young children and all young people from avoidable harms, and they fail to act sufficiently on informed reports even from their own departments.

Many, and I include myself, have become tired of the shallow camouflage of political excuse making. This lack of faith in our political institutions is far from healthy. So, we must also support those good men and women that are genuinely trying to bring about change, and to expose those who hide behind poor excuses.

The only thing that matters is the way we live, our active humanity, and how much we decide to improve the lives of all those around us.

It was with this in mind, and at the age of 73 (it is never too late) that I started a new online project Fighting Knife Crime London designed to bring together all organisations in a collaborative online space, who were already working to improve the lives of our young in Greater London.

It is a multi-facetted website. It is a news area and directory to promote innovative change, a magazine, and a resource for communication and collaboration. We use film and video, and the power of social media to raise awareness, and to help the young, their families and friends find solutions. Our directory of organisations too is highly accessible and links directly to the solutions that you might need to know about.

We also include a database of reports, studies and statistics for those who wish to understand the problem at a deeper level. Reading many of these may well leave you asking why so little has actually been implemented effectively. The website is a resource for those who need help and for those who want to help, but don’t know how.

Please spread the word. Lives can be changed simply by a single act of kindness and compassion.

Our news area is a free resource where you can share thoughtful solutions, and advertise upcoming events or programmes (so long as these are relevant to the stated aims of Fighting Knife Crime London).

If you do one thing today after looking at this website, ask yourself what you can do to help – or write to someone else to encourage them to do something too. You will be amazed how change happens sometimes through a single word.

So, create these ‘Good Vibrations’. Act positively and with clarity in finding a solution, however small. The vibrations will spread I can assure you.

I have served on too many committees and attended too many seminars in my time in the law, discussing legal and process reforms. I have heard accounts of the capacity of humans to abuse or damage others, which might make your hair stand on end. These might be in the sanitised atmosphere of a courtroom, or in the privacy of a prison cell, or through the testimony of witnesses, and victims, and sometimes the falsely accused. Sometimes immersion in such process can lead to a sense of detachment from the realities that they are designed to meet. Victims of crime have needs which we have to address, but so many may never have become victims at all had we concentrated more fully on our children’s early years, and invested in their future.

Could we all just stop for a moment to truly see the world we have created for our young people?

We have excluded whole swathes of our young people from a real pathway to hope, denied them places to go, failed to train those who could have helped them, closed the places where they want to be, and failed to build real state of the art centres to inspire. These could be places to make music, to sing, to perform, to play sport, to laugh and to love. Places where young people want to be, to find help, to restore their mental health, to find friendship and the self-confidence that our next generation are going to need.

I have presented a bleak picture, because the problem is so serious. But building this website has given me hope.

Those I have spoken to have, in some cases, spent much of their lives trying to promote change through positive action. Our website is full of examples.

The selfless collaboration of like-minded citizens has changed many lives through the work they do with young people in communities all over London. They understand that it is the task of every one of us to bring about this change, and if we do, then politicians will respond to that noise, provided it is sustained and loud enough to hear.

Who are these people? They are the employers who come together to offer training and employment to disadvantaged or excluded young; the workers and leaders in local government who truly care; the young men and women who work with the fearful young, or with young gang members; the mentors who work one-to-one with those that need help; those that give their time each week to raise the lives of others to a better future. Theirs is the community of talents that should make us all proud.

If every one of us does our bit, together we can make change.

So, find an organisation where you can offer your talents, even if it is just a listening ear. You may be surprised what that can lead to. Many of you do this already, but if not, please give some time to it. You will, I promise, be surprised how much your own life might be changed as well.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Laura Caulfield, researcher, on the value of the arts in criminal justice

Laura Caulfield, researcher, on the value of the arts in criminal justice

No. 10 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Laura Caulfield, researcher in forensic psychology and criminal justice

 

This year marks my twentieth year working as a researcher in forensic psychology and criminal justice. Reaching this milestone prompted me to reflect on my journey so far, how I got here, what I’ve learnt, and also to think about what the future might hold.

In 2001 I began my career as an academic conducting research into traditional programmes in the criminal justice system. I was applying my knowledge of psychology and research methods to measuring whether rehabilitation programmes were effective. Most of my work involved conducting quantitative analysis of large-scale datasets to ask questions like ‘do Offending Behaviour Programmes reduce risk of reoffending?’. While the research was interesting and valuable, I began to realise that there are issues with a ‘one size fits all’ approach and that some people in prisons and serving community sentences are just not ready – or not yet able – to engage with standard programmes and education.

Fast forward to 2007 and a colleague asked if I would be interested in applying the methods I used to measure accredited programmes to evaluating a music programme in prisons. I’ll admit that I felt sceptical, because I’d only ever thought about addressing formal risk factors in prisons, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to me how a music project could have an impact on prisoners. However, as a researcher, starting from a sceptical position can be a good thing and being curious is central to this line of work.

The project I’d been asked to evaluate was run by Good Vibrations and I embarked on a steep learning curve. I spent time in prisons with participants on week-long courses and I observed as groups of prisoners, many of whom were unknown to one another, came together with a Good Vibrations facilitator. I watched as over the course of a week they learnt about Gamelan, learnt how to play and compose, and at the end of the week performed a concert to peers, prison staff, and external visitors. What struck me most was not the musical skills they developed and the impressive nature of the performance, but what happened to individuals and the group as the week progressed. The research told me lots of things and the key messages were: participants developed social and communication skills, which is important to solve problems, talk things out, and reduces the risk of arguing and aggression. Participants were calmer, which is good for health and wellbeing as well as reducing violence and aggression. Participating also acted as a stepping-stone into formal programmes and education for some prisoners, through building confidence and learning that they could achieve.

