Hindsight is a Wonderful Thing

Author: | 7 May 2024

As he nears release, our Longford scholar Isaac Rasmussen is reflecting on the past decisions that led him from Royal Marine to prisoner. He describes how going to university is the first step on what he plans will be a career in journalism

As a serving prisoner I have done my fair share of fixating on one point in my life and asking myself where did it all go wrong? And, if I could change or take back that decision, would everything would be different. For me, the decision in question was to leave the Royal Marines.

In itself, it might not have been fatal. The problem was that no preparation was put in place to secure a seamless transition into civilian life. I fell back on the old Bootneck (Royal Marine) mantra “no cuff too tuff’’, meaning we’re always up for taking on the biggest challenges. We improvise, adapt and overcome – and approach it all with a sense of humour.

It was not long before it became apparent that this cuff was a little tougher than usual. I bounced from pointless job to no job to pointless job again. I moved up north as it had more affordable housing, and I still had friends there from the Corps (Royal Marines). But nothing filled the void the Corps had left. It was not long before I was ready to fill that gap with whatever would give me any kind of purpose and excitement, something that could happen to anyone in these circumstances, although some might be more vulnerable than others.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

I now realise, regardless of whether I decided to leave the Royal Marines or not, that if I had altered my mindset towards even the loosest of plans, I probably would not have found myself in trouble (within reason). Structure and focus in any positive direction would have prevented me from having a knee-jerk reaction to events and situations that life threw at me.  The military phrase I should have been focusing on is, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. It suits long-term goals infinitely better than “no cuff too tuff” which only works with short-term goals needing swift action.

I am learning, with the help of family, friends and now the Longford Trust, to balance taking risks with preparing properly.  Knowing that I will have a constant in Longford Trust from my first day of university to my release from prison and on to my first job and beyond helps to keep me grounded and concentrate on preparing for every eventuality. Through my mentor, or by engaging in the workshops and events, I can see that the Longford Trust understands where I have come from. It is a non-judgmental group of people I can count on for advice in a world that still does not quite understand the prisoner and the issues they face.

Turning Point

I now accept the decision to leave the Royal Marines had nothing to do with my subsequent failures and bad decisions. It is about how I went about things going forward. The real moral of my story is to not fixate on that single moment when you think it all went wrong. It is more likely that a pattern of events, fuelled by a pattern of behaviour, is what truly led to the negativity in your life. And the beauty of that truth is that it takes exactly same mechanism to improve things.

That means to improve your behaviour gradually over time, in regard of small events, and eventually you will see a change in your life for the better. The success can still feel as if it all happened by chance, but, if my experience is anything to go by, it didn’t. You effect the change habitually and you reap the rewards.

Education

Education is all around us. There is no such thing as useless knowledge. However, academia was never my strong suit. I always struggled in school. It was not because I didn’t understand what was being taught. I just did not really get on with the school system and so ultimately did not thrive.

Joining the Royal Marines meant that no more academia, for a while at least. But, of course, there were still things to be learnt at great pace and under great physical and mental pressure. I suffered, struggled, improved and struggled some more until I found a groove. The suffering never ended, it was me who got used to it. I even found a way to enjoy it. I have hung on to these tools.

I chose to study media, journalism and publishing because of my interest in becoming a journalist. During my time at my previous category C prison, I had ideas on studying history, but as time went on, I swayed more into the direction of studying journalism. From a logical point of view journalism offers more opportunities and different job types. Especially, with a course like the one I am on at Oxford Brookes University where journalism is grouped alongside media and publishing.  When I leave prison, that will help with as seamless a transition as possible into the job market doing something that will challenge me and keep me engaged. That is crucial to my rehabilitation.

On a personal level, I always dreamt from early childhood of somehow leaving my mark on the world. I didn’t know how, and to this day still don’t. Becoming a journalist is my way finally of finding the answer. So, here I am embarking on yet another journey in to the unknown. Studying will be a struggle, but no matter how hard it gets I know I have been here before and I am supported and equipped to get there in the end.

If you are a past or present scholar, or one of our mentors, and have a blog you want to contribute, contact Clare Lewis.

The trick is to realise that it is for you

Author: | 26 Mar 2024

Longford Scholar, Darren Robert, has just graduated in scriptwriting from the National Film and Television School. Today he is in the running for a dream job at the BBC.  Here, he traces it all back to prison and daring to believe that higher education could be for someone like him – and someone like you.

There are a few things in my life that have been consistent; my mom, brother and sisters (except when my mother kicked me out), the neighbourhood I grew up in, the friends I had from that neighbourhood, being broke, and the feeling that somehow, I was going to make it out and everything would be okay. For a long time, I thought music would be that way out, but after getting locked up again at 25, after just being released at 25, whilst in the midst of working on my mixtape, I thought this music thing might not work out.

Crime was never really something I wanted to do; it was just something I fell into. Even while I was making money serving the local addicts, I didn’t really care for it. Knowing I wouldn’t be let back into the free world until the age of 28, I felt like that would be too old start all over again. Whilst lying on the top bunk letting my mind wonder, something that had been pushed to the back of my mind for some years came to the forefront. I watched my early life play out like the opening to a TV show; the journey back home from church late on a Sunday night, driving through the bleak run-down street known for prostitution that leads into my neighbourhood right next to the vicarage with the wall spray painted ‘Give me life, give me a job pop’. I always wondered who pop was, and what kind of jobs he had to offer. The whole thing became so clear to me.

