A ten-year-old boy haunted by the face of his mother as she was stabbed multiple times in front of his eyes; a seven-year-old boy sexually abused by a family friend, then repeatedly while in care; an eight-year-old boy in charge of his younger siblings, regularly punched in the face by his terrifying mother… I could go on. These are some of the people I have just met in HMP Parc while participating in The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme. And it beggars the question: is it right to be punishing people who themselves were originally the victims of primary life experiences that were so overwhelming, traumatic and desperately sad?
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Having disclosed earlier this year, albeit unwittingly, that I listen to The Archer’s, I might as well go further and write about the incident back in April that was so dramatic it hit the headlines. For months listeners had has been pursuing a story line about domestic abuse, which then escalated into a stabbing and prison – topics far closer, I have to say, to my areas of interest than crop rotation.
The details are unimportant here except to say that the woman being abused, Helen, did the stabbing, transforming her in an instant from victim to perpetrator and the abuser, Rob, from perpetrator to victim. Of course stabbing someone is, in the eyes of the Law, a clean-cut case of wrongdoing, a serious and punishable crime. But the law can be clunky, a heavy-handed waiter in mittens trying to extract dirty glasses from a dinner table.
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I am no fan of David Cameron and the Tories, but I’d like to give credit where it is due. And his Prison Reform speech on Monday, though flawed in places, does deserve applause. After decades of Michael Howard’s delusional “Prisons work!” approach, we finally have a prime minister who is talking some sense.
I started working in prisons back in 1987 and the same backward ‘hang’em, flog’em’ method of dealing with offenders has largely prevailed until now. The terror of appearing “soft” on crime has led to our system being the “scandalous failure” that it is now proclaimed to be, even by the very government that has contributed to prisons being “at their worst level for 10 years”. Successive governments have preferred to continue pumping more than £13 billion a year into an over-crowded, under-staffed, under-funded, violent and ineffective system, which even fails its primary goal of helping prisoners “to lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release” in more than half of all cases it handles.
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The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.
Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.
Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.
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Portraits by prisoners in my art class, Cologne Prison’96
I was asked a very interesting question in one of my talks to sixth formers last week. I had just delivered my lecture on ‘Crime, prisons and offenders – the role the arts can play’ describing why prisons aren’t working and what art projects with inmates can contribute towards their rehabilitation. As usual the questions were all interesting, but one in particular struck me. A young man asked me what I did in my initial classes to “tame” the prisoners with whom I was locked in a room. A brilliant question in that it seemed to highlight precisely the misconception so many people have about who prisoners are and what they are like.
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I never seem to stop being baffled by aspects of our society. But more than anything else, I’ve been baffled by the illogic of our criminal justice system since I was able to think for myself. Last night I co-facilitated a Restorative Justice conference that brought it home to me once more how important a role apology has in the process of repairing the harm caused to another.
In so many cases the victim, the most important person within the context of a committed crime, can be hugely helped by the “simple” act of a genuine apology. Isn’t that precisely what we are taught to do as children when we have done something bad? And yet as we grow up and do more seriously bad things, the role of apology is largely replaced by punishment, a revenge of sort that responds to and feeds a victims’s natural and justified anger but contributes little to the easing of their pain. We’ve seen examples of apology countless times in politics: Ireland’s decades of pain-filled longing for an apology from the British government for Bloody Sunday in contrast to the hugely powerful yet simple gesture in Germany in 1970 when Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt at the memorial to the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. No words were needed and it was accepted by the world as a public acknowledgment of wrong – no excuses, no justifications, just a silent and humble act of apology.
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