A Visit from my Dad.

After an eventful few days, my dad popped in for a cuppa, he’s been reading my blogs and is aware of my intentions to move into a much more challenging job role. After a brief chat about what options I have at the moment, we both laughed and pondered on were I would be now, had I have not been involved in that drunken fight. I assured him, everything happens for a reason and I may not have got as far as I have, if I hadn’t endured all that I have. Living in ‘The Big House’ was character building. With that being said, he still says “It must have been traumatic for you Michaela”.

He knows that only too well, he took the brunt of my pissed off phone calls telling him every single story of what the offender management team in the jail and outside probation were doing to me for two years. Nothing caused more trauma than the day I called him to tell him of my experience, starting the T.S.P Course.

Having been willing to do any course in prison offered to me, just to pass the time of day, I would of happily participated in this course, had they deemed me suitable. In fact, after completing various alcohol awareness courses, due to the fact I had been drinking when my crime took place, not because I had an alcohol problem, I actually approached the offender management team myself, to ask them if I could be on the next T.S.P course. This was 6 months into my sentence. They did their assessment based on various questions, my offence, background, my risk and progress I had already made so far. They said, I didn’t need to do the course. So, that was that.

I was, at that point, medium risk to the public and low risk of reoffending. According to their assessment anyway. Of course I didn’t need to do the Thinking Skills Programme. It was my first time in prison, I had no alcohol or drug problems, prior to prison I was in full time employment and I had no problems with mental health. My reviews from my previous alcohol courses were great and the course leaders had stated to the offender management team that they had no concerns for me in the future and as far as they were concerned, I didn’t need any more help.

Fast forward 1 year and I can apply for my Cat.D status. Everything was looking great, not a chance in hell that I could get a knock back. Outside probation had been in to visit me, all went well. OM were backing me, so I should have been out of there to spend Christmas at home with my daughter. I was sitting the board for my first home leave. When I heard my name over the tannoy being called to the resettlement office, I was so excited. Then my world came crashing down. My home leave had not been authorised by the prison because my outside probation officer had put my risk up from medium to high. Without telling me or telling the prison. With out any reason. This woman, had called my mum and told her she was approving my home leave and I would be back for Christmas. She did approve my home leave, knowing full well the prison would reject it because they don’t let prisoners out who are deemed a high risk to the public. But, she approved my home leave and put me up to high risk, how the hell does that work?

I called her straight away thinking she must have changed my risk by accident and not realised. Needless to say, I cant recall the whole conversation we had because I was so annoyed. My probation officer informed me, it wasn’t a mistake and she deemed me a high risk on purpose. That was that, I wasn’t going home and I had yet another complaint and battle on my hands to get myself out of there. I urged her to send me, in writing, her reasons for deeming my high risk and also he reasons as to why, myself and the resettlement team were not informed. After being in prison for 18months, as a low risk of reoffending, medium risk to the public and doing all the offender based courses on offer, with no warnings and the backing of everyone inside the prison, how the hell had she deemed me a high risk to the public? I was to find out, after another Christmas spent in my cell.

January came and I received a letter from probation, stating that, she feared I had alcohol problems which would be of a huge concern to her if I were to be allowed home. Yet, she approved my home leave? AND I hadn’t completed the T.S.P course, yes, the one I asked to do a year ago and wasn’t suitable for.

After I composed a letter of complaint to my probation officers line manager, I sat tight and waited for a response. It took about 3 weeks. Thankfully, the manager who received my complaint saw what a sham it was and put me back down to medium risk but then I would only be allowed to reapply for my home leave once id completed this T.S.P course. Apparently, after no change at all in my circumstances, I was now deemed fit to participate in this ‘programme’.

So, here I am. 21 years old, in prison for the first time, filling in a ‘treatment’ form. When I queried why I was signing something that said, ‘I will comply fully with the treatment programme’ I was basically told, asking questions like that doesn’t show compliance. Um…how can I comply with something I don’t understand? I was 19 years old when I ended up in a fight in a nightclub with a stranger, a first offence and now I’m sat here answering yes and no questions of ‘have you ever considered having sex with an animal’ and ‘have u ever considered having sex with a child’. This is the sheer definition of causing people trauma. I will never forget how I felt, sitting there with that woman, answering those questions. Any one in their right mind could see that I didn’t need to do this course. I sure as hell did not need any treatment. She never did clarify, why I was signing a treatment form, I don’t think she knew herself.