At that moment I decided that I was going to write TV. But I had no idea what I was doing. I just got a sheet of A4 lined paper, wrote names in the margin and wrote dialogue. I didn’t realise I had to set the scene, or how I was supposed to lay it out. After refusing to go to education in the prison for a few weeks, as I knew I could get an extra gym session instead, the officers told me I’d be going on basic if I didn’t get down there.

‘You shouldn’t be here, you should be in university.’

So, I went down, not wanting to lose my TV, and was put into an English class. English was pretty much the only thing I was good at in school academically, though my grades didn’t prove that. When I was young my mom would make me stand in front of the heater and do my spellings while she grilled me from the settee. So, I guess I owe my reading and writing skills to her.

In this English class on this one day that I went down to education, there was a substitute teacher from the Open prison across the road. Real nice lady, very smartly dressed, I even noticed the classy Rolex she had on. She gave me a piece of work to do, which was to read a paragraph, and then write a paragraph about it. I don’t remember what it was I read or wrote but I remember her reaction to it. ‘Ughh, with writing like this you shouldn’t be here, you should be in university!’

It was strange to hear knowing that my schoolteachers most likely felt I was exactly where I belonged. I felt very encouraged by her response, and in my head, I was thinking,‘funny you say that, I was just thinking about being a writer.’

I never saw her again after that day, but I consider her a guardian angel who came to point me in the right direction. I was shipped out a few days later to a Cat C prison. When the education people came to see me about what I’d like to do whilst at their establishment, I said, ‘I want to get into screenwriting’. I didn’t think that would be something the prison would offer but I had heard about Open University and hoped there may be something I could do through them.

Plus, I thought if I could do something like that, it would keep officers off my back about going to work. The lady found me a course with Stonebridge Associated Colleges in Scriptwriting for Film, TV, Stage and Radio. I also found in the prison library two sheer assets for what I wanted to do; Teach Yourself Screenwriting, and the script in book form to Reservoir Dogs, one of my favourite films. I’ll be honest, I took the books from there and kept them for myself until I was released, because I just knew that I needed them more than anyone.

‘Me of all people, an A+, I couldn’t believe it’

When the work started coming through, I got straight to it. I put up pictures of Bafta and Oscar awards in my cell for motivation (and also manifestation) and knuckled down, although it took me a lot longer to get work done as I was writing scripts by hand and learning as I went along. The tutor was very forgiving with the time I was taking, and as there were no deadlines. I didn’t feel pressured. He also seemed to like my work. I sent the last piece of work off after my release in 2016 and was ecstatic when they sent me back a diploma with an A+ grade. Me of all people, an A+, I couldn’t believe it. But I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to continue learning. I just knew for certain I was on the right path this time. I looked up local university courses and finally settled on Creative Writing and Film and TV Studies at Wolverhampton University, where I started in September that year.

I had never written essays before and struggled with the academic side of things, but creatively I was doing well. I was learning the craft quickly and got praise for it by my tutors. But this was mostly in the form of short stories. There wasn’t much actual screenwriting going on. Having had to repeat a year as I lacked in some work, my final year was from 2019-2020. By this time, I had grown slightly bored of the course, as it wasn’t specific to what I wanted to do. A friend and mentor of mine that I had met on a media course whilst inside had told me about the National Film and Television School and said that’s where I needed to be. He said that’s the cream of the crop. It’s where shows like Eastenders come and cherry pick their writers. He said you go there, and you complete the course, and they give you an agent. I thought I should check it out.

‘I feel like I know who I am again, and where I’m going’

I had some mental pushback, believing that a school like that probably wouldn’t want someone like me, but when I went down for the Open Day, I saw an actual Bafta and an actual Oscar award in the flesh, and I was immediately sold! I knew I had to be here. I completely forgot about the undergrad and focused on the NFTS. It was risky, as the course only accepts 10 people per year, but I didn’t care. I filled in the long application form and attached a pilot script I had written and sent it off. On my birthday that year in July, I got the email saying I was accepted, and I was over the moon. But in December I was arrested again, and in January I was sent to prison for 6 months. I was due to start in February. I was gutted. I thought it was over. But the school stood by me and allowed me to defer. I started in 2022, made the move to Buckinghamshire and got to work. I had no idea how I was going to pay for the course, or my living, but luckily landed a scholarship from the BBC which covered it.

Two years and some change later, I am now a Master of Arts, Film and Television, I have an agent and I am in the running to work on a high-level TV show. None of this could have been done without all the help along the way from tutors who work to see people making use of their talents. Ever since I made that decision to start writing, I’ve felt like I know who I am again, and where I’m going. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been worth it, and now I can look forward to the future.

I truly believe that education is the key. The trick is to realise within yourself that it is for you too. Don’t believe what you’ve been made to believe your entire life, that you belong in a box, mentally or physically. Education can and will open your mind and your life to new realities, and you can bring forth the positive lifestyle change that you desire.

Don’t be afraid, make the decision.

If you believe you could do a university degree, too, contact Clare Lewis, the Longford Trust’s scholarship manager to find out how.

I haven’t got a clue what I’d be doing now otherwise

Author: | 12 Mar 2024

Current scholar David Shipley was 38 and half way through a sentence for fraud. More and more, his thoughts were turning to life after release. His offence meant his previous career was closed to him forever. Here he explains how overcoming his fears and embracing education in prison opened the door to a new future.

The Covid lockdown made prison life even more dull than usual. I ran laps, lifted weights and tried to pass the time by writing. I knew I enjoyed writing, but I’d always thought formal study was a waste of time. Writing was just something you could do or couldn’t, but I had all the time in the world.

