I hear people refer to those in prison as being institutionalised and wonder if they ever pause to look in the mirror or reflect on their own attitude affirming surroundings whilst they offer opinions or attempt to influence outcomes.

My own experience suggests to me that there tends to be two extremes of opinion relating to the justice sector with the middle ground sparsely populated but without a doubt in need of constant irrigation and settlement.

Earlier I had the misfortune to read a comment posted on Twitter which suggested that those who find themselves as guests of their very own HMP Hotel & Spa should pay for the privilege of their stay within the largely state operated facilities.

The author of this particular piece of Victorian tripe further lamented that if he didn’t get to stay in a hotel for free prisoners had no right to expect free accommodation and that this should be recognised by those who transgress our laws as being part of the price they pay for their law breaking.

I can only wonder what this Neanderthal eejit would say if he heard that these state operated leisure facilities included gymnasiums, libraries and education programmes. I think we all know what he’d say – prior to his brain exploding – but sadly he is not alone in that mindset.

In truth without too much fear of contradiction I suspect there are large swathes of our population who believe, like that previously mentioned font of knowledge, that denying liberty is by no means a sufficient punishment and that those convicted of criminality should be relentlessly punished until they are released, perhaps even beyond. Or at least believe they get everything that’s coming to them. Unquestionably there are those for whom prison is the required punishment but the unilateral lock them up and throw away the key brigade are now an outdated faction.

Educating them around that fact and exposing greater numbers to the concept of Community Justice would serve us all well.

This I’m all right Jack type mindset do not believe in the possibility of Rehabilitation, they are programmed to expect the worst in people and are happiest when those who emerge from our prisons find themselves back there again because that circle of misfortune or wrongdoing only serves to affirm their beliefs. This mindset talks glibly of leopards not being able to change their spots or apples not falling far from trees but never take a moment to consider the potential impact of education or caring or the fact that the tree they fell from was incapable of supporting their weight when it was needed the most.

It is people like that with beliefs so firmly entrenched that actually inspire me to further develop First Time Inside and to create a platform through Hidden Voices which seeks to give those who find themselves experienced within our justice system a platform to have their voice heard. We need to create a real understanding of the impact our system has on those who collide with it as well as learn from that great emotional investment they make in sharing their stories to relentlessly seek improvement at every stage of the continuum.

Adopting a mindset of Prehabilitation and introducing compassion at all stages of the justice journey can reap great human rewards. Every week I am asked, “Why are you doing this, why don’t you just walk away and get on with life?” and every time I reply “Because it would unconscionable to know what the process entails, the level of toxicity within the environment and the apathy of those entrusted with the care of fellow humans and stand idly by allowing failing to be repeated time and time again.”

What that previously bemoaned mindset also fails to comprehend is that there but for the grace of their God goes them or their loved ones.

They are however not alone in failing to make that connection or to contemplate that this possibility exists within their own life. Perhaps educating people that this possibility is very real will open some eyes to the need for greater change. There are those whose capacity for attitudinal change can only be achieved by embracing the fact that prison in and of itself is not an exclusive club reserved for a certain class of society but that It exists in its daunting form for anyone who steps over a well drafted line. That may on first reading seem like an almost defeatist strategy but every great challenge must be met on a variety of fronts.

To help them achieve that change may mean making them feel the experience and that is a challenge which we all need to rise to because the potential rewards are worth the effort. It is that challenge which has convinced me to accept an invitation to speak at a justice event in March this year. As an aside, I may need some tips on relaxation prior to the event as the thought of standing before a room already feels more like an Everest than a Corbett.

To make matters worse I have had the privilege of listening to some fantastic speakers over the past year discuss justice as well as their own lived experience. Whilst, I harbour no illusions of generating Mandela like inspiration, McCluskey like passion or Docherty inspired emotion I am now willing to make the investment of deviating from my keyboard comfort zone to try and make a difference in environments where I am convinced it is about real engagement as opposed to voyeuristic entertainment.

