Part of the beauty of being new to an area of work is the enthusiastic inquisitiveness that automatically engages in your brain when you are stimulated by the environment you find yourself in.

That this same thirst for knowledge would engage when experiencing trauma within HMP Hotel & Spa was not a complete surprise to me and I like to think it speaks to an inner resilience however I’ll leave that google acquired self-diagnosis there and perhaps the better qualified within this justice realm will offer a more enlightened opinion.

That process of analysing the sector you have an interest in and setting off on a prospective voyage of discovery hoping to identify areas in which you can add value is a well-worn route of travel for me but one which repeatedly ignites the passion to contribute to meaningful change. Indeed, that internal flame has been fanned exponentially by the privilege of connecting to so many inspiring people on this, as yet, brief dalliance with justice.

It has indeed been a short journey to date but one which speaks of distant, yet to be attained or perhaps not even dreamed of destinations and at times I must confess to feeling a little like the great explorer Christopher Columbus who when speaking of his attempts to communicate with the Indians said, “Each day we understand better what the Indians say, and they us, so that very often we are intelligible to each other.” I’m growing to love my own developing tribe and my tepee is getting busier each day.

That quotation struck me because I am aware that every sector, justice included, creates a language or a shorthand that actually whilst well intended and creating inclusion for those within the circle of trust can also create almost unintentionally exclusion to many who can help us all on our respective journeys. Our use of language and our acknowledgment of its importance, especially for those blessed with a voice of power or influence, is critically important as an engagement key in delivering our messages to those who need to hear them most.

In that regard I always revert to the wonderfully eloquent Albert Einstein who said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” That challenge to simplify things is a great motivator to pay attention to the details and make great challenges sound simple, or at the very least attractive to take on.

It also was the reason First Time Inside came first on a series of aimed destinations and the more wide-ranging (some would and have said rather fanciful) dreams – that crazy notion of Prehabilitation and the outrageously titled five senses revolution – will follow on organically if the first message is well received. As Albert also said rather poetically, “try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value” and he has an unassailable point.

First Time Inside, as a project, has a fairly straightforward if unique goal to better prepare people for going into prison for the first time and to engage those bodies who can assist with that preparation. As the man from Ronseal said, “It does exactly what it says on the tin” with the added kicker that we also hope to contribute to it being the last time inside.

Prison Pack Scotland, in many ways the second step on this lengthy process, takes that basic element of First Time Inside and applies an added layer of collaboration, partnership and innovation to create a platform to influence positive change. A genuine step on the journey to having that mindset of Prehabilitation recognised and embraced. There exists great ripple potential if we can add the wider legal community to Scotland’s “prevention army” in an innovative, user friendly way. Prison Pack Scotland can be that vehicle, designed to recruit a wider cohort to that same army.

My own stretch aims are well considered and whilst I absolutely 100% agree with the inspiring Karyn McCluskey, the leader of Community Justice in Scotland, who I had the pleasure to hear speak recently at a fabulous Trauma Responsive Scotland event in Glasgow hosted by Epione Training, when she promoted the importance of having those clear goals I also think it’s acceptable to retain an element of those to your own counsel for both commercial confidence and effective developmental reasons. Where Karyn is also entirely correct is that you must know what success looks like to you because when that is clear the pathway to your destination is easier to develop.

For want of a better explanation knowing your stretch aims and what success looks like to you makes me think it is a little like the pilot of an aeroplane seeing the landing lights on the distant runway for the first time and being given a guide to bring his own cargo safely home. Listening to the shared stretch aims of a variety of inspiring people recently has been an absolute privilege.

Small things motivate me and seeing Community Justice Scotland proudly proclaim they want to see Scotland become the safest country in the world is energising in an extreme way. It screams get on board or get out of the way, it speaks to a determination to succeed and it offers the wider “prevention army” a campaign to join. Why on earth would you pass up that opportunity?
This justice journey to date seen to a certain extent in Squaring The Circle last week has been electrifying. Daily it throws up challenges and questions both of which demand answers. It’s those very questions which stimulate the growth of all that lies in front of us.