Those first projects with Good Vibrations have stayed with me. I have had some really amazing experiences seeing people engage, connect, and be inspired. That research led on to working with numerous arts projects and organisations, including the Irene Taylor Trust (music), the Artist in Residence at HMP Grendon (a Therapeutic Community prison), Rideout (who work with range of creative arts, often drama-based), Birmingham Youth Offending Service music project, Sandwell Youth Offending Service (their innovative service wide creative approach), London College of Fashion and their Making for Change (fashion design & manufacturing) inititative with women in prison, and the Centre for Design Against Crime and their work redesigning cell furniture. I’ve been closely involved with the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) in the UK, and the US-based South West Correctional Arts Network (SCAN). Overall, what I’ve been working on is developing the evidence base around the arts in criminal justice and trialling robust methods.

Over the last decade, the role of the arts, culture and creativity in criminal justice has been of increasing interest to policymakers, practitioners, the criminal justice system and researchers. In 2019, the UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport Commons Select Committee acknowledged the ‘impact of culture … on positive outcomes in health, education, criminal justice’. There is now substantial evidence of the impact of the arts in criminal justice: indeed, between the United Kingdom and the United States, there are over 160 research studies. In 2012, the NCJAA launched the Evidence Library, ‘an online library, housing the key research and evaluation documents on the impact of arts-based projects, programmes and interventions within the Criminal Justice System’. (NCJAA, 2019c). Other countries have followed the Evidence Library initiative, setting up their own resources. See, for example, the Prison Arts Resource Project, which ‘is an online library of evidence-based research into U.S. correctional arts programs’ (PARP, 2019).

My own contribution to the evidence has involved working with a variety of art forms across the prison estate, with young people serving community sentences, and with people leaving prison and re-entering the community. Most recently, and in response to some earlier criticisms of research in this area, I published a study that really sought to push the evidence base forward. Working with girls and boys taking part in a music programme run by a Youth Offending Service (YOS) and analysing data that the YOS collects, we found that children who completed the music programme were more likely than a comparison group to engage with the YOS, and showed were statistically significant improvements in well-being and musical ability over the course of the project. The children talked to us about how safe they felt, how their confidence was growing, and about the new positive relationships they had formed.

There is more to uncover and investigate but the value and impact of the arts is clear. At this point in my research journey it is my doctoral students whose work I am inspired by. One of my doctoral students has just completed research to help us understand more about some of the amazing people who deliver creative writing programmes in prison. Another is working to understand the training processes for actors working in prisons. Understanding more about creative practitioners and the relationships built in the spaces created through the arts will help us all keep learning and developing research and practice in the criminal justice system.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

BL, resident at HMP Stoke Heath, on the damage caused by labelling people

BL, resident at HMP Stoke Heath, on the damage caused by labelling people

No. 9 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: BL, resident at HMP Stoke Heath. During the pandemic, we sent creativity packs to prisoners to use in their cells while they were spending over 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Amongst other things, these included an addressed envelope and a request for the recipient to write about their view on preventing crime, for us to include as a blog for this series. BL responded to this request and this is his contribution.

 

I feel passionate about the changes that could support the long road to crime reduction for individuals, impacting on society and communities.

However, a few simple words here and there do not provide a clear, in depth explanation of the social difficulties which we are experiencing in society. Perhaps, in order to understand how to reduce crime, certain sociological factors, such as social conflict, race, class and strata in society can be considered.

Statistics provide evidence that not all young people from deprived areas fall into crime, leading them into a countercultural existence. What is abhorrent is that labelling plays a significant role in how the identity of self is perceived in society. It is this social conflict that can impact on people and lead them into criminal activity. On the other hand, if individuals lack the power to control and influence their lives, this too may lead to criminal behaviour. Thus, criminality can become a way of achieving opportunities and transforming their lives.

Some people may argue that a capitalist society is to blame for the increase in criminality. The analysis is that it advantages a minority in society, at the expense of the majority. This in turn may lead some people within that majority to commit crime, especially if to acquire the material goods that the capitalist economy generates.

This is a well-documented stance. Yes, as consumers, we are bombarded with a wide range of expensive and exotic goods that the everyday person can ill afford. This in itself causes divisions in crime: white collar crime and blue collar crime. Until these inequalities are addressed – say for a multi-national corporation polluting waterways compared to the working class person committing a crime – greater social bias and labelling of individuals will exist. Corporations are rarely portrayed as a ‘person’, paying fines rather than serving prison sentences.

Perhaps empowering those in socially deprived areas may be one method of reducing crime. Re-installing community centres, which were phased out in the late 80s, would provide the younger generations with the opportunity to develop. Yes, there are inner-city programmes. However, there is often a process of gentrification, which provides growth on the one hand, but fails to provide communities the opportunity to develop their own areas themselves. It may still be seen to be ordering and controlling people’s lives.

