Not just another brick in the wall

Author: | 18 May 2022

This week prisons and the justice system have been in the news. Firstly, a joint justice inspectors’ report found recovery from the pandemic at ‘unacceptable levels in some areas’, whilst education is too often neglected. Today, MPs have called for urgent action to strengthen people’s access to high-standard education whilst in prison.

Our Director Peter Stanford, who gave evidence to the House of Commons Committee has written for Longford Blog:

There are some pressing, damaging problems that face us as a society where readily achievable solutions are hard to find, or else hotly contested.  Thankfully, that is not the case when it comes to tackling the staggeringly high number of prisoners who reoffend within 12 months of release. Depending on which figures you use, the current rate is between 40 and 60%.  We know a good part of the answer.  So the only real question is why are we not acting on that knowledge.

Today’s report, Not just another brick in the wall: why prisoners need an education to climb the ladder of opportunity, from the Select Committee on Education on prison education once again confirms that a decent, well-funded education system in our prisons has enormous potential to change lives, cut reoffending, reduce the cost to the taxpayer of prisons, and make us all safer.  But this message is nothing new or surprising.

In 2015, for example, I was a member of the panel working under Dame Sally Coates on a report on prison education. We handed Unlocking Potential, our recommendations, to the then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, in 2016 and he promised, in public, to implement them ‘without hesitation, repetition or deviation’.

Yet, as the Select Committee’s report sets out, next to nothing has happened about the vast majority of Coates recommendations. So it makes them all over again.

Will it be different this time round?  Well, I have faith that, if you say something sensible often enough, eventually someone will listen.  I therefore agreed to appear before the committee in April 2021 to offer once again the perspective of the Longford Trust from its work supporting young serving and ex-prisoners to go to university.

At the end of my session, I was asked by the committee chair, Robert Halfon, what I would most like to see change.  At the risk of repeating myself, I said supervised internet access for serving prisoners so they can benefit from all the life-changing opportunities that distance learning with providers like the Open University offers.

And the Select Committee makes that one of their main recommendations. It also backs another long-standing wish of the Longford Trust – that student loans should be available not just to serving prisoners with six years or less to go on their tariff (the so-called Six-Year-Rule), but to all who can demonstrate that higher education studies would improve their prospect of rehabilitation.

On this second point, though, a junior minister at the Department for Education is reported as having told the Select Committee that the government did not want to give student loans to prisoners, ‘who have no prospect of paying those loans back’.

Does he think that prisoners never come out, never go on to use the educational qualifications they have undertaken while inside to get well-paid jobs?   More than 80 per cent of Longford Scholarship award-holders, all of whom receive student loans, do precisely that.

Evidently not, which dampens hopes that this Select Committee report will succeed where others before have failed in focussing minds on improving prison education. But we will continue unceasingly to argue the case because we know from experience that it is unanswerable.

Education changes lives for the better, in prison as everywhere else.

Aiming high: keeping hope alive in prisons

Author: | 6 May 2022

In November last year, social justice commentator George the Poet gave a thought-provoking speech to Longford supporters, scholars and mentors.

He talked about the game being rigged – not just in prisons and the justice system but across society. He said ‘there are no choices without chances’, proposing that prisons should be re-modelled as development centres with opportunities, rather than detention centres.

George’s words  [watch again here] continue to resonate, so much so that months later former scholar, Richard got in touch with his own reflections:

Time and rehabilitation

Inside you have time, time to reset. On the outside, we wish we had more of it.

Spending three years in prison from 2007-2010 gave me insight into how the prison system is ‘rigged’, stacking the odds against individuals, focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation.

I only heard the word ‘rehab’ in association with drug taking. What I experienced was underfunding, undertrained/skilled staff in rehabilitation, limited options, limited information, limited support and guidance. I pushed for avenues to develop and use time wisely, but was told, ‘we’re not geared up for people like you’.  People like me, wanting to use my time productively, rehabilitate myself. A strange response to me under the circumstances.

I took Carpentry City and Guilds, Business Studies and Personal Training courses until funding lapsed on all. I even managed, through special permission from the governor to gain internet access to complete my University application (at first denied) and just squeaked into the Autumn 2009 intake.

When I went to prison it was my first offence, devastating and traumatic for everyone involved but I had all the support anyone could want in that situation. For that I consider myself lucky. Many friends inside weren’t so fortunate. I did ok in school but I couldn’t help but question what hope there was for those spat out of school, in care, or just not encouraged when young in school, or even by their parents.

Education, work and health are the basic principles in society.

The Game is Rigged: Detention Centre or Development Centres?

34% of prisoners read at the level below an 11year old. This is no coincidence. It’s good to see we now have a prisons inspector, Charlie Taylor, who is determined to address this literacy defecit.  Prison is the last line of defence in my view, it must be a duty of society to provide these opportunities, a real option to rehabilitate, a second chance I thought. This doesn’t need to be traditional education, it starts with support and information of where to start, developing and building on your interests with opportunities associated to those outside the prison walls. A place of hope and clarity. Only then can everyone in prison look in the mirror and decide to take that option of development, or not.

Without this support the game must be rigged, right?

The only ‘help’ preparing me for my release focused on the need to tell an employer I have a criminal record and that it will never be classed as ‘spent’, emphasising to me it was against the law not to disclose.

In the first five interviews after finishing my degree I declared my record, resulting in me not moving to the next stage. In my sixth interview I said nothing, went through 2 interviews and got offered the Job. I then declared it and it was not an issue. I have moved companies five times since, all with the same outcome. I’m not necessarily advocating this approach but certainly at that time it seemed the only way to move on.

