I dare you not to look away…

What is the difference between ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I didn’t know’?

I ask this question in the wake of what must be one of the best television series in the past year: BBC One’s deeply uncomfortable and disquieting three-parter, Time.

It is described as: ‘Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting, brutally honest portrayal of a failed public service which gets everything right about prison life – minus the tedium.’ If you haven’t seen it – and sorry to my readers abroad if you can’t get BBC – I would like to invite you to watch it, even to dip into it for ten minutes. I’ll tell you why.

Having worked in many prisons in England, I feel everybody needs to know what is going on in them. In our name. There was nothing in the series that I didn’t recognise from my years inside. As I am up against a tight writing deadline for my book (and this blog actually!), I am going to allow the three episodes to speak for me and bear witness to the sheer illogic, and all too often, inhumanity of our current system.

This doesn’t apply to all prisoners, but if we recognise that many addictive, violent and destructive behaviours derive from childhood trauma; if we fully comprehend the impact of untreated traumatic incidents, then the cruelty of locking up people, who were first and foremost victims, in what are often little more than hell holes, becomes very clear. 

My admittedly provocative opening question stems from a genuine desire to understand the answer.

For decades, the adult-generation of Germans living through the Second World War have not been believed when they say, ‘we didn’t know’ (about the concentration camps). And people around the world often blame them for having looked the other way. I don’t want to get into that debate here. There is a consensus among historians that some would have known, some would have heard about them and not believed it, and others would not have known. Most of the camps were miles away in the east and there was little access to free press. There was also a deadly dictatorship controlling thoughts and actions. Yet not knowing, or knowing and not doing anything, allowed the deadly system to persist for as long as it did.

I have been talking to a wide range of audiences about my experiences of working as an artist in prisons for nearly three decades. The most common thing I hear afterwards is a shocked “I had no idea.” It’s totally valid, I make no judgment. There are loads of things I have no idea about. But why don’t more people know about this? There are prisons in nearly every major town. The shocking statistics of failure, the appalling conditions and the tragic stories of many of the people locked up in them are reported on all the time, in every form of media. How can we not know about them?

There is obviously a wide spectrum from having no idea, to knowing but looking away, to knowing and acting. I would just like to use this month’s blog to encourage you to become more informed, specifically about the system in which we warehouse prisoners. Not just for their sakes, but for all of us who live in the communities into which they are returned… usually worse.

When enough people ‘have an idea’, things can and will change.

Watching this series is a start. It’s tough watching, but the reality is much, much tougher.

I dare you not to look away.

Reviews:

Time review – Sean Bean and Stephen Graham astound in enraging prison drama

Time review – like a punch in the face, but in a good way

Time review: This gripping, gruelling portrait of life in prison is essential viewing

What will it take for the British public to get behind prison reform?

Ok, here’s a challenge for a rainy day. 

Can anybody name one good reason why this country repeatedly does nothing about the state of our prisons? Can you give me any single benefit to us, as a nation, of keeping people in institutions that have repeatedly been condemned for their wholesale ineffectiveness?

Since 2001 when I got involved in Britain’s Criminal Justice System having worked in Germany’s for 6 years, I have heard one government-appointed Chief Inspector of Prisons after another – from the judge, Sir Stephen Tumin, to the army officer, Sir David Ramsbotham, to the current retired senior police officer, Peter Clarke – denounce the conditions in our jails. All their reports reveal systemic failures, appalling levels of filth, readily available drugs, lack of educational opportunities and deeply disturbing practices that arise as a result of overcrowding.

Since the 40% budget cuts of 2010, things have only got worse. 25% to 1/3 of prison officers and staff were lost. This has led to prisoners being left languishing in their cells for up to 23 hours a day because there are not enough officers to unlock doors and take them to education, employment, anger-management or drug rehabilitation courses – all things that have been proven to help prevent re-offending. I experienced it myself in HMP Belmarsh when I was Arts Coordinator to Koestler Arts. We raised the money for a 5-week art project, we provided the artists, the materials, we organised the practicalities and we then showed up. But the prisoners didn’t. Because the officers didn’t have time to deliver them. It is one of the reasons I gave up my front line work and focused my attention on raising awareness of what is going on.

Learning to Learn through the Arts projects in HMP Belmarsh, 2004

Now in 2020, I would finally like to understand the apparent logic behind the criminal waste of time, money, opportunity and human lives. And why we, as a nation, allow it to continue.