And so, I researched courses and carefully wrote out an application for a prestigious Creative Writing degree. People who graduated had a good chance of going on to decent, paid work as writers. I didn’t meet the academic requirements, but they assured me all applications would be considered, so I diligently filled in all the forms.

Two weeks later I received a standard rejection letter, telling me that I didn’t meet the academic requirements of the course’. I felt terrible. I’d set my heart on this degree. It was going to give me a new future. And now it wasn’t. I was dejected and defeated, wondering why everything was against me.

It’s not only about having the right qualifications

My mum helped. She told me, ‘it’s their loss. Just apply somewhere else’. She was right. I decided not to give up and found a degree offered entirely online by the University of Hull. In most of the prison system, online study is not allowed, but I was in an Open prison at the time and, with Covid lockdown happening, there was more flexibility than usual about allowing some internet access for education.

Hull made it clear that they were more interested in each person’s life story and reasons for studying rather than qualifications or experience. They asked for an application letter and examples of my writing. I sent them an explanation of my crime, told them I was a prisoner, and how important writing was to me. Within days I got an acceptance.

 The course started in a week. Suddenly the reality hit me. I hadn’t written an essay in 20 years. Would I be able to keep up? Would they treat me differently for being a criminal? Would they all be kids? I considered withdrawing from the course before it started, but I didn’t, and from day one they could not have been more welcoming.

Staff and fellow students were curious. I was the only prisoner on the course (alongside a retired prison officer from New Zealand) but we were a pretty varied group. Ages ranged from early 20s to mid-70s, and students ‘attended’ from every part of the world.

I almost forgot I was in prison

I loved that course. Each day I’d leave my house block to ‘go to university’, and spend the day learning, reading and writing. I’d almost forget I was in prison. On the course we got brilliant feedback, and I came to realise that writing is as technical and teachable as mechanics, carpentry or computer programming. I learnt how to write fast and to a publishable standard and found myself getting better marks than I expected. As the course went on, they went up.

It wasn’t all easy, though. Even in an open prison, there’s a lot of nonsense. Fewer internet connections than prisoners studying online at that Covid moment in time meant time to work was strictly rationed. I often felt at a disadvantage compared to the other students who could pop online whenever they needed to check a source, order a new book, or just chat with the other students. One thing I did have, though, was time. In the evenings I read course texts, made notes, and thought about the next assignment.

 Studying gets harder post release

 After release, in some ways it got harder. I had an assignment due two weeks after I left prison. I just couldn’t face it. My life felt unstable, unmoored. When I emailed the university to explain, they couldn’t have been more supportive. They didn’t ask for documents or proof. They just said ‘have another month’.

Even with the distractions of a new life outside, social media and friends to catch up with, I finished my degree, securing a merit. Then began the slow grind of pitching for writing work. I now knew I could write. I just had to persuade other people. Inside Time was the first place to publish me. Then I began to pick up more commissions: at the Spectator; with CapX; and even some American publications. Being able to write fast, and to deadlines, helped a lot.

Where I have got to so far

 To my surprise, I realised that I wanted to keep studying. So in September of 2023, I started a PhD at the University of Southampton. I am researching the impact on children of having a parent in prison. Combining my writing career (@ShipleyWrites) and the PhD means I’m pretty busy, but I get to do interesting, enjoyable work most days. I feel so grateful.

 I haven’t got a clue what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t started that Creative Writing degree in prison. And it would have been so easy to give up when I got that rejection letter, or to succumb to my fears just before starting at Hull. I’m so happy I didn’t.

My degree has given me a career after prison, a sense of purpose, and a path for the second half of my life. We’re all capable of more than we realise. A degree could really change your future, as my experience shows. Why not give it a try?

The Longford Trust offers around 30 new scholarships each year for the duration of a degree course. To find out more, go to our website or contact Clare Lewis, our scholarship manager.

Dr Gareth Griffiths RIP

Author: | 28 Feb 2024

With his Longford Scholarship, says his sister Lorna, her brother went ‘from drugs, crime and prison to being a respected professional, a Doctor of Physics, and contributing member of society’.

We are all saddened to hear of the death of former Longford Scholar, Dr Gareth Griffiths, in January, writes the Longford Trust’s director Peter Stanford.  Originally from Leominster, Gareth was awarded a Longford Scholarship in 2011, having completed an access course at City of Bristol College. He had gained a place to study physics at Bristol and, working closely with his Longford Trust mentor, Matthew Hickman, thrived there. In 2012 he was promoted onto the integrated Masters course and in 2014 switched to physics and astrophysics. In September 2014, he wrote to us in an email that he was, ‘thinking of a career in nuclear fusion, creating clean, nuclear energy’.  And that is what he achieved.

He got his BSc in 2016, moved on to a Masters with us – plus support from the Michael Varah Memorial Fund – and had completed his PhD shortly before his death at 44. His professional career blossomed, latterly with Kyoto Fusioneering as a Senior Nuclear Fusion Engineering Consultant, working to establish a UK base for them. He spoke at academic conferences as far apart as Oxford and Russia, spent time at CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – home of the Large Hadron Collider and kept his goal of providing the planet with clean, nuclear energy was always in his sight.

It gave him back his faith in society

His sister, Lorna, tells us that she and Gareth’s mother, Pam, attended his PhD graduation ceremony that took place after his death. It was, ‘a beautiful reminder of what he achieved’. They also visited the labs and office where he worked on it at Bristol University and met his colleagues. ‘At a time when society had given up on him,’ she recalls of her brother receiving a scholarship from the Longford Trust, ‘it was ground-breaking for him to find people who not only believed in him but wanted to help. It gave him back faith in society and motivation to prove himself, and be the best version of himself that he could be. He just needed someone other than those who loved him to believe in him. Thank you for doing that. He went from drugs, crime and prison to being a respected professional, a Doctor of Physics, and contributing member of society.’