Social media gets a tough press at times but without it First Time Inside would not have come to exist. The engagement achieved through connections on the platform of Twitter have afforded me an opportunity to meet with some truly inspiring people. It has also given me the chance to share thoughts directly with those who work in institutions where it is easy to adopt a mindset which slips aboard your psyche with such practised stealth you don’t even realise it is there and exhibiting the same to others you encounter every day.

For example, on Saturday past I was following a conversation between a number of people on Twitter where it was apparent that their shared work environment attitudes and training had created in part a mindset of exclusion as opposed to a quite obviously perceived arena of inclusion. Well minded people one and all I suspect but whose language, jargon and institutional training in part excluded well intentioned outsiders from meaningful contribution to their conversation. Occasionally, that voice from beyond our carefully constructed walls can be the most valuable to us all.

Challenging our own beliefs and learned behaviours everyday affords us an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution across a wider environment.

For example, we can all be guilty of expecting people to comply with standards that we do not hold to ourselves whether that’s failing to respond to telephone calls, reply to e mails or attend meetings on time. Expecting those standards from people who are experiencing trauma or colliding with justice is a bar which we should consider more carefully. If we, in a comfortable position, can’t achieve perfection then how can we expect or in truth demand that those in more challenging circumstances do so. It’s unacceptable to set up systems that create widespread failure let’s aim for something better, let’s aspire for those who as yet have not the confidence to embrace aspiration themselves.

I trust you will indulge me for sharing the previously posted blog diary excerpt below as it links to the very same cultural institutionalisation that takes place across different working environments today.

With regard to the diary excerpt below it is most definitely worth noting that a number of local authorities have reacted extremely positively to reading the account shared, I applaud their bravery and integrity in doing so.

Diary excerpt below, now also included on our Hidden Voices, page.

“For a few months I’ve been writing about feelings and events in here but for now I’m adding a new feature to my scribbles, I’ve decided to reflect on the individual elements of my experience of the justice system in this diary because it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever see it, unless the guards have a little peek when they are conducting cell searches of course, and I’m hoping that writing it down will be in some ways cathartic for me. I do not want to leave this place with any lingering angst or feelings of resentment and I’ve decided that sharing my specific experience with the diary will need to be my self-created counselling service.

In my mind I’m thinking that if I am going to return to my family and the world in general with an expectation to care for them and be productive I need to find a way to heal my mind whilst I’m here. All sounds a bit melodramatic to me just writing it down but I’m thinking without self-care I may be hopeless with other things. So that’s a target for me and this diary, together we’ll get our head around events and make a plan for the future. Now I’m laughing, I’m actually including this diary in the “we”, looking on the brightside he’s (now I’m being gender specific about these ramblings that’s probably not right either and maybe it would be better if it was a she? Nah, let’s be two men together exploring our feelings because that’s the West of Scotland way after all lol) not going to talk back and if he does I’ll know it’s time to request some medication. Maybe I should give him a name at this stage?

Why just look on the brightside let’s christen him Mr Brightside and it’s great to know there’s already a song in his honour albeit by an unfortunately named band given the current environment, great song though.

Focussing on one event at a time will hopefully allow me to set each element aside moving forward leave each experience in a little locked box only to be revisited whenever needs be but maybe by writing it down, I’ll free myself of confusion and frustration. Now I’m chuntering on about a lot of nonsense and realise I’m just putting off the inevitable so I reckon it’s time to pick an element and deal with it so here goes nothing.

For some reason I’d like to start with my experience with a Criminal Justice Social Worker (CJSW). From start to finish that was a disappointing experience and one which I feel, I may be, justifiably angry about and certainly frustrated by.

When the sheriff told me that I would have to attend a meeting with a CJSW prior to returning to court for sentencing I didn’t know what to expect at all. I didn’t know if this would be a fact-finding mission, a meeting to establish my character or frankly just a box to be ticked along the way. What was made crystal clear, at that point, was that this meeting was very important to the court and that it would possibly contribute to any sentencing outcome. I didn’t know what form the meeting would take but I now knew it was potentially vitally important.