What is the block that is preventing the British public, the politicians, the Justice Secretaries – of which there have been seven in the past ten years – from recognising the illogic of depriving people of their liberty with the justification of punishment or deterrent, only to then make everything else infinitely worse? Surely it is not rocket science to comprehend that placing people… and they are people… in squalid, overcrowded environments in which they are likely to become more brutalised, embittered and frustrated; in places where they may well acquire a new drug habit, learn hot tips for new criminal methods, possibly self-harm or commit suicide; in places where they have limited or no access to the services, education and general help they need… cannot produce positive results? How can any reasonable person not see that ejecting them back into society after their sentence with £47.50 in their pocket, a criminal record – and sometimes a TENT! – is not going to stop them from re-offending, possibly within days? How is this supposed ‘tough on crime’ approach to people, who often come from catastrophic, traumatic or hugely disadvantaged backgrounds going to make our communities safer? 

I am no economist or mathematician but let’s just look at 2 figures:

1. The Prison Service budget is £4.5 billion per year.

2. The cost of re-offending is £18 billion. 

Let’s look at 2 more:

1. 70% of prisoners suffer from some sort of mental health issue.

2. 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate.

The logic is there in black and white, in the figures. So why this dug-in-heels resistance to changes that embrace methods that have been proven to work? Not least Restorative Justice.

This week, in his last report as Chief Inspector of Prisons, a weary looking Peter Clarke, like so many of his predecessors once again explained the detrimental impact our system has on the mental health of prisoners. Once again he reported rubbish and rat-filled environments, apparently ‘so dirty you can’t clean it’. Once again he described the overall failure of managers who are proud of their data-driven and evidence-based methods but have rarely been inside prisons to ‘taste it, smell it.’ Clarke expresses similar bemusement to me as to why these damning reports so often come as a surprise to the management of the Prison Service. This has been going on for years! We may not be ‘world-beating’ in the appallingness of our prisons but we certainly are close to, if not at the top of the European table of failure. 

As Chris Atkins says in his new book A Bit of a Stretch, our prisons have become little more than ‘warehouses’ for storing offenders. Justice Secretaries, often lacking any background in law, let alone prisons, announce new initiatives with great fanfare, but nothing gets done and after a year, they move on.

Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence in Roadkill

How I wish we could have a minister like the actor Hugh Laurie’s Peter Laurence, in the brilliant new BBC series, Roadkill. Laurence is deeply flawed as a man and corrupt as a politician, but in his newly appointed position as Justice Secretary, he at least verbalises the obvious question: Why are we wasting so much public money on a policy that’s not working? ‘Everyone knows the prison system is grossly inefficient,’ he tells the wholly resistant, thankfully fictional, female Conservative prime minister. ‘So I’m going to shake things up. Justice deserves that.’

And it does. But he will fail. Because it is not just the right-leaning politicians who want to stick to our punitive approach. It is also the British public. In the series, both their attitudes are revealed: ‘We lock criminals up and throw away the key… in the interest of public safety… We’re famous for it… It’s our nature… It’s our bond of trust between the Conservative party and the public…’

Covid-19 has of course made conditions even worse. Some prisoners are locked in their cells for 24 hours a day, and for several weeks at a time in what amounts to solitary confinement, as Clarke points out. Of course that leads to the ‘more controlled, well-ordered’ environment the Prison Officer Association is relieved to have. But what does it do to the people inside? Clarke is convinced there must be an exploration of other ways to do things, safely. After all, ‘Are we really saying we are going to keep prisoners locked in their cells for another 3 months… 6 months… a year?’

After my talks on Art behind Bars in which I reveal the shocking but oft-printed statistics of our prison system’s failures, people frequently come up to me and say “Gosh, how awful, I had no idea.” Well maybe with all the upheaval of Covid-19, it really is time for the public to gain an idea of the horrors that are being perpetuated in their name; in the interest of their safety. Of course we can stick with the old approaches, but at our peril. For who pays the price? Don’t think it is just the prisoners and their families who are punished. It’s all of us. We make ourselves less safe. We make ourselves less just. But above all, we make ourselves complicit in a system that is less than humane.