The movement to engage and indeed embrace lived experience is also heartening although I feel there is a long way to go to reach a level where the true value and workplace balance is to be achieved. I talk of a hybrid perspective when I consider the value of merging life and lived experience and of the availability of unique assets to help achieve change. Preconceptions still exist, in my experience, even amongst a section of the seemingly enlightened and there is a lot of work to be done to maximise the opportunities we can all share in the lived experience realm. In a recent article I read Sean Duffy, CEO of The Wise Group shared thoughts around “The transformative impact of taking people at face value”. Hopefully, I quoted Sean correctly there because it is a phrase which to me underpins so much of what our approach to lived experience and service users should be.

We cannot allow an environment which affords a cohort of the population the occasional meal at our table but only when it suits us. We need a strategy which allows us to share open ended aspiration to all not only those we deem to be worthy. When we talk of leadership, we can’t mean example, we must mean full engagement otherwise we are talking the talk as opposed to walking the walk. Leadership takes many forms and we must all reflect on the thought that “if service is beneath you then leadership is beyond you”. Something reflected throughout a justice journey, for example, in meeting CJSW. No single person has all the answers but the wider our engagement and by adopting varied, innovative, angles of approach the more likely we are to create meaningful solutions.

I am personally aware of the need to pay attention to self-care and the potential for burn out if that awareness was lacking. However, in a wider sense those with influence and the power to engage with lived experience need to be aware of the emotional and physical exertion sharing that experience can bring to those doing the sharing. Recently, I met with two inspiring chaps who utilise their lived experience entirely for good and I was struck by the obvious physical and emotional levels of fatigue they exhibited. In engaging with that lived experience we need to be respectful of others wellbeing to ensure our common stretch aims are achieved. Organisations must take that responsibility firmly on their shoulders, no excuses to the contrary are acceptable. Failure to engage lived experience in a truly trauma informed manner could prove to be contributory to a self-defeating strategy in the medium term. People are our greatest asset we need to look after them.

A collision with Justice is seldom without trauma and to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to it’s old dimensions”. It can however utilise that knowledge to generate a meaningful contribution. This, what could be described, as a slightly self-indulgent scribble speaks to the possibilities that exist when you can process all of your experience and identify your own route of travel.

In time it will be great to be able to share those skills, designed around creating your own route, with others who have the basic skills but the poorest levels of aspiration.

Every project to be undertaken from First Time Inside to Prison Pack to those yet to be introduced moving forward will be about adding value to a sector for sure but arguably and perhaps more importantly they will all aim to increase the aspiration of everyone we come into contact with. From the busy lawyer to the beaten down service user we aim to increase aspiration for others as well as themselves whilst providing an innovative approach which makes these aims possible. They will also all have a spirit of collaboration at their core. The need for partnership and shared determination to provide positive outcomes is undoubtedly the way forward.

In that regard I am excited by the ongoing discussions to partner with a fabulous Scottish charity on the development of the Prison Pack Scotland project and will share more details on that soon both here and on social media. The creation of a social enterprise to house all of the projects both conceptual and in development is also underway – with an appropriate name being the topic of many conversations this past week – please feel free to make suggestions. I must confess to almost stealing the idea of someone way more influential than I and utilising the title The Prevention Agency but thought perhaps not…

Additionally all our efforts will be cognisant of the circumstances that inspired them as seen in the short excerpt below from a first time prisoners personal diary;

In some ways I feel I am still recovering from the realisation that my family are viewed as criminals, or at best viewed with extreme suspicion, by those in charge of this abhorrent place. It’s been almost a week since they attended a visit only to be accused of being drug users and potentially drug dealers because an ion scanner had bleeped or flashed or whatever the warning signal is and a sniffer dog had sniffed them.

Being refused a visit and having a car searched because of faulty equipment or processes has resulted in their dread of visiting turning to genuine fear. As a family they have decided that under no circumstances will my wife visit alone, the trauma they experienced because of my incarceration was one thing but to have it exacerbated by fools behaving like bully’s is entirely unacceptable. My inability to control their environment or soothe their distress continues to be soul destroying.

