“Tougher” community sentences: good prison alternatives?

A guest blog.

We’re looking up at the tall hedge – a bunch of convicts wondering how we can put the scaffold frame on a sloped bank to cut the hedge. Paul and Ross wheel over some tractor tires to underpin the frame, while Bob and John get some random stones to steady it.

A health and safety supervisor would have an apoplexy, but it doesn’t matter. We’re scum. Paul’s atop the hedge itself waving a chainsaw around. I’m wondering if it’s wise to let a violent offender loose with a chainsaw. But it doesn’t matter. We don’t matter.

By the time we finished, it looks like it has been through a cheese grater backwards. That’s community service for you. I am now seeing the criminal justice system from the sharp end. Nobody really cares what we do.

We’ve been processed and as long as someone, somewhere will fill in the paperwork to say it’s all been done, then nobody really cares what happens. This is what justice looks like from here, a pointless privatised bureaucratic system uninterested in reform or rehabilitation.

As far as we are concerned, we’re not in prison and that’s good. So we just need to loiter when we’re told to, and then it will be over. Someone told me before sentencing that I wouldn’t go to prison. They’re full, they’re in chaos and the government is looking for other ways to deal with offenders.

Prisons don’t work

It is strange that it is the Conservatives who seem to be most interested in prison reform. I always had Tories down as the “lock ‘em up” brigade. It’s what I grew up with – Labour was tough on the causes of crime, Tories just wanted punishment and retribution. Yet from recent government pronouncements, and statements of a number of MPs, it seems reform is now the aim.

Michael Tomlinson’s recent observation that prisons are not working is familiar and convincing. In researching for a new documentary film about prison, Injustice, I haven’t encountered many if any people within the criminal justice service – on any side – who think prisons do what we suppose they do.

There has been a recent trend to call for community sentences instead of sending people to malfunctioning prisons. In November Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd called for fewer prison sentences and “tougher” community sentences. Somehow, some consider them better.

Such sentiments indicate how out of touch policy makers, judges, lawyers and most commentators are with the reality of their trades. My thoughts were confirmed when a leading prison reform campaigner and former magistrate told me that one of the main problems of sentencing, especially in magistrates courts, is that judges and magistrates simply don’t understand the sentences they give.

Community service doesn’t work

Were they to understand those sentences, perhaps they may have to think of something else. Community service doesn’t do what it says on the packet.

Typically we arrive at the court around 9am with boots, beanie hat, holding a plastic bag, shuffling around, nervously puffing a fag. We’re a rag-tag punch, some hardened criminals, some lovely old ladies who’ve made a mistake. But you probably see convicts who are “paying back” our community for the offences we committed.

The newcomers look at their feet nervously, glancing up to watch the full-timers arrive in expensive cars. There’s chat and banter, and then moaning about where the van is – if they arrive after 9:30, we can leave and we get an hour off our time.

The van usually arrives with minutes to spare, dragging us down from our high hopes. The supervisor gets out, chats and takes names. Some aren’t on the list. They may just go home or they may get angry and go into the probation office to sort it out, having travelled for hours to get there on time.

There are usually preferred supervisors and locations to work but it is so chaotic that nobody seems to know where we go or with whom. On a good day, a couple of hours after arriving at court the van will drop us somewhere to do something.

The characters

The types on the work gang vary. “Mary” is a wonderfully sweet older lady, in her late 50s perhaps. She was a charity worker who was very close to her Mum. When her Mum died, she couldn’t cope. She hit the bottle, a lot. And then drove. She lost her job, career and reputation.

Dave’s partner was an alcoholic and he was on drugs. They had a row. He went to throw his cereal at her but the bowl flew out of his hand. She and her mother went to court to defend him. They came off drink and drugs before court and have been getting along very well ever since.

Mike was a bouncer trying to break up a fight. Someone came at him from behind while he was restraining a fighter.  He felt the hands on his shoulders, and swung an arm backwards to ward them off not realising it was a female PC. Although the judge recognised she’d not followed procedure, he was convicted and lost his job, licence and career.

And then there is Joe. Often his girlfriend drops him off in the morning, when he doesn’t drive his very nice sports car. With little formal education and from a “bad” family, he’s the traditional product of his environment. He’s in the family business and doing quite well, thank you very much. He told me he was off to prison soon. I became upset but he responded that he was looking forward to it as a chance to catch up with colleagues and do a little business inside.

Joe was very knowledgeable, analytical and fiercely intelligent. I wanted to take him under my wing, to make him “better”, but what could I offer an 18 year old who was making thousands every week and having fun doing so? Could I convince him it would be better to stack shelves in Tescos?

There is the odd professional among us whose faces still carry the shock of the judge’s word: “Guilty”, but most are either manual workers of some sort or make their money from crime.

It doesn’t take much to understand that such a mixed group isn’t going to be the best work crew around. The process is this: we arrive, the doors of the van open, we pile out and start asking for tea and a fag break after such a long morning. The supervisor urges us to put on the regulation clothing – gloves so thick that you can’t bend your fingers, bright orange jackets-of-shame, and boots that are always get some “I ain’t wearing vem, ‘ad uva dirty fucking feet in ‘em”. Sometimes we comply, sometimes we don’t.

The unspoken agreement

I find it hard not to feel for the supervisors. Most are ex-military. You can tell from their faces they’ve been there and done it. And they’re here because there’s not much else on offer. They sigh a lot. Some are really good – usually the military ones. Others are, let’s say, not so good. Soimetimes it feels like something might kick off and I always wonder what the supervisor might do if it does.

The supervisor is alone, in the middle of nowhere with a van packed with often violent convicts. They’ve no real legal hold over us, and they certainly don’t have the safety of colleagues or guards. So maintaining rapport is important just to keep tensions down. Getting some to work is simply impossible and not worth the stress or threat of violence. They could use sanctions: report us to probation, but that just tends to piss off most people.