Leaving the court room I was instructed to find the CJSW office within the building to make the appointment which I duly did. The ladies there were lovely and duly gave me a time to attend my meeting at offices in the town centre. They also reiterated the importance of this meeting and stressed that under no circumstances should I miss the appointment as it would reflect badly on me when I returned to court nor should I be late as that would also reflect badly on me with the CJSW tasked with writing my report.

The seriousness or importance of the meeting was then amplified by my solicitor who said he’d want to meet with me prior to the meeting with CJSW to explain what I was facing and how to approach it. If going to court was terrifying this appointment with a CJSW was now looming dark and large with a dense cloud of anxiety hovering over me.

How could someone I had never met accurately right a report about me, my life, my family circumstance, my wrongdoing, analyse and accurately form opinion on my state of mind when making my mistake in the space of an hour long appointment. It just didn’t seem plausible but I had to believe this professional would prove me wrong. It was clearly mandatory to attend and the craving for a positive report to the sheriff became all encompassing because that could hold a little sway perhaps in terms of severity of any sentence.

My solicitors advice boiled down to one thing really. I should make sure the CJSW knew that I was taking ownership of and responsibility for my wrongdoing, in the same way I had previously when talking to him when employing his services. He also told me to make sure that I was on time for that meeting which was kind of ironic because he hadn’t been on time for any of our meetings to this point but I digress, one rule for one etc.

The CJSW meeting was set for two weeks after that court appearance and I duly turned up ten minutes prior to the allotted time to make that first good impression. I remember sitting in the public waiting area that morning feeling physically sick with nerves, taking in my surroundings and the people there. Strangely, I remember a conversation which took place in front of the handful of people in that waiting area between a housing officer and a tenant about home improvements, quite bizarre to me that I should recall that so clearly. I remember watching the tenant speak and act in a deferential way when putting forward their opinions on work carried out but again I’m wandering off topic.

I was sitting watching the minutes tick down to my appointment time and recall trying to regulate my breathing as I sat in fear of what was coming. Perhaps irrational now I understand but in some ways on reflection understandable if that makes any sense. My strategy was set in stone, I was going to be polite, honest and open about everything – after that I could only hope for the best. As I sat there watching the clock the feelings of failure were smothering me and I just wanted to get this meeting over and done with.

Ten minutes after the allotted appointment time I went to the window and asked if the person I was due to see knew I had arrived. I was paranoid that the receptionist may have forgot to tell them I was waiting. Anyway, it was confirmed they knew and I returned to watching the clock. As time drifted past I struggled to distract myself and I wondered if this was a tactic of sorts to unsettle me or to give someone else a psychological advantage at the outset of a meeting. Or was it just the way I could expect to treated now by the justice system, I guess I’d find out soon enough I thought. Over half an hour an hour after the scheduled time the CJSW appeared and led me to an interview room. No apology was made for keeping me waiting and no explanation offered. I got the feeling it would be in my best interests not to ask.

 

They proceeded to outline the purpose of the meeting again with great emphasis being placed on the importance of this report, this report it was explained was crucial to the court and the sheriff. I understood this by now. I remember listening and battling to keep the contents of my stomach in place at this point.

I can’t comment on the motivations, practices or processes employed at this stage other than to say that I felt, after being in the room for two minutes, like a criminal. I was made to feel or maybe better explained I was being treated like I was the inferior person in the room both characteristically and intellectually.