Investing in prisoners who have genuinely turned their lives around, or those on the fringes of social exclusion, is a better alternative to the cyclical nature of the prison door. Deviant behaviour is expensive on society, creates victims, in addition to pressures on valuable resources. This is an opportunity to grow, to change the very perspective which embodies crime reduction.

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Russ Haynes, Good Vibrations past participant, on the importance of lived experience in prison reform

Russ Haynes, Good Vibrations past participant, on the importance of lived experience in prison reform

No. 8 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Russ Haynes, radio show host and Good Vibrations past participant

 

I often wonder what the purpose of putting someone in prison is. The answer may appear obvious – punishment. Is it to teach someone a lesson? If so, then surely when a sentence is finished, you are a reformed person and good to go on your way. But in the UK we have a high reoffending rate. About 29% of people who are released from prison will reoffend within the first year. So where are we going wrong as a society?

I’ve heard people say prison isn’t tough enough. That it is like a hotel room. If your hotel room is like prison then you’re staying at a no star reviewed place and you definitely need to book another hotel. I served one year in prison. When it came to an end, I was left wondering what on earth it was all about. I know I did wrong. I accepted that. But I was confused about what I was supposed to get out of it.

One of the hardest things was the boredom. I developed a routine that I stuck to throughout my sentence. I read the newspaper slowly in the morning. Then, the afternoon I spent reading a book and watching a bit of TV. In between I did the prison work. It helped speed up the waiting time.

I also learned to protect myself and not allow feelings to be felt. I hid behind a brick wall in my mind to cope with the situation. I did my best not to be noticed by the people around me. I didn’t trust anyone. When I left prison, I kept that wall up. It was hard to break down and I didn’t know how. It was my way of coping, not allowing myself to get hurt, and because of that it was hard to feel love for my partner or my daughter.

I tried to navigate this new chapter in my life, but was struggling to carry on. My confidence and self-esteem were shattered and everything I had ever known had ended – my career, friends, hope and ambition. I take no sympathy for how I ended up in the situation. The fault was purely mine. Even though I had a partner and child waiting for me, I was lost and had no idea what I had to offer this world. My mind rushed with negative thoughts.

I really tried to adjust, but my life had changed forever. No matter how hard I tried to move on and create a new path for myself, the system stopped me at every turn, and made it as difficult as possible for me. Despite all the negative feelings I had about myself, I wanted to work and create a new life for me and my family, but there was always something blocking my way forward.

The criminal justice system doesn’t seem to be set up for people who want to learn from their mistakes and use the experience for growth and personal development. It is more focussed on punishment than on promoting rehabilitation. Any talk of redemption was met with scepticism and distrust. I was exhausted by all the hoops I had to jump through and hurdles I had to avoid just to get a job, make decisions, or be with my family.

I had loads of ideas to create my own business. However, the rules I had to follow held me back and prevented me from achieving that. Within months my ambition had faded and I had given up. I saw no future. I was tired of trying to be positive, and I fell into depression and anxiety. My mistrust grew of everyone around me. I hated my situation and I hated myself. Alone, and feeling I had no support, I took an attempt on my life to be free from the pain.

Luckily, I was found and rushed to the hospital. I was sectioned, which ironically gave me the break I needed. I used this time to calm down, reassess my situation and create a new plan for going forward.

Prison shouldn’t break you. It should give you the time to revaluate, and inspire you to make positive choices that benefit you and the society you live in. It should offer guidance, advice and motivation to succeed when you leave, so you will want to make a better version of yourself. But prison left me angry, resentful and suspicious. It bred negativity, stripped me of my self-worth and brought my worst traits to the forefront.

How can we make the criminal justice system about rehabilitation instead?

We need to have experienced people from all backgrounds – including those who have lived in prison – working together on reforming the system to make it more effective. As long as decisions are solely made by people who have never had experience of committing a crime, hitting rock bottom, or anything that can relate to why people commit crime, things will never improve.

We need to make the court process more human. The traditions of the courtroom, including the gowns and wigs, are simply alienating to someone who is about to lose their liberty. We need to be more sensitive to people’s emotional and mental wellbeing when deciding what a suitable sentence is for them.

We need to push arts in education, not just academic achievement. That will allow creative expression and a useful outlet for those inside. We need to create more opportunities for people whilst they are inside that give them the skills and mind frame to help them move forward when they leave. We need to hire prison officers and staff who are committed to rehabilitation.

We mustn’t use family visiting times as a weapon to make people behave. We need to realise the importance families play in encouraging rehabilitation and the damage it causes children when we prevent them from seeing their parents. We need to create better family visit areas in prisons that don’t leave children traumatised.

We need to stop punishing people after they’ve left prison, and stop setting impossible tasks for them to follow and putting out traps to get them back in. We need to fine companies who use someone’s past to remove them from employment, and reward companies that actively seek to employ those with a criminal background. I’m in favour of abolishing the criminal record. I feel it only serves the purpose of labelling people and allowing them to legally be discriminated against.

As long as someone does not pose a realistic ongoing risk, once their sentence has been completed then that should be it. They should be able to move on without any prejudice. That would inspire and encourage those who find themselves within the system to work their way out of it and become valued members of society.