At the request of his family, all donations in Gareth’s memory at his funeral have been directed to the Longford Trust. We have placed £1500 in our endowment fund so that others in the future will have the opportunity to walk in Gareth’s footsteps in rebuilding their life. In his application form submitted in the summer of 2011, he wrote: ‘I want to find a vocation in which I can contribute constructively to society.’  With hard work, perseverance and passion, he did just that.  He will be much missed.

Five stories that changed my life

Author: | 20 Feb 2024

While serving a long sentence, Longford scholar Kieron devoted his energies to reading and studying. He wanted to be in a better position on release and have more opportunities than before. He is now studying at university for a MA and here he shares some thoughts and book recommendations on how to turn your life around.

In prison one of the things that motivated me most was learning about the stories of people in the same situation as I was back then, people who had started from even more adverse and or impoverished positions than I had, and yet were still able to achieve seemingly impossible successes. That is one of the key insights I’d like to share here because I found these stories empowering. They allowed me to think big and to nullify any self-imposed barriers, excuses or a lack of self-confidence.

I also found reading about black history (pre-the transatlantic slave trade) incredibly beneficial to my transformation. Learning about the inspiring cultures, inventions, great kingdoms and empires across Africa helped shift any inferiority complex I had allowed to flourish by not taking on board this history in my pre-prison education.

Thinking Skills

Reading and studying enabled me to understand the different way things are framed, and what effect this can have on you. It meant I could then identify the root causes of my previous mentality and recognise actions and behaviours in myself that were counterproductive to my newly formed long-term goals.

Such clarity of thinking has led me to formulate strategies to make fundamental and positive changes to who I am, and to overcome the circumstances that led me to committing the offence for which I was jailed. That doesn’t mean, though, I am making excuses for my behaviour. I still take full responsibility for my actions.

Learning Curve

Aside from reading a lot of books, I used my time in prison to complete over 30 educational and vocational courses, from restorative justice through Shannon Trust and construction skills to book-keeping. And everything in between. During the process, I learnt the satisfaction to be found on such a journey and how to celebrate small wins, like completing an assignment or finishing a book. I have experienced the positive feelings you get from achieving something on your own merit rather than seeking short-term, quick fixes.

Helping hands

Since being released all that hard work has been paying off in abundance and I am able to enjoy the little things in life I have missed. I am no longer afraid, or too proud, to ask for help to take advantage of opportunities whilst creating even more. Having completed a university degree whilst serving my sentence, I have now started with Longford Trust support a Masters in innovation management and entrepreneurship at Middlesex University. I am networking and seeking guidance and support for all the projects I am working on and will see through to fruition.

 

If like Kieron you too are hungry for relevant and reusable information on changing the course of your life, here he shares his top five life-changing reads.

(1) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey (Simon & Schuster, £11.95)

This book helped me to have a fundamental and rapid change in mentality, which then allowed me to rearrange my priorities.  My favourite line in it reads: ‘Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.’ Paradigm, prism, or lens describe the perspective though which we view the everyday events in our lives. Awareness of how our minds process input information enables us to create positive and productive output or actions.

(2) Opening Doors: How Daring to Ask For Help Changed My Life (And Will Change Yours Too) by Reggie Nelson (Blink, £12.79)

Pride and ego often got in my way and stopped me asking for help, even when I knew it was available. Wanting to feel independent and to receive full credit for achievements are natural feelings, but we need to understand that everyone one who achieved the things we aspire to achieve received help in some way, shape or form. Asking for help is a necessity not a weakness.

(3) Grit: Why Passion and Resilience Are The Secrets of Success by Angela Duckworth (Vermilion, £9.99)

This book gave me insight into the determining factors for success. Surprisingly they come down to grit and determination. Your drive and commitment outweigh your natural talent, resources, environment or support when it comes to predicting your success.  Best line: ‘The most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary’.

(4) Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (Vermilion, £10.95)

‘Poverty,’, Napoleon Hill writes, ‘is attracted to the one whose mind is favourable to it, just as money is attracted to the one whose mind has been deliberately prepared to attract it.’  This book provides insights into how do people with money think about money that allows them to accumulate it whilst others don’t.

(5) Awaken the Giant Within: How To Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Life by Anthony Robbins (Simon & Schuster, £6.99)

Consider a scenario where you’re heading to a job interview, and your car’s tyre bursts on the way. If you vent to a friend using words like ‘angry’, ‘devastated’, ‘frustrated’ or ‘stressed out’, they will trigger negative emotions, putting you in a bad mood.  In Anthony Robbins’ chapter on ‘The Vocabulary of Ultimate Success’, he encourages us instead to choose our words carefully and tailor them to the situation. For example, in the same scenario, you can use words like ‘disenchanted’, ‘delayed’, or view it as a ‘minor hurdle’ and an opportunity to look after your car better. This perspective shift is essential because the situation could have been much worse. ‘Words,’ he writes, ‘cannot only create emotions, they create actions. And from our actions flow the results of our lives’.

Putting your money where your mouth is

Author: | 6 Nov 2023

The Ministry of Justice is promising a new Prisoner Education Service, with more resources, more apprenticeship opportunities, and even a focus on helping neurodivergent prisoners.