Hope and Chances : ‘Making it a worthwhile place to be’ 

 I didn’t want to become part of the system and a statistic. Educating or bettering myself however I could was a MUST, a driver for me and I’d urge everyone to think alike. There should be a trained staff member who goes around prisons, like a career advisor in effect, understanding what skills people possess and how those can be transferred into society. Would vocational, education or simple support and mentoring help?  What avenues of funding are available post release? What level does an individual need to be at on release to access a college course and help devise a road map to get there. Starting off is the hardest step of all. It’s about problem-solving – we all need to do it from time to time.

I can’t help thinking it would be great if prisons were like colleges and universities, specialised in certain areas: prison radio, cookery, trades, creative and arts, sports.  Again, become places of hope, providing the opportunity to develop an individual for their release, a successful release. Educating on not just subject matter but on life. Interpersonal skills, money management and communication are more important than ever. Giving people information on moving out of their home area, how they’ll feel, and what a new chapter can bring. And credit where credit is due it’s great to see local and national businesses, especially in construction starting to recruit from prisons. It’s an obvious talent pool, individuals can be fully trained and on site in just 12 weeks. Though maybe we shouldn’t get into the prison building plan (that’s another blog!).

So, as George the Poet says, there are no choices without chances and for now it’s largely up to organisations like Longford Trust and others to provide real tangible chance. They gave me that second chance and support I much needed at the time, 6 months prior to my release I met my mentor and secured scholarship funding which paid for my accommodation. They helped me to get a part time job and I moved from prison to university life with as little baggage as possible.

In truth, most critically they believed in me. They believed in my ability and the financial help fostered my ability to focus on my studies despite being severely dyslexic. It put me near to the opportunities my class mates had with emotional and financial support from their families. I completed my degree with a 1st class honours degree, top of my class in Project & Construction Management. With a chance given to develop, other successes will follow. There is no doubt.

I have gone on to manage over 300 men on site in central London, built some of the most prestigious, high-end hotels you can imagine to the tune of over £80m.

It all started somewhere and it’s quite easy to pinpoint. It began the day I first met my mentor.

If only the same level of hope, opportunity and belief in potential were hardwired into the prison system, then we’d have something to celebrate.

 

You can watch George the Poet’s lecture here.

 

 

 

photo by Dom Fou Unsplash

Turning a sentence into a degree: one scholar’s remarkable story

Author: | 9 Mar 2022

Turning a prison sentence into a university degree is what Longford scholars do. Second chances and a personal approach are at the heart of what we at Longford Trust do. A scholar is supported both financially and with a one-to-one trained mentor to help achieve their potential.  

More than 80% of scholars successfully graduate and get a degree-level job. Increasingly, scholars take advantage of Longford employability training and support. 

Applications for 2022 scholarships are open for 2022/23 academic year (see below for more)

One scholar who joined last year has written for Longford Blog about her journey to university….

There’s plenty written about what people lose when they go to prison. We lose our homes, our jobs, our families, every bit of normality that we may have ever had. Coming to prison at the age of 19 changed everything for me. Alongside the crushing realisation that I’d lost everything, I distinctly remember thinking about something else on my first night in a prison cell – what could I possibly do with my life in a new world void of opportunity?

Fast forward to the age of 20, I was working on the induction unit. A group of fresh-faced criminology students from a local university entered the wing as part of a prison tour.

I remember that feeling – the feeling that they were just like me but were totally different. All the doors that were closed to me were wide open for them.

They asked me questions about my time in prison, eager to know what life was like in our hidden world. When they left, I couldn’t shake the realisation that I would never have that kind of opportunity again. That feeling stayed in my head for months, serving as a constant reminder that my life had finished before it had started.

A year later, I was working as a Peer Advisor in the same prison. I was asked to conduct a talk for a group of first-year criminology students in the visits hall. I was immediately reluctant as I was sick and tired of being wheeled out as a reliable performer, ready to speak highly of the prison to any visitor in a suit at the drop of a hat. Persuaded by the promise of a sausage roll and a biscuit, I gave in and delivered the talk.

For once, I was honest about prison.

Honest about the inequality and deprivation that has filled our prison system to the rafters. I was honest about the reality that prison is a profitable method for throwing away everyone that society doesn’t want to see. For every ‘proper criminal’, there are another 50 women with the type of trauma histories that could keep you awake at night for the rest of your days. New to the world of criminal justice, the group of students were blown away by my stories and the simple fact that our prison system does not work.

The head lecturer of the group approached me just as the students were leaving. He asked about my release date, insisting that I should be at university. I still had three years to serve, so he suggested that I should start university as soon as I was eligible for open conditions. There was a continuous trail of communications between myself, the university, my family and the prison. There were so many challenges from every direction, and so much red tape that I never believed it would come to fruition.

I was given my ‘open status’ (where I could leave the prison on day release for study or work) in September 2020, just one week before the start of the course.

Walking into the lecture theatre for the first time….

felt just as unfamiliar and frightening as walking onto the wing for the first time. As terrifying as it was, I somehow felt like I was at home. I started to relax as soon as I realised that I wasn’t really that different from everyone else in the room.

I would learn that my experience would end up being an asset instead of holding me back.

I came across The Longford Trust whilst trying to find financial support during my first year of university. Though I was too late to apply for that year, I became a Longford scholar in my second year at university. It was incredible to know that there were other people on the same exciting journey as me. The Longford Trust partnered me with the perfect mentor. We now meet every two weeks and discuss all things criminal justice.

There have been plenty of challenges.

I often say that studying at university whilst in prison is akin to climbing Mount Everest whilst walking backwards and wearing flip flops.

