Want fewer people in prison? Give (ex) convicts a chance! – by Daniel Morriss

It is almost widely accepted that the UK’s prisons are in a state of crisis. Deaths in custody are at levels completely unjustifiable. Violence – either between prisoners or towards staff – is commonplace. The use of drugs appears to be accepted now. When I was in prison, I’d lost count of the times I’d witnessed staff turning a blind eye to individuals who had evidently misused drugs. Staff numbers are still critically low. I doubt morale has ever been lower. How long can this go on for? How many more people need to die in prison, or become addicted to drugs or give up all hope because they cannot access the simplest of things – the phone, the shower, toilet paper?

The government of choice takes it upon themselves to change Justice Secretaries at the drop of a hat. One goes out, a new one comes in full of bright ideas and change. However, when these bright ideas and changes fall flat on their face with millions of pounds going down the drain, they are pulled out – walking into another ministerial position most of the time, allowing the next flavour of the month to have a go.

Real people, real lives

The thing is, whilst the powers that be play monopoly with real money and real property, tens of thousands of individuals are left suffering when the government realises they don’t have the money to pay the rent.

In 2013, I was sentenced to a total of 15 years by a judge at Croydon crown court – 12 years and 3 years consecutive. For my admission of guilt, I was awarded a full third credit – off to prison I went to begin a ten-year stretch.

After the shock of my sentence had worn off, I opened my eyes and inhaled deeply my new surroundings. Murderers, Gangsters, Drug Dealers, Armed Robbers, Fraudsters, Rapists, Paedophiles. Everywhere I turned there was a different story. Innocent? Guilty? Who was I to judge? I had five years at least to do of this – I should be making these people my friends, shouldn’t I?

The impact of prison

When the prison door slams shut hard behind you, you are left with what feels like an eternity to contemplate your situation. Whether your period of incarceration is a day or the rest of your life, for those lonely moments in the long of night, you are all in the same boat. Nothing more now than a number.

Would this solitude change me? Would I be able to get through it? I had to focus on something; forget to a point the outside world and find a new steer. But what? Options were limited in prison. Either go to the gym, take up building ‘things’ out of matches as many had already, join the waiting list for employment perhaps? I didn’t fancy spending the next five years moping the floor. Yet, as I considered my options, I realised that what I really wanted to do was right in front of me. But how would I get to it?

Getting legal

Towards the end of 2013 and into the start of 2014, I had submitted my representations to the Royal Courts of Justice regarding the length of my sentence. I had been swatting up you see – and everything I was reading was pointing in the same direction – that the judge had been slightly excessive with his sentencing powers.

This was held by the Court of Appeal, and my sentenced was reduced to seven years. Still a fair stint however, the psychological and mental edge of having a ‘single figure’ sentence opposed to a ‘double figure’ sentence was quite something.

It wasn’t long before other inmates would ask me to help them with their appeals. Asking me how I had worded my submissions or, where I had read about the guidelines. I soon became the ‘go-to’ guy for other prisoners’ legal issues and to my surprise – I really enjoyed the topic.

Getting an education in prison

I went to education and asked how I would go about doing a law degree. The educator laughed at me – told me I would never be able to do it but recommended I sign up for a budgeting and money management course instead.

Undeterred, I approached a second tutor who was more professional in their approach. Again, asking them how I would go about reading law, I was advised that the prison would never allow it but that I could do another degree if I wanted too. This was progress at least. The problem was, I had no formal education. The educator advised me that I would need to get my GCSEs first. So I did – English, Maths and ICT. What next, I asked? “What about A-Levels?” So I did that… A level English and maths. Can I start my degree now? “What about an access module?” So I signed up for that and a year later, I passed and received my certificate. Now can I start a degree? “Yes – let’s discuss your options.”

I wrote to The Open University, asking them how I would go about reading Law. I received a response advising me that there would be an open day in my prison, and that a representative from the Open University would be there to discuss if it was possible. That representative’s name was Lynn Scott. I’ve never forgotten this name because she made it happen for me. Lynn told me ‘with The Open University Mr Morriss, anything is possible’. I could not read Law year one – as it began year two – so I had to do something else for my first year. However, if I passed my first year, she would endorse a change to Law. So that’s what I did, and I’ve never looked back.

Turning an idea into a plan

Reading Law in prison is not easy. However, the more I learned, the more I was able to help people. With each module that I passed, my confidence and conviction grew. I literally became the ‘Criminal’ lawyer. Guys would bring me their D cat or tag applications, or their adjudication paperwork and ask if there were any significant flaws with the way it has been arranged, enabling them to submit to the independent adjudicator it be thrown out.

The more I did for people, the more I realised I had found my vocation. I began dreaming about how I could make this work on the outside too.

I did discuss my ‘big-idea’ with a few prison staff. They just laughed. Funny, the only people that really supported my vision in prison, were the other prisoners.

When the powers that be let me go, I focused all of my energies on making my dream a reality.

The Freshwood Group was designed to support prisoners and their families up and down the country with any and all of their prison related issues. Whether this be D cat applications, ROTL, HDC, Nickings – you name it, we would help with it. The fact that my core team comprised of individuals who had actually experienced prison first hand became our USP. Friends and families would sign us up to support their loved ones, based purely on the fact that we had walked the landings ourselves as prisoners.

The Freshwood Group became such a success that we had to rebrand our business to facilitate our growth. Thus, The Legal Network was born.

Legal advice for prisoners and families

To date, we have helped hundreds of prisoners across the country with a variety of issues. And not only prison law matters either. We have built a network of industry experts that are able to advise on all areas of the law. And we are just getting started.

Under our stewardship, not a single client of ours has been ‘nicked’, received a negative entry, received warnings from staff members – the list goes on. We work closely with them, and their offender team, to ensure they are progressed efficiently and with care. To make sure they do not become lost in a dangerous, over-populated, under-staffed prison system.

We give them hope; we tell them that no matter how dark their situation at present, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We tell them that they won’t become lost in the system – and that we are here to support them every step of the way.

My dream really has become a reality.

Persevere and succeed

I am now a year and a half away from graduating with my LLB. My company represents hundreds of individuals – and not all of them are in prison. We attend prison reform seminars as often as possible, have raised money for a variety of charities including The Howard League, all of whom are fighting for penal reform.

The staff that used to laugh at me, now want to work for me.

But none of this would have been possible without individuals like Lynn Scott.

Education in prison varies from establishment to establishment. In some jails, there are not the staff to open your door to allow you to take a shower, let alone get you to education. This is not right. Education should be accessible to everyone.

Education changed my life.

Every individual that goes into prison should have the opportunity to meet a Lynn Scott. Everyone should someone who will motivate them, give them hope. And make them believe that anything is possible if they are prepared to work for it.

Working on the wing servery should not be the aspiration of any individual in prison.

Prisons are failing, this is common knowledge. Prisons should use the tools they have at their disposal more effectively. Education is a big one. Find out what an individual really wants to do. Empower them – make it happen. Give them a pathway to success and aid them on that journey.

Give them education – and you will give them life.

This guest blog was written by Daniel Morriss, Managing Director of the Freshwood Group, Bachelor of Laws Student, Philanthropist & Ex-Prisoner. You can follow Dan on Twitter. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers and experts. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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