Day one, on the T.S.P course, I find myself sat in a semi-circle of 9 other women, all repeat offenders with serious drugs and alcohol problems and various mental health issues. I could not believe it. Three women were delivering the course to us. The lady that told me asking questions didn’t show compliance was in for a big shock, I questioned everything. Its in my nature. The course involved role play, setting and achieving goals, effective communication and a huge time was spent on ‘comfort stories’. You cant make this crap up. Yes, agreed, some people always have a sob story, a reason as to why they did something, this was a huge focus on what we, as offenders tell our self and other people about the nature of our offence and/or offending behaviour. Personally, I was struggling to even come up with a ‘comfort story’ I didn’t have one. I fully accepted that fact, I committed an offence, while drunk and I am serving my punishment. OH MY GOD, you can actually get into trouble on these courses if you are unable to offer a comfort story. After a lot of interrogation from the course facilitators, they came to the conclusion and subsequently noted down my comfort story, as to ‘I was drunk when it happened’.
When I explained that, I didn’t agree with that being a comfort story because had I have been sober, I know it would never of happened, they, assured me, it was a comfort story. OK, so day one, progress so far and the outcome achieved was, I now know that I tell myself my offence happened because I was drunk, to make myself feel better and so it lessens the impact when telling people. Although, I didn’t tell them, they probed me into saying it. Great start. I phoned my dad that night in tears saying I didn’t know how I was going to cope for the next 4 days. The memories of this course still scare me now.

Over the next few days I was told to slow down my written work, incase I made another women feel as though she wasn’t as good as me because I could work with speed, and it wasn’t a good look for me to be finished a good half an hour before the other prisoners. I was also told to stop offering answers when nobody else was willing too, and the obvious, stop asking us questions!

The next interesting subject was ‘red flags’ now I wont lie, I did like this and in all honesty I still apply this now to my life, what is a red flag thought. In common sense it is just a gut feeling that something isn’t right, that this could lead to trouble, or in our cases, doing this, could lead to offending. I didn’t need to know, that in T.S.P they call this a ‘red flag’ because I have common sense and I know right from wrong, and following my conviction I well and truly learnt the consequences of my actions. For instance, my offence was while out drinking, so if I am asked to go out drinking now with the girls, this should be a red flag, because for me, it is dangerous. Well, that’s what the T.S.P course leaders told me anyway.

Next we touched on passive, assertive and aggressive attitudes and actions. They told me, I could be considered aggressive because I question everything! I assured them, I considered it assertive. I also told them, if I ask a question, I don’t know the answer so educate me, please don’t belittle me. They didn’t like that at all. I already knew very well about passive, assertive and aggressive attitudes and actions, however it may have been worth while for some of the other women, so that part of the course was ok. Although, worryingly, I recall a repeat violent offender referring to her offences as assertive, because she was paying attention to what was going on around her and acting accordingly. The women running the course did nothing to amend this womans way of thinking and just laughed, like it was a joke, it really wasn’t a joke and I remember sitting there thinking, have I really just seen this. I’m getting told off for working to fast, asking questions and this woman has just said a massive statement on her thoughts when she commits a violent crime and these woman have just laughed and moved on. They were unable, unwilling and uneducated in how to address that statement from the offender to change her way of thinking, yet we were on a thinking skills programme.

Finally, role play, everybody hates role play! Me more so than ever based on this next experience. We were all given a part to play. We didn’t have a choice, we had to comply. Imagine being given a role as a sister who’s role was to convince the person in question to go out and get drunk with you. That was the role I was given, I was to pursued the woman to come out and get drunk. Another woman was given the role of trying to make the person stay at home. I complied, gave a fantastic acting performance, again, a role I been given and then in my final written report, it stated I had raised serious concerns to the facilitators when acting too persuasive. That’s right, I ACTED too persuasive, in a role given to me, by them, to pursued this lady to go out drinking. I still can not believe that report. I wasn’t expecting a fantastic final report but to anyone’s standards, that just takes the piss.

This course did nothing but cause me serious problems, I will never forget it. A course which I wasn’t suitable for, that wasn’t designed for me and did absolutely nothing to improve my thinking skills, decision making or perspective taking. It did however, give me a huge insight into the ability of these ‘Treatment facilitators’.