Though this is the case, I’d recommend my journey to every single person in my situation. The opportunities that have been available to me since the start of my university experience are beyond what I ever thought possible. Alongside my studies and research, I work as a part-time lecturer. I am fortunate enough to be able to offer a rare insight into our world and educate prison staff about the important things that you’d never find in a textbook. To even consider what my life was like four years ago is truly unimaginable now.

I’ll end this blog with a short message of advice to every single person in prison. There are people waiting to hear your story. There are opportunities out there that are beyond the reach of the prison education department. There are people out there that are waiting to support you at every stage of your journey.

Believe in what you want to do, whatever that is, and stay tremendously interested in it.

It is only by running head-first at your passion that you’ll make your future what you want.

———————————————————————————-

Have you got plans to study a uni degree? Are you close to release or recently released? preferably in your 20s/30s, check out our 2022 application here: https://www.longfordtrust.org/scholarships/the-longford-scholarships/ 

 The closing date is 5th June 2022.

 

 

 

Join us! Exciting new job opportunity with Longford Trust

Author: | 2 Mar 2022

 

New: Employability Manager (Part-time)                                                                                                                             

Since its founding in 2002, the Longford Trust has grown organically. Its five current core team members all work virtually, with regular face-to-face and on-line team meetings and phone calls.  We do not have a shared office.

However, we believe there is a strong team spirit and collective ethos allowing the trust to deliver a high standard and to develop  programmes in higher education for young people in/after prison.  The new role of employability manager reflects the trust’s decision – after a pilot programme for the past year– to help prepare scholars for degree level careers after graduation. The employability support is in addition to the existing financial and mentoring support for our award-holders.

Ideally, we would like to recruit someone with lived experience of the criminal justice system and a good knowledge of the higher education system, graduate recruitment and an understanding of the Longford Trust, and what it does.

Pay and conditions

  • one day per week, but time could be split over two half days
  • pro-rata of £30,000 pa, with annual pay review
  • paid monthly in arrears by bank transfer
  • The Longford Trust has no employees. Each member of the team is a freelance consultant and invoices the trust monthly for their agreed fee. Each member is responsible for paying their own tax and National Insurance. A designated mobile can be provided to undertake trust calls, for which the trust would pay. And a contribution can be made towards office equipment.
  • If, in exceptional circumstances, extra days are required, they will be paid at a day rate of £250.
  • There will be a three-month supported probationary period, followed if your appointment is confirmed by regular appraisals from your line manager and/or the director.
  • Your consultancy contract with the trust can be ended at one month’s notice.

Scope

The trustees have identified four specific areas which together will make up the employability area of our work:

  • Training: organising regular day-long workshops during the year that are offered to past and present scholars, run in partnership with another charity.
  • Introductory service: through existing and new supporters build a range of internships, placements and volunteering roles. Also develop international study travel scholarships. Organising references where appropriate.
  • Coaching: short-term, one-to-one pairings, of career-focused mentors to help build scholars’ confidence, networks and resilience.
  • peer-support and networking: ‘Career Club’– led by demand from our current and ex-scholars, the creation of an on-line community (including potential face to face meet-ups) among job-seeking scholars to boost support and connectivity during a job search.

 

What You Will Be Doing?

  • Work to agreed goals for each quarter, set with your line manager and the director, you will focus on these four areas.
  • Key to success will be getting to know award-holders who are making their post-graduation career plans
  • guiding scholars into the various supports that the employability programme can offer and guide towards other sources of support to help realise their potential
  • responding on an individual basis, listening to what they are saying (and not saying), all within the boundaries of the employability scheme.
  • building links with existing supporters and new contacts, especially employers, who show an interest in offering our award-holders work placements and internships
  • supporting scholars into those work placements and internships.
  • Liaison point for coaches, mentoring manager and scholars.
  • Creating an engaged career-focused community–this element offers most scope for creativity, taking a germ of an idea and trying to build something robust and helpful, based on scholar feedback. Use Linked-In, perhaps.

 

 Who Will You Work With Closely?

 You will be line-managed, initially, by our scholarship manager, who has run the employability pilot and will continue to be the ongoing first point of contact in relation to scholars and their requirements.

You will also be supported by the office manager who will guide you on how the Trust’s systems work – in terms of finance, record keeping, key policies around how we work and the data-base.

When tackling the coaching aspect of your work, you will liaise with our mentoring manager.

And in such a small team as we are, you will also be talking and exchanging ideas with the director, who plays an active role in the scholarship and mentoring programme.

What we are looking for:

We would like to recruit someone with lived experience of the criminal justice system and a good knowledge of the higher education system.

The successful candidate will demonstrate:

  • good communications skills
  • empathy
  • a passion for prison reform and second chances
  • effective team working whilst also taking the initiative
  • strong planning and administrative skills
  • an ability to organise your own work time, exercise self-discipline and be effective at working alone,
  • good judgement about when to collaborate with colleagues for support and guidance on the way forward and issues that present themselves.

 What Next?

If you are interested in the role and want more information, contact Peter Stanford, director of the Trust: director@longfordtrust.org.  To apply send an up-to-date CV, and a letter setting out why you think you are right to Peter at the same email address. Closing date: 18th March 2022.

Important: Please include the name and contact details of two referees

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for interview from the week beginning 21st March 2022 (by zoom or in person) with a starting date of early/mid April 2022 preferred.

 

 

Lee running in Prague

How a paid internship proved a gamechanger

Author: | 10 Feb 2022

For graduates internships are a well-recognised route into a career, often providing that all-important introduction into a sector or profession which might otherwise seem closed. Whether it’s finance, accounting, engineering or journalism, a degree is significant but it is estimated that an internship improves the chances of securing a job by as much as three times.

