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Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Post 6 - To Live An Honest Life You Have To Be Dishonest

It has been said recently that people living in the community with convictions in the main are Liars...that most families of people living in the community with convictions, or serving custodial sentences are Liars...and most children going to school whilst a parent is 'inside' tell lies...we know many people with Mental Health conditions are Liars to avoid the stigma, but do they really have a choice if they want a chance at a full and rewarding life where they are "accepted" and allowed to flourish and develop their full potential on all fronts?

I recently had a twitter exchange with a prominent Academic In a UK university who was a complete stranger to me, he had tweeted regarding some research he was initiating and had recently received funding to conduct some research into the effects of long term imprisonment (if I have understood him correctly).  I had occasion to comment on a tweet regarding his research and as a result we arranged via DM to speak on the phone.

I am grateful and humbled that he gave me the opportunity to talk with him and express my feelings/observations/experiences regarding people living life on life licence post release.  For me personally it was an interesting exercise and an easy conversation to engage in as not only have I lived my own experience, but for many years I was directly involved in a personal and professional capacity as founder and CEO of one of the first (if not the first) exclusively Prison Law Consultancies in the UK (another story for another blog), which according to one prominent Judge was spectacularly successful.  Quite literally we worked with firms of Solicitors and hundreds of people who have received Life Sentences (still serving inside and the community having been released) and many more who had received fixed term sentences for various offences, so I do feel there may have been something to offer regarding the research in question.

Following that telephone conversation I was left alone in my kitchen together with my thoughts which have led to this blog post, which is essentially about Lies, Liars and the capacity of the powers that be to comprehend that by definition anyone who is subject to what I call societal stigmatisation must also live a lie and/or propagate lies in order to maintain their existence.  In my view experience and evidence shows there are very few people who are burdened with a stigma who have the luxury of being able to build and develop their life to its full potential within the paradox of the fear, embarrassment, humiliation, shame, or the guilt that comes hand in hand with public exposure in the UK of ones existence in those circumstances.  This is particularly evident if they are within a group which is stigmatised either openly (such as Ex Offenders, Trans genders or Transsexuals) or covertly (eg those Disabled or sufferers of Mental Health conditions) within our society.  It was not too long ago that being openly Gay in this country was illegal and it still is in 76 countries and yet the UK and the United States still recognise those countries, trade with them and conduct our affairs with them, so by definition and by omission is our country a paper tiger and are we not all liars?

The Parole Board and the National Probation Service, demand openness from offenders if they are to earn release on a parole or Life sentence, yet they release them into a life of lies.  If they are to source employment then they have to disclose their convictions in certain circumstances, and then are rarely employed when prior knowledge exists on the part of the employer unless their is some form of relief or benefit.  The fact is currently, society is not disposed to absorb the truth regarding offenders, release and rehabilitation, it also appears the media alongside the government have no interest in educating them.

It is true statistically speaking that it is an extremely high probability that an ex-offender (perhaps a violent one) lives in every single street within the UK - the numbers are that high.  9.2 million people in the UK have criminal convictions, and the number increases daily.  Not all released prisoners are fortunate enough to be released to work for a charity, or an organisation they have managed to develop links with whilst inside, in fact they are very few.  Most go out and are unemployed, released with £47.00 discharge grant and a train warrant regardless of how long they have served.  There are of course some exceptions who are clearly resourceful and talented individuals who go out and through their own efforts go on to start up and build highly successful commercial businesses such as The Prisons Handbook/Converse and Veritas-Vincit UK to name but two and in their own way discreetly 'give back', but they are rare and they are the exception.

However in the community following a long stay in prison or a Mental Health unit you can hardly lean on the garden fence and explain to the neighbours where you have appeared from.  It is a delicate operation to decide who you can allow into your inner circle, who you can entrust with your history as it does not just impact on the individual, but also their family, their victims family, friends, colleagues of family...some are of the view the fact that those more prominent are somehow seen as successful examples of reintegration is in itself worrying.  It is not hard to reintegrate when all around you know who you are, what you are, where you have been, what you have done regardless of how long ago, there is certainly very little of a 'stress test' in such circumstances.  Perhaps you have no choice but to lie unless you have no family and nothing to lose?

So the Academic and his research into the 'effects' of long term imprisonment?

Well clearly there are other 'learned' behaviours aside from sitting in restaurants with your back to the wall or where you can see the entrance, or noticing the CCTV wherever you go but especially in banks, shops etc, or walking along looking at the ground (as eye contact inside is confrontational in several circumstances), or eating your food faster than most (as food inside is often warm/cold depending on where you were in the queue), or being overly aware of your personal data and the DPA 1998 when asked for personal details in shops etc.  There is a form of protectionist paranoia upon release as you are subconsciously of the view there is a sign on your forehead where it is written "Ex-Con avoid at all costs - Detritus".

