Actions speak louder than words (tell that to the Government)

Out of deference to my husband, and strangely more so to his business partner who has no sway over my blogging, I have not detailed the tortuous machinations required when attempting to set up a business that involves our Government.

And I am beginning to regret that decision.

Brace yourself, this is going to be a long blog without pictures.  This is what, in brief, they are trying to do:

  • Offer training, funded by their company, to serving offenders, inside the prison estate.
  • Once training is successfully completed, offer employment to serving offenders once they are eligible to start working in the community but are still serving their sentence.
  • Once an offender has been released on licence, continue to offer employment to the offender.

What’s not to like?

Just in case you are thinking “why should criminals be offered special treatment” consider the following:

  • If an offender earns money whilst serving a sentence 40% of their earning goes into the Government’s “Victim’s Support” Fund.
  • If an offender leaves prison without a job, they are highly likely to re-offend to earn money.
  • If an offender returns to prison – WE – the taxpayer, get to fund the extra stay.
  • If an offender leaves without a job, but relies on State Benefits – WE – the taxpayer, get to fund their lives until they (a) find a job or (b) reoffend.

It’s a no brainer as they do say.

At the heart of the problem, I believe is the Government’s stance on what to do with those who break the law.  I’m am afraid to say I now believe that prison is there solely to punish, rehabilitation is down to the individual, or in rare cases, a handful of Prison Officer’s who genuinely want to help an offender turn their life around.

Why does the Government not want to assist in the rehabilitation of offenders?  Put simply, it’s a political hot potato.  What Government wants to be seen handing money over to Offenders?  Well, my husband and his partner had outside funding to support his business, so no embarrassment was on offer there.  They did (or, let’s try to be positive) “do” need written permission from the Government to operate inside prisons – and you’d think this a relatively easy piece of documentation to obtain.  It’s taken them 12 months and still they have nothing in writing from a Government Minister, however the following “words” have been said but “actions” are still lacking:

  • Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling) meeting in March 2013.  Following this meeting, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Braintree (Brooks Newmark)  advised that Mr G “liked” the idea but had suggested they needed to work via their Member of Parliament.
  • Conservative Member of Parliament for Shipley  (Phil Davies) confirmed, following a meeting,  that Mr G had told him “providing no state money was needed” he (Mr G) was “happy to see the scheme progress” and would see what practical help could be supplied by the Prisons Minister.  Mr Davies was impressed with the concept asking why it was not already in operation.  My husband pointed out that the lack of progression was purely down to Government bureaucracy and “red tape”.  This was back in July 2013.
  • Sir Richard Branson – extract from his blog “I would like to encourage more companies to proactively recruit ex-offenders. Our experience of this within Virgin has been wholly positive……”   Richard, my husband’s company would employ ex-offenders to work within the rail industry, something that should “tick” so many boxes we could run out of ticks.  So it is curious the company you operate to deal specifically with requests for business funding, has still to return my husband’s calls and emails.  All he wants is a simple response of “yes we are interested” or “no we are not interested”.  He first made contact in January 2013 and to this day still tries to get a response.
  • Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Oliver Letwin) briefly met after being invited to 9 Downing Street (“briefly” was approx 20 mins in which to discuss huge savings to the Government).   Again, after eventually understanding  the concept, the fledgling business was advised to send in drafts of three key documents  – a letter of intent (to confirm their funding), permission to access prison estates and most importantly, a letter confirming they were an official Government supplier and as such, were entitled to be part of the procurement list.  This meeting took place in July and after such enthusiasm it was deflating to suddenly hear that…..
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright) requested to meet with Member of Parliament for the Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency in Kent (Gordon Henderson) to discuss the project WITHOUT the two directors of the company.  The two people who had gestated and nurtured the idea.  I am still at a loss to understand why they were not invited to this meeting and can only draw my own conclusions.  The result of this, the latest in a long line of fatuous promises from Government is the offer of a letter of introduction to Prisons of their choice so they can enter and offer employment.  The concept and their requirements were not correctly put to the Minister by the Member of Parliament for Sittingbourne.