At Longford Trust, as part of our new employability programme, we have bolstered efforts to partner with employers to provide these vital placements. The list of employers who scholars have worked with range from the heart of Whitehall (Cabinet Office) to policing (Office of West Midlands Police and Crime Commission) and charities (Justice; Justice Gap and the Criminal Justice Alliance).

The Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) is now hosting its fifth Longford scholar intern and has become a beacon for others.

Artist and ex-scholar Lee Cutter helped the CJA run its annual awards last year. Lee and the CJA’s Communications and Engagement Officer Jamie Morrell talked about their experience….

Why was the timing right?

Lee: I guess previously I’d had 5 ½ years working with Koestler Arts in their events and exhibitions team and the CJA internship came at a perfect time. I’d left Koestler (based in London) to live in France a year before and moving in a pandemic, everything was in lockdown. I’d been unemployed for a year, unable to go out and speak with people, so my confidence had dropped quite a lot. So this internship came up and it was an opportunity to build my confidence, bring some skills with me in and also it was an opportunity to learn some new skills and work in a new team. I’d never done an internship before.

How much of a difference did it make that this was a paid internship?

It made a huge difference just knowing my input was valued in this way. People deserve to be paid for their work. To be honest I’m pretty sure most people would agree.

Tell us about what you worked on …

I worked on the CJA’s annual awards, which was held online due to the pandemic. The awards celebrate individuals and organisations helping make the criminal justice system fairer and more effective. There are media awards too which spotlight journalists, documentary makers and digital media champions who are improving public understanding of criminal justice and challenging misperceptions. Initially, I was encouraging people to nominate themselves or others. Through this process, I found out about new, brilliant things happening in the sector. I coordinated the entries for the judges and worked with Jamie and the video production team to deliver the online ceremony, broadcast live from a studio in London.

 Any testing moments?

Yeah, (laughs) there were moments. Technical ones, like when the award winners were struggling to join the live call. There were a couple of touch- and- go moments. Luckily, there was only one hiccup in the end with one award winner but it went smoothly on the whole. And to be honest I quite enjoy problem-solving, being in that moment.

For most of the internship you worked remotely, how was that?

I wondered how that would be but from the first day I felt so welcome in the team. I don’t even know if it was extra effort for the team, it was just them being themselves. To feel valued from the first day was great. We had lots of small meetings and they wouldn’t always be just work-focused, more like general conversations about your week, things like that. The little things which make you feel valued as a person. And the stuff you’d have if you were going into an office every day.

There was an unexpected bonus trip though, tell us about that…

Oh yeah, the trip to Prague! That certainly wasn’t in the job description. It all happened very fast. It was a knowledge exchange trip between Holland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and England and we were exchanging learning about the different prison systems, what works, what doesn’t. I’d been working at the CJA for one week, and then I was off to Prague just as the borders were opening [with the lifting of Covid restrictions]. They were a brilliant few days. We visited an open prison, which had a garden and a small farm with a llama that we fed. It was very different from what we do – it was for around 32 people whereas our open prisons are a lot larger. There was a lot more 1:1 support.

We also took part in the Yellow Ribbon Run, a relay race which brings together people with convictions, people working in the criminal justice system and members of the public to raise awareness of the importance of second chances (I was pleased to beat Jamie’s time – she’s super competitive!)

What key new skills did you acquire at CJA?

It was a chance for me to bring in skills I’d had from before and use them in a new setting. But one thing I learned is that the criminal justice sector is bigger than arts and criminal justice. It’s been interesting learning about the different bubbles. And my writing skills had been lacking a bit. Jamie helped me improve in this area, showing me how I could cut down a 1,000 word award nomination into a short, punchy bio for the awards brochure while still doing justice to the great organisations.

So Jamie, what was it like working with Lee?

Jamie, Criminal Justice Alliance

Jamie: Lee’s obviously very talented, intelligent and thoughtful, which is a massive help.

But the key thing about the Longford internships for the CJA is that it’s not just about what we want to get out of the experience, it’s what the intern wants to get out of it too. Lee already had experience of running large exhibitions and handling submissions from lots of artists, which was useful in helping deliver the CJA Awards. But we want to have a conversation to find out what additional skills our interns would like to gain. Lee lacked confidence in writing. Actually, when I read his descriptions of the organisations for the brochure I thought they were very well-written, but I gave him some extra hints and tips to tighten things up and Lee made some tweaks and then it was ready for the brochure.

Lee has expertise both professionally and from his lived experience. He provided lots of fresh ideas and insights during his internship. These insights help the CJA team think about things in a slightly different way.

We also enjoyed having Lee’s artistic presence on the team. When our European partners visited London in November as part of the knowledge exchange programme, Lee gave us all a fascinating tour of the Koestler Arts exhibition. We also went to see his work in the Royal Academy – we were blown away by his intricate soap carvings!

If anyone’s thinking of doing an internship partnering with the Longford Trust– either as an intern or an employer- what is the real benefit?   

Lee: For me it was a gamechanger. My confidence grew, being part of such a nurturing team. If I made a mistake, I was able to talk about the mistake, we could develop on that, it was all about growing and learning. Who wouldn’t want that?

Jamie: Interns offer valuable expertise and a fresh perspective to your organisation and anyone who employs an intern with lived experience will not regret it.

*******

Inspired? If you’re an employer or a scholar interested in internship opportunities, we’d love to hear from you, scholars@longfordtrust.org.

The Criminal Justice Alliance has launched a new lived experience leadership programme and is recruiting a project manager with first-hand experience of the criminal justice system. For more click on the link here.

Pausing to reflect on how far I’ve come

Author: | 17 Dec 2021

For many this is a time of year to take stock, looking back on the year behind us. 2021 has, perhaps, invited more reflection than ever. 