They struggle to engage with offenders, they didn’t address serious comments from repeat violent offenders, they can not take being questioned and they gave me a terrible report for speaking up against me being on that course in the first place.

Thinking Skills Programme. How much money was wasted on me, do to that course?

Finally, when talking to my dad about this, he asked me if the course facilitators ever encouraged or conversed with any of these women addicted to drugs about attending N.A meetings upon release. They did not. They did however, advise me and my probation officer, to do an alcohol awareness course upon my release! I didn’t do it, I didn’t need to. I need a drink now, recalling that!

Why?

Why would I start a blog, a twitter account and put myself out there so publically to say I am an ex offender?

I was released from prison over four years ago and I have always been quiet about my past to new people I meet. Its never been a secret I just chose not to discuss it openly, now here I am, posting blogs and tweets on a daily basis with my real name and photo!

It would have been so easy for me to move away from my past as I have held down a job since the very day of my release, I have a nice home, a car and I am settled. Being easy for me to move away from past on a day to day basis however doesn’t mean it is right. I have never been one to take the easy way out.

Why should I settle in a job role that I am not satisfied in? Just because it was a great opportunity given to me when I needed it. It ensured I wasn’t released from prison unemployed so for that I am and will always be greatful but there is a big wide world out there and I have big dreams.

Starting my twitter account was for a sole reason of contacting a company who offered me a job then took that away from me with no explanation after my conviction was disclosed. Four weeks on, I have over 400 followers and a shed load of people rooting for me.

Then came my blog, this is to highlight and address huge issues that stop ex offenders living and working in the community after their release from prison, when their punishment should be over! Four years since my release and I don’t feel like my punishment is over. How can I believe in a justice system that is supposed to rehabilitate ex offenders when companies are allowed to offer jobs and then retract their offers based on irrelevant and years old convictions? Yes, we all know this is not right but the fact is, it is happening and only a minority are willing to challenge it and stand up for not only what is right but what is in essence greatly beneficially for society. I mean, who wouldn’t want to actively participate in reducing crime rates and men and women behind bars by helping them get a job?

Having been in prison and experiencing numerous problems within the system I obviously have a very strong view on the state of the prison system and the criminal justice system as a whole, I may address and share my stories on that at a later date, the main focus for me at present is to raise awareness on the importance of employing people with a conviction. Everyone already knows that the prison system is falling apart and failing people massively with detrimental lifetime effects, I don’t need to blog about it. Yet.

Who better to shout from the roof tops why employers should give ex offenders a chance and a job than someone who has witnessed her life fall apart, who lost everything and got it all back and more, through gritted teeth, sleepless nights, early starts and a clear, driven focus on building a life after living in a cell.

Unless you have been to prison or you know someone who has, you can never understand it. Why are employers so unwilling to offer jobs to ex cons? I have always been employed, even in prison I was still in full time paid work. There is a preconceived idea that criminals are not educated, that they lack ambition and can not be trusted. Do these people actually know any criminals like that, because I, for sure, do not. The majority of offenders and ex offenders I have known are fast paced, knowledgeable, self educated, polite, and very much driven to put an end to their criminal past. How can they do that in a community that wont employ them? In prison I made a handful of friends who now I would trust with my life, these 4 women are all employed, they are all ambitious, loyal and willing to learn. They are all ex offenders.

With over 80,000 people in prison it is very troubling for me to live the easy life and not address this. Infact, it is out of the question. I can not do it. 80,000 people who are at some point, going to be released from prison who need a job. It may be unlikely that all of these prisoners actually want to come out and work but for the ones who do, why are they not able to? I am a very thick skinned woman, nothing really gets to me and I try and find the best in every bad situation I have ever faced but even I feel like giving up sometimes, I wont, but I do feel like it. Its 10pm now, I have been awake since 5am, worked my full day and now I am typing this because I will work tirelessly in the hope that with my words, someone else’s journey from prison to public will be made a little less difficult.

Its scary to think, of all the attention my blogs have been getting from various charities and people within the criminal justice system not one local business or employer has said anything about it. They wont employ people with a conviction but they wont say why! If I wont do something and my reasons are strong, you would hear them.