They need more than a letter of intent.  They already operated (since June 2011) a pilot scheme from inside HMP Standford Hill.  You might find what they actually need very interesting, I certainly did:

  • A letter of intent from the Government, to show to their potential backers to guarantee their private funding.
  • Permission to access prison estates – this has been “offered” by Jeremy Wright – however the Governor at HMP Sheppey Cluster is already in communication with them and is extremely keen for them to get in and get this project up and running.  This is not a brick wall for them.
  • A letter confirming they are an Official Government Supplier.

This last item is key.  They want  to offer Rail Track training.  Once they have qualified workers on their books, they can approach rail networks who, as they operate on contracts supplied by the Government have a duty to employ a percentage of workers that fit certain categories – one of those being people with high barriers to work – that’s the long term unemployed and ex-offenders.  A circle completed.

They are struggling on until December of this year.  They earn no money whilst trying to set this business up, they are not claiming any state benefits.   They are finding it increasingly difficult to attend meetings which are never in our neighbourhood.  I am currently funding my husband – willingly.  But I too am a taxpayer and would really appreciate the savings they would make to the Government by encouraging offenders to leave crime behind.  I don’t want to keep reading in newspapers how we are pandering to our criminals, I want the Government to do what they say “make criminals work”.  I desperately want this enterprise to succeed because if it does, they want to roll the idea out to be able to help female prisoners and eventually to assist in the employment of the ordinary long term unemployed.   Our brush with the law has changed us forever and it would be sad to lose this momentum, to give up and turn our backs on those that need more help than we do.  Sadder still though is our Government’s complete lack of action when presented with an innovative concept that would cost them nothing, but save them much, but more so would potentially save us from the blight of criminal activity.

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”
― Thomas MoreUtopia

Tell us something new Mr Grayling

Seeing the headline on the BBC News website, I had to take a peak to see what Mr Grayling, our Justice Secretary, had to say when interviewed for The Mail Online:

With headline grabbing gusto, Mr G says “Criminals face new ‘spartan prisons’……plans tough regime with uniforms, no Sky TV and less pocket money”.  Oh.  Is that all?  What about the new mentoring scheme that was being discussed a couple of weeks ago in order to stop reoffending, where’s that policy gone?  Instead, The Daily Mail is happy to air it’s old chestnuts again describing Britain’s prisons as “holiday camp jails” and banging on about banning Sky TV.   Mr Grayling, unlike the vast majority of us, believes that “prisoners do not deserve the kind of lifestyle and “frills” that are beyond the reach of families on low wages”.  Sorry, just refresh my memory, you did say that Mr Grayling was Justice Secretary – is this England’s Justice Secretary or some other planet?

Prisoners are in prison, and just to enlighten anyone who does not realise it, in prison you have your freedom removed (yes, you deserve it, but that’s not what’s being discussed here).  I have been to a holiday camp and I have a husband who has been to prison.  When discussing both outings, we could not find a single thing that was the same, except the poor quality food.  I tend to find holiday camps allow you to come and go as you please, to allow you to bring whatever you want in with you and to leave with whatever you want.  You can stay in and use the amenities, or go out.  You’re only there for a brief time.  If you’ve been to a holiday camp that is like a prison, it is highly likely to be shut down as no one else would go on holiday there.

We do allow our prisoners to have television whilst inside – given that a lot of offenders can spend the majority of their time in their shared cells with nothing else to do, how about, rather than banning TV, we ensure prisoners are otherwise occupied.  How about, and this is a radical thought, instead of locking them up most of the day, we make them embark upon rehabilitating educational schemes, or maybe as part of their sentence, we make them train for work so that when they leave, rather than complain that they can’t keep up with their much loved Sky TV programmes, they can go and get jobs.

