I have had a few requests to put my speech from the Clinks Annual Conference (09/05/2019) up on this site... full of blushing cheeks; I do this here:
I know not whether Laws be right
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
But this I know, that every Law
That man hath made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.
This too I know – and wise it were
If each could know the same-
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.
Oscar Wilde wrote a letter to the Editor of the Daily Chronicle in 1898 regarding the then Home Secretary’s proposed Prison Reform Bill. The bill contained the main reform of there was to be an increase of Official Visitors and inspectors.
“Such a reform as this is entirely useless. The reason is extremely simple” he says. “The inspectors and Justices of the Peace that visit prisons come there for the sole purpose of seeing that the prison regulations are duly carried out. They come for no other reason, nor have they any power, even if they had the desire to alter a single clause in the regulations.”
What He wrote intrigued me. I started thinking why do we work in the criminal justice system if we can’t change the acts of parliament that govern them?
Look, we all do things every day that benefit ourselves. We get out of bed so we can start the day … We eat so that we can survive, we work hard so that we can play.
I cast no aspersions in what I am about to ask and I include myself. Do we do what we do because it makes us feel better? Do we do our work because it massages our egos that we are doing something good and that when we reach those pearly gates we will be welcomed with open arms? There is absolutely nothing wrong about feeling good about our work as long as that is only PART of the reason that we do it. Are we egotistical? Are we self serving? Are our arms sore from reaching behind to pat ourselves on the back? I do not believe we are, as a species, that self-centred.
Let me quickly tell you my story:
Matthew was 26 years young when he passed away in my arms after cutting himself in prison. This was my second week in jail. He was remanded on a drink driving charge and the sole carer for his mother. Matthew felt bad, he said he “wasn’t feeling right in his head” He was locked up the night prior without being allowed to call home. The next morning he was opened up with the following words “So you’ve not killed yourself then?” he decided to prove the staff wrong. He went out onto the landing and took a razor blade and cut himself from elbow to wrist. I decided right there and then that I would dedicate myself in trying to ensure that such inhumane treatment of a fellow human being never happened again.
In 1898 Wilde says in that letter that there were three punishments authorised by law in England and they are:
· The average food budget per prisoner is just under £2.00 per person per day- Hunger
· Anyone who has laid down on a 3 inch thick mattress with either wood or plastic slats underneath will tell you that it is impossible to sleep - Insomnia
· We are forced to eat about 3 feet away from where we defecate. There are currently over 1000 cells in this country that do not have in cell sanitation and therefore a bucket more often than not has to be used – Disease.
How can society expect a prisoner to be released after his time in jail NOT angry, NOT ill and NOT mentally scarred if after 120 years we are still treating our prisoners this way?
The frustration I feel is only equalled by my anger that my country treats its citizens in such a way. Do we want things to change? Do we as a society not wallow in the troubles of others? The viewing figures of something called EastEnders Street and Coronation Oaks seem to say that we do!!
When I left prison, I found a love of writing. I found my voice, as it were. I found, after 53 years of walking this planet, my passion. I found that I wanted to try and raise the public’s knowledge of what goes on in our prisons. Of the great things that can happen to one in prison. To let them know that there are good people on both sides of the door. That I was a product of the good that people who work in prisons can do.
I stand here breathing, today, because of a prison officer. I chose the date and time of what would be my own death whilst in prison. I had decided that the world would be better off without me in it. I was convinced that no one gave a damn about me. Then on the very morning that I had decided to kill myself my personal officer called into the prison on his day off to speak to me. And that random act of kindness is what allows me to be with you today. That someone cared, that someone remembered that I existed.
I decided that I wanted to spend whatever life I have left in going back into the very places that held me to help those less fortunate than I. I believed that I had an experience that those who draw cell keys could never have. I wanted and indeed want to explain to people what life is like behind the door. How we as prisoners live with constant paranoia. How we feel that every whispered voice is a conversation about us. I wanted to explain that, overall, we want to change, we want to turn away from crime. I wanted to explain that we are just the same as you. But above all I wanted to try and help stem the flow of coffins that are leaving our jails. I wanted to help. No I needed to help.
I went to a couple of what I thought were wonderful charities that are out there to ask them to help me. Help me help prisoners was my crie de couer. I didn’t know how to go about to get back into the prisons (apart from the obvious ways that is!!). The welcome I got? The slamming of doors in my face. “This will never work”, they said. “You’ll never get the prisons to work with you”, they cried. “How will this impact our funding?” They muttered. I was deflated, I was dejected. But the memory of Matthew kept me going. I had to do this in his memory. But I thank everyone of those organisations who shunned me. They made me stronger, they made me more determined. To the jails who listened to me, took my ideas and then changed your phone numbers…I thank you. You never understood it wasn’t about employing me; it was about ensuring that those in jail were dealt with humanely. You didn’t realise it but your taking my ideas and making them your own was exactly what I wanted you to do in the first place!
The result? I am still a one-man band, I work in about 15 or so jails and I plan to work in 106 more. I will keep doing what I do because I need my fellow prisoners to have a voice.
My crowning glory was not the inspectorate mentioning my work, not the pat on the back from the management, it was my fellow prisoners thanking me. That, gave me my first smile in many a year.
And then there is you.
You lovely people, you wonderful human beings who just want to get on with it. You want to help, some of you may be like me and NEED to help.
You are here, you people who are willing to look at us with no pre-conception and for that you have my thanks. Don’t get me wrong; we don't want your pity or your charity. What we want is a chance. A chance to show that whatever drove us to be in jail is in the past and that you look at us as people and not numbers.
We need you, the voluntary sector to walk with us, not in front of us. We need you to give a damn! We are not statistics, don’t patronise us. Don’t work with us because it makes you feel good. Do it because you understand that people with our experience can help you achieve your goals. Do it, because you need to know that those of us who have decided to work in this field, this industry that for so many years we tried to escape from; have a need to help those with whom we walked the landings.
The sheer fact that all of you are here shows me that you are willing to do just that.
Let it be known from here, from this very podium that you are cherished, you are recognised and above all understand that whilst you may not remember all of us that you helped we will always remember you.
I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.