Kindness is contagious and the process of sharing that contagion is so intrinsically simple it’s sad that the world is not permanently aglow with unbridled humanity.
At this time of year the idea of kindness seems easier to raise because many of us associate it with Christmas and the “season of goodwill”.
I like the Dalai Lamas phrasing – “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
Whatever your faith or even for the agnostic amongst us I think we can all get behind the idea that positive outcomes are massively influenced by kindness. Recognising that should give us all a platform for developing services that are born out of a desire to improve the lot of others and I must confess to being inspired by many I’ve had the good fortune to meet this year who exhibit this trait in spades. Scotland is a country alive with a passion for positive change and it has been a privilege to be afforded the opportunity to sit down with individuals not only committed to that ethos but also in a position to drive that process forward.
Moving forward the driver personally is to contribute in a positive way to that change. Every day for the past nine months has started with two questions and a challenge written on a white board alongside my PC they are, “How can I help? & “How can I add value?” Everyday offers a new answer or an improvement to the answer of the day or week before. This period of market research and self analysis for want of a better term has been both educational and motivating.
In 2020 First Time Inside will, circumstances permitting, as a project in its own right, broaden its outlook to embrace the notion of First Time Inside the system as opposed to simply first time in prison. From experience and from many conversations over the course of these past months it’s clear that every single connection with justice has the potential for trauma. Developing a wider scope will hopefully offer access to resources that will attempt to minimise that trauma where at all possible. Additionally First Time Inside will become a single project within a new social enterprise FTI Right Turn CIC. The branding of which and the messaging I’ll look forward to sharing with everyone in the New Year.
FTI Right Turn will, moving forward, seek to introduce a range of people centred initiatives born out of a combined mindset of kindness and prehabilitation such as Prison Pack Scotland all of which will aim to contribute to supporting the National Strategy for Community Justice through innovation and also by adopting a mindset of adding value as opposed to competing with existing services. Developing every project from a vantage point of creating partnership, collaboration and widespread benefit all leading to meaningful outcomes is the FTI hope and aspiration for 2020.
Having been inspired by recent visits to HMP Barlinnie and HMP Kilmarnock I look forward to developing an exciting new project aimed at sharing views and aspiration with those inside our prisons here in Scotland. I have made that firm commitment to a group of men who feel disenfranchised by their incarceration and beaten down by the system. Engaging them in a new project – the details of which will also follow in 2020 – is energising in an extreme way. That it may offer them some hope for the future and introduce the concept of personal aspiration is fuel enough to make it happen.
This personal journey has been a real rollercoaster of engagement and discovery, not to mention the previously unknown phenomenon of self-doubt. Establishing that life skills chiselled and honed over years of practice are indeed transferable to this justice environment and offer a vehicle to share so called lived experience in a way that offers others some semblance of hope. That I doubted the transferability of those skills initially speaks more to the crushing, destructive power of an experience with justice and society’s preconceptions than it does to there existence. Labels can create negativity and exclusion, one challenge for everyone as this journey continues is to engage with people on a human to human level as opposed to human to label level. Creating labels is about language and extending preconceptions not about aspiration. Our language must be more aspirational.
This week alone I have been invited to meet the Director of the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice who has expressed an interest in my work, I have been invited to a meeting at the Violence Reduction Unit by the Director there to explore strands of different conversations alongside a number of others and also to another meeting at the fabulously inspirational Centrestage in Kilmarnock by it’s founder Fiona McKenzie. From diary to Twitter account to social enterprise the journey of FTI, in my humble opinion, signifies hope is alive and there is a meaningful home in this arena for relevant life experience.
Some of the more personal highlights from 2019 include a young man telling me he “didn’t have closure in life until he knew I believed in him”, from a mother telling me that “there’s nothing worse than feeling like your banging your head against a brick wall and no one is listening, that prison maybe a walk in the park for some but not for me as a mum You listened can’t thank you enough” and from my family who collectively expressed their support for this journey I have chosen to take.
The aspirational language of Community Justice Scotland sets the bar for everyone. They boldly proclaim that they want Scotland to be the safest country in the world. Now that’s truly aspirational, chapeau.
Whereas 2019 represented a self financed voluntary leap into the unknown 2020 looks both positive and mapped out in many ways. Aside from plans for new projects, I have been asked to speak at conferences (admittedly bricking it), I have been asked to speak to Criminal Justice teams across the country and I have been asked to participate in staff development days for the same. My motivation comes from my experience of justice and my desire that others experience should not be made worse by others inhumanity. I look forward to engaging with you all in 2020.
I have no grand notion of leadership beyond contributing to the greater goals of our appointed leaders but as those frequent readers of this blog will know I do like to refer to the inspirational Martin Luther King occasionally and he said this of leadership – “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.” It’s that love of humanity that can drive positive change for us all. It seems a good time of year to reinforce that message.
I have been privileged to meet people who live up to that proclamation by Doctor King this year and do not want to embarrass them unnecessarily here but Keith, Alex, Jane, Gary, Donna and James you are truly inspirational and most impressively to me you all combine intelligence with compassion effortlessly. Thank you for all your support this year.