There is no allowance or attention paid to each, individuals, story here. More they adopt, at times, a one size fits all policy of patronisation and degradation. That I am here for the first time or the fact that my family are experiencing their first experience of the justice system is not considered when communications take place. As a family, never mind a prisoner, you become damaged goods with a lesser standing in the eyes of this place because of the actions of one person.

Being treated as if your thick is one thing, having your family treated that way is quite something else.

Separating my sons from their mother and “casually” suggesting to them that it was ok to tell them, the officers, they had used cocaine at the weekend is wrong on a number of levels. That they did so and suggested it was ok to share that information and there was no need for their mother to know I find turns my stomach even days after the event. That my boys reacted in a polite, calm manner even amidst their distress makes me immensely proud. That their reaction was not considered and they were treated as a lower form of humanity in the eyes of those on duty is not good enough.

Writing this down is draining but in some ways cathartic but in no way uplifting.

There are a number of really good officers in here but I suppose it’s more natural to lament the bad than praise the good. Maybe that’s because I expect to be treated the same way I treat them or I naively think the job must be a vocation or even that I think punishment should stop at the loss of liberty. Whatever the reason in the same way Sky News leads with negativity I guess these pages will be more about the negative. The only difference being it’s not on national TV or shared openly for all to see.

On the upside my security status was increased as an apology, which ironically entitles me to more visits and a senior officer made it clear he would engage with my family at a visit in course of the next week (Note to diary – that never happened) but I won’t hold my breath in addition to which my family don’t want the fuss they just want to attend, leave and survive.

It’s not lost on me that at every stage of the justice process I received promises of calls, meetings and replies to varying communications which never arrived. Those who are blessed with a position which revolves around providing a service really do need to consider that their inability or careless inconsideration leads to additional trauma for the very people they are designated to care for. In what world is that acceptable? Telling your pal that you’ll phone him later and forgetting is one thing, committing to an action on behalf of someone experiencing trauma or having already experienced trauma is not a positive reflection on you. It speaks to a lack of awareness on your part or a lack of training or worse-case scenario a lack of common decency.

In other matters I was offered a drinks flask, around a litre I guess, of jailhouse hooch today by a fellow guest here to help me relax when the doors are closed tonight. I’m tempted, I really am. The temptation to drink myself into a slumber is not unappealing but knowing my luck it would have the opposite effect and I’d end up wide awake listening to love songs on late night Magic radio and greetin myself to sleep, whilst perched on my seat less cludgie staring at my curtains held up with plastic milk bottles.

I was strip searched for the second time this week walking back from work. I’m developing a theory that they choose those less likely to cause problems for this process. Handing over your ID card, dropping your designer drawers and shaking your socks inside out in a room best described as a work in progress does loads for your self-esteem. To be fair I don’t think the searchers – now that was a movie – enjoy it any more than the searched. That said I can tell you they don’t dislike it as much either.

It strikes me that surviving this place relies on the relationships you form in much the same way your relationships outside provide balance or otherwise in all you do.

Today itself was a less frantic day and it was rounded off by a slice of banoffee pie – looked like a Costco job – but it was delicious and very welcomed after the car crash of burnt simosas that were served as a dinner. It’s hard to explain the excitement generated by a decent slice of cake appearing on the serving top. Security was actually tightened around the portion sizes being issued in case there wasn’t enough to go around or maybe they were worried that double portioned sugar rushes could result in chaos and uproar.

There are civilian staff here who do more than most to make my day bearable I have no idea if they realise their value but hopefully one day I’ll get the chance to explain the strength I get from their interactions.

Enough for now, time to do a little cell workout and contemplate the offer of contraband.

As always thank you for taking the time to read the First Time Inside blog, have a great week @firsttimeinside out.

Comments (1)

  1. Denise MacLean


    Thanks for this. It’s difficult to comment for fear that you would feel patronised but I can assure you that I will share your writing as much as I can. People are unaware of what goes on behind the headlines and soundbites and the ripple effect on those who love you and your fellow travellers. Your contribution to that insight is so valuable and I wish you and your family well.

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