As a charity promoting second chances for people in and after prison, we too have reflected that supporting Longford scholars into career opportunities is something we have a part to play in. For almost a year, a pilot employability programme has been running alongside our scholarship programme. 

Molly took on a new role through the employability pilot. Here, for Longford Blog she reflects on what she’s learnt….

The circumstances that led me to spend a year in prison are undoubtedly the worst thing to have happened to me and my family. With my mind and body in survival mode, I don’t have clear memories of my time inside. However, in my last days there, I remember vividly one of my closest friends saying, ‘Molly, when you leave don’t look back.’ She wasn’t being metaphoric, she was deadly serious. ‘Walk out of the gates and do not turn around.’

I followed her instructions to the T. I was released in the April and, with Longford’s support, hurried straight to Cardiff Metropolitan University in the September. I joined the equestrian team and swiftly took over as president, I worked as a student ambassador, became a student representative, completed 100 hours of work experience as part of the Cardiff Met Award, coached gymnastics, athletics, rugby and cricket, and started the CoppaFeel!: Uni Boob Team society… The aim was to place as much distance between myself and HMP Eastwood Park as possible with the hope of making my CV look good despite my conviction.

Focusing on proving myself outside of academic study by cramming distracting activities into my schedule was overwhelming. Balancing these commitments, alongside the mental health issues and trauma of being fresh out of prison led me to overlook my degree. Nevertheless, I managed to scrape a 2:1 in 2019!

Back on track

After graduating, I found a good job with good people who didn’t care about my past. Over the next couple years, I made Cardiff my home and settled into a comfortable position. More recently, I started my own freelance venture. Life is back on track. Except this summer, two years post-graduation, having worked tirelessly to put distance between my new life and my experiences, I found myself carrying around an unbearable guilt. Guilt for succeeding and leaving the people in prison behind.

If I wanted to make the feeling go away, I had to do something about it. I got back in touch with Longford in October and explained the situation….

‘I want to give back.’

When they offered to put me in touch with StandOut, who happened to be recruiting, ultimately I knew, despite the fear, that I couldn’t turn this opportunity down. Luckily, the role suited me perfectly; working part time meant I can confidently develop my freelance social media management services with the comfort of a stable income. Not to mention, resolving my desire to give back.

It all happened so quickly, I’m still confused by it. I spent the best part of 6 years trying to move on from prison and now I’m working in an organisation that challenges me to confront a lot of underlying emotions and internalised stigma about prisons every day. Whilst inside, I was aware of a handful of organisations who visited people in prison, but I never understood how dedicated such organisations are to supporting people to create a better life upon release. Whilst it’s frustrating that the current system requires organisations like StandOut to exist in the first place, it’s fascinating to learn more about the sector as a whole.

Now here I am, just over a month into my role at StandOut, feeling so grateful for the opportunity to work with a first class and committed team who work together to put people first. With their support, day- to- day I plan communications and support fundraising. Feedback from my new colleagues has assured me that I’m doing a good job! As a team, we have just completed a massive campaign for The Big Give Christmas Challenge where we smashed our initial target by 50% and raised over £90,000.

How far I’ve come

Whilst building my way up towards a wonderful job, growing a freelance venture, new home and beautiful family, not stopping to look back felt right. However, now knowing that I want to and can give back, a period of reflection is necessary. Although it’s not always easy, pausing to look back has allowed me to see how far I’ve come.

If you want to apply to become a Longford scholar to study a university degree in prison or after prison, you can apply here. 

Scholarship Application

Why George the Poet almost moved me to tears

Author: | 29 Nov 2021

November 2021 saw the return of the Longford Lecture on prison reform. Spoken word artist George the Poet headlined as guest speaker, declaring ‘the game is rigged’ and calling for prisons to become ‘development centres’.

He began, however, with a message for the music industry. Longford scholar Kyle was in the audience….  

Hello, my name is Kyle and I am a third year scholar, currently completing a Mathematics degree. To be honest, I see myself as a numbers guy more than a crafter of words but after being moved almost to tears by George the Poet at the 19th annual Longford lecture, I wanted to take a moment to put down my take on a memorable evening. And reflect on why his words meant so much to me.

This was my first Longford lecture. Amazing.

For a start, it was refreshing to see so many people who believe in change and rehabilitation gathering in Westminster from all different walks of life, many I suspect like my mum who came with me, may have been hearing George Mpanga (the Cambridge University- educated spoken word artist and social commentator famous for the Have you heard George’s podcast) for the first time.

The 500 or so people were gathering after a two year break due to Covid-19 with a common purpose of rehabilitation, with a shared belief in second chances. As someone who spent time inside myself, knowing the event was being aired into cells nationwide sent a powerful message, ‘you may be out of sight, but you are very much in mind.’

So what did I make of George on the night?

George, as I know from following him for many years, has passionate views about what happens in our prisons, about the urgent need for reform and rehabilitation. He’d hinted at what he was going to say in an in-depth interview in the Observer newspaper but nothing prepares you for the mesmerising in-person performance (which you can watch again here).

RAP’S NOT MUSIC!’ he declared.

He’d begun with a sentence which smoothly blended into a rap and then I realised: he’s rapping, this is a poem!

The first quote which struck me was,

‘Rap is a commodity, got to be the best thing adapted by poverty.

So if so many have seen a pay-out, why aren’t the communities guaranteed a way out?’ from his 2015 poem Rap’s Not Music.

When I talked to my mum afterwards I realised she, may be like others in the audience, may have been in the dark about what George was trying to get across.