The Daily Mail describes “….. the biggest prison regime shake up for 60 years” as stopping Sky TV, enforcing the wearing of drab grey prison overalls, the use of “pocket money” to buy toiletries and sweets to be curbed and not allowing gay prisoners to share cells.  Oh please, is that all you can come up with.  Do you really think your average criminal is going to be quaking in his/her boots at the thought of having to do time wearing an overall?  And how exactly is that going to dissuade someone who has done time from reoffending?  Isn’t it better to rehabilitate?  To concentrate on why they leave and reoffend?  Prisons don’t work, but they don’t not work because of the outfit you wear or the tv programme you watch.  These people, and, I might say, the long term unemployed, need jobs.  They need to be out grafting, providing for their families.  They need a better training scheme that currently exists inside.  Don’t keep piffling away at the edges Mr Grayling, get in there and do something to make a difference – making Daily Mail readers red faced and angry at the thought of a prisoner watching Sky TV whilst floating on a lilo in the prison spa is not going to stop an ex-prisoner from committing another crime because they need money.

Dealing with the debt collector

It’s because it’s personal it’s getting under my skin.  I’ve had letters from a debt collector before, wrongly address to our home, but this is our debt and they obviously want their money back.

Background.  I have many postings on the dreaded Legal Aid applications.  It was a nightmare completing the forms during a nightmare time.  We were honest and declared everything we could think of, we were naive I now discover.  Eventually Legal Aid was granted a matter of months before Mike’s court appearance and we were jointly assessed as having the ability to pay nearly £10,000.00 for the privilege of a barrister recommending he plead guilty to everything.  Oh, that came as a shock.  Mike was in a mental position to disagree with just one charge, which was dropped, the rest he confessed to, even though the amount was inaccurate and grossly inflated.  The advice was that no jury would have sympathy given his significant salary.  We had thought a jury might question why he was the only person in the whole company who did not receive bonus payments for the last 8 years of employment.  Anyway, it was over and done with.

Before Mike even went to prison, before he had even been sentenced, the Legal Services Commission had sold our debt to Rossendales, a debt collection agency – you can read about them on the web, they have many commentators.  We started to receive letters demanding payment, although we had pointed out our bank accounts were still frozen and we had no means to pay.  They chased until Mike was sentenced, then there was a lull for 13 months.

Now he’s been out for two months and obviously loaded – they are hungry for their money.  This is what happens, this is the reality of crime.  Mike repaid every penny of what he was accused of stealing, well, we do not know the actual figures he repaid because we were not privy to the amounts the investments had accumulated, but the pots of money were all returned.  He served a prison sentence, he is currently “out on licence” meaning he is subject to a curfew until February 2013.  He has a criminal record and no job.  I earn above – just – minimum wage, so we have no help from the state (rest easy there) I provide the food and shelter.  He has no bank account and no money to put into one anyway. He is trying to find work and is hopeful his situation will change in the New Year.

And now Rossendales have taken to calling every morning, in the latest call advising they would phone every day until the debt is paid.  How helpful.  Rest easy, we have now written advising them to cease and desist.  We wish to enter into a payment plan, but this needs their agreement.  But what a situation to be in.  For us, we are educated, we can research and discover that we should not be bullied and as a registered collections agency they have a code of conduct to comply with.  We wish to pay our debt, but threats of a legal charge being put on my home really doesn’t help the matter.  What villains they are but more depressing is the fact that the Legal Services Commission can sell such a debt on.

To err is human; to forgive, divine

Here’s some more prison inside info for you.  When an offender is sentenced, s/he only serves a proportion of their time inside.  In Mike’s case, he was sentenced to three years, will serve one year, one and a half months (who’s counting – me!) inside before being eligible for parole.  He will then (finger’s crossed, he hasn’t had his Parole Board Hearing yet, be allowed to be released back into society “on a tag”, which means he will have to wear a “tag” a monitoring device which will ensure he abides by his curfew times.

I met my friend at the cinema the other day and she was talking about films we could go and see when Mike gets out and I had to stop her.  “You do realise he’ll be tagged don’t you?”  My lovely friend thought he could still go to the cinema, hadn’t he attended when on weekend release?  I had to explain that when Mike comes out for town visits and home leaves, he is trusted.  He can stay out all night (albeit avoiding licensed premises) and generally come and go as he likes.  We can go to the cinema and not get home until 10.30pm.  But once tagged, that trust is gone.  He will have to adhere to a curfew.