In the main, there’s an unwritten agreement. The thugs can go off and do their own thing – best to keep them away. Some of us do a bit of work and then shuffle off around the corner to drink some vodka and smoke a joint before shuffling back smelling of deodorising spray. And others just churn through whatever there is to do as quickly as possible, just to pass time more quickly.

I feel a bit sorry for those who buy the “service”. I think it’s only about £40 a day to hire a group of people who don’t want to work. By the time we turn up, there’s usually at most half a day left to work. And then what?  Pick up some litter slowly, pretend to cut back some shrubs, scrape a hoe over paving slabs to make the sound of work. But mainly we smoke fags or weed, drink tea or vodka, trying to avoid the eye of the supervisor.

We arrived atop a hill one day. They told us to pull up silver birch shoots.  The obvious question followed: “What do they look like then?”, and the supervisor, being ex-army rather than a botanist, can only reply “Dunno, see what you can do”. There wasn’t much to make us look busy so we picked up some sticks and put them places.

And that is what community service is actually about. People trying to busy themselves making others look busy, so they in turn could make other people look busy in public. There was a running joke I had with one of the lads where we’d walk slowly over to a piece of paper in a car park, discuss the merits of picking it up for half an hour before slowly ambling over to the bins, discussing its deposit, and beginning another stroll.

As long as the paperwork is done by the end of the day then the bureaucracy is happy, so the politicians are happy, and the public is happy, which makes judges happy enough to say “we should do this more often, only tougher”.

So, what works?

There are occasions where community work can do good. Working with the elderly, for example, turns the most hardened criminals into teddy bears. Elderly folk tend to treat people with respect, something that most convicts have experienced little of in their lives. So when there’s a little respect, and a sense of purpose, like cooking or helping with bingo, the more thuggish cons light up. You can see, just for a moment, a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, something different to being seen as scum.

One lad, tattooed in the old style, gold teeth and scars all over his face, would stand in the car park of the community centre and make sure he waved reassuringly and to each and every pensioner individually when they left. It wasn’t hard to understand his needs, but of course the criminal justice service connected them to nothing positive. It will dump him back into his community, providing there is a bit of paper saying he went somewhere for 250 hours.

Another time an old lady saw us wrestling with a hedge trimmer. She asked very nicely if we could cut her hedge. We did, very well. It was the hedge next to the one we put through the cheese grater. We did a good and careful job because she was nice to us. She thought we were very nice too. We were.

Most community sentence doesn’t really feel like punishment. Indeed, everyone I spoke to on service said the same thing: “court is the punishment, this is just grinding us down”. Many of those who had jobs before conviction lost them, others lost their homes too. Those who need time off work to do service lose income. All of which means there is a material detriment that doesn’t punish as much as make people more alienated from their communities as well as more impoverished so more likely to steal to survive. So it doesn’t tend towards rehabilitation or reform either.

Of course there are reasons for community service being such a failure that have to do with the dehumanisation of people who desperately need to engage positively with the communities in which they live. It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand that if you treat people like animals, they’ll behave like animals.

Cuts and privatisation

There are other reasons that seem to do with government policies. Unsurprisingly much of the criminal administration system is privatised. Beyond the arguments over the vices and virtues of profit, there are processes within profiteering that are detrimental to rehabilitation and reform. One of them is centralisation.

My supervisors were commanded from a town 60 miles away, by people who were unable to organise or coordinate. They didn’t know the places, they didn’t know the jobs, they didn’t know the convicts, nor the supervisors. Problems couldn’t be dealt with, communication was difficult. Beyond a few probable bureaucratised performance indicators that have as much to do with reality as an ice cube is to the rules of football, nobody seemed to care what was happening.

With few resources available there is no training – we were none the wiser about silver bitch shoots. We learned nothing about trimming hedges or cooking properly.

Community service taught me a lot about gambling, money laundering, drugs in prison, drug supply chains, how to get away with drink driving, and how to hurt people with random items. Now, I have an extensive list of people who can get me anything I want and do things for me should I decided to go into a life of crime.

I learned a great deal about miscarriages of justice, about inequities in the justice system, about corruption and ineptitude. Now, I know how working class men end up criminalised, how the system dumps them, and how the status of otherwise lovely people blocks their path to recovery.

Perhaps the greatest lesson, as confirmed to me by a leading criminal justice campaigner, was that “they live among us”. So putting all of the rage, anger and indigence over crime aside, we have to turn to the ultimate question: what sort of people do we want living with us?

I live among you, I’m one of the professionals. I was a really nice and kind person before, and I pleaded not guilty. Yet the experience of community service – to say nothing of the inept probation service or deeply flawed court system – has made me alienated and angry. I am a criminal, convict, offender. I wasn’t before but now I am. Whilst it is a crushing experience, I probably have a way out, but others will carry that alienation and anger everywhere.

We have to think how we want those people to be – alienated and angry or hopeful and engaged? How we answer that question will determine whether or not we can begin to resolve the question of prison and punishment. The government’s policy paper, ‘2010 to 2015 government policy: reoffending and rehabilitation’, does give some attention to reforming how people should be treated, but it is bound by its way of seeing – regarding people who have offended as offenders still.

Moreover, it seems privatisation underpins the drive stated in the policy paper. It hasn’t helped the courts, the probation service or community service very well. They all need a change of thinking and investment. The prisoners I know who’ve acted as government consultants say the same thing – they don’t listen. I expect the fundamental problems will meet no resolutions. Pushing people to community sentences as an alternative to prison will exasperate the problem rather than solve it. Oh, and no, prison is no better.

This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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