It boils down to this. Often in RAP music artists talk about their upbringing, a common reality of drugs, struggles, violence, no support. Prison and trauma are part of their everyday reality and reflect the environment they grew up in.

I agree with what George says about commodity, he articulates a worrying distortion. RAP music is from a minority, typically born of poverty ‘on the streets’ but attracts the majority. These minority issues aren’t usually addressed or spoken about.  So, it’s powerful when people voice their situation and problems through the art of music.

But homegrown RAP music is BIG business, with the biggest market share of streamed music in the United Kingdom. It’s frustrating people are listening but not understanding the symptoms of poverty.

A quick side note here. I can relate to George and his background. He went to a London boys’ grammar school where he felt out of place, travelling for more than an hour each way to a leafy suburb from his home area, a poor part of London.  I remember being the only black person in my year 7 top set maths and science class at school, I’ve always been academic. It felt odd, no-one wanted to sit next to me.

May be it was because my friends were getting into trouble, some were bullies. Or may be due to race, upbringing or behaviour. I don’t know exactly. It’s hard to describe the feeling but I knew I was different from everyone in my class.

George knows what it feels like not to fit in. We need to stop people becoming lost in system.

Let’s remember the ‘The game is rigged‘ says George…’Crime and Imprisonment are predictable.’

  • 54% of young people in prison have been in care
  • 52% of children in police custody are from British Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds

Can you imagine the trauma of being in care? This trauma will often lead people to commit crimes. Whilst poorer communities struggle in self destruction, music companies are making big money, profiting from poverty.

Surely, there’s a moral duty on the music industry to make a change, to reinvest and address the community problems which sell their music.

This is such a central point I wanted to be sure my Mum had understood.

He also had important things to say about education and prisons. Back to statistics, he quoted the 34% of adult prisoners who read English below the level expected of an 11-year-old. Prisons need to change from punishment centres to development centres, a vision which most of us share.

Prison should be about second chances and changing people lives, for the better, for our communities and for a positive rehabilitation, breaking the cycle and reinvesting into our futures.

There are no choices without chances.’ That’s the bottom line.

Again, we need to stop people becoming lost in the system. I was that boy, like George the Poet. who didn’t quite fit in anywhere, not in school nor in my home area. I feel more that I do now. It has taken many years for me to feel accepted – a long journey with a lot of mistakes on the way.

Since my release from prison I’ve grabbed a lifeline, one where I’m pulling myself back into society, on the right side of the law.

I will be forever thankful and remember the likes of George the Poet for his inspiring words and work.

 

You can watch a recording of George the Poet’s speech by clicking on the link here

 

 

 

 

Prison doesn’t work. But prison education does.

Author: | 2 Nov 2021

Better prison education means less reoffending, less crime, and less cost to society.  Our Director Peter Stanford makes a fresh plea for the virtuous circle of education in prisons.  

Current projections are that the number of prisoners in our jails will rise by 2026 from the current 78,000 to 100,000 – a huge increase when we already have the largest percentage behind bars per head of population anywhere in western Europe.  To accommodate such an expansion, the government has set aside £4 billion to build more prison places to cope with the consequences of its own policies of tougher sentences.

There remains in Westminster and Whitehall an abiding belief that prison deters both offending and reoffending. The facts suggest otherwise. In many categories crime is now on the rise, despite the repeated ramping up of sentencing guidelines. Meanwhile just short of 50 per cent of current prisoners will be convicted again within 12 months of release – more in the younger age groups.

Such a list of statistics, I know, is too often a prompt for readers to look away. For decades the prison reform lobby has strained every sinew to highlight such figures to create a public mood to tackle what by any standards feels like a pretty poor return for the £44,640 per year that it costs to keep each prisoner behind bars in England and Wales.

But for all their efforts, and the evidence they provide, as a society we remain emotionally addicted to the comforting old mantra that “prison works”, coined by Michael Howard while Home Secretary in the 1990s.

My own tiny part in this debate is around prison education.  For the past 20 years on a part-time basis I have worked with a trust, set up in memory of the late Lord Longford, that provides scholarships of money and mentoring to encourage young serving and ex-prisoners to go to university.

Numbers helped are small: around 500 scholarships handed out over the period, currently at the rate of between 30 and 40 each year. But our results, I would suggest, provide a practical and human glimmer of hope.

Just short of 85 per cent of those we support go on to graduate and use their degree to begin careers that mean they never offend again. Fewer than 4 per cent return to prison.

My day job is as a journalist and writer – so I could now give you countless uplifting and inspiring stories of those young men and women we have supported and how they are now thriving members of their communities.  But in the limited space I have to argue for a new direction in prisons policy and public attitudes to what goes on in our jails, I’d like to focus not on anecdotes (check out our website for these), but on facts.

Research shows that, among those in prison who engage with education, reoffending rates on release are closer to a third than the more general 50 per cent.  In other words, “prison education works”.

That is the argument I have been making in recent years to various official enquiries, including in 2016, as a panel member on Dame Sally Coates report on prison education, commissioned by Michael Gove when Justice Secretary.

I was there at its publication launch, on the other side of Parliament Square from the Palace of Westminster, when the man who remains a senior Cabinet minister accepted the findings with words Nicholas Parsons had made famous – “without hesitation, deviation or repetition”.

Since when, very little has happened to enact even the most basic of the reports’ recommendations:

  • That education be given a higher priority in prisons because we know it changes outcomes;
  • That every prisoner have a personal education plan (just as every learner in school does) as part of their sentence planning that carries some force and travels with them from jail to jail;
  • And that prison education provision continues to be inspected by Ofsted, but when it is judged to be inadequate or failing, something changes as result. At the moment, prisons can rack up half a dozen damning Ofsted verdicts and carry on as before. Just imagine if a school failed its Ofsted five times in a row and there were no consequences. Or if the prison inspectorate judged the prison hopeless at security.

