What society needs to learn from people with convictions

Clinks, an organisation that supports voluntary organisations working with ‘offenders’ and their families issued a call for responses to this question: “What do offenders, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn?”. It will publish responses sometime in 2017. SPARC has submitted a response as follows…

We are not children who “need to learn”.

The question that is put out for response – “What do offenders, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn?” – insinuates that as a group there are things we ‘need’ to be taught. Not only is this framing of inquiry slightly offensive, it has authoritarian and paternalistic overtones that keep us in our place at the bottom of society where we need constant interventions into our lives. The invitation to hear from those with first-hand experience as ‘prisoners and ex-offenders’ is welcome, but risks itself becoming a means of re-drawing a line between an ‘us’ and ‘them’. Even well-intentioned efforts to help others can be a way of othering and demonising, rather than humanising people. There is a long-standing tradition in penal practice, research and reform of infantilising and denying the agency of those involved in criminal justice. We have re-framed the question to support our position that user voices should not be used just to gain information (to support development of services or better rates of rehabilitation) but should help shape the very debate over reform itself and what the problems of punishment are.

What society would benefit from considering is what people in the system themselves want to move their lives forward. The majority of us feel that support, understanding and guidance would serve both people with convictions and the tax paying public better, in the place of constant interventions delivered from above. Too many services are organised around one size fits all diagnosis of what people need. By ignoring the individual realities of a person’s situation, and their own ideas about the kind of support they need, means that any help becomes prescriptive and reinforces the idea that people are not capable of taking control of their own lives in positive ways.

What we have found has helped us the most both in prison and on our journey out, is the help and understanding on a personal level from those who treated us as people, and as adults, no different from themselves – with strengths, flaws, goals and vulnerabilities. Meaningful, genuine encounters – 15 minutes with a member of staff listening and hearing you – has had a more real, positive and powerful impact than ‘offender change’ programmes, which officially document our rehabilitation.

Prisons and contact with the criminal justice system is inherently damaging.

Prisons are inherently damaging places to be, both for the people locked in them as well as the family they leave behind. Ideas of prisons as holiday camps has taken hold in the media and in public imagination whilst the idea of a loss of freedom remains too abstract. It’s not what we’re given in prison that should be the focus of concern, but the fact that these things – whether tellys or Xboxes or DVDs – do not compensate for what is taken away. Taken away from family and friends, from our lives on the outside, but also taken away from a sense of normality and autonomy and placed in an institution where just about every dynamic is about control and disempowerment. These losses de-skill and dehumanise us, yet these skills and this sense of self-efficacy are the main sources we need for support on release. That is, ‘reintegration’ support is needed because of the effects of prison itself, and criminal justice, on people. Too often, reintegration is treated as a reflection of an individual’s deficits, as if committing an offence demonstrates complete incapacity in all areas – to maintain family relationships, housing, a job.

The public read about a prison that we have never experienced – where life is like a holiday camp and you get to do whatever you want. Not only do the tabloid media get it wrong, for their own reasons, but prison services often mislead about how ‘normal’ life on the inside is.

Prisons are not filled with the country’s most dangerous criminals.

Whilst imprisonment is admittedly necessary in any civilised society in order to lock up those who have committed the most damaging, serious forms of harm – it has turned out to be a dumping ground for those of us society has failed. It has become a waste management solution where the lowest of the low in society can be dumped, rather than dealing with wider social problems of poor quality jobs, inadequate housing, and lack of mental health support. Crime is at an all-time low, yet our prisons are still overcrowded – with one in three males accruing a criminal conviction in Scotland and one in four in England and Wales. How can this be? Society needs to consider its culpability in the failure of so many of its citizens, and appreciate that prison could, and does, happen to anyone – we are more alike than we are different.

We have a civic future if prisons and society allows us the time, space and capacity to do work towards it.

Research on education and democracy shows that by helping someone build their educational attainment they are more inclined to take part in valued aspects of community activities. Participating in society this way is clearly a factor in reducing offending, but reduced reoffending, we believe, should not be the main aim of education, or of education in prison. Education is a prerequisite of robust democratic societies; reduced reoffending is the happy by-product of this. Civic participation increases as levels of education increases – especially liberal arts forms of learning, which encourage freethinking, creativity, empathy and curiosity. Societies and prisons need to learn that we are not all in need of basic literacy and numeracy courses, or employability skills courses (which lead neither to qualifications or actual jobs). And society needs to learn that prisons often use opportunities like education (as well as family visits) as a carrot and stick to ensure disciplinary compliance in prison. Personally we have heard people complain about prisoners getting an education amongst other things, even people close to us that qualify their comments with – but you’re different because you’re doing so well.

The attitude of politicians towards people with convictions gaining any kind of civic identity can be illustrated by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments regarding prisoner voting, the very thought of which apparently made him ‘physically sick’. Never mind that the UK has been in violation of European rulings since 2005 for its blanket ban on prisoner voting. This sends a clear message that people with convictions are not welcome as full citizens – despite the rhetoric about rehabilitation. We also reject the idea that we are not citizens when we enter prison, and that prison can act as a ‘citizen recovery’ service, as it has been touted by the current head of Scottish prisons. We do not lose our status as human beings, adults and citizens by having convictions.

How academia, the media and the public interact with people with convictions matter.

Questions like the one posed for this paper show how even third sector and academic attitudes towards people with convictions are entrenched with negative assumptions. These assumptions are based on the belief that people with convictions are all stupid individuals who are one intervention away from being taught that our way of living is wrong and we can be saved from a life of crime. We reject such infantilising and patronising thinking, which sadly is embedded in much of what we have read about desistance models. The media continue to run stories about the ned – the chav, the neet – who is forever causing trouble wherever he goes due to his low level of intelligence and lack of respect for society. This is eaten up by the public who according to the media are outraged at the luxury we live in when in prison and the opportunities we are given. Society needs to learn that some of us have caused the worst possible harm to others and to society, and having been through this, we are now seeking meaningful ways to re-join and contribute to our communities. We cannot do this when we are disempowered, pitied, de-skilled, de-humanised and told by others what it is we need to learn.

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