It has been over 12 years since I finished my sentence and I’m still finding it difficult to move on. I have no trust in the system and think it is one of the UK biggest failures. That and the Covid response and also possibly Greggs.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Alison Frater, Chair of Clean Break, on how women in prison have been let down and why the arts give her hope

Alison Frater, Chair of Clean Break, on how women in prison have been let down and why the arts give her hope

No. 7 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Alison Frater, Co-Chair of Clean Break

 

How do we halt the vicious cycle of crime?

On the face of it a question about halting the vicious cycle of crime requires an answer about prevention. We need to identify what it is about our society, individuals, families and communities that creates crimes then we’d know what to do to stop it, wouldn’t we?

Examining the question more closely and especially through the lens of women’s incarceration, an area I know best (though the issues are not unique to women), I see that the author is asking a better question. It’s not the crime in this sentence that’s vicious it’s the cycle. The questioner already knows that the causes of crime are well evidenced, properly researched, findings are validated. What they want is the answer to why it goes round and round. Who on earth is responsible for this malign scrolling recurring endlessly to the detriment of perpetrator and victim – a false dichotomy for women by the way. And what, in this past, present and never-ending future, can we do to stop it.

Observing moribund, going nowhere social policy is a bit of an occupational hazard in my chosen career of pubic health. But, the repeated failure of successive governments to deliver the widely supported policy objective of reducing women’s incarceration has few precedents. The neglect of need, the un-reason, the wasted investment on interventions with evidence to the contrary sinks to a new low of moral and fiscal incoherence. Still being sentenced to imprisonment for minor crime, first offences, debt, problems arising from drug and alcohol issues, they lose their jobs, their housing, their children. Failed again and again women are forced to relive their trauma through endless public enquiries. Children, families and communities are left to roll around in a badly led, courage missing, policy churn.

Shifting your stare from the relentless pursuit of change through political influencing takes a lot for a hardened public health consultant. I’ve had to get over my disbelief  – my own vicious cycle – that surely this latest piece of research or this reshuffled administration or new Secretary of State will make the difference. For me, release, stepping out of the miserable vortex came from six years of joyous chairing of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance.

Arts organisations don’t like to see themselves in the role of social reformers. They argue about the intrinsic value of the arts, the complexity of emotional enrichment. They don’t deny art’s transforming power but they worry that it will be diminished if pressed to the wheel of social reform. And well they might.

But for me the reveal is that the arts explain the cause of crime but also the consequences of criminalisation. They hold a mirror to society in a way that refracts its more bewildering behaviour. What you get is a way of seeing, a visible light.

Public sector organisations are now required to deliver social impact. Increasingly they’re turning to the organisations in the NCJ Arts Alliance for inspiration. What they find are cultural leaders who deliver change because they put people’s needs at the core of their work.

I co-chair Clean Break, a theatre company that provides access to creativity for women affected by the criminal justice system. From its origins 40 years ago, the founders established and worked with sister organisations who could offer help with housing, health, employment, education, social care. Clean Break delivers, mentoring, writing and theatre workshops, dramaturgy but also friendship and community. It stands with its members tackling discrimination, racism and poverty. It sees that meeting physical and mental health needs drives out the stifling impact of inequalities, frees lives, enables unique and wonderful, inspiring expression.

When Clean Break presents productions (and don’t miss the Summer Season 2021) increasingly to new audiences in full houses or on packed screens, it finds a society that hasn’t given up on women, but one that’s giving up on leaders who continue to condemn the vulnerable to vicious cycles.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Chris Atkins, filmmaker, journalist and author, on the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on prisons

Chris Atkins, filmmaker, journalist and author, on the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on prisons

No. 6 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Chris Atkins, filmmaker, journalist and author

 

Most ex-jailbirds want to quickly forget their time behind bars, but I didn’t have that option. I’d got sentenced to five years for tax fraud in 2016, after getting involved in a dodgy scheme to fund my film. I kept a prison diary which was published a year ago, called A Bit of a Stretch, and has since become a bestseller. I’d assumed that interest in prisons would evaporate once the world went into lockdown, but it was quite the reverse. I was bombarded with tweets asking how to survive isolation, so I replied with tips about the importance of routine, breaking the day into manageable chunks, and timing your bowel movements for the greater good. I was bemused to see people directly comparing the lockdown to prison, with Ellen DeGeneres complaining in her LA mansion: “This is like being in jail, mostly because I’ve been in the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay.”[i]

But aside from upsetting Hollywood celebs, Covid-19 had a catastrophic impact on British prisons, which were already in a nightmare state. Family visits were cancelled and prisoners were immediately locked in their cells all day. The Ministry of Justice claimed that the system was under control, but official prison inspectors were kept out which prevented any outside scrutiny. Fortunately, I was already making a podcast series about prison life and in contact with several serving prisoners, so I had a unique window into this terrible phase of the prison crisis.

One inmate explained how quickly things had deteriorated. “One minute we were doing our usual education and going to work, and then suddenly we were trapped in our cells for over 23 and a half hours a day. We got ten minutes to have a shower, ten minutes to do any admin, then we were banged back up. There was a bit of camaraderie at first, feeling we were all in this together. We made a lot of noise for the clap for the NHS, everyone was banging their doors and hooting.”

Even though prisoners were mostly stuck in their cells, they were still closely mingling when accessing food and showers. One inmate said “They’d let out a whole landing at once to queue for the servery, and we weren’t standing 2 meters apart.” A resident in another prison revealed “Social distancing didn’t exist whatsoever. 200 guys were sharing just six shower heads, with no partitions, all crammed into a tiny swamp.”

