This is a guest blog from Marie Claire O’Brien of New Leaf Initiative. Marie Claire discusses her experiences of the criminal justice system and looks at a new network for prisoners to get their voice heard and contribute to national policy making.
When I was a prisoner, politics only seemed to exist around me on a micro-level. What was happening on the wings? Who was after who and why? Which officers or prisoners could be trusted or should be avoided? Why wasn’t I getting my canteen or letters as I should be? Politics for me was about surviving my prison experience, paying my dues to society and managing the mundane. It meant dealing with the complex day-to-day prison life. The kinds of things that prisoner councils focus on—the only things prisoners have historically been able to influence.
I had no interest in who the prisons minister was, or the justice secretary and their plans for prisons, prisoners, and the criminal justice system as a whole. It all seemed too far away, in London, the centre of the universe, to care about me as an individual. So I struggled to engage with politics and policy as a concept which was able to change the world I inhabited.
However, times are changing. 10 years after leaving prison, I am the Managing Director of a successful social enterprise called the New Leaf Initiative, which operates in the West Midlands, and studying Health and Social Policy at Warwick University. As a prison-to-employment specialist, I am often called upon, due to my professional and personal experience as a female ex-prisoner, to feed into national debates about criminal justice and the solutions to its many problems.
These problems are not new, in fact many of the problems we write about have existed for hundreds of years. The difference is that prisoners are finally being encouraged to have a voice about the conditions and cultures manifested and nurtured by the institutions which make up the criminal justice system. What works must be fed back by those of us who have experienced the full benefits of rehabilitation, and those who have experienced the systemic barriers to it. I believe we have a duty of care to those still confined, and those yet to be confined, to do this to our best ability—if we don’t, we become part of the problem rather than the solution.
The Prisoner Policy Network, launched by the Prison Reform Trust this month, is a necessary conduit for this to happen in a safe, empowering and inclusive way. The definition of policy is “a set of ideas or plans that that can be used as a basis for making decisions in a given situation, and agreed by a group of people, such as the government”. Prisoners should be able to individually and collectively feed-back directly to the government and decision makers about their vast experiences in a positive and solution-focussed way. Doing so would ensure that the criminal justice system begins to operate effectively, rehabilitating people and supporting them into successful and victim-free lives, as well as supporting the staff working within it.
The Prisoner Policy Network is a mechanism for change and for good, and I for one am proud to be a part of it and plan to use it to affect change and innovation wherever possible. Prisoner councils have taken us so far, but to change the world we must think bigger, and this is the chance. So get involved and answer the first question they are posing: What incentives work in prison and why? When all the evidence is in, the Prisoner Policy Network will produce a report and the members will get a chance to present this report as part of the evidence base for policy change on a national scale.
Over to us, finally, to answer.
For more information about the Prisoner Policy Network and to get involved, contact Paula Harriott, firstname.lastname@example.org / 020 7251 5070.
Current or recent prisoners can send in their views to: Prison Reform Trust, FREEPOST ND 6125, London, EC1B 1PN, or call on 0808 802 0060 (globally cleared no.). The first question is open for contributions until October 2018.