If you would like to do something to help bring about a shift in attitude and policy, you can write to your MP. You can support the important work of The Prison Reform Trust or the Howard League for Penal Reform. Or any of the charities offering help to prisoners and their families. Or you can look at the wonderful work of my favourite charity, The Forgiveness Project, and their excellent and effective prison RESTORE programme, that I have both witnessed and on one occasion co-facilitated.

Links to follow up

Prisoners locked up for 23 hours due to Covid rules is ‘dangerous’ – BBC News

BBC Newsnight 20.10.20 with Chief Inspector of Prison, Peter Clarke Start at 21.27 mins

Chris Atkins A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner at Wells Festival of Literature

Roadkill on BBC player

The Guardian view on failing jails: an inspector’s call

Times article, 13.10.20

A talk, an exhibition and a TV series…

October is a busy month. Lots to see and do or get done. Can I just add three things to your list? The first two are London-based and optional; the third should really be compulsory for everybody.

So firstly, for anyone in London on Friday 11th October at 4pm, I am very excited to be speaking at the National Army Museum’s inaugural Chelsea History Festival. My talk How Germany Remembers is just one in a whole line-up of talks by impressive historians, writers and speakers – including Max Hastings.

Secondly, and also this month until 3rd November, The Koestler Arts annual exhibition – Another Me – will be showing at the Southbank. I personally haven’t been yet but I know it will once again provide visitors with a glimpse of the huge talent and potential locked up in our prisons. It is a showcase for what the arts can do for people’s well-being, self-esteem and rehabilitation.

I was in fact invited to expand on these benefits for the autumn edition of The Arts Society magazine. Please feel free to read my article ‘Art behind Bars’ to learn more.

But thirdly, and in stark contrast to the positivity of the arts, is the shocking Channel 4 series Crime and Punishment. I know, I know, I have been here many times before. You are probably sick of me going on about the plight of prisoners and state of our prison system. But you won’t be half as sick as all the people involved, who know how acute the crisis is.

Please watch it. Even just Episode 2. And then compare what you see with the Ministry of Justice’s evidence-based summary of what works…

Even I was aghast at what I saw in the first three episodes, and I have been in many of our jails. Everything has got so much worse since the 43% cuts to the budget from 2011 onwards: the levels of frustration from being locked 23 hours a day in conditions that even animal rights campaigners would protest against; the levels of desperation that lead people to shred their bodies or hang themselves to get a radio or better clothes to wear for a visit from their wife and kid; the levels of terror in young officers who patrol the wings after just 10 weeks training and 2 weeks shadowing; and the levels of weary resignation of those who enrolled to help and make a difference but are repeatedly forced to cower behind plastic shields and just ‘contain’.

Photograph 3
Guernsey Prison, Margaret Macdonald Platinum Award for Photography 2019, Koestler Arts

I believe everybody you see in this series is doing their best. But increasingly without hope of change. What you witness is the underbelly of our society. A society that punishes disadvantage, that punishes mental health, that punishes lack of education. In almost every shot, hopelessness seeps under the cell doors to mix with the blood of self-harm.

We all probably feel there are far better causes to engage with – cancer patients, the rain forests, refugees and hedgehogs; that offenders have only themselves to blame and that prison has nothing really to do with us. But if you are reading this, it probably does. Because so many of us have had advantage, education, guidance and love. And it is precisely us who can help bring about change. How? you might ask. Well a good start would be to recognise that Boris Johnson’s policies to extend sentences and build more and bigger prisons are wholly illogical and will only make the situation worse. You could then take a moment to retreat into your imagination, put on the battered, ill-fitting shoes of some of these offenders and try to walk a few steps. See how far you are able to get. The barriers to a crime-free productive life on release are enormous and once more of us realise just how bad things are, we can all join in with the other voices that are demanding: enough is enough.

Good news and great ideas… or just bleedin’ obvious and long overdue?

 

So there’s good news and bad news on the prison front this month.

The good news is that the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has declared that “there is a role for the arts” in criminal justice. He believes it’s a good idea. In an interview with The Times on May 25th, Mr Gauke said “the creative sector is a big employer, you hear stories of someone involved in a prison production who ends up in the West End as a lighting technician…” He wants “a culture of rehabilitation” that encourages “drama, writing and painting in prisons.”

Feltham - Christopher copy.jpg

 

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What can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.

Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then,  with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).

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Wish for 2017: Keeping alive Winston Churchill’s unfaltering faith “that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.

This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education ReviewUnlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized.

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