Who has responsibility to change this perception?  Does anyone with the exception of invested parties want to change that perception?  Is there a gain or benefits in attempting to change perceptions?  Who quantifies those gains/benefits and decides the cost benefit to us?  Is it moral or immoral not to attempt to change that perception?

Lets face it there appears to be very few people in power with the influence to change things that seem to care about the death rates in our institutions so why should they care about developing a Criminal Justice System that results in high percentages of rehabilitation and successful reintegration for those marginalised by their own actions many years before?  There is much rhetoric currently around these issues, many meetings take place, many people bank salaries on the back of this broken in reality how many want to effect real change? Who is going to step out into the spotlight and take all the flack they will surely encounter from the media, from their voters and from their peers if they champion real change and real reform and not just tinker with the system?  Likely - No one?

So here's the cycle (example not applicable to all of course).

Arrested (in the norm most Lie to one extent or another), The Police build a case (in the norm dress the cake, embellish/Lie as they are unaware of plea), Sentenced and imprisoned arrive prison reception (Lie to get a single cell or quiet wing or medication to sell), Sentence Planning (staff Lie exaggerate/embellish behaviour to meet criteria for OB work = £.  Con Lies as avoidance strategy), Parole Board review (Probation Lie/embellish risk to meet criteria for hostels or community based OB = £.  Prisoner Lies about levels of confidence regarding support he/she will need, anxiety regarding release), Released - Lie to everyone initially as standard tool for successful reintegration into the given community until considered assessment regarding disclosure takes place.

So who creates the liar?  Is it the system, or the need to be an honest member of society, or is it an entrenched criminal value?

Or are we just cynical, you tell us?  Do you really want change and a more open and tolerant society?  If so do something about it, contact your local MP, ask them when they last visited a prison in their constituency, become a peer mentor or a prison visitor as a volunteer, take an interest in community based Mental Health initiatives, get involved with homelessness, get involved in your local communities and literally effect change and make it a better place for everyone, including those who have stepped outside the law - help them find their way back.

Join us, take a look at our website and see what can be done.

1 comment:

  1. Good article and it is refreshing to hear that somebody is bothered. Long-term entrenched societal discrimination against people that have made some poor choices in life(My aim is not to minimise ones actions here but to argue for a more forgiving and understanding society) is the one thing that marginalises the marginalised further and that's a societal self-harm in my opinion. As a person who has made some poor choices in his life I live a life of paranoia constantly thinking that the label of ex-offender is embossed across my forehead. And in response to this and as a way of retaining some dignity, ownership and power of the situation I constantly find myself telling everybody I meet about my 'ex-offender' status so that it is not a dark secret that may be whispered behind my back. It almost becomes a defensive position - I will get it in there before somebody else does! However, when I get home at night and reflect on my day and revisit the actions and conversations that have took place during that day I find myself feeling exposed, sad and vulnerable as a result of sharing my criminal past. I justify my actions on the basis that I must be transparent but what it does is encourages and permits perpetual discrimination against ex-offenders ( I apologise for use of the 'ex-offender' label to describe someone that has made a poor choice in life - lots of people make poor choices in life its just that some people get caught, therefore, most people [if not all - those who elect or fail to make a government accountable for the promotion of socio-economic policies that maintain the status quo of inequality and disadvantage or for engaging in unjust wars are criminals in my opinion] could be labelled as 'ex-offender' but with the distinction that they are un-convicted). Over ten years on since conviction and having travelled some distance in terms of living a more enlightened and elevated life I still find society's structural discriminative systems seeking me out and dealing me a sly 'kidney punch' every once in a while. I recently applied for a PhD position in a university that I have been associated with since I came out of prison and the persecution of 'risk' flared up once again. That's what happen when we empower all institutions to become experts on risk and comes as a result of the discriminatory residue of 'The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act' which determines that one's convictions are never spent for those offences which are dispensed by a sentence of over 4 years and therefore must be always be disclosed. If people are to be encouraged and supported to change then as a society we must always remain elevated and model the behaviours that we wish to encourage in our citizens (compassion, forgiveness, peace, harmony, love etc - responding violently as we currently do will never produce the individuals that we wish to) and the changes must begin with further reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act as at present it is debilitating and allows potential employers to discriminate. Lets become more forward looking, forgiving and just as a society - the most powerful punishment is the punishment one will give to oneself (conscience and penance). Sorry for rambling on but these are important issues that you have raised!!!


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