The meeting I guess proceeded along a preset pathway and it was for me an emotional rollercoaster. I was sitting taking ownership of my mistake, I was openly discussing the most private details of my life (which is completely against my natural character) and was starting to recognise that I was being appraised in a rather cold fashion. The realisation almost made me jump. I was asked in a variety of ways the same question, did I accept responsibility for my mistake and was I sorry for it. My remorse is and was so overwhelming. It felt like a psychological game of cat and mouse with someone trying to prove you a liar when you were baring your soul to them. I understand this person had a job to do and maybe somewhere someone more intelligent than I had devised this method of interrogation to illicit a set of responses which allows boxes on a report to be ticked, I don’t know I just know how it made me feel.

And then came another hammer blow, the CJSW explained that we didn’t have enough time to finish the report because they had another appointment scheduled, which they obviously wanted to be on time for, and I’d have to return for a second appointment the following week. Despite my frustration and anxiety I instantly agreed to return but once again prior to the time being arranged I was lectured about the importance to the court of this report and that if I failed to show next week it would go against me in a serious way. By this time I must admit I was forming an opinion of the person across the table from me.

I was then asked again if I could return and said yes but then – in the spirit of full disclosure Mr Brightside – I told a lie, I guess on reflection it was my little experiment to see if my instincts were right or wrong about this person and/or the process. I said I could return any day the following week but also pointed out that if possible I’d like to avoid late Tuesday morning as I had another important work meeting scheduled then but reinforced that I was available at any time throughout the remainder of the week.

The CJSW left the room and returned to tell me that my appointment for next week would be 11am on the Tuesday morning as that was the only time that was available in the diary. Coincidence? Tactic? Mind fuck? Just the norm? In reality only one person knows the truth.

The first meeting finished with another lecture on timekeeping (I know Mr Brightside I know). This person was explaining to me the importance of being on time next week as the diary was carefully constructed to accommodate everyone. Long story short I turned up ten minutes before time for the second appointment and the CJSW turned up almost exactly 40 minutes late, with nothing approaching an apology being offered. I’ll never get the chance to speak with that person again, nor would I like to, but I’d like to know why they felt it was ok to treat me that way. Was it me or was that just the way the job was done? Was it me or is it just that people in the position of going to court are deemed less worthy of common decency?

The second meeting mirrored the first, only with a clear acceleration of questions as time was obviously short. I had lost all faith in the process by this time, felt ill at how low I had fallen and just knew that nothing positive would come from the experience. The meeting ended with my being told the report would be with the court the night before my court appearance and in all likelihood my lawyer would see it on the morning of that court appearance. For a document so “vitally important” it was completed in such a haphazard way and in a rush that I felt it really wasn’t afforded the respect it deserved by the interviewer. It left me rightly or wrongly forming an opinion that boxes were being ticked in a process which whilst clearly lacking compassion was loaded with preconceived notions and attitudes.

I did explain all of the above to my lawyer who said it would be pointless to complain as it could be perceived as a negative against me.

As it turned out my lawyer categorised the report as being fair which is fine but the treatment of someone caught in the system was far from fair. Part of me would like an answer from the person or the system on why the process was carried out that way and part of me thinks to hell with them just get on with life.

Just writing this down is utterly exhausting and brings back tough memories but reaffirms to me a belief that I have always tried to live by that we should treat others as we would have them treat ourselves.

Does any of this really matter? If the system doesn’t care what chance have we got? Well Mr Brightside thanks for listening, am I really losing my marbles talking to your A4 persona? Whatever the truth time will tell if it makes a difference.

The things we do to pass the time…at the risk of sounding pompous or just crazy I’ve decided to write the following and refer to it as often as necessary should the frustration return…

CJSW I forgive you for treating me so poorly, I hope you do better for others in the future, I’m confident I’ll never be in that position again. Just one last thought for you CJSW, try to consider that there but for the grace of god go you and/or one of your loved ones. Maybe that’ll help. I’m not going to write about this again and I’m not going to grant you the power to dismantle my mental wellbeing in the same way again.

Mr Brightside let’s put the radio on and change the subject…” 

As always thanks for reading the First Time Inside blog and do please feel free to share with anyone you feel may have an interest in the content above.

@firsttimeinside out.

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