Which takes me back to the inimitable Doctor King who said ” We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to offer hope to those who are currently in the darkness in the same way that others have to me. What do you have infinite hope for?
And rather self indulgently before passing you to the diary excerpt below a verse for three different years ;
Concrete floors and steel white doors
A wing afloat on a wave of scores
Blind eyes turned to stupor ablaze
Strategic philosophy of surviving the days
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
@ Emily Dickinson
What does Prehabilitation mean to you?
“It’s about creating a community passionate about creating outcomes.
It’s about putting people’s wellbeing front & centre with unfailing consistency.
It’s a platform to connect compassionate services with like-minded ideas.”
The final diary excerpt of 2019, included below, reflects on the mental challenges experienced during a first time prisoners sentence;
“Some days are tougher than others in this place and the mental challenges are way more brutal than the physical. Having said that the levels of anxiety and anguish seem to cause physical symptoms some of which are a surprise to me.
Extreme fatigue is a real issue and the inability to relax – truly relax – feels potentially destructive. The demand to don the battle dress every day in order to fit in with the general population feels as toxic as the poisonous levels of contrived masculinity which pervade every element of this experience.
With the fatigue comes physical pain. I had half expected that increased levels of stress or anxiety would perhaps cause me to experience headaches but I did not expect it to cause the muscular aches that seem a permanent fixture at the moment. My shoulders, back and chest feel as tight as a drum and my neck feels restricted in movement at times. Even my legs feel sore at times and feel as if they are walking in a vat of slowly setting concrete. I’m guessing massage is not an option here.
I can recognise that all of this is perhaps related to stress and for that reason I go to the gym as often as is allowed working on the invented premise that I can reverse the old saying about a healthy mind leading to a healthy body. I’m aware that I need to break the cycle of stress in some way because as the tightening gets worse, the brain gets panicky and the fear of a genuine medical issue arising invades your thoughts and the repetitive circle of stress is complete.
I’ve put a notice to myself on the wall beside my bed reminding me that all of the pain, the toxicity derived from existing in this landfill site of broken souls is simply a figment of my imagination and that I am physically well. Beside that is a photo of my family and when I close my eyes after drinking in their faces time after time I get lost in a world of past conversations all of which fill me with immense pride and feelings of love the combination of which momentarily distract me from the distress that attaches itself to life here.
Family visits are obviously the highlight of any week in here but the exhaustion and sadness which follows that short glimpse of normality, however skewered by this environment, is overwhelming. Sitting in a public room with no real privacy makes for stilted conversation despite everyone’s attempts to the contrary but the fact that you cannot just take your wife or children in your arms for more than a split second when saying hello or goodbye is truly pain inducing.
I know that when my wife and I really hug each other every ounce of stress leaves me, I always joke with her that she has magical powers of some kind because that simple demonstration of our friendship is sufficient to release my anxiety entirely and sitting in this place three times a week in her company knowing that the medicine I need is right in front of me but is restricted because of rules is heart breaking. The fact that it is my fault entirely is not lost on me. Ironically rules that are designed to prevent drugs or contraband being delivered into this place I guess denies me access to my drug of choice, the simple and stress busting relief achieved by holding my wife and having her hold me back just for a couple of minutes.
I find myself in tears writing this because I feel the physical pain of not being able to experience a bear hug from my amazing boys or to cradle my daughters head in my hands and tell her everything will be all right, that her daddy is fine. Maybe it seems extreme, but I’d happily volunteer to be strip searched immediately before and after a visit just for the reward of getting to hold my family close for a few minutes at a time. As an intensely private person I get some relief from sharing these thoughts even if just with a sheet of A4 paper because there really is no other outlet for the time being.
The process of writing letters to the many people who have been kind enough to write to me is also helpful and creates an opportunity to engage in conversation with the outside world. At some point in the future I hope to get the chance to explain to them all that their efforts to communicate and their constant flood of positivity has been wonderfully helpful. Additionally, it is a glimpse back to simpler times when communication was so much more than a speedy text or whatsapp on the run between chores and makes me reflect on the instant communications world we all live in.
This experience is undoubtedly having a surprisingly profound impact on me – surprising not in the fact it is happening but more in how it is manifesting itself – and I cannot imagine leaving here without a desire to contribute to positive change. That may be a melancholy daydream designed to make me feel better about myself as I sit here scribbling surrounded by hopelessness and a dearth of aspiration but only time will tell I guess. Perhaps I will walk out the door and instantly think I never want to engage with anyone relating to justice again but I suspect the experience of witnessing such staggering incompetence, such a dearth of humanity and a startling lack of aspiration for others will be difficult to shake off.
It’s time to stop writing for tonight, to climb into my tree house and drift into a slumber knowing that tomorrow morning I will wake up to that gloriously disarming split second of normality before gut wrenching reality kicks in. Tomorrow will be a better day, it will be one day closer to exiting here and I’ll be opening a new box of Weetabix which always feels significant.”
As always thank you for taking the time to read the First Time Inside blog posts, your engagement is the only encouragement needed to continue. Please take the time to share on social media platforms from Twitter to LinkedIn if you feel moved to do so.
Have a wonderful Christmas and I truly hope you are blessed with loving family/friends and a period of relaxation and joy. Take care everyone @firsttimeinside out.