Longford Scholar David Shipley draws on his lived experience to ask if this pledge could help more serving prisoners turn sentences into a degrees

 

Here is the good news. In announcing the new Prisoner Education Service the Prisons’ Minister Damian Hinds (pictured) publicly acknowledged that “a forward-thinking prison system must give prisoners an alternative to the cycle of reoffending, and one of the best ways to do this is through education”. He’s right. Too many prisoners spend too many years staring at the walls of their cells. When 57 per cent of prisoners have a reading age below that expected of an 11-year old, it is little surprise that on release many are unable to find work and so turn back to crime.

But education for prisoners shouldn’t be just about reducing the £18 billion cost of reoffending. Getting time out of your cell to do something purposeful improves mental health and reduces the chances of suicide. When I was in prison, I studied Creative Writing. It not only meant I had something good to do with my time each day, but also gave me hope of a new path and career after prison.

The new Prisoner Education Service aims to make a real difference. They will be recruiting senior teachers as Heads of Education, Skills and Work, reporting to the prison governor. This is a positive decision; prison governors rarely have education expertise, so senior teachers could make a real difference.

Neurodiversity Support Managers welcome

The focus on neurodivergent prisoners is also very welcome. There’s little data, and no systematic studies have been done, but some research suggests that prisoners are 10 times more likely to have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) than the average person.

The same research suggests that a quarter of inmates have ADHD. In this context the recruitment of Neurodiversity Support Managers should be welcomed. When I spoke to the Ministry of Justice, they also confirmed that they will be procuring a new neurodiversity screening tool. This is crucial. Under the current system autism assessments are only conducted at the direction of the Parole Board and, as such, are limited to lifers and those serving Extended Determinate Sentences.

The government should move to systematically test all prisoners for ASDs and ADHD, just as we already assess literacy and numeracy. Of course, this will carry a substantial cost, but there’s no indication that the MoJ has budgeted for this.

‘There seems to be little new money available’

The final big question is how the Prison Service will deliver on these goals. The tendering process for new education providers has just begun, but there seems to be little new money available. This shortage of money is reported to have caused Serco to pull out of putting themselves forward for the new contacts.

Prison education is already desperately under-resourced. This round of tendering presents an opportunity to make a real difference to the quality, range and availability of education in prisons and unless there is substantial funding made available, it’s very hard to see how the laudable goals outlined for the new Prisoner Education Service will be achieved.

Do you feel inspired to share a viewpoint as a Longford Blog.  If so contact our scholarship manager, Clare Lewis.

 

Reduce Demand for Prisons, Not Meet It

Author: | 22 Oct 2023

Longford Scholar Chris Walters (currently working at the trust’s fundraising manager) shared some reflections on October 22 with readers of the Independent in a personal Comment article for the paper about the plans the government has announced to cope with the overcrowding crisis in prisons. Drawing on his own experiences, Chris questioned whether the proposals will actually ease the problem. We are sharing the article here, with thanks to the Independent.

 

With the government’s latest plans to address our prisons crisis – the jail population is at an all-time high, with as few as 550 spare places left in the system – justice secretary Alex Chalk asks us to believe the unbelievable. He cites Covid-19 and industrial action as the significant pressures filling up our prison estate. But even in 2015, 60 per cent of our jails were overcrowded.

Again, Mr Chalk lauds his government’s efforts to return offenders on parole who breach their licence conditions to prison, even if it contributes to overcrowded jails as if this didn’t happen before, and isn’t indicative of wider failures in the criminal justice system

Criminals are “dangerous” – except for the ones the government has earmarked under its proposals to free up capacity: those convicted of less serious offences who warrant early release, and those minor offenders being spared a jail term altogether. It is a plan that belies a wilful misunderstanding of the criminal justice system.

‘I’ve witnessed swarms of rats, tried to keep clean in filthy showers, and in 2018, during the freezing Beast from the East, I worried I wouldn’t survive the night as icy wind blew in through the broken window.’

I served two years in prison, from 2018 to 2019 – first at HMP Wandsworth, and then at HMP Ford. Despite what Mr Chalk may believe, there aren’t spacious single cells just waiting to be transformed into doubles. Shoving more prisoners into a cell is hardly a solution to an overcrowding issue. The bleached bones of the UK prison estate have long been picked clean by ambitious ministers just like him who demand that prison governors find more capacity.

And what are these non-essential maintenance works which Mr Chalk says have now been stopped, thereby opening up more cells for use? From all accounts, our prisons are run-down and unhygienic. I’ve witnessed swarms of rats, tried to keep clean in filthy showers, and in 2018, during the freezing Beast from the East, I worried I wouldn’t survive the night as icy wind blew in through the broken window.

All the while prisoners and staff are battling for survival, they don’t have the capacity to work on rehabilitation. And so, when prisoners are released, they often return – and so the prison population rises, and the government responds with a vow to get tougher on crime and builds more prisons.

Meanwhile, there is a growing number of prisoners on remand, not yet convicted of a crime, which is an indication of a wider problem in the criminal justice system. There is a severe backlog of criminal cases – some people are now waiting five years for a trial date – and the government’s insistence on locking people up for longer will not help.

Mr Chalk crassly described the proposed growth in the prison estate as meeting demand, but it’s more apt to say it is feeding a fire. Until there is ground-up radical reform, we will have this same conversation again and again and again.

People on remand are held in prison conditions so poor that two separate European nations have recently refused to extradite people to this country if they face imprisonment. The justice secretary has proposed to increase the sentence discount for people who plead guilty. He said this is to “[…] encourage people to plead guilty at the first opportunity”. Those on remand are presumed to be innocent, and when held in such poor conditions, it is especially unjust and immoral for him as the Lord Chancellor – upholder of our legal system – to coerce them into pleading guilty.