I spoke to his probation officer the other day to find out if it was ok for him to return to a local church whilst on a tag so he could play in the band there.  That was fine, I was actually told he’s of no risk to the public, so him meeting with fellow inmates to play in a brass band is ok.  But to stay out late to go, occasionally, to the cinema – no.  To embark upon an Alpha Course (religion alert) – no.  To attend any evening networking events in order to promote his business – no.  For us to go for a walk around the block after I get home from work – no.  He has to be in and to stay in by 7pm.  No going into the garden, I mean right inside the house.  His study, where he will work, is at the back of our house, to access it you have to step outside for about 10 steps – that’ll be out of bounds too probably.  And this will go on until February 2013.

I admit, this did upset me.  I had to sit down and give it some thought.  And then I remembered, I have to be grateful for small mercies.  The mere fact that he is coming home is supposed to be enough.  The trouble is, we think Mike’s paid for his crime already – the fact that all the money was repaid, he’s jobless with a criminal record to boot, everything else chucked at him/us just seems pointless.

We’re desperately trying to move on – but society does not move at our pace, it does not forgive so quickly.

What’s life like on the way out of prison?

So I think you get the picture of what life is like in prison – boring.  Plain, simple and boring – and you can get terrible contact dermatitis from the excessively strong chemicals used to clean everything.  But what’s life like as you come towards the end of your sentence, specifically what’s life like for both parties (if your other half has stuck by you).

I think I might have said it before – it doesn’t get easier – and it doesn’t, after 11 months, we still had tears today as I slammed the back door, railing at my husband for incorrectly shutting it.  We got over that one quickly, but it’s an example of the tension going on.  The tables have turned.  My husband was never off the bl**ding Blackberry, always being called by his very forgetful colleague who would go over the same story several times a day. Time off and weekends were regularly interrupted because “I’ve just got to make this call…”, “I’ve just got to respond to this email” and now I find myself collecting my husband and saying the same thing back to him.  On Friday, my head was spinning after a particularly stressful event where I got blamed for the ruination of someone’s overseas holiday because something had gone wrong with her i-Phone – this was ALL MY FAULT!   I’m not the sort of person to walk out one day saying “sorry, I’m on holiday for the next three days”.  I stew over work, it’s important that I do a good job – like my husband – we find it difficult to switch off.  So the first day I couldn’t take anything in, couldn’t relax.  Saturday was good, I officially don’t work at the weekend, so no-one could contact me, Sunday lovely. Monday, well, he’s going Tuesday so mentally I was already saying goodbye.

It’s the same when you work and take a well earned week off.  You spend the first couple of days getting there, stressing over little stuff, the next couple of days are lovely, then you start getting anxious about going home, then you’re back at work!   4.5 days at home with your loved one goes in a nano-second, especially when one of you blows it by being in a strop because the other one is about to go again.  Grrr, I could kick myself.

But seriously, rant over, it is strained mentally, difficult emotionally.  Husband has made that transition now from “doing time” to “coming towards the end”.  He returns after his home leave not willingly, to continue his sentence, but because he has to and wonders what he’s still doing there.  Enough time has passed for him to have contemplated his misdemeanours and to want to start helping me build for our future.  The point is now lost, enough has been repaid to the victim in terms of both time and money.  This is when many a prisoner thinks “enough is enough” and absconds.  I seriously wanted to hold on to Mike today and tell him not to go back.  I need him home with me helping to sort out our life, I’m fed up with carrying the can on my own.  When you think about it, a lot of women in my situation may well have not been working when their husbands went away, they may have children.  Suddenly they have to take control, they are the decision makers, they have to get jobs and keep everything together.  Husband comes home from a life of enforced indolence (yes, we’ve already discussed that) and the wife is none too pleased by the change in attitude.  I have a different routine and it takes a strong couple to work through that.  I’m in such a privileged position where I have an understanding boss who is allowing my 20 days a year to be taken piecemeal so I am at home when Mike is on home leave – I can’t imagine what it would be like otherwise.  Some prisoners do not bother with the home leave feeling it is too much of a disruption (to both parties) to be worthwhile.

