Two things have struck me this week. Two things have confirmed suspicions brought to my attention by ex-prisoners.
First, that so many ex-prisoner support charities seem to have absolutely no interest whatsoever in supporting ex-prisoners. I was told by a convict that when he applied to volunteer in supporting ex-prisoners that he was told he cares too much and would help too much. We were baffled until it became apparent that the organisation in question was merely interested in winning contracts and processing numbers. They didn’t see the person, they saw the prisoner.
The second is a bit less obvious. In researching the film one of the key issues we’ve been told of is that of leaving prison. As people keep telling us, being sent to prison, being deprived of liberty is the punishment. Yet, as Penelope Gibbs states, convicts tend to be punished three or four times, well beyond their sentence – they get the sentence, financial ruination, and a lifetime of discrimination.
The idea that there is any significant form of rehabilitation or reform for ex-prisoners is laughable. It is absurd. A conviction is a burden, an anchor that holds the person to the incident, the crime, to the past. The sigma of conviction (regardless of the crime) is such that one may not be able to sell goods, rent a room, drive a car, and certainly it makes it very difficult to get a job.
But that’s where the Education Training and Employment Officer (ETEO) comes in. He or she is there to advise the convict what options she or he has. It’s not that the ETEO is a bad person, but the main obstacle is one she can’t deal with. Essentially, if asked, one has to declare a conviction to an employer, unless it is “spent”. Unspent convictions effectively mean one is still a risk of some sort.
If you have been through the system in any form, you’ll know that the evaluation of risk is utterly ridiculous. Too often it is decided by someone who doesn’t know nor care, and often hasn’t more than half an hour to find out. Their findings bear almost no relation to reality. Yet those on release, even though they’ve completed their punishment are effectively still tarred with the crime, and release conditions ensure they know that.
If you’ve been in for 6 months or less, then you carry your conviction with you for 2 years after your release on licence. If you served more than 6 months and less than 30, you carry it for 4 years, and if you do more than 48 months, you carry the conviction forever.
Life for ex-prisoners
Let’s think this through. You go into prison. You leave life behind. Unless you’re extraordinarily fortunate, you really will leave life, home, money and a job behind. You’re brutalised and institutionalised for a few years and then dumped out with less than £50. Then what? Get a job? Not likely. Move in to a luxury apartment? Nope. Become a student? Backbacking? No. You leave with a stain, often ostracised. You’re still the same person, but that’s not what people see. But you spend time with your “offender manager” who keeps reminding you that you’re a convict. Everyone you speak to, you have to tell the same stories. And every job you apply for, there’s the terror of declaration.
The really crucial point here is the notion of this period of release being referred to as “rehabilitation”. It boggles the mind to contemplate how policy makers and shrieking journalists think the system leads to anything other than ruination. We take people who’ve done something, had a moment and so on. We destroy them in a prison. That system is so dysfunctional that we then have to rehabilitate them into society. But we don’t rehabilitate, we push them further away.
So the idea of rehabilitation seems to be to ruin people, release them, ruin them some more, and then hope that the decent part of them, which is presumed not to exist, will compel them not to respond to their circumstances and not to steal, rob or fight to survive. There seems to be that same assumption as with the unemployed, or the homeless: “we’ll I’ve got a job/home, why can’t they?”.
One assumes the judges who neither see nor feel nor know presume that one release the prisoner mounts his horse and trots back to the manor house to dine on the day’s game. Should he choose instead to sleep in a park and not take up the directorship of Barclays that Father arranged, then that’s his look out and he deserves all he gets.
Back on earth, we know the statistics, I’ve written enough about them on this blog. Most ex-prisoners have or have had, drink, drugs or mental health problems. Many weren’t securely housed before, let alone on release. Most had low-grade jobs or non at all. The system is set up to make these things worse rather than better.
We have to keep asking the question – what sort of people do we want around us? Homeless, poor, angry, resentful outsiders who no matter how much they care are forced not to, or people welcomed back into their communities to turn themselves around and live happy, productive lives?