Their ignorance and uniformed views of ex offenders needs to change. I received a tweet saying “#banthebox wont even work we need to #bantheattitude”. Lets ban the attitude. Why aren’t employers brave enough to speak up and highlight their concerns, I am here, blogging open and honestly about a matter that is so close to my heart and I really fail to see how an employer having a conversation with me in regards to employing people with conviction will leave, with the same view they had before.

There will always be crime committed for reasons of greed and status but what about the people who committed a crime to feed their kids, to put a roof over their head, to eat? Yes, it was wrong but if you, as an employer took away a job offer or didn’t even give them the time of day because they have previous convictions, what do you expect them to do? Sleep on the street, eat from bins and beg for money?

Employers should have a duty of care for their communities, this duty should include doing all they can to minimise crime and what better way to do that, than employ the criminal. Give them a reason and a purpose, listen to their life story and I bet when you finally do that, you will see the potential they have to be a great success.

Ban the Box

Why do I think Ban the Box is a good idea?

Lets say in 2009, you make a huge, one off…life changing mistake. A mistake that lets you see the inside of a prison cell, one that causes many people a great deal of trauma, tears and costs them a fortune financially and emotionally. A mistake that was never previously considered, was not premeditated and could have easily happened to anyone who enjoys a few drinks out with they girls at a weekend.

Imagine this happened when you were a teenager and haunts you for the rest of you life on an application form while applying for a job, or at least, for the next 13 years, until 2022 when your conviction is finally spent.

Is it really relevant for me to disclose on a job application form, as a 26 year old woman, that I have a conviction from my teenage years, for a single, silly mistake.

In my current and ongoing search for employment I have always been honest about my past, my past has, of course, made me the woman I am today. Strong, ambitious, driven and passionate about securing a career. My past has ensured I have a strong work ethic and a need to succeed. My past, however, is why I sit in front of my laptop on this Sunday evening, typing this blog about my present struggles. Why is my past stopping my future progression, holding me back from reaching my full potential and killing my self confidence on a daily basis?

The reason or at least part of the reason is because of the box I tick on an application form to say I have an unspent criminal conviction. Which then follows with “please give details of the offence or custodial sentence” so here I am supposed to write “GBH – 4years”. This box for ‘details’ is hardly a place for me to be writing I was convicted as a teenager for a drunken offence and go into detail of the time passed, the progress I have made and the ins and outs of my court case and prison sentence. While on the subject of the ‘detail’ box, it may be worth me adding that on most forms it does say something along the lines of “please note, ticking this box will not automatically mean you will not be considered for the position”.

In my experience, that is exactly what happens, unless of course, the recruitment agency are late to disclose your conviction to an employer who has already offered you a job, then retracts it based on your late disclosure. So, that time I was lucky, I actually got an interview, got the job then the job got taken off me. For ticking the box, being honest and trying to move on with my life.

Another recruitment agency who I was working closely with in my quest to find a new job, had assumed that the two year gap on my C.V was a career break to have a baby. This lady was putting me forward for various roles and interviews and contacting me regularly via email with new job vacancies until one day she called me regarding an interview, where she mentioned my two year career break to have a baby, when I informed her that gap in my C.V was not to have a baby it was because I was in prison, I never heard from her again. Her voice changed in an instant and I knew that was the end of that particular agency helping me any further.

I applied for an admin role in an office via a third recruitment agency and a few days after my application was received I had a call from a lady who wanted to set up an interview for me, she briefly asked me questions about my current situation and a few things about my C.V. Needless to say, she asked what I had been doing in the two year gap and again I informed her of my past conviction and she actually said to me “well, I wont inform the company because although they can’t discriminate they probably still will”. I mean, what hope have I got, if recruitment agencies are telling me this? And again, needless to say, the job in question, I didn’t get an interview for and I didn’t ever hear from that woman again.

In my current situation I can not progress at all if recruitment agencies are unwilling to work with me and companies take job offers away from me after finding out about my past, which I don’t ever try and hide. For me, ticking this box either means I wont even get an interview at all or I will get an interview and once the conviction is disclosed I wont be successful, with no explanation as to why.