So as he comes towards the final two months of his imprisonment, has our tax payer’s pennies been well spent – I’m afraid to say I think neither of us believe this.  You’ve not been safer in your beds because my white collar criminal husband has been locked up.  And the gross employment of prison officers to guard him and his ilk is a total waste of money.  He should have received a suspended sentence, should have been tagged from the word go. We almost succeeded in turning a workaholic into a lounging, swearing, smoking bum – but not quite.  Mike is desperate to get out and to get working.  I am desperate for him to get out so I don’t have to keep taking odd day’s off!

Life on the way out of prison for your “average” white collar criminal is just as difficult as it is going in to prison.  But maybe I’m a hard taskmaster!

Prisoners taking work away from the Unemployed

Oooh, a hot potato.  Been hearing a lot about this on Radio 4 recently.  Trundle on Ken Clarke who will have a good old bluff and bluster, but I have to say, last time I heard him on the subject, he did talk sense.  I can only report on personal opinions here and from second hand experience but my sentence serving husband works in his Category D prison as an Education Assistant.  For this, he receives payment for services that is extremely low – I can’t remember the exact figure, but I promise you, it’s pence per hour.  With this extra money, he can buy little luxuries – sachets of porridge to eat if he gets hungry between meal times, batteries for his radio, money for his phone card and postage stamps so he can write to me.  I sent him in with money and since that time I have never had to fund his stay, he is frugal, he is an accountant after all.

Last month, the governor of the Sheppey Cluster decided that the prisoners under his care were too well paid and he slashed the wage bill (he did not reduce the prices for the above luxury items).   You have to understand there are two types of employment within the prison service – those working on the inside for the benefit of their fellow inmates (canteen work, laundry, education etc) and those working outside, either completing voluntary work or paid employment.  And remember, 40% of the wages earned by those in paid employment on the outside goes directly to Victim Support.

Since the reduction in wages, Mike now has to make a difficult choice.  Should he continue to Assist in the Business Course run by the prison.  He can only “Assist” as he is not employed by Manchester College who provide the funding for tutors, but he maximises his “assistance” as much as he can to provide valuable information and guidance to fellow inmates wanting to set up businesses on their own once released.  For many, self-employment will be the only means of earning an income.  For others already in business (it’s not only murderers and rapists that get sent away, others on short sentences are there as well) it is the chance to pick the brains of a qualified accountant (albeit a struck off one) without the insult of being robbed by the fees that would be due on the outside.   So should he continue to act as a Classroom Assistant, or apply for Voluntary work on the outside.  The wages are higher, but he will have to forgo one Town Visit per month.   Not the Prisoner’s Dilemma discussed in “game theory”, but a real Prisoner’s Dilemma.  For what it was worth I suggested that, as the last few months of his sentence was dragging a change of scene might make time go faster.  So we wait to see what he will be volunteered for.

So there’s a little inside view of working within the prison system, knowing what you do now, let’s move on to prisoners taking work away from the unemployed.   Not my favourite politician, but Ken Clarke spoke sense when he said that it was highly unlikely that prisoners would undercut workers on the outside.  Let’s think it through.  What occupations are available to prisoners?  Nothing involving technology!  No computers, mobiles, iPads, Pods or Phones, no SIM cards, memory sticks – you don’t want to give them the opportunity to access the outside world.   Which is a shame because there is a lot of work that could be done if you allowed them RESTRICTED computer access.  You could set up some kind of workshop within the prison, but this has many pitfalls, some of which you can read about on the Howard league for Penal Reform’s website – do a search on Barbed to see the problems they ran into.  Their problem involved the wages of prisoners, but I’m thinking of the buildings available for setting up a workshop.  Many of today’s prisons are much older properties that cannot cope with the demands of running a business.  So you’d have to pay for a conversion, costly.  You’d also not expect Prison Officer’s to assist with providing security for this enterprise, no, you’d have to pay for your own security, costly.   There is a rag production line at Stanford Hill – unfortunately even this is closing.  The wages of those operating the production of rags (you feed fabric in one end and get shreds of fabric out the other) is not high – do you really think the unemployed on the outside have stolen this fantastic job opportunity?