Most prisons are horrendously overcrowded, with two and even three inmates sharing cells designed for one, so coronavirus ripped right through the system. A prisoner told me how most of his wing quickly became infected. “We all lost our sense of taste and smell really early on. We couldn’t taste the prison food, which was quite a bonus to be fair!” A resident at one prison said that half their residents (approx. 800 men) had covid symptoms in the first month. But despite these spiralling figures, the Ministry of Justice claimed there were only 88 infected prisoners in April 2020[ii], as hardly any inmates were being tested. In the same month Public Health England reported that the number of actual cases was at least 2,000 – twenty times more than the government’s estimate[iii].

Symptomatic inmates were soon subjected to barbaric isolation measures, in a desperate attempt to curtail the virus. “People would be locked up for two and a half weeks solid. They didn’t even get the twenty minutes out their cells, so no showers or exercise. The officers would bring food to their door, tell them to go to the back of the cell, and push the food in. Healthcare became non-existent. If you had symptoms, they locked you up, put a sticker on the door and said ‘Good luck!’.” This inhumane shielding had surreal unintended consequences. “If you said you had the virus, the security officers would take you to the quarantine unit, under restraint if necessary. So, after you’d seen that happen, if you had the slightest fever, headache or cough, you’d just pretend you didn’t. We had people pouring with sweat and visibly ill, but pretending that they were absolutely fine, just to keep their cell. It was like the legless knight in Monty Python, shouting that it was just a flesh wound.” The collapse in prison healthcare also meant that non-covid problems went untreated. One lad had a horrendous toothache but wasn’t even allowed aspirin. His mum harangued the prison’s governor on Twitter until he was finally given proper treatment.

As in the outside world, the prison lockdowns had a catastrophic impact on inmates’ mental health. One told me of the terrible depression and anxiety on his wing: “People are absolutely at their wits end. They’re threatening to climb on the roof and kick the shit out of people.”

When I was in Wandsworth I worked as a Listener, trusted prisoners trained by the Samaritans to prevent suicides, but this vital service was stopped during the pandemic. A resident of one prison said “There were about four or five suicides while I was there. A lad owed £400 for spice [A synthetic form of cannabis]. He called his mum and she couldn’t pay it. She got worried and rang the jail, but before they got to him he’d died by hanging.” This is not an isolated incident, in May 2020 there were five suicides in just six days across the prison estate.[iv] The number of prisoners on suicide watch has shot up[v], and self-harm in women’s prisons has hit a record high[vi].

A lot of this anguish stems from inmates being separated from their families, as most visits have been cancelled since last March. You might have little sympathy for the plight of law breakers, but these brutal measures have also irreparably harmed thousands of innocent kids. Barnardo’s estimates that more than 200,000 children currently have a parent in prison[vii]. An anguished mother told me that her son hadn’t see his father for eight months, “Our lives have been destroyed.”

When I was in jail, I was able to see my son for an hour every week, which was a vital lifeline to maintaining our relationship. But now kids have been separated from their parents for up to a year, which is unspeakably cruel. If people are lucky they can sometimes access monthly prison video calls – aka “Purple Visits” – which are loathed by families. The technology is programmed to shut down if someone unauthorised enters the shot, but this is painfully unreliable. “The video cuts out every time my son moves, which is so distressing and just upsets him further. He hardly eats and has gone off his food, it’s soul destroying.” The mother sent me a photo of her son hugging a pillow which has a photo of his dad, which reduced me to tears.

Another mother told me about a physical visit she had last September, after six long months of separation. The toddler spontaneously hugged the father, breaking the necessary social distancing rules, so the prison promptly wrote to the mother banning the child indefinitely. I posted this astonishing letter on Twitter, and the decision was swiftly overturned.

At the start of pandemic, the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland promised to release 4,000 low risk prisoners slightly early, including 70 pregnant women, to create vital space for quarantining[viii] [ix]. With depressing predictability, the authorities completely bungled the entire process. Only 275 of the 4,000 eligible prisoners were ever released[x], and only 21 of pregnant women[xi] [xii]. This is especially shameful when compared to other countries. Iran, not normally associated with progressive human rights, gave compassionate leave to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who had been detained on trumped up spying charges[xiii].

As the first lockdown eased in late 2020, HM Inspectorate of Prisons was finally allowed to enter some jails. The watchdog released a damning report this week revealing a decline in mental and physical health, and a rise in drug taking and self-harm. The inspectorate also highlighted a collapse in pre-release rehabilitation work, making ex-offenders ill equipped for life after prison which means more will turn back to crime.

There’s no question that most prison officers have performed a heroic service over the past year, and risk their lives every day. I’ve long demanded that officers should have full key worker status, and must be high up the vaccination list. But I was appalled by a spate of tasteless Tiktok videos of officers dancing in prison yards, often in full view of incarcerated inmates who hadn’t exercised for weeks.

These stories have all come from conversations I’ve recorded with dozens of prisoners for a podcast series, also called A Bit of a Stretch. But I wanted do more to help those stuck inside, so I asked my north London media friends to hand over their spare books which I drove to HMP Pentonville. I got a lovely note from the librarian saying how these were very well received on the wings. With the help of other authors including Antony Horrowitz, Deborah Moggach and Sathnam Sanghera, I’ve started Bang Up Books and convinced leading publishers to donate over ten thousand books to twenty prisons. These should hopefully ease the appalling suffering in our shamefully underfunded prisons, and maybe encourage the inmates towards a more enlightened path.

