My dream in May 2015, when I left the gated retreat, was to change the system. I had managed to achieve changes inside, but on release I was hit by reality. The best laid plans…
I spend far too much of my time these days on social media. But it seems, in this warped “prison and prison reform” world, I am not alone. Those of us trying to change the HMP chaos seem to be inordinately active on Twitter and Facebook. Little did I imagine, this time five years ago, that my social media feeds in 2017 would be filled with such issues as the need for prisoners to have email addresses, the appalling neglect and abuse of disabled inmates and the unacceptable overcrowding and terrible conditions in the UK prison system. And that’s without taking into consideration the problems with freely available drugs inside, the smoking ban currently being implemented and the constant media reports about the frequently corrupt HMP staff!
My frustration is immense. I read posts avidly and greedily, and want to be a part of the solution, a solution that I believe is possible. My desire to help gyrates in my brain 24/7. I blog, and share, and re-tweet, yet I cannot seem to infiltrate the very charities and reform groups I would absolutely be a game changer for.
It’s a confusing world. All of these charities employ a variety of paid staff. Many of these, I am sure, have absolutely the best intentions and want a solution. Yet, how do you, as a prison leaver, get into these very positions that would enable you to enact change? That enable your voice to be heard? The only solution seems to be volunteering, as mentioned in my last blog entry.
Being an “ex-offender,” charity volunteer is seen far too often as the charity actually enabling the vulnerable, deprived, incapable prison leaver to have “meaningful and purposeful” activity. But what about the service users and prison leavers who are more than capable? The ones who are intelligent and focused and have come from a professional background? How do we break through into this secret society?
It seems the solution is to start yet another charity or reform group. But surely it is better to focus on having less groups who can help more people?
Today my Twitter chat was with the CEO of a prison-leavers charity I hadn’t heard of before. Their issue of the day was to ensure that all prisoners leave jail with an email address. Sounds sensible and achievable, and necessary, unless you have actually been a guest of Her Majesty. Mention internet access when in jail and you are grounded, nicked and possibly put in Seg! Internet access terrifies security in prison, yet in reality many of the men in jail have it anyway, through secreted mobile phones. My Twitter feed has many serving prisoners on it, and I am so incredibly grateful for the reality of their input. During my two years inside the female estate I didn’t even get a whiff of a mobile, and only ever heard about one lady who had managed to hide one for two years! Men’s jails, it seems, are very different!
Prisoners need to leave jail with many things in place. Yet, through-the-gate services are dire or non-existent. These prison leavers need an e-mail address… Yes… But they need the skills to use it! Giving a lifer an e-mail address to use on release, and a web site with the instructions on how to access it, is asking that licensed prisoner to fail! Imagine being transported from say 1991 to 2017 and being expected to instantly use a laptop or iPad or mobile phone, with your future income and housing and job being reliant on this?
In the last few months of a sentence an inmate must be allowed to access the internet, learn to use a mobile phone, apply fully for benefits, visit the local housing department. If we want to stop the revolving door we need to take this much more seriously. Working in the Vision Office in HMP East Sutton Park, trying to support ladies into work, it was almost impossible for me to perform my role without internet access. HMP officers and staff like to be in control, and they would only pass on e-mails etc when they felt like it, which dashed many prisoners chances of meaningful paid employment We need to remember that human behaviours and personalities play a big part in the attitudes of the staff employed to support and care for prisoners. My personal experience is that the majority had very little empathy, which has a detrimental impact on those prisoners trying to better themselves.
One story featuring massively on my social media feeds at the moment, which truly concerns me, is the treatment of, and attitude towards, a young disabled prisoner. This 24-year old man caused his own life-changing disabilities in a car crash, which tragically killed two teenage boys and seriously disabled two others who were travelling in his car. His crime is hard to forgive, he made incredibly bad choices and has been severely punished by his life long paralysis and other life limiting disorders. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail, for death by dangerous driving. He is wheelchair bound, tetraplegic, doubly incontinent and currently very unwell.
His mother, understandably so, is at her wits end and is tweeting all and sundry to try to get her son the care he needs. A 2017 UK prison is not the appropriate place for a seriously disabled prisoner. He has become seriously unwell, lost a lot of weight and is at risk of serious injury or death. The lack of funding and staffing in today’s HMPS means that many inmates are likely to be on 23-hour bang up, and often ignored by mental health teams and healthcare. But, for such a severely disabled prisoner, the current prison regime cannot possibly provide the care needed. The removal of freedom is the punishment ordered by the courts. Whilst in prison, each offender must be treated humanely and fairly, and yet this will be impossible for this young man with such severe and all encompassing medical needs. I have personal experience of the appalling treatment of disabled ladies, many thought to be swinging the lead or hypochondriacs, and very few allowances are made. All prisoners are believed to be deceitful, and the disabled and unwell are not excluded from this! One incident I remember well is accompanying a disabled lady with a walking frame to a church event in HMP Bronzefield, who then could not walk back. Staff refused to help, refused to allow other ladies to help, and ultimately this disabled lady was punished for being unable to return to her wing due to her disability.
Social media is cruel and the Daily Mail readers of this world have such hatred for this young man’s offence that he, his mother, and his family have received threats and appalling comments online. (Some of the comments are from serving prison officers which is deeply disturbing). I have read many of these, and I despair at the ignorance of the British general public towards prison sentences and their purpose. I pray that this young man starts to receive that ’24-hour care by a team of 8 people’, as promised by Judge Collier at his sentencing… It doesn’t seem likely. I wonder exactly what rehabilitation he will receive, whilst being seriously ill, profoundly disabled and lacking in basic care? His mum states he doesn’t even have a cell call bell…
Britain’s prison system is at breaking point. There are many clones of “me” in the community who really want to make it change. The problem is that we are seldom taken seriously. We blog, and tweet, and post, and write books and articles. Yet we are all “ex-offenders” and as such we are unimportant.
I am reaching out through this blog. I want to be a serious part of the change needed within the criminal justice system, I am available to work with any charities. I blog, I write, I am studying BA Criminology at a red brick uni! But I am not a vulnerable ex-offender who needs supporting into meaningful activity. Will you take me up on my challenge? Will you prove I am wrong with my current analysis of reform charities? Will you take me on board with my incredible academic and analytical skills, my ability to problem solve and my personal knowledge of the system?
I am waiting to hear from you…
Injustice thanks Amanda for letting us re-use this blog. For more insightful pieces, visit Out of Sync 8. You can also follow Amanda on Twitter. Read more of our guest blogs here, and if you’d like to submit a piece, support us in any way, or organise a screening, get in touch.