Those of you that know me will know that I found myself in the enviable (or unenviable, it depends on your stance) position of appearing on Radio 4′s excellent Saturday Live programme last weekend to talk about things prisony. For the few days leading up to it I was horribly nervous about it all, not being certain if I actually would be on and absolutely terrified that I would either clam up or say completely the wrong thing. I was going to be on with Sir Alan Parker and a 93 year old former prisoner of war as well as one of their regular poets, all of whom have considerably more experience of being on the radio than me. I woke up on Saturday morning a full hour before the alarm was due to go off and decided to get up, faff about and collect my thoughts. For days, weeks even, I’d been holding conversations in my head where I would answer my own made up questions and quite frankly it was starting to drive me a little potty. Try as I might to stop thinking about what I would say if asked any number of more and more preposterous questions my annoying brain wouldn’t switch off and as a result in the days leading up to it I struggled to get to sleep a fair few times. Thankfully I was incredibly tired the night before and drifted off easily and although I woke up at 5 I felt suitably refreshed and satisfied that I wouldn’t end up struggling to find words like “chair”, “the” and “door”. Well, it does happen. More and more often if I’m honest, I really should read more to keep my vocabulary ticking over.
I was pretty surprised on the morning that in spite of waking up far too early I was relatively calm, not over-thinking what I would say too much and not desperately trying to think up an excuse to not go and do it. I was even more surprised that my taxi turned up on time (in fact he was early) and that I was relaxed and unrushed when I got to the station to catch my train into London. I even managed to concentrate on my book on the train, and of course my phone which was necessary to cover all social networking bases…I can’t possibly do anything without broadcasting it to anyone that will listen. The fact that most of the time no one at all is listening doesn’t stop me either. The Victoria line was suspended for the weekend (I hadn’t thought to check) so I decided to walk the 20 minutes to Broadcasting House rather than fanny about on the tube and I was glad I did, it was a cold, crisp morning and early enough to be devoid of shoppers. And muggers, thankfully. Even with the walking I was still horribly early, arriving a good half hour before everyone else and I sat waiting, deliberately avoiding the tea and coffee that had been provided for us (my bladder is pathetic), half listening to the Today Programme but unable to take any of it in and wondering to myself exactly what I’d let myself in for. Eventually the others arrived, we made polite conversation, met Rev Coles, former Communard, great wit, MK fan and indeed presenter of the show and filed through to the studio. Gulp. I told Sir Alan that no. 2 son had done Bugsy Malone as his last school play and it turns out it’s a very popular choice in schools. Given that he probably hears such things all the time he was incredibly polite and I must say I thought he was lovely. Unless you count the one in HMP Downview’s media house I’d never been in a radio studio before and I found it was a little scary, there were several microphones around a table, soundproofing on the walls the like of which I’d not seen before and, inexplicably, there was a cooker in the corner. Through a large window a number of people were sitting in front of a console containing many buttons just LOOKING at us. I fought the urge to wave. We could hear the end of the Today Programme and I couldn’t take my eyes off the clock, suddenly I really was terrified and there was no escape. We talked amongst ourselves while I assume they checked we could all be heard and I said little and probably looked quite sick. And then it began, not with me thank goodness and I listened carefully while Alan Parker was interviewed (did I mention that I love him?) and thinking how conversational it all was and how flipping interesting. Richard Coles never seemed to be looking at a script or list of questions and frankly I was a little awed by it all. Genuine awe, you understand, not modern “that’s awesome” rubbish. But with every second that ticked by, and every question and answer it was getting closer to my turn. Erk.