‘It doesn’t matter how good your education programme is if prisoners are confined to their cells for most of the day in overcrowded jails’

The government has given some ground, it seems, almost begrudgingly. Mr Chalk has described Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences as a “stain on our justice system”, and yet only pledges to implement one of the 22 recommendations found in the report by parliament’s Justice Committee, which examined IPP sentences. Further use of community orders and a reduction in short custodial sentences are welcome, but don’t “grasp the nettle”, as Mr Chalk puts it. Most prisoners are serving custodial sentences of over a year and won’t be affected. Moreover, these plans put further strain on services inextricably linked to the prison system such as probation, healthcare and housing. It will inevitably be charities who pick up the slack.

Actual long-term reform gets short shrift from Mr Chalk. He has pledged that prisons will be “geared to help offenders turn away from crime, to change their ways, and become contributing members of society”. But he says nothing about how that is to be achieved.

Prisons minister Damian Hinds has rightly recognised the importance of education in reducing reoffending, promising a brand new Prison Education Service. This is a great move, but meaningless unless the issue of offending is addressed holistically. It doesn’t matter how good your education programme is if prisoners are confined to their cells for most of the day in overcrowded jails.

‘We can reduce the demand for prisons by meeting the needs of our people’

The government is well aware that the most important factors in reducing reoffending are education, employment, housing and maintaining family ties. Yet it seems they are more concerned with increasing the quantity of their prisoners than the quality of their prisons. A quality prison should reduce the prison population, as we have seen in Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.

The justice secretary should seek to reduce demand for prisons by lobbying in cabinet for wider reform. Prison staff and Legal Aid solicitors’ pay must reflect the important role they play in our society. Prisons must meet minimum basic standards to ensure prisoners re-enter society with dignity. The National Health Service must expand and receive more funding to better address mental health issues in the community. The government must do more to prevent homelessness and poverty.

Overcrowded prisons do not exist in a vacuum separated from the other pressures on society. They are the result of inadequately addressing those pressures. We can reduce the demand for prisons by meeting the needs of our people.

 

With great power comes great responsibility

Author: | 13 Oct 2023

One year into starting work as a Probation Officer, our Longford Scholar graduate Lawrence shares some impressions about what he has seen first-hand – and the power of lived experience in probation

The first person to serve as a probation officer is not known for certain, though some sources record this as being the American bootmaker John Augustus, known affectionately as the ‘Father of Probation’. A campaigner for more lenient criminal sentences, Augustus believed rehabilitation was achievable through understanding, moral appeals, and kindness. As a result of his humanitarian actions in bailing and rehabilitating those convicted of offences, probationary programmes were eventually adopted by multiple states. Almost two centuries later, such services worldwide continue to operate with similar principles and objectives.

WORKING IN THE FIELD

My work in the field of probation inevitably started long after Augustus’ death in 1859, but I tell my story because I am now a Probation Service Officer (PSO) with lived experience of prison and probation. In my role, I supervise low and medium-risk people on probation who are sent my way by the courts. I took up my post out of a belief that positive change is achieved when those with varying perspectives come together. I am committed to tailoring probation to the often-complex needs of those serving a sentence in the community, and I encourage engagement with people on probation as part of wider reform efforts. Furthermore, my past struggles are useful in the sense that I can guide others away from similar difficulties.

ABOVE AND BEYOND

I speak highly about probation, having seen the commitment of colleagues who go above and beyond for those whom they supervise (known as ‘PoPs’ – people on probation). Together, I and my colleagues work to support those serving a sentence in living a law-abiding and content life. My own time on probation, on post-prison licence, was a positive experience; my first officer in the community wrote a reference for me to undertake university studies. The following probation officers who supervised me were supportive of my continued endeavours, providing valuable guidance on my goals and how I could reach them.

LONG AND WINDING ROAD

I have since spoken to one of my old officers who expressed only positive sentiments about my recent achievements. To get to where I am now, I had to study hard, volunteer my time, and work multiple jobs (some of which I severely disliked). I should stress there are multiple routes to this kind of role, and there is no correct path to take, just so long as that path does not include committing crime, which I can say from experience is no proper life. There is a wealth of talent residing in this country’s prisons, hidden away from the world like a diamond in the rough. There is always a need for talent, drive, creativity, and resilience in industry, and I am happy to say on record that some of the most impressive people I have come across in life have also experienced the emotional rollercoaster of a prison sentence.

WHAT’S IN A NAME

In recent times, the term ‘probation practitioner’ has been regularly substituted as a title for those in that responsible position (other titles include ‘reporting officer’ and ‘offender manager’; though, on the latter, the term ‘offender’ has been deliberately phased out within the service). I particularly like the inclusion of the term ‘practitioner’ because that word, by definition, means the holder of a role is actively engaged in their discipline. There is no half-heartedness at probation, though there is exhaustion and fatigue as a result of high caseloads and emotional stress.

Neither I nor my colleagues do this work for the money. The real reward is the sight of an empowered, optimistic character whose life may have been, at the time of receiving their criminal sentence, in a dire state. I have a capable colleague who speaks with joy about a book she received a mention in; the author of this book is a man whom she used to supervise on probation.

