We have fundamentally been doing it all wrong. Our approach has been flawed. We need a change in our justice system and it needs to happen soon. We are putting often the most vulnerable people in our society into places where they can never be expected to change, to thrive. We need to rehabilitate these children, these adults, not induct them into a life of unending criminality. We need to ensure that they are given opportunities for education, for employment, for change. To rehabilitate.
Obviously for a few this may not be possible but for most it is.
Our justice system should be less about just banging people up, and more about rehabilitation, re-education. It makes sense, and it’s about time that we stop keep saying it, and actually started to do something that will begin to achieve it. A shake up of prisons and children’s custody, away from just punishment, moving toward change. Hope, education; rehabilitation.
I know this absolutely. I know this because I have experienced it. From both sides of the fence; as a criminal, a habitual offender who found herself locked up in one of these establishments; and also, perhaps uniquely as one of those who has the keys, literally, to assisting in that rehabilitation.
If we were to meet today, I would introduce myself as Kate, a successful career woman. A mother of 3 with ambitions and goals and a plan as to how to achieve them. You would see a smartly dressed, probably crazy haired, confident woman, literally holding the keys to a prison in my hands.
Had I met you 11 years ago it would have been a very different story. I would have likely been introduced to you as a prisoner within that very same prison. A heroin addict, with 33 criminal convictions; shoplifting, theft, possession of class A drugs. 26 years old, weighing 5.5 stone, I would have looked a very different person to the one I am today.
In my early teens I began to take drugs and swiftly found myself with a heroin addiction. Crime was my way of life and I was a repeat offender, with no hope of anything really, certainly not of ever living.
At the age of 25, after 33 convictions I finally wound up in prison, just for a few weeks, but I was lucky. In those few weeks I was nurtured and helped and I found an idiom of peace. A snippet of chance that things could be different. I was offered respite from the continual drudgery of crime, and drug taking and I glimpsed a different life.
I volunteered to help people. I optimised Big Society. I helped set up a charity and I found work. I got a degree and my life continued in an upward trajectory. Today I find myself responsible for the substance misuse needs of large groups of vulnerable people; adults and children. I run a budget of many millions a year. I hold keys to the prison I was once locked up in. I am rehabilitation personified.
So it absolutely pains me to tell you that whilst rehabilitation is the key to changing lives for the better, there is a fundamental flaw. People in the UK today cannot be rehabilitated and move forward, away from their pasts. They can absolutely be rehabilitated, but there is no point in rehabilitating them because, as it stands they can never be seen to have changed. Their past haunts them like a shadow in the night; threatening at any point to pull it all away. I know this because I have experienced it myself.
Part of my recovery and rehabilitation has been to help others. I went to university, I got a degree and a post graduate certificate, I gained a teaching qualification, sharing what I have learnt with others. I spend my days demanding the best services for the patients within prisons that I am responsible for. I trained as a first aider and gave up my weekends setting up and then volunteering on an SOS bus, helping those who were drunk or ill, making sure they were safe. I followed on from this by training as an Emergency Care Assistant and working one day a week on frontline ambulances. I love it, I’m good at it. So you can imagine my devastation when I suddenly found out that I wasn’t able to do a job that I love, might not be able to again. The reason? A renewed DBS check which this time (not sure how they missed it last time) they had seen my 11-20 year old criminal convictions. Never mind that I have a demonstrable track record, much more recent, of being a stand up citizen. Never mind that in my full time job I hold a position of significant responsibility. Never mind that I regularly walk in and out of the prisons that I am responsible for using the keys I am trusted to hold. No; convictions, from what feels to me like another life, indeed are from over a decade ago appeared to supersede it all. I can no longer work in a job that I am good at, that I love, because I made bad decisions at 13 years of age.
And so whilst I wholeheartedly agree that rehabilitation needs to happen, that can work, the sad truth is that society is not currently set up to see it that way. We rehabilitate people and then cut them off at the knees when they try to apply for any decent job, because employers don’t see the rehabilitation. They don’t see that someone has desisted from reoffending because they have changed; what they see is a six page long DBS check giving them 33 reasons not to employ that rehabilitated ex offender.
And so whilst I believe wholeheartedly in rehabilitation, I think that we are in danger of setting people up to fail if we don’t address the issue of how we recognise that rehabilitation as a society. People can change, but only if we let them.