If you were to ask me now what I was asked, how I answered, what I was thinking, how long it went on for, anything, I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t listened it back and I don’t really want to but I’m pretty sure I didn’t make a giant tit of myself and that’s all that matters. I know I was careful about how I put things, was extremely careful about how I talked about the actions of my ex-partner and I know that in doing so I made myself look like a far worse person than I am. Or so it would appear from the initial response to my appearance. The Daily Mail readers were out in force and of course their knee jerk responses are always the first to be given. How dare the BBC give airtime to a woman that admits she committed a terrible crime? Well, yes she does, but did you notice how she didn’t really talk about the circumstances? She couldn’t because she doesn’t want to incur the wrath of her former partner, not when he holds all the power when it comes to seeing her children. Sad but true. It was all over so quickly that I feel I didn’t say enough to get my true message across: this could have happened to anyone. But at the same time it could have NOT happened to me. I felt threatened, I genuinely thought I was going to die and I overreacted. Does that mean I should spend the rest of my life languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure? Well, I don’t think so. I don’t think I am a bad person, a stupid person, yes, but not bad. I admit that I drive over the speed limit on the motorway regularly and when I was under 18 I drank alcohol in pubs. I have never shoplifted, never used or sold illegal substances, never mugged anyone or burgled them, never imported drugs from abroad and never murdered anyone in cold blood (other crimes are available). I paid my debt to society, I lost my liberty, I lost forever my ability to be a normal mother to my sons. But I took it on the chin, accepted the things I could not change and bloody well made the most of them. I did whatever I could in prison to fill my time and to enrich my life. I got fit, I read books, did courses that interested me, I was respectful (but very cheeky) to the officers I encountered and I earned all the privileges a model prisoner could. I kept in touch with my children, my family and my friends, I didn’t let it ruin my life and hopefully it didn’t ruin any of theirs.
But this is only half of my message. The other half is about prison in general. Because of my experience I will always have an interest in prisons and how custodial sentences are used to punish and rehabilitate. At the moment I think the system is failing very badly in what it is meant to ultimately achieve. Yes, a prison sentence is designed to remove people from society for the protection of the public and at that it is of course very effective but not enough is done to rehabilitate offenders, to address their offending behaviour, to make peace with their victims with restorative justice where appropriate or to help them prepare for life back in society. Levels of illiteracy are high but basic education is not compulsory, and neither is there any incentive to pursue it. How can anyone, in particular a prisoner, have any hope of getting and keeping a job upon release if they haven’t learnt the basic skills a lot of us take for granted? How can they get a place to live if they don’t have a job? How can they avoid crime if they have no home or no job? And so it goes on. Re-offending rates are so high it defies belief that so little is being done about it. Or at least that’s the way it appears. In truth there are a number of organisations out there helping ex-offenders learn new skills, giving them a chance where other people wouldn’t. Job loyalty amongst ex-offenders is much higher than amongst the general population so for the most part return on such investment is good. So why aren’t they shouting about it? The problem is that the Daily Mail readers are so vocal with their ill-informed opinions that while all this good work is being done no one really wants to own up to it so it carries on under the radar. Let us not forget the National Offender Management Service who employed me after my release to write and edit an e-bulletin about the seven pathways to reduce re-offending (of which employment is one) and who, in a fit of fear, decided to pull the plug on the project leaving me very suddenly without a job. A job that I relied on to pay the rent on my home (another pathway), maintain ties with my family (another)…etc. Ironic, no? Being so risk averse is no help to anyone and it genuinely angers me that this is the norm when what should be happening is the education of the masses. Without the help of the masses we can’t reduce re-offending, we need schemes in the community to help ex-offenders turn away from crime and earn their place in society. This work starts in prison but it shouldn’t end there. Instead of condemning “criminals” we should be helping them choose another path. Don’t forget that a prison sentence is a far greater burden on the taxpayer than community based alternatives and the cost of putting re-offenders back inside is in the billions. I’m not saying that all prisoners can be rehabilitated but it’s not as black and white as many people think. Given that prisons are fit to burst and reoffending rates are at 67% it doesn’t look like the current system is working, and there has to be another way.
This afternoon I was listening to Julia Hartley-Brewer’s programme on LBC where they were discussing “what prison is for”. There were one or two fairly balanced calls from listeners and then a former police officer called in saying that prison is too easy and that if he had his way they’d bring back the birch. He was disgusted that prisoners had televisions. He wanted prison to be about punishment and nothing else. Is the loss of liberty not enough? It surely was for me. Another caller said he’d spent a week in Wandsworth and described it as being “like a five star hotel”. I beg to differ! I was so incensed I felt compelled to call in and put the record straight. Amazingly I got on and got the last word. Prison was NOT a holiday camp and neither is it the easy option. It is and should be about rehabilitation. I seem to have developed a bit of a taste for this radio lark, watch out Daily mail readers!
If you would like to hear the Saturday live interview you can find it here.