There are laws in place to stop discrimination, I have committed a crime and been punished for that. These companies and recruitment agencies who discriminate against me because of my conviction, are in essence breaking the law but of course, they have their employment lawyers in place and loopholes which allow them to carry on doing this. Its a shame and so ironic that the people who are unwilling to help me and give me a chance based on my past behaviour are showing unethical and immoral practice at fair employment, so in actual fact isn’t their current behaviour verging on being just as bad as mine was?

With some many people in prison or serving community sentences, how will they survive if they are treated this way, when they want to break the cycle of reoffending and ending up back in prison but due to being unemployed they revert back to crime, because for them it pays the bills. If people with convictions can not find a job, can not pay their own way and support their self or their family they have two options, sit on benefits or commit crime.

Many people in the criminal justice system, are not criminally minded, they have simply made a mistake, and even the ones who once were hardened criminals can change and want to live a life as a law abiding citizen. Prison changes people, life changes people and a job for a person with a criminal conviction or who is being released from prison can be the biggest and most important factor in them not reoffending.

For companies and recruitment agencies that are unwilling to assist in the employment of people with a conviction, they are missing out on hard working, loyal and ambitious employees. We face so many barriers and are held back from so many things that when we are finally given a chance, we don’t bite that hand that feeds us.

First blog post

Where do women have a place after being in the criminal justice system?

 

It’s been four and a half years since my alarm was set for 5am. I would awake at this time to be processed out of the prison at 5.45am and head out on R.O.T.L to my paid job at Max Spielmann. My journey to work consisted of a 2 mile walk down country lanes in bitterly cold weather, a 20 minute bus ride into Stafford followed by a train to Birmingham New Street for a quick change to another train headed to Bromsgrove for a final 2 mile walk from the train station to my place of work for 9am. The same process was repeated for my journey home at 5am after my working day was over. During my 6 months of paid employment as a prisoner I was responsible for paying my own travel to and from work and in each monthly pay packet 40% of my wages were deducted and put towards the victims of crime support fund. I’ve worked that out to be roughly £2,400 that I contributed to this throughout my paid employment.

 

My sentence was a 4 year sentence for a single offence that happened on a night out, in my teenage years. I do not excuse my actions in any way, shape or form however that has to be a line drawn for me to continue living my life after my punishment was over. My trial commenced at age 21, two years after my offence. For the two years prior to my trial I was on police bail, I served two years in prison and 2 years on probation. That’s a massive 6 years that a drunken act of violence took from my life.

 

Prior to my prison sentence I was in full time employment and I was a single mother. I was sentenced to a 4 year prison sentence with no pre sentence report because the judge in my case said ‘this has gone on too long, sentencing will be today’ as if it were my own fault I had been on bail for two years with no trial. Throughout my prison sentence I remained as an enhanced prisoner for the duration and didn’t receive a single verbal or written warning, I was a model prisoner, so to speak.

 

My determination and ambition was clearly visible for my employers Max Spielmann as upon my release in November 2013 they offered me a full time permanent position in a branch closest to where I live. I still work for the company today and my career with them has gone from strength to strength over the past 4 years. I passed my driving test and was promoted to branch manager within a few days of being a new driver. I hadn’t even been driving for a week and I was off to manage a new branch driving down the M5 to get to work. Life was really looking up for me.

 

My two years on probation went by with no further trouble or reoffending and in November 2015 I was free of probation and off any licence conditions that were imposed upon me. I was a retail manager with a new driving licence and I felt like I had finally made something of myself and all of my family were so proud of me.

 

Throughout my time at Max Spielmann I have met some amazing people, colleagues and customers alike. I have built up fantastic work relationships and I am always willing to go to extra mile to help my customers have a great experience in my shop. My all time favourite is when I take a passport photo and I hear the classic line ‘I look like a convict’ I always laugh and reply with ‘what do they look like’ they have no idea that I own a true mugshot on the prison data base! Most of my customers would never believe in a million years that I was once a prisoner.

 

You see, its very easy for anybody to fall foul of the law. In split second actions without thinking you can change so many lives for a very long time. Every human being alive makes mistakes, some more serious than others but we are all human and we all deserve a second change if we are willing to accept and work towards changing our lives for the better.

