Monday, 31 December 2018

The Year That Was

Hello, good evening and welcome!

Well that’s 2018 over with! I, for one, can’t wait for the bells to chime 12 at midnight. 

This is a personal look back on the year, it’s not going to fill you full of statistics on the state of prisons. I won’t tell you that there are 4 urgent notifications out there and there is no sign that any of them are improving. I won’t tell you that one governor told me that his staff “weren’t quite there, yet” when it came to understanding how important the first 24 hours in custody are for an individual.  I won’t tell you that suicides are higher this year than last. I won’t tell you that the 10 prisons the new prisons minister nominated that he should be judged by are getting more and more violent with every day. Nah, I won’t do that. Well I will, but later.

Let’s you and I reflect on our year.

Now I don’t want to go off on a rant here but what have you done this year? Whose life have you made better? Are you happy? Do you smile every day when you wake up? How many times, this year, have you practised a random act of kindness? I mean have you done something kind for another human being or an animal without them ever knowing about it? Have you? What was it?

You see, I think a lot of us do things for others because it makes US feel good for doing it. We can massage our egos as we relish in the goodness of us. 

“Just the other day I helped an elderly woman across the road?”
“I gave a beggar on the street £2”,
“I sponsored Hilda for that fun run”

You see where I am going here? I feel that society has got far too full of its own importance. We want to do good things because that’s how we want other people to see us. Tell me, when you look in the mirror? Do you see YOU or do you see the person that you want other people to see? 

Just last month, I wrote my answer to the question “Why do people stop offending”. I said that people won’t stop offending until society wants them to. I stand by that comment. I think society loves a catastrophe, don’t you? It loves wallowing in people’s pity or wrong doing. Come on, admit it, we all do. If you tell me that you don’t sneak a look at the tabloids every now and then; I won’t believe you. It’s ok. I won’t think any less of you. Hell, I do it every now and then. I was contacted by someone on social media recently who decided to tell me about a certain daily mail article. Later in their same timeline they decried the tabloids for how they talked of prisons. Two-faced or just being a bit hypocritical? Look, the tabloids fuel our fire. We sit at our computers, staring into space asking for some sort of divine intervention in order to get our mojo back so  that we may actually do some work and just before the lightning bolt comes out of the blue (or in other terms, our boss comes to kick us up the proverbial backside) we punch in those immortal words: mail online, sun online or mirror online and up it comes… our adrenalin rushes. We are now stuck in the tabloid world. We are stuck in the world of unbelievable headlines; “X gets caught for drunk driving”, “Star of Celebrity Big Brother Britain’s Got Talent stole a coat hanger when they were 9 years old” or “Donald Trump elected President (oh wait that one’s actually true)” and we lap it up.  We read as was written today about the holiday camps that are our prisons, we read that we are about to give our prisoners access to phones in the cells. Oh, the luxury! Next, they will have bed sheets and pillows.  Then just for a second, we stop and think, “Wait, who reads this crap?” and it dawns on us;  We Do! There is something about the tabloids that appeal to our “Mr Hyde”, our flipside, our lower cortex. Granted we all have this fantasy that we are too busy catching up on our back issues of “Deconstructing Philosophy monthly”, but we all read the tabloids just the same. It’s a guilty pleasure that ranks right up there with humming the hook lines in Abba songs.  I say; just don’t believe all that you read. Don’t wallow in others helplessness. (Did you know that some of these tabloids actually have subscribers?) 

The purpose of all that rant? It was me saying, “Look its ok to be you; whoever that maybe. Don’t be the façade, don’t be what other people want you to be, be yourself.” 

