Angela Findlay is an artist, writer and public speaker with over three decades of experience working in the Criminal Justice System. She recently observed a 3-day RESTORE programme at Parc prison in Wales and has written this blog about her experience and what she witnessed. Former Arts Coordinator to the Koestler Trust, Angela has inspired audiences across the country, including most recently the Ministry of Justice, with her insights into issues of guilt, forgiveness and rehabilitation. To find out more visit www.angelafindlaytalks.com.
I challenge anybody to sit through three days of listening to 20 prisoners’ stories as I have just done and come out saying a punishing prison regime is the right solution.
A ten-year-old boy haunted by the face of his mother as she was stabbed multiple times in front of his eyes; a seven-year-old boy sexually abused by a family friend, then repeatedly while in Care; an eight-year-old boy in charge of his younger siblings, regularly punched in the face by his terrifying mother…I could go on. These are some of the people I have just met in HMP Parc while participating in The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme. And it beggars the question: is it right to be punishing people who themselves were originally victims of primary life experiences that were so often overwhelming, traumatic and desperately sad?
The men confirm many of the statistics relating to our prison populations and hearing their stories confirms the open roads to prison onto which so many are born. The absence of boundaries, positive father figures and love; hopelessly failed schooling; violence, neglect, fear… they all paint pictures of ill-equipped young boys lost in jungles of testosterone, emotional confusion and familial dysfunction and devoid of the moral compasses so many of us use to plot strategic courses through our lives. This is not an excuse for their subsequent crimes, just a fact. How would we have turned out if we had been exposed to even a fraction of what some of them were? And how is being punished in prison going to help? Actually how are even the solutions put forward, like education and employment, going to resolve those traumas? Our current system just doesn’t make sense.
RESTORE is a 3-day programme facilitated by The Forgiveness Project in prisons around the country. The officer in my group said of all the courses the prison runs, this was the best, achieving better results in 3 days than other courses achieve over weeks. I can see why. But what are “better results”?
In July 2015, Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, said in his speech entitled The treasure in the heart of man – making prisons work that “the most important transformation I think we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the soul of its inmates”. He is absolutely right and what I have just witnessed and experienced in the RESTORE programme achieves just that. As with Restorative Justice the format is relatively simple and involves the perspectives of both victims and offenders. And the core is basically story-telling. One story told by a ‘victim’ who has found his way to forgiveness; another by a former ‘perpetrator’ who has found his way through to the other side; and then each of the prisoners’ stories, plus even those of the two officers present. Throughout, with exceptional and sensitive guidance from the three facilitators, the men are offered opportunities to contemplate the possibility of thinking and acting differently within their individual situations.
It was extraordinary to witness. The men participated with a hunger for something that extended well beyond the packets of biscuits and cups of instant coffee on offer. You could see their prison pallid faces fixed in concentration as they listened intently while each person talked, their furrowed brows wrestling with concepts and words unfamiliar to them. You could see men who have appeared fearless in the face of knives overcome their terror of speaking as they dug deep inside themselves to find their own courage.
The silent young ‘murderer’ covered in scars with his head hanging under the weight of his sentence swearing he would not say a word; the ‘perpetual thief and heroin addict’ who insisted he had no story to tell as nothing had happened; the young ‘armed robber’ his own trauma bursting out of his body; and the man in for “domestic violence” who showed no apparent remorse. All of them transformed and softened as humility, respect, gratitude and courage replaced their well-worn defiance, shame, and anger. Honesty shattered the lies they had told themselves, their stories revealing to all their inner demons and the damaging impact of their actions on others.
A logical, humane and effective Criminal Justice System (CJS) would do well to re-think how the annual £37,000 costs of each adult prisoner could be spent. For just a tiny fraction of that amount each prisoner on this course was given the biggest chance imaginable to change deep within themselves and find the will to lead a crime-free life. The course is not a magic wand but it does sow seeds of change and equip men with the tools to tend them, and surely that is what the CJS is there for.