THE PAST AND THE FUTURE

I am somebody who, having been confined by tall prison walls while serving a four-year sentence, does not feel defeated by societal boundaries. Even when my trusted confidants said I had no chance at this position of responsibility and should pick a new role to strive for, I ignored that advice and submitted my application anyway. I took my degree, earned with the valuable support of a Longford scholarship, and turned it into one of the most secure jobs I can think of – where I swiftly took on added responsibilities including representing probation at police and council forums – and was even published in the renowned Probation Journal. Even though I must remain impartial as a civil servant, I will not stop campaigning for reform of criminal records, and my advocacy of higher education opportunities for ex-prisoners continues. As an esteemed officer of the probation service, I see myself as a small part of the wider effort to break down the ‘us and them’ culture that is deep-rooted in the criminal justice system.

If you would like to share some thoughts or experiences on our Longford Trust blog page, contact Clare Lewis, our scholarship manager

Going into Uganda’s prisons: a journey in two parts

Author: | 29 Aug 2023

In July, two of our scholars went to Uganda on a travelling scholarship, funded by the Henry Oldfield Trust, to spend the month working alongside the charity Justice Defenders in the country’s jails. Here Victoria, one of the two, reflects on what was for her a transformative journey. The good things that happen in Uganda’s prisons, she argues, set a good example to the UK

When I embarked on a journey to Uganda on a Longford Trust travelling scholarship, and was hosted there by Justice Defenders, little did I know that this adventure would challenge my perceptions, reshape my perspectives, and leave an indelible mark on my life. For six long years, I had vowed to never step foot inside a prison again, scarred by the wasted time of my previous incarceration. However, fate had other plans as I found myself breaking that vow and venturing into nine different prisons within just three weeks, this time not as an inmate, but as a visitor and advocate.

My Ugandan experience began in the vibrant city of Kampala, where I was immediately captivated by the beauty of the land. The lush forests, diverse trees, and bountiful crops painted a vivid picture of nature’s abundance. However, beneath this beauty lay a complex reality – the livelihoods of many Ugandans depend on agriculture and self-employment, leading to a cycle of imprisonment due to petty crimes.

The journey commenced with visits to three prisons in Kampala – the Luzira female institute and two male prisons. Here, I was introduced to the coloured labels that defined sentences within Ugandan institutions: yellow for remand and short sentences, orange for longer terms, and white for those with death sentences. Inside the female institute, I met incredible women, and their children, each wearing their sentences with resilience. They were part of Justice Defenders, a group empowering individual prisoners who lacked financial means with legal knowledge so as to represent themselves in court.

Helen and Grace, two of these remarkable women, had transformed themselves into paralegals after receiving training from Justice Defenders. Helen’s words resonated deeply: “Courts can be frightening… Uganda v Helen, and it’s mind-blowing, the whole country against me. I hated prosecution when I was in court, but studying law has made me realise they are just exercising their jobs.”

The empowerment these women gained through legal education was not just about personal transformation; it was about helping their fellow inmates and advocating for justice. As I conversed with these women, their compassion, resilience, and commitment to change were palpable. They were eager to learn about the UK’s Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) and Extended Determinate Sentences (EDS) system, expressing concern and curiosity about its implementation. Their thirst for knowledge was fuelled by their desire to transform not only themselves but their communities as well.

Heading into a male prison in Kampala, the atmosphere felt different. The men were serious, contemplative, and structured. With a focus on helping newcomers navigate the legal system, the male paralegals embraced their roles as “fellow members of Justice Defenders”. Their dedication to legal education and rehabilitation was awe-inspiring. The emphasis on knowledge, articulated with seriousness and conviction, showcased the transformational power of education and purpose.

‘For six years, I had vowed to never step foot inside a prison again. However, I found myself breaking that vow and venturing into nine different prisons within just three weeks’

When my journey moved on to the mid-central Mubende region in Uganda, there was a shift in focus from the city’s prisons to a wider community engagement. Justice Defenders extended its reach beyond prison walls, working to reintegrate released individuals back into society. In many communities, acceptance of ex-convicts was a challenge, leading Justice Defenders to conduct community awareness sessions and radio talk shows, collaborating with legal professionals and community leaders to foster understanding and second chances.

The establishments in Mubende were largely farm prisons, emphasising rehabilitation through agricultural activities. Paralegals played a crucial role due to limited staff, and officers often collaborated closely with inmates to foster personal growth and skills development. The dedication and training of staff within Uganda’s prisons stood out as a remarkable difference from other systems. The emphasis on rehabilitation and transformation was evident, reflecting the belief that every citizen has a role to play in prison reform.

During a visit to the crown court in Mubende, the dynamics of Uganda’s legal system unfolded before my eyes. Plea bargaining took centre stage, with many men choosing to plead guilty to avoid lengthy trials or higher court proceedings. Sentencing in Uganda diverged from what I am accustomed to, and the absence of a formal criminal record system intrigued me. This unique approach sought to reintegrate individuals seamlessly into society after their release.

One profound experience in Mubende was witnessing a prison governor advocating for inmates in court. This personal touch emphasised rehabilitation and the belief in second chances, fostering a sense of hope among the inmates. The stories of individuals like Paul, who had endured years of imprisonment due to injustice, revealed the strength of human spirit and the power of advocacy in the face of adversity.

‘a common thread emerged – the transformative power of education and empowerment’

Throughout my journey, a common thread emerged – the transformative power of education and empowerment. Inmates turned paralegals were not defined by their pasts; they were defined by their newfound purpose, knowledge, and commitment to change. Their dedication to legal education and their communities was inspiring, reminding me of the importance of viewing individuals beyond their mistakes.

As I reflect on my time in Uganda, gratitude fills my heart. The opportunity to learn, connect, and witness the dedication of both inmates and advocates was a gift beyond measure. The experience left an indelible mark on me, shaping my understanding of justice, rehabilitation, and the potential for transformation. My journey with the Longford Trust and Justice Defenders was not just a visit; it was a transformative voyage that redefined my perspective and enriched my life.