When you start to think about it, it’s actually rather difficult to think of things that could be done on the inside without an employer (and that’s who will have to bear the cost) going to great expense – not on salaries, but on provision of work.  And the whole point of the employment of offenders is the idea of a cheap and ready workforce.   So the idea of a business going inside to undercut the unemployed suddenly starts to look like an expensive option.

I hope I’ve offered you a few crumbs of information so that the next time you hear someone arguing that prisoners are taking away work from the unemployed, you’ll ask them exactly how and if they come up with a good, workable idea, you can let Ken Clarke know.

100 Nights of Solitude

So what has the Criminal Justice System taught me? I have now spent 100 nights away from my husband and he’s not yet halfway through his custodial sentence. I suppose it’s not me who’s supposed to have been taught anything, but I consider it a lesson in life. I have learned that morals do not enter into our courts. Just facts. You either do wrong, or you do not. You might speed in a car = wrong. You might be rushing to attend an emergency = morally right, but criminally wrong. You might steal money to fund something you believe is essential = wrong. Funding by theft a foster child after they have turned 18 and your benefits have been cut = morally right, but criminally wrong. I have learned to dig deeper into stories, not accept at face value what I am being told, not to jump to conclusions – there is ALWAYS another side to a story. You don’t have to agree with it, but it’s there.

I have learned that not everyone lives to my moral and ethical standards, but that the criminal justice system is there hopefully to prevent a complete breakdown of law and order. I might not agree with some things, but I have a vote, I have a choice.

I have discovered that there is a whole new world out there, one that I was totally unaware of before. Where women queue up to see their loved ones every Saturday, where they carry on life temporarily alone and tick off the days. There are women that have done this many times before and who am I to judge – you could be wondering why I stuck with my husband after he did what he did. There are kids out there jumping for joy when daddy comes through the open door of the visiting room. I’ve seen streetwise “yoofs” looking rather more sheepish in front of visiting parents, about to embark on a life with a criminal record now attached to their cv. I’ve come to know people with nothing, because they have had to pay for what they did, pay financially as well as custodially. How do they start again?

I’ve learned that it’s difficult and more expensive to get home and vehicle insurance – not just for the ex-offender, but for anyone who shelters them and mortgages for fraudsters are excluded. That crimes with sentences of 3 years or more are never spent and must be disclosed upon request. That far from a temporary blip in a person’s life, it is a sentence that will travel with them for many, many years – 20, 30, a lifetime. Jobs will be difficult to come by, therefore money will be in short supply, housing will be almost an impossibility.

Friends will be lost, but real friends gained. Families will rally round and food parcels arrive unexpectedly, just as they are needed. Most scarily, I discovered the best way to fight a solicitor is through a solicitor, and if you don’t have one yourself, well, you’re done for. I’ve learned that some people love, just love, to take the moral high ground, imagining themselves to be totally without guilt, selectively airbrushing the times they have transgressed and others take you at face value, are not interested in your past, only concerned as you are now. Most interestingly, I have discovered that there are many, many people out there who have had a brush with the law either directly or indirectly and once this is teased out there are some sad stories to be heard in the most unexpected of places.

But I think, most of all, I have learned how lucky I am. Lucky to have found a person that I continue to love. Lucky that he stuck with me during my most annoying episodes. Lucky I have a roof over my head and money to buy food. In fact, as far as Maslow goes, I’ve got my bases covered.

I heard an interview the other day with Aung San Suu Kyi. She was asked something like “do you feel sorry for all the years you lost to imprisonment?” Her answer was revealing and inspirational. Given all the deprivations she had endured, she answered in suprise saying she felt luckier than those who had died in the cause of fighting for freedom. She is alive, she has her future in front of her, those no longer living do not have that luxury.