 

[i] https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/ellen-degeneres-coronavirus-jail-show-watch-a9453941.html

[ii] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/measures-announced-to-protect-nhs-from-coronavirus-risk-in-prisons

[iii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52449920

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/28/alarm-over-five-suicides-in-six-days-at-prisons-in-england-and-wales

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/10/number-of-prisoners-in-england-and-wales-on-suicide-watch-rises-steeply

[vi] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/28/self-harm-among-female-prisoners-in-england-and-wales-at-record-high

[vii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29369970

[viii] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/03/31/70-pregnant-women-mothers-released-prison-early-combat-coronavirus/

[ix] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/04/up-to-4000-inmates-to-be-temporarily-released-in-england-and-wales

[x] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/30/we-need-far-more-coronavirus-tests-in-british-prisons

[xi] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/12/coronavirus-only-55-prisoners-early-release-england-wales

[xii] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/aug/19/prisons-inspector-england-wales-warns-of-mental-health-problems-from-severe-coronavirus-restrictions

[xiii] https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/may/20/nazanin-zaghari-ratcliffe-stay-out-of-prison-until-iran-makes-decision-on-fate

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Charlotte Wise, Occupational Therapist at HMP Stoke Heath, on the importance of looking at a person as a whole

Charlotte Wise, Occupational Therapist at HMP Stoke Heath, on the importance of looking at a person as a whole

No. 5 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Charlotte Wise, Occupational Therapist based at HMP Stoke Heath

 

The role of an occupational therapist can vary depending on the area of practice but occupational therapy takes on a whole person approach to both mental and physical well-being in order to enable an individual to achieve their full potential (Royal College of Occupational Therapy, 2020).

I found occupational therapy when I was working in a medium secure hospital. The occupational therapists always appeared happy and keen to engage individuals. They offered the patients a variety of opportunities to participate in meaningful occupations including assessing self-care tasks, developing domestic skills, increasing leisure activities with an aim to encourage service users to be more independent and develop a positive daily routine.

The profession provided me with the opportunity to fulfil my passion – I had always been keen to work with individuals with mental health issues and a forensic history. I was keen to know why people commit crime, what leads them to these decisions in life, and to think about how I could help them rebuild their lives.

Over four years ago, I started working in the secondary mental health team at HMP Stoke Heath. I was keen to think about how I could apply my occupational therapy skills to the service users in the prison establishment and make improvements to their lives.

Much of the work I started and still do with the individuals on my caseload involves psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Compassion Focused Therapy. This has great benefits to the individuals I work with, as being able to recognise and manage emotions more effectively can impact on their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, which will hopefully keep them out of trouble.

As my role developed further, I was keen to be more focused on the occupational therapy element of my practice and I started to introduce some new interventions to service users. This included a Recovery through Activity weekly group programme and working with the Good Vibrations team to offer a week-long intervention. These offered service users opportunities to engage in new occupations and make them think about activities that they used to enjoy.

Feedback from Recovery through Activity project indicated positive benefits for all participants involved. One patient reported that he had started to engage more in physical activities, and as a result he was sleeping better at night and getting up earlier. Following the Good Vibrations project, individuals reported that they felt better about themselves, felt happier, were feeling more confident, had improved relationships with others, improved listening skills and started taking part in more activities and groups.

At the present time, there are increased COVID restrictions in the prison establishment, meaning that prisoners are in their cells for long periods of the time, often up to 23 hours a day. During this time, I wanted to continue to utilise my occupational therapy skills, encouraging individuals to maintain a positive daily routine and engage in meaningful activities.

For the past 12 months, I have reached out to a significant number of prisoners to offer them additional distraction materials including colouring, puzzles, board games, relaxation activities, in-cell workouts and competitions. This has been a great opportunity to spread the work about my role and how we can help others even in the restrictions which are forced upon us.

The occupational therapy service is available for all the prisoners who reside at HMP Stoke Heath, they can be referred via a healthcare professional, prison staff or self-refer. However, there is only me, and there are 700 prisoners in the establishment, so as a result I am unable to help everyone. I hope that, in the future, there will be an opportunity for the employment of another occupational therapist to assist with providing further meaningful occupations to the prisoners here, and add to what is already available through education and vocational opportunities.

I feel the role of the occupational therapist can have a significant impact in the prison environment, offering individuals additional chances and opportunities which they may not have experienced in the community. Occupational therapists will look at the person as a whole and address what the person would like to achieve, their goals and their ambitions. Encouraging individuals to focus on what they would want to achieve, as opposed to what they are being asked to do in a sentence plan, makes this more person-centred. Increasing the focus onto the individuals can encourage empowerment and hope, increase their self-esteem and self-confidence. Developing these skills could assist individuals on leaving custody.

It is difficult to know whether occupational therapy has an impact on reoffending rates. However, I can only presume that if people have other occupations to engage in, feel more motivated to engage in pro-social activities and feel more positive about themselves, this can only have good effects on their physical and mental well-being.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Sarah Hartley, Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment at Novus, on the arts, self-development and rehabilitation

Sarah Hartley, Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment at Novus, on the arts, self-development and rehabilitation

No. 4 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Sarah Hartley, Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment at Novus. Novus delivers education, rehabilitation support and opportunity to 60,000 adults and young people in custody and in the community across England and Wales.