The problem with the lack of follow-through since the Coates report, I must stress, is not simply money. The panel very carefully came up with a core set of recommendations that could happen within the existing tight prison education budget. The reason there has been no progress, I believe, is lack of interest.  Ministers calculate that there are few votes to be won by doing prison better. What electoral benefit there is, they believe, comes with doing prison more.

Hence the planned prison building spree.  The scheme hardly counts as leadership in the face of the challenge of reoffending by released prisoners that the Ministry of Justice’s own figures say costs to society and tax payer £18.1 billion. If you start making education more effective in prison, you will have less reoffending, less crime, and less cost to society. That is the virtuous circle.

Indeed, there could hardly be a better place to be investing resources in education than a prison.  Almost two thirds of prisoners have the literary skills of an 11-year-old – four times the level in general society. Some 42 per cent have been expelled or excluded from school, as against just one per cent of the total school population in England. So many young men and women, when they find themselves behind bars, have a light-bulb moment. They realise the opportunity school offered them for a better life, how they spurned it, and are now desperate for a second chance.

So where in particular should any new investment go? Two suggestions-

First, into a better-trained, better-paid, and better-equipped cohort of education staff in prisons, up to and including the equivalent of a Teach First scheme to bring new energy to a group that is too often at the bottom of prison officialdom’s rigid hierarchies.

And second, a rule change to allow limited and supervised access to the internet for studying for those prisoners who have demonstrated real commitment to education as a means of changing their lives.

The argument against such a change from the prison service (which instead has invested millions in the Virtual Campus, an internal intra-net system, closed off from the internet, that prison learners hardly use such are its inadequacies) is that any digital concessions will be used by prisoners to stalk victims or control criminal networks.

They may be right in some cases, but under suitable supervision, and if treated as a privilege to be earned which will be lost if misused, there are plenty of technical fixes to ensure such pitfalls could be avoided.

The need for such a reform has been made even more urgent by the pandemic, which has created a boom in digital education courses at all levels. As it stands, prison learners can have no access to them. So much potential is going to waste as a result. All those hours stuck in their cell with nothing to occupy them when they could be studying and getting qualifications.

The most compelling argument, though, is that, taken together, these two reforms would require a fraction of the budget set aside for building more prison places.  And the facts tell us they would deliver much better results. For us all.

 

This article was first published on Conservative Home. All figures used come from the winter 2021 edition of the Bromley Briefing, produced by the Prison Reform Trust

“You Alright, Mate?” 

Author: | 10 Sep 2021

Introducing Chris. Chris is a new Class of 2021 Longford scholar who starts university this Autumn.

Here he explores the unwritten rules of prison, and post-prison, encounters….

When we used to pass each other in prison, whether inside or out, in browbeating heat and in rain that wriggles up your sleeves, you would say, “You alright, mate?” And I wondered if you really meant it. Were you just saying, “I acknowledge your existence,” which is, I suppose, still meritable in its own way, or did you really, genuinely care?

If I had said, “No, I’m not alright,” (which I often was not), would you have frozen mid-step, concerned and aghast at my change of answer? Would you have invited me over for tea and sat me down for a chat? Would you have listened to me worry about where I was going to live or fret about getting into University? What if I admitted I’d missed my brother’s wedding and that my partner was leaving me? Would you have told me it would be alright? Hugged me? Got me put me on an ACCT**?

If the answer to all of these is “No”, then I would rather you hadn’t acknowledged me at all.

Twice in one week when someone asked the question I said “Yes, I’m alright,” and they replied “Yeah, I’m good thanks,” which really underlined to me how meaningless the whole interaction was.

Some people didn’t say anything to me when we passed; not even a, “You alright, mate?” and I’m not sure if I resent them or admire their courage for breaking the mould. Other people didn’t used to say it but then they started to – like the guy I helped get a new mattress, or the man whose Comp 1** I wrote. Which led me to believe there might just have been some sentiment buried within it.

I often thought after our exchange about how many we might have left in us before one of us was released.

Neither of us knew we were saying goodbye by saying “You alright, mate?” but one day I doubt either of us remember, we did- and you were gone like yesterday’s bread.

I thought our performance well-rehearsed. But when I see you in Epping Forest we silently, mutually, telepathically decide to improvise. You are taller, your hair less wavy, and missing the roll-up that lived behind your ear but it is you. Our eyes lock and our hands come together as if that is how we always greet each other and this time I say it, “You alright, mate?”

I’m acutely aware of those around me. My brother and his wife, her sisters and brother, her sister’s boyfriend, his wife and their four kids – I’d never met most of them until today. I wonder if you and I will bravely attempt a longer conversation; if I can introduce you to them and say, “This is a man I have never told you about but here he is. The extent of our relationship is that we used to ask each other if we were alright up to three times a day without ever meaning it for more than a year.”

You say, “Where do I know you from?”

It strikes me as an odd question when we are already shaking hands.

“You were in Ford,” I reply, pointedly leaving out the ‘HMP’ in case your companion isn’t aware.

“Yes,” you say, “What’s your name?”

“Chris,” I say. “My name is Chris.”

We freeze there, like two dancers unsure of who is supposed to lead. My tongue caresses my bottom lip as I begin to form a word. I want to tell you about all that has changed: that I have a job, a girlfriend, somewhere to live, a scholarship to University; that it all has turned out better than I could have hoped – but I think how pompous I’ll sound and the words die with a breath on my lips.

“Who’s this?” My niece says, cutting through the tension in the way that only a child can.