This year a prison officer decided that he didn’t like what I was doing. He didn’t like that a man with my past could go into a jail and perhaps show the people who work there a different point of view. So, what did this waste of ectoplasm do, instead of growing a pair and coming to talk to me? He went to a tabloid and sold his dignity for a shilling or two. The newspaper (it’s funny that; just as I was typing the word newspaper my computer froze in convulsion) decided to run its story exclaiming how wrong it was that an exprisoner could work in a jail. Everyone is entitled to their opinion (of course, they could be wrong!). Perhaps, what the oxygen thief wanted to achieve; he did. I have been unable to work a prison for 3 months, now. I have had to abandon all the men that I supported. I have become the person that I swore I wouldn’t; I broke my word to prisoners. I have been unable to put food on my table since the story broke. Is that the outcome that this person really wanted? Then you know what, I don’t show anger to him, I pity him. I pity him for living in such an insular world; a world where people who have been to prison should always remain tarred with the same brush. Just as I pity the prison worker who wrote to me privately and said that even if I did get back into the prisons I would not work for long as “I doubt you will get much more traction after X retires.”Oh, how I pity the people who just don’t get it; they read too much Terry Pratchett for my liking. I work for the men and women in custody not for whoever signs the cheque. I pity that person as I pity those who scarpered for cover when the newspaper article surfaced. Those with whom I worked and foolishly believed were interested in what I did. I pity them; yet still I rise. I should also thank them, for they have made me stronger. They have opened my eyes to the true feeling of society towards us that have transgressed it. Did they sign up for a job or a career? Are they also in it for just the pay check not the social reward of making someone’s life a better one?  Did they not want to make a change in someone’s life? Are they not the very people that I talk about earlier whose mirror is rose tinted or cracked? I was blind yet now I see.  I thank those who did rush to my side, to hold me up when I was falling. To Wyn and to Jerry; you have no idea how your words saved me during a very dark time in my life. A time where I did not know if I could continue or not. To the hierarchy at Petty France, you looked at my future and not my past and you held my hand through a very long and drawn out process. To my barrister friend who contacted me to offer their support- thank you. I will do you all proud and I will annoy the living daylights out of the “nay-sayers”! 

I didn’t have a plan B, I don’t do re-launches. I have never really left, I have just been in the next room looking at you with different eyes. My plan A is still there, and I am back. Stronger, more passionate and more dedicated than ever before.

You see what I am getting at here? I am telling you that one needs to be true to oneself first and foremost and the rest will just fall into place.

Which leads me onto the next bit.

What will you do? What will you do when it’s all over? Here’s the question. If we solved all the prison issues tomorrow (we can but dream); if we reduced the prison assaults to nil, decreased the re-offending rate, all of it. What would you do? All of us that work in the periphery, we’d be out of work. All of us on social media that sit and scream about how things are, what would we do? Do we need the prison system / criminal justice system to be in such a state of disarray that it makes us happy? It all comes back to that point of “do we relish other people’s helplessness?”

It can be done, you know, we can solve a lot of the issues in prisons and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do it. 

First of all let me tell you that it is not done by removing the family contact from the prisoner. It isn’t done by arming the staff with an incapacitant stronger than CS gas. The study speaks for itself. Levels of violence did not decrease following the introduction of PAVA. It isn’t done by giving out rigid handcuffs. 

The answer? Basic good, honest and open communication. It is done by talking to those most affected by the actions imposed on them.  Talk to the residents. They will tell you what it takes to reduce the violence, to reduce the drugs and maintain good order I have said before and will say it again. Prisons run with the cooperation of the prisoners. Any prison could be over run in a heartbeat if the prisoners wanted it to be so. The fact that they are not proves my point.

Do we actually know what goes on in prisons other than hearing about it from those who work in them or the few accounts that “tweet” from within? Do we care what happens to people when they are jailed? Apart from those with loved ones in jail, I don’t think we can, honestly, relate. 

So here’s the thing. I want to take all the barristers, QC’s, Judges out there into a jail. Oh, this won’t be your normal prison visit where you get to see the fresh paint and the lovely rooms. No, I will give you the Tartan Con’s reality tour of a jail. You can sit and talk to my men and they will tell you how it really is. Perhaps, this will have you thinking about exactly where the defendant  goes to when they are remanded to prison.

Prisoners want a peaceful life in prison, remember that will you? Remember that I can recall numerous occasions where prisoners have stood in front of a prison officer to stop that officer from being assaulted. Remember that,  when you next read the dreaded tabloid that talks about “lags having luscious Christmas dinner.” Remember that the average cost of that Christmas meal was a paltry £2.85 per person and that the average daily food cost is £2.23 per person PER DAY.  Remember that the next time you pop into Costa Coffee. 

But all of this doesn’t add up to a whole hill of beans when we remember that over 75 people have taken their own lives in the jails of England & Wales this year. It doesn’t mean a damn thing as I sit here and type in the memory of Katie Allan and William Lindsay who killed themselves in Scotland’s young person’s jail this year.  I want to fix that for you, but I cannot do it alone. I simply cannot do it without your support, your help and your voice. 

I told Linda Allen (Katie’s mother) that I would take her daughters memory with me every time I entered a jail in 2019 and I will. I will dedicate myself to changing one person’s life every week in her memory. I will dedicate myself to decreasing the number of suicides across the United Kingdom’s jails. What will you do in 2019?

Now go back and look in that mirror. Reflect on 2018 and tell me who you see.

Of course, this is just my opinion I could be wrong.

I wish you all nothing but the best that you could hope for in 2019

Slàinte Mhath