 

Creative arts’ place in a rehabilitative culture

My passion for the arts is at the core of who I am. Through my own challenges within education (I am dyslexic), it has always been the creative subjects that I have felt connected with, to a point where any further study I took on beyond school was all art based.

I pursued a path I enjoyed, and these experiences and opportunities are what shaped the direction of my career. I believe that my own connection with art, and knowing the empowerment it gave me, has meant that I have gravitated, either consciously or subconsciously, to work with ‘disconnected’ groups in society – people with mental health and complex needs, elderly people and those in the criminal justice system.

As a creative practitioner, I use creativity in its many forms as a platform to empower and give autonomy and agency to the individual. In enabling opportunities for participants to experience new things and express themselves freely, I have seen how this can lead to an increase in self-esteem and pride in their achievements.

I have worked within the criminal justice system for Novus for 15 years. During this time, I have seen first-hand the shifts in people’s behaviours, self-worth, confidence and attitudes through their engagement in the arts, and how this then translates into positively impacting on the transformative nature of the sector.

Our aim at Novus is to champion the arts and its value to society, the communities we work in and the learners that we support, ultimately contributing to reducing reoffending.

Creative thinking and innovation are key components to improving employability and social development. The opportunities that engagement in the arts and culture present offer an excellent environment in which our learners can grow. It is by offering engaging and challenging activities and opportunities within arts and culture that we will encourage learners to make a valuable contribution to their surroundings.

In my role as Operational Lead for Creative Arts and Enrichment, it is my privilege to create spaces that enable opportunities for those in prison to engage in art. I understand the positive contribution that art can make in the criminal justice sector. The space created empowers an individual to explore and embrace new experiences, helping shape a positive identity.

For me, there are two main benefits for engaging in the arts, both of which are intrinsically linked:

  • the value of arts in enabling self-development
  • how self-development aligns to a rehabilitative culture.

An example of this can be seen in the collaborative work we do with the Tate, and in particular the national project, ‘A Future I can Love’, which I led in 2020. The project ran from March to October. Novus learners in prisons and young offender institutions across England and Wales were invited to respond to a brief developed in conjunction with the Tate, based on the Tate Exchange theme for the year, ‘Love’.

The brief was devised to be embedded into existing education provision, enhancing curriculum areas through project based learning, and empowering individuals to shape the project outcomes. The pieces created were to be part of an external showcase to increase awareness around ways in which engagement in creative activity supports rehabilitation along with supporting community cohesion and reducing stigma.

The success of this project was amazing: 389 learners from 52 establishments created 515 creative pieces, supported by 130 Novus colleagues plus a wider group of HMPPS and G4S colleagues. Given that the project was rolled out and completed in a global pandemic, within the national restrictions in place across the prison estate, this was a great achievement. People saw the project as a meaningful opportunity, a platform for positive engagement, and a way of using the imagination to mentally escape from the circumstance they faced due to the pandemic.

There is an ongoing debate around the value attributed to creative work within the criminal justice system. The prime function of the prison system is to protect the public, keep prisoners safe, support rehabilitation and reduce reoffending. So, it can be challenging to introduce an offer such as the creative arts as an integral part of supporting a prison’s aims and objectives.

While there is research that supports the value of the arts, there continues to be challenges around what is satisfactory for commissioners and funders. Demonstrating the impact that creative practice has on reducing reoffending is a piece of work which continues.

However, the pandemic has shown that there appears to be a greater reactiveness to alternative approaches, with the recognition that these can support individuals in valuable ways, such as with their wellbeing and mental health. It is now up to us to harness this acceptance and drive forward the importance and value of the creative arts to rehabilitation.

I’ve seen how the arts can change a person’s life. Martin* used his time in prison to embrace the learning that was on offer, building on his interests and skills in art and design. Whilst at HMP Buckley Hall he enrolled with the Novus education department, where he was able to build on his education and reading to help him move forward to his ultimate aim of a career in interior design. As he neared the end of his sentence, Martin transferred to HMP Thorn Cross, where he became an art mentor, and took part in the first collaborative project between Novus and Tate Liverpool. He was supported by the Novus team to build on his qualifications, both in prison and enrolling at a local college where he attended on release on temporary licence (ROTL). Before his release Martin applied to go to university, and was immediately accepted. Since then, Martin has completed his degree in Interior Design, achieving a First Class Honours, and is now undertaking a Masters in Building Information Modelling (BIM).

Martin says: “All the experiences I’ve had have allowed me to grow as a person, and my journey continues, to get myself into a career where I can provide for myself, so I can rise above my past and create a more prosperous and healthy future for my future family. My sentence will never define my personality or stop me from becoming the better person and achieving success.”

(*Martin is not the real name of the individual)

Note: the featured picture for this blog was created by a learner at HMP Thorn Cross in response to the ‘Future I  Can Love’ project.

 

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Laurence Rugg, Good Vibrations facilitator, on why compassion works better than punishment

Laurence Rugg, Good Vibrations facilitator, on why compassion works better than punishment

No. 3 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Laurence Rugg, Facilitator, Good Vibrations

 

“Punishment is the last and least effective instrument in the hands of the legislator for the prevention of crime.”  John Ruskin (1819 – 1900 art critic and prominent social thinker and philanthropist).