“My…friend,” I say, hoping you won’t object.

“And these are your…?” you say.

“My family. This is my family.”

And that feels strange yet correct for me to say, like a stiff new shoe that fits just right.

I feel the moment slipping away and move to end it.

“Alright,” I say, “Good to see you. You take care.”

“Alright,” you say.

And we’re away: two boats shunted off the docks; two birds taking wing; two prisoners, free.

—————-

** Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork, or ACCT, is the official term for suicide watch

** Prison complaint form

 

Chris is studying a law degree with a Patrick Pakenham Award.

 

 

 

The friendship of books

Author: | 19 Jul 2021

The books which got me through.

Here for Longford Blog ex-scholar Dempsey shares his reading list of inspirational books which helped him to survive prison and remain ‘friends’ to this day.

Since books are about stories, let me first of all, briefly, tell you about me. Briefly I promise! I went to prison at 18 and came out at 57. Almost four decades behind prison walls.  Books truly were my salvation and inspiration during those years of imprisonment.

In darker moments, as I moved through the ages of man, the stories and the people in them offered not only company, but self-education and ultimately rehabilitation.

Perhaps this may be something others who’ve turned to books for for solace and escapism in the pandemic will recognise.

After my release in 2017 I was lucky enough to continue studying literature in an academic setting, thanks to the Longford Trust. So I want to share some observations of three pivotal books that stay forever with me. I hope what I have to say will strike a chord as much for those who have never stepped inside a prison as those who have been incarcerated.

One of the most influential books I read is an adventure upon the high seas titled Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Moby-Dick is a big, adventurous book that explores themes as profound as evil, religion, destiny, insanity, and race.  The themes are considered and examined through the eyes of Ishmael, a young man who decides to see a bit of the world by joining a whaling expedition.  Captain Ahab leads the search for a white sperm whale who bit off his leg and it is here, in Ahab’s monomaniacal desire to have his day with Moby-Dick, that the story gives rise to its major themes.  Ishmael views his time spent aboard the Pequod whaling ship as an education comparable to a tenure at Harvard or Yale, and his education grows during various incidents such as when he finds himself below deck staring into the ship’s tryworks, and after almost losing control of the ship he’s supposed to be above deck steering, Ishmael reflects: “…do not give thyself up to fire, least it invert thee, deaden thee, as for a time it did me…”   And how many times in our lives have we all, in some form or manner, become undermined by staring too long into the blast furnace of existence.

Another book I found that lessened the sting of incarceration is a classic story of adventure and misadventure that was written—perhaps by feather and ink—in 1605 by Miguel de Cervantes and famously known simply as Don Quixote.

Prison life is nothing if not tedious. Boredom is the surest companion to anyone inside. I longed for adventure, a chance to break free from my ball and chain and get out and do something, anything other than what I typically did from one dull day to the next.  I therefore found plenty of adventure and excitement through reading this book, here, in my opinion, is why.

The known world of routine corruption and commonplace disruption is what Don Quixote seeks to escape by immersing himself in books of knights in shining armour, blue moon romances and a deluxe edition of grand illusions.  With most of his mind stuck in the last book, or most of the last book stuck in his mind, Don Quixote summons his loyal servant and true friend, Sancho Panza, to accompany him on a horseback adventure across the badlands of La Mancha, Spain in search of good times, good vibrations, and goodness knows what else.  In the stratosphere of classic world literature, Don Quixote is the ultimate tale of adventure. The fact is that happiness—as we instinctively know and sometimes forget—is not an ideal of reason but of imagination.  With long reins in one hand and longer sword in the other, Don Quixote strides tall in the cowhide saddle of his bull-headed imagination to do battle with windmills and sheep and Little Bo Peep.  Sancho Panza tries to reason with the befuddled Don Quixote but to no avail.  The man of La Mancha is large and in charge.  He is, at bottom, the man of La Mancha and a man who will inspire you to straddle your horse and set your sights on grand adventure before sorrowful dementia.

I guess that for someone who has been behind walls for more than half my life, I could dare to say I’m qualified to comment on prison literature.

Of the huge number of books on prison life, fiction and nonfiction, Stephen King has to be the author who gets it most right.

Rising from the fertile imagination of Stephen King are daylight demons that twist and turn into midnight monsters who slip, slide, peep, and creep knee deep through the mist and moonbeams of your troubled dreams.  Primarily a master writer of things that thump before they bump in the night, King is just as skilful in transcending the horror genre to create ordinary stories which give way to extraordinary circumstances.  Hence Different Seasons.  A quartet of novellas as varied in tone, temperature and feel as the four seasons to which their titles correspond.

Although each tale carries the weight and disturbance of a tombstone, one story in particular rises above the others to carry the weight and resonance of thunder.  “Hope Springs Eternal: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is a 1940s rough-side-of-the-mountain story of the penitentiary and its brutal personalities, brutal intentions, and brutal injustices.  Longing, hope and perseverance flow through the tale as resoundingly as the midnight rumble of a distant freight train throughout moonlit cell blocks and mingling with dreams and recollections and memories of a better day, better time, better place.

“Shawshank Redemption” is memorable because at its core it is a love story.  Not sexualized romantic love, which is as fleeting and fragile as faithfulness, but genuine love which is genuine friendship, love without wings.  Two prisoners forge a perfect friendship in an imperfect place that allows each to see themselves and one another through days of desperation seemingly without end.  A genuine friendship is what lends this story a rainbow elegance while providing a subtle reminder that you can count yourself lucky if you find and keep one good friend in this world.

Prison is many things, lonely and boring among them.

Yet books became my true friends throughout my imprisonment and here in my post-prison life, still are.