I could come here and tell you story after story, from my own personal experience of being under the supervision of a probation officer, who time after time did everything she could to ensure through out my prison sentence I endured set back after set back, more trauma, more frustration and ultimately, no support, encouragement or rehabilitation what so ever, from the so called systems that took me in, owed a duty of care to me and for the two years I was in prison, the only thing they did for me was house me, feed me, have me take part in thinking skills programmes, that I didn’t need to do and ultimately, release me with £46 and my licence conditions in hand. On this, were 6 general conditions. I am going to read you the 6th.
“You must be well behaved. You must not commit any further offences or do anything that would ruin your chances of rebuilding your life and cause you to be sent back to prison”.
With all of the well known and well documented failing of the probation service maybe we all need to realise, that probation for the most part, is where a sentence is beginning to come to an end. In my case, after a custodial sentence. By the time a person is leaving prison, they should have been equipped with the resources they need, to enable them to adhere to the 6th condition on their licence. I don’t need to stand here and tell you that almost every prisoner being released from the absolute chaos of our prisons today, has not been rehabilitated, they have not been supported to change, the resources are simply not there for people, in the worst times of their life, to access.
I would be brave enough today, and stand here in front of you and say, before people even come into contact with the probation services, they have already been massively failed by many other services and systems that claim to have been put into place to protect, care and support people with serious vulnerability in society. This simply is not happening. With the probation service being under massive scrutiny I think we really need to consider and act on the failings that happen prior to a person coming into contact with The Probation Service. We need to ask ourselves, why are the courts sending women to prison, with no pre-sentence report, knowing she is the sole carer of a child. Why has the use of community sentences for women dropped by almost 50% in the past ten years? In 2016, 8447 women were sent to prison. 70% of these women were serving a sentence of 6 months or less. That is only enough time to lose a family home, to lose their caring responsibility of their children and cause more harm that what ever good prison could possibly offer which in a sentence of 6 months or less is no good what so ever. If we consider why so many women are committing petty crime like theft, we need to understand their life in poverty, with drug addictions and the majority with mental health problems. And then, judges need to realise that prisons are not places that can treat addiction or mental health problems, so this would completely disregard the supposed ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of a prison sentence, it would also completely disregard the supposed ‘public protection’ aspect of prison.
So, what are we using prison for? If a woman goes to prison for theft, for less than 6 months, there is no concern over public protection and there is no chance of rehabilitation, so why are so many women in prison now?
I see and hear, every day of budget cuts and no funding for services to help and support the rehabilitation of offenders. I also see and hear of government plans to build new super prisons and spend so much money on recruiting prison staff. The prison and probation service are collapsing right in front of us. People who work in the prison and probation sector go home at the end of their working day. They have a choice as to where they live, where they eat, when they eat, and what they do for a job. The men and women who are being ‘cared’ for and ‘rehabilitated’ in those failing systems, have no choice as to what happened to them. We are putting the lives of real people, with real problems, in the hands of prison and probation staff who have more concern over ticking boxes on various risk assessment forms, concern over personal safety in prison due to the massive staff shortage and volatile environment and more concern over managing high risk offenders at 139% capacity with 15 minutes, per week per offender, including paperwork. The concern for rehabilitation, for housing, for health care, for personal well being and development and for the end of what in many cases is a revolving door, in my opinion is non existent in our current justice system.
When people are being released from prison in a much worse state than how they entered, we have to ask ourself, what is our prison system doing? Instead of giving people the chances, opportunities and resources needed to be able to live in the community without reoffending, we are enabling the constant and overuse of prison, we are taking away service after service which supports rehabilitation and we are exploiting vulnerable, broken and unstable lives.
If courts are abusing their power, if the prison system is neglecting its duty of care and replacing rehabilitation with ignorance, punishment and an ineffective regime , it is no wonder the probation service simply cannot cope with the amount of chaotic lives they have to attempt to manage in the community.
We are incarcerating too many people, who don’t need to be in prison. We aren’t releasing people from prison, who could be, should be but won’t be released any time soon. We have over 3000 IPP prisoners, still in our prisons today, with no end in sight. Despite IPP sentences being abolished in 2012, we still have over 500 prisoners, who were given a tariff of less than two years, still in prison today, with over 250 of them having served 8 years over their original tariff. We have the highest rate in Europe, for prisoners serving Indeterminate sentences, and recently the media brought to attention the case of James Ward, who was given a 10 month IPP tariff far arson, with mental health problems, self harming and really struggling to cope in prison, why on earth was this young man in still in prison still 2017. Through interaction with men serving IPP sentences, we hear of reports put to a parole board stating things such as, concerns over managing the person in the community. Truth be told, the probation service today are struggling to manage every single offender in the community. If we have sentenced people to a prison term with no release date, they rightly so adapt to a life in prison, with the assumption that following and obeying the rules of the system with speed up the process of them retuning home, to the people who love them and will support them in the community. For a system for force a man to accept life in prison with a no date to ever return home, and then state in a report that they can’t be managed in the community is utterly ridiculous. We have given these men no hope, they do what they need to do on a daily basis to survive in a prison, which is their home and this really needs to be addressed.
The majority of services we have in this country for anybody involved in the justice system are not fit for purpose and are failing massively with drastic consequences. We need to stop using prisoners for profit. We need to invest in community sentences, houses, health care, education training and employment for people leaving prison. We need to support new initiatives from people with lived experience of the system failing and we need to stop blaming the probation service who are the last point of call for offenders who have probably been failed their whole life by services not working.
The Former prisoners, who have been released and rehabilitated through their own sheer determination not to be broken by a system so forcefully and vigorously hindering our progress, the former prisoners who are able to and want to offer support, encourage change and enable these things to happen, should be offered the opportunity to work alongside the prison and probation service, in paid mentor roles, to ease the current stain and pressure that the services are under. I see every day, former prisoners, with so much talent, potential and motivation to change the system for the better, for everyone. I don’t see, the prison or probation service, reaching out for any help or support from us, unless unpaid. We aren’t here, advocating for change, critiquing the system and addressing failings we have witnessed, just to pass the time. We want change, we need change and I am sure I say this on behalf of many former prisons who are on the same journey as me, we won’t stop until we achieve this change. For our own rehabilitation, for our communities and for the greater good of everybody who is somehow involved in the any part of the criminal justice system.