Many of our prisons date from the late nineteenth century. They are places with huge chapels. God was seen as the answer to problems. They reflect the notion of many Victorians that God, in whom most believed, together with punishment and justice, would bring the changes needed in society. Even the very architectural additions such as the scales of justice that form part of the iron railings which surround HMP Leeds reflect this. How much is this relevant to today’s society? Sadly it seems to be at the core in many prisons. Sadly much of society still believes justice is served by punishment. And yet the figures for repeat offending remain persistently high, surely reflecting that punishment has been of little effect. There must be another way.

Equally, the education act of 1870 began compulsory education for all. Before that it had been the preserve of religious societies who provided school places so that the teaching of reading would give children the wherewithal to read the Bible. In truth, it was brought in to address the problem of child labour, to stop children being sent up chimneys. Again, as with prisons, schools were brought in to address societal issues. As with prisons they missed the mark.Not only did they do that in Victorian times but they continue to do it to this day. How many children fail at school because it doesn’t seem to address their needs? How many of those children go on to end up in the prison system? Many of the children in today’s gangs have failed to engage with schooling in any positive way.

Clearly there are also other factors which also affect these issues, but they remain issues which see prisons and schools failing for so many people in society. The reason for this failure is because society in general doesn’t address the needs of the very individuals staring them in the face. In the case of prisons, problems have continued because of both society’s lack of interest and, of late, because of the severe cuts that were made to the prison service in 2010. Things that were being developed were the first things the coalition axed. As ever, that is always the case with the arts. Similarly, Tony Blair’s mantra of “Education, education, education” had a hollow ring as the curriculum narrowed, teaching to tests and the dead hand of OFSTED proclaimed that schools were failing if they didn’t achieve the requisite number of grade A to C GCSEs. I believe the two issues are directly linked. This is why I mention them in the same breath. It is why many of us who think, as did several Victorian philanthropists, that change only comes about when you deal with what is actually there, and explore the rich possibilities a group of people could present, if dealt with in a practical and sensitive way. What we have is a society that, in general, only cares about itself. A society which is driven by money and what it can buy rather than a society which cares about its fellow human beings, that cares about the folk with mental health issues, personality disorders, drug problems and people who just don’t cope well with many things they encounter in life generally. Surely this is where reform is needed and where organisations like Good Vibrations come into the frame, both to provide help for those people in prison or out in society.

I joined Good Vibrations seventeen years ago at its inception. Cathy, its founder, rang me to ask how using the gamelan worked with prisoners. She had heard I’d run a course at HMP Hull. It was a question I couldn’t answer. As far as I’m concerned folk in prison are just another set of people. I had done projects with various community groups and this was just another group albeit with different needs. If anything was different it was that people in prison, as with other places, quickly become institutionalised. That’s one of the glorious things about Good Vibrations that folk often say, “ I forgot where I was.” The effect of the music and nature of the work takes them into a different space, where they can forget, for a while, their present concerns. It relaxes them.

What Good Vibrations can and does do is provide a stimulus to build confidence to work as part of a group and produce something they have made together. This is no mean achievement for anyone, let alone people who are locked up. To this end, we facilitate most of the time rather than dishing out instructions for what is required, although that isn’t entirely excluded. To get this to happen demands a lot of faith in the product – creativity. This is never straightforward and easy because it demands that the facilitator encourages people to talk, listen and discuss. Again, the most common feedbacks are, “I was listened to” and “I was treated as a human being.” But what does this say about the experience of many in prison? One of the officers working on a PIPE (psychologically informed, planned environment) unit simply said, “When you open up in the morning it doesn’t hurt to ask how they are today.” And in one such unit I visited I asked a prisoner what they thought was different about being on a PIPE unit. He said, “Well, when you come back from a course an officer says, how did it go? They show an interest in you.” Simple, but very human things. Things missing in institutions which all too often simply don’t care.

It would be so good if changes could be made in prisons that seriously address such issues, where officers are given training in psychology and interpersonal skills. This costs money but even more than that – a will to make tackling the issue of reducing reoffending real and crucial. It needs people with skills to turn people around by providing the right environment to make this happen. Such is the case in Norway where they reckon they can do this, at most, over a timescale of seven years! Opportunities have been missed. When many officers retired in 2010, a priority could have been made to recruit and skill up those new recruits. However, the only thought at the time was to save money! In addition, to go back to my point at the beginning “society still believes justice is served by punishment.” Society doesn’t care.

I really appreciate the experiences I have had in working for Good Vibrations. Knowing that a group who may have been difficult to manage can pull themselves together to produce a performance on the last day of a course is so good. That’s because they really don’t want to let themselves down. That is part of what they’ve learnt in a week. They have found some self respect and what it is to be part of a group. I think the important issue to keep in mind is that although we use the gamelan to create music our courses are not primarily about making music but about providing a space for people to develop confidence, team working, creativity and a sense of worth. A facilitator uses his or her psychological skills to develop all these things in the short space of a  week. It sharpens ones ability to push things in a certain way, to let things go, to give people space to take on things they may never have dreamt of. Working for Good Vibrations isn’t always easy. It has changed the way I view so many things. It has changed my life.

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Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.