Want to know more about our travelling scholars and their trip in July 2023 to Uganda.  Read more here.

What Uganda’s prisons can teach us

Author: | 22 Aug 2023

In July, two of our current Longford Scholars were awarded travelling scholarships by the Longford Trust so they could spend a month in Uganda working in its prison system with the charity, Justice Defenders.  One of them compares what he saw there with what he had experienced in a UK jail – for better and for worse.

Asanta Sana and welcome to my blog about the recent trip I made to Uganda to work with the NGO Justice Defenders. I learnt this chant as I went into Luziro Men’s Prison in the capital, Kampala. It is a sign of appreciation and greets you in the most respectful way. I heard it in all 12 of the prisons I visited during my time there, both in the city and in the rural areas. To say I was nervous stepping into an African prison is an understatement, but that chant made me feel at ease.

I kept asking myself was how on earth had I ended up in a Ugandan prison? Luckily this time I wasn’t getting banged up at roll call. Instead, I was exchanging my experiences of prison in the UK with prisoners there, and learning from the Justice Defenders. It had been a big step for me applying for Longford Trust’s travelling scholarship (supported by the Henry Oldfield Trust) to go to Uganda. I had only been released 18 months earlier and I hadn’t been abroad for 16 years. But like always, the team at the trust reassured me that I would be in safe hands and have my eyes open to international justice. They weren’t wrong…

“Welcome to the Pearl of Africa” read the sign as I landed in Uganda. The humidity was stifling and the insects gave me a warm welcome by defeating my repellent. The boda boda’s were ready.

Driving to Kampala from the airport had me in awe. The scenery was amazing, a 10-storey mansion adjacent to a tin-shack, both surrounded by the greenest of gardens. The closer I got to the city centre, the busier the streets became.  Downtown Kampala is a hive of activity. I could have done my shopping for my whole four-week stay within the first five minutes of arriving there without even leaving the car. Freshly-picked fruits, cleverly balanced on top of heads, plastic containers, and even a set of car window wipers were just a few of the items available if I had wound down the window. This new way of life was going to take a bit of getting used to.

Slowly adjusting to my new surroundings, it was time to meet the Justice Defenders. I arrived at their office, a lovely house transformed into a well-structured workspace with a spacious back garden. The team introduced themselves and gave me the warmest of welcomes. Soon I was on the road again, this time to Luziro Women’s Prison. The prison staff made us feel comfortable and introduced us to the Officer in Charge (OC).

Listening to her talk about the women in her care was touching, her passion and humanity moving. I asked about violence and self-harm, as this is a major problem we face in the UK prison system, but in reply learnt that the OC hadn’t broken up a fight or reported an incident of self-harm since she started running the prison. And she had been there for many years, it is worth noting.

At first it seemed hard to believe, but as soon as we started walking around the grounds any doubt I had was gone. The women were calm, interactive and looked out for one another. The epitome of this came when we met the paralegals among the prisoners. The Justice Defenders’ model is to equip those inside with law- and legal-research skills so that they can use them to represent their fellow inmates.

These trained paralegals do this in the Justice Defenders office, a large portakabin located in the centre of the prison. They have internet access, up-to-date laptops and a library of law books. Each morning, the paralegals open their surgery and interview fellow prisoners. They are trained to look for unfair practice, misapplication of the law and mitigating circumstances. When they identify any of these, they will advocate on behalf of the inmate. Watching them in action was astounding for me. We have similar mentoring going on in UK prisons but there always seemed, to me anyway, a power imbalance where inmates often disliked being told what to do by a fellow inmate. Yet this model was replicated in all of the prisons I visited. After a bit of thought, I put it down to the Justice Defenders.

In Uganda, legal aid is not a thing. Therefore, if you have no money, the only way, to get help with your case is through taking advice from a prisoner-paralegal.

It explains why the Justice Defenders are heralded as “gods” within the Ugandan prison system. In visit, the inmates and staff would perform poems and sing music all in praise of Justice Defenders. I felt lucky to be a part of a team that had such a powerful impact on people’s lives.

I found it difficult delivering sessions to those in the prisons on stress management since those listening to me seemed super chilled and happy. However, once I had gained the trust of the prisoners, they opened up and spoke about how the cramped conditions often left them feeling stressed and claustrophobic.

Seeing the way they had to live, and hearing the accounts of how tough that was, made me feel very emotional. Most of the prisons are overcrowded, and the small living space available had almost ten times the optimal capacity housed there. It was a sight for sore eyes. How do you remain hopeful and energetic in such conditions, I asked the guys. They simply answered, “we have each other, and we get some nice food”.

Such a positive attitude made the conditions easier to bear. Some in the men’s prisons referred to the OC as “Father”, testament to the way they are looked after. It really felt like a family unit in most of the prisons.

So, what have I brought back from visiting prisons and the courts in Uganda? Gratitude for the UK legal aid system for one thing. Having access to legal representation, regardless of income, is vital in a fair justice system. My biggest conundrum is wondering how our system is so violent and rates of self-harm are so high when, in a system in Uganda with such challenging conditions, there are no such problems. I still haven’t come up with an answer, but I am working on it.

On a personal level, I am following the Ugandan tradition of being appreciative for the good things I have in my life. And I am more committed than ever to prison reform as well as truly grateful for the opportunity made possible by the Longford Trust, the Henry Oldfield Trust and Justice Defenders.

More details of our travelling scholarships as part of our employability programme