 

I have recently been thinking about moving away from my job in retail as I spend a lot of time on the road, I have worked almost every weekend for the past 4 years and I feel like I could and have the ability to achieve so much more that what my job role involves at present. I started applying for a few office based roles I saw advertised online via recruitment agencies just to see what was available. I understand with my conviction I may struggle to find employment working with children and vulnerable people so obviously I avoid those kind of roles, however my conviction in no way affects my ability or suitability to carry out the majority of jobs that I do apply for. I always carefully read the job spec and match their requirements to my own skills and knowledge.

 

A few weeks ago I was called by a recruitment agency who were putting me forward for an office based credit control position for a property management company local to me. Their only requirement was ‘a strong customer service background’ to which I definitely have. The rest, they said, could be trained on the job. I was offered an interview by the company on said day, an hour prior to my interview I was asked to attend the recruitment agencies office to register my details with them and show them my I.D. The interview day arrived and I was all set to sell myself and bag me a new job. I arrived promptly to the recruitment office and filled in their relevant forms to which I had to tick a box to say I had an unspent conviction. My conviction is not spend until 2022. I then left the recruitment office with no questions asked and headed to my interview with the property management company. I smashed the interview and the woman who interviewed me even asked me to stay behind to meet the team and meet the woman who’s job I would be taking over for an 11 month maternity cover contract.

 

The very next day I received a call from the recruitment agency with a verbal job offer from the company. Thankfully, I asked for a written contract before I officially handed in my notice to my current employer. This didn’t stop me from telling close friends and family I had been offered a new job and I even went out and spent £100 of new office attire clothing for my new role. Unfortunately for me, these clothes have so far only seen interviews because a few days after my verbal job offer I received a call from the recruitment agency again, just asking for me to go and fill in a final form with them, it was during this conversation 5 days after my interview that they lady mentioned my conviction disclosure on their registration form. She actually asked me if I filled it in wrong, oh how easy it would have been for me to lie. I didn’t lie, I was very upfront and honest about my past as I didn’t think it would in any way affect my new position, how wrong was I?

 

After a brief chat with the recruitment agency about my conviction she informed me that she would need to inform the company of this conviction but not to worry because it was along time ago and the role I applied for and was offered didn’t need an enhanced conviction disclosure. Needless to say at this point I was feeling very nervous and rightly so because the next day I received a phone call from the recruitment agency informing me that due to the disclosure of my conviction, an offence as a teenager 7 years ago, the company were retracting their verbal job offer. I was stunned. I contacted the woman who interviewed me and also the companies managing director in the hope of some clarification as to why they now felt I was unsuitable to work in their company. I still to this day, have not been given a verbal or written reason from the company as to why they retracted my job offer.

 

 

I launched a twitter campaign to highlight my situation and name the company in the hope of gaining some communication from them, all they did was call the recruitment company who then called me in an attempt to silence me and ask me to not post publically about my job offer being retracted! If I did continue to do so, the recruitment agency would not feel as though they could carry on helping me in my search for a new employer.

 

I am so appalled by this company and their total lack of communication, compassion and inability to give me a chance. You see, I can take rejection, I have applied for many jobs and not even been selected for an interview, I don’t launch an online campaign against these companies. Its just a bitter pill to swallow to be sure that I was the best person for the job and then based on my irrelevant conviction they snatch away my goals and ambitions without so much as an explanation.

 

My alarm is set for 5am again, not because I am in a hurry to be processed out of prison for my day release but because I am giving myself an hour before I have to get ready for work, to apply for jobs online. I am very hard working with absolute determination to make the very best life I can for me and my daughter. I have served my punishment in prison, I have paid a considerable amount of money to the victim support fund, I have proved with my current employer that I am capable and worthy of a good job so how am I still facing these challenges every single day? When is enough, enough?

 

Do women who have been in the criminal justice system not have a place in the career world? I was involved in a drunken incident on a night out as a teenager, does this mistake that I have already paid for drastically, still have to determine what I can do for the rest of my life?

 

I hope more women who face these challenges find their voice, find their reason and their sheer passion for change and make a stand against companies with such appalling recruitment policies.

 

Yes, I committed an offence, as a teenager. I have changed, its noted in my life since my release so please, look past what I have done and see the potential I have and the woman I can be. I am far from stupid. I am committed to making a career for myself and I wont stop until I have succeeded and hopefully in my journey I can inspire other people who have been through the justice system to speak out against the invisible barriers they face in their own search to live on the right side of the law, gaining paid work and paying their own way back into society.

post