Lived experience – aside from being society’s dismally constructed and unimaginative label – is a discount code.

It is the box – rather ironically – prior to clicking on pay now which when filled reduces the cost of your online purchase.

It is the restricted view seat at a sporting or entertainment event.

It is the sticker which says special offer, approaching sell by date or the flat packed furniture box which declares it’s on special offer with only a few key parts missing.

In a past life I would speak of brand management, marketing and language or communication strategies as part of a wider role. In my humble opinion, this specific brand (an intentionally chosen  term) is in dire need of a compassionate makeover.

You know, when I listen to some talk of those with lived experience, I shudder to think what logo they would attach to this brand and where on the body they would like this label displayed. Should the bar code generate a loud bleep when one of these flawed individuals crosses a threshold we deem to be off limits?

Labouring the point? Too harsh, dramatic, without foundation or overly simplistic? My own lived experience and listening to others with varied lived experience backgrounds would sadly suggest not and if it takes a little confrontational language to spark debate that’s fine by me.

Again, ironically, this label is predominantly used within a sector dedicated to working with those with lived experience i.e. people who should know better and is most likely born out of a genuine desire to soften attitudes as well as fight pre-existing prejudices. The problem with attaching any label is it potentially removes the human being from the equation and creates a perceived value (in this case to some with lower ethical standards) as many consumer advice experts will attest to when promoting own label brands over their more glamourous counterparts.

Social media influencers, bloggers and even those privileged to have a platform in the media have somewhat enthusiastically lined up in recent weeks and months to declare that lived experience is not only valuable but that it has a key role to play in the planning and development of services moving forward. You often get the impression that this is no more than a soundbite without any real purpose or plan behind it or a drive to be seen to be politically correct.  Does this speak to a shift in real value or an attempt to tick another important political box, I guess only time will tell.

I agree wholeheartedly that those with relevant experience of systems in this country should be involved at the heart of change but it needs to be on terms that represent the true value of their input. Not purely on terms that suit the political landscape today.

Community Justice is an inspiring concept and should embrace the entire community as equals not with some more equal than others. That ethos must extend to those with lived experience.

It is incredibly difficult not to be cynical when reading posts or articles talking up the value of lived experience because what you witness taking place is at times far removed from this stated aspiration. In fact reading output and listening carefully to those blessed with voices of influence as well as position to drive change it feels like at some point in the near future there is a very real danger of a box being ticked – in terms of lived experience inclusion – with no great impact made or change taking place other than a real opportunity being missed in preference of scoring inexpensive public relations points.

That could, admittedly, be a misread of the constantly shifting plates of the political landscape.

Over the course of the past nine months or so, on this incredible personal journey, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to advise, offer opinion, do someone “a wee favour” – from messaging to marketing to First Time Inside services – all free of charge by professional people. In some it speaks to a deep rooted prejudice where your mistake in life, as they see it, merits no better treatment, in others it’s simply a shamefully opportunistic manoeuvre dressed up in a layer of faux empathy and in others it is as straightforward as having no respect for anyone’s time but their own. It could be argued that the variants can overlap and co-exist but that’s above my analytical pay grade.

Either way it is easy to end up with a load of dried skin under your fingernails but an increasingly irritating itch on your own back.

On Tuesday of this week I was travelling from Edinburgh to Glasgow by train when I came across an article, shared by Community Justice Scotland on social media, written by Karyn McCluskey, CEO of Community Justice Scotland- whose stated aim of making Scotland the safest country in the world is a real demonstration of aspiration – in The Scotsman newspaper.

After reading I immediately tweeted “excellent piece” and then after reading through again tweeted “that an overhaul of lived experience value needs to take place”. I could understand if someone felt there was a slight contradiction in the messaging within my own output but I propose both points can comfortably co-exist.

It was excellent because it screamed humanity in almost every syllable but it also led to my thought that there needs to be a radical rethink on lived experience value because it referenced some of the dangers of sharing experience and highlighted ways in which the system can inadvertently or otherwise exacerbate trauma or at the very least present huge challenges for those courageous individuals who feel sharing their experience is important. Sadly, it also highlighted for me the potential for those sharing their experiences to be exploited, for want of a better term, by those who ask or indeed expect them to share in the first place.

From the same article “Not everyone knows what they’re opening the door to when they decide to share their story; talking through the potential repercussions is vital and must be the start of any conversation about speaking publically. Next is deciding why you want to share your story; to inspire hope, provoke change or highlight injustice? It can’t be because someone else wants you to.”
As one who has just succumbed to a request to speak at an event after passing up media opportunities this resonated deeply.

Training and guidance for those asked to share experience should be a prerequisite not an optional extra. I suspect there are additional training or supportive provisions which could also be engaged to protect the individual. This training should also be, at least in part, facilitated by those who have lived experienced or relevant experience. You don’t necessarily need to go to the north pole to understand it is cold there but utilising relevant expertise can only be a benefit.

We need to ask what is the organisational motivation for asking that person to speak and if we are asking for that emotional output we must also ask if we are living up to our responsibilities as employers, representatives or even fellow human beings. For example, having attended conferences and events around trauma and ACE’s I have been struck by the number of people who watch a speaker whilst also holding their mobile phone up in record mode prior to sharing clips on social media etc. Yes, there may be a duty of care with organisers and hosts to permit or prohibit this but there should also be a duty of care to fellow human beings who are baring their soul to a room full of delegates not to assume that this is acceptable.

Unlike Karyn and many other inspiring individuals I’ve been privileged to meet within this justice sector over the past months I acknowledge that I am a relative newbie to the arena. Put simply a novice of sorts, but a rookie entirely passionate about contributing to positive change with a very clear ethos on how best I feel I can achieve that.

I cannot pretend to share the practical expertise or knowledge base gathered over years of professional experience by those such as Karyn and her peers but my unquestionable, determination that human beings should be engaged in a spirit of respect and common decency underpins everything I aim to achieve and is without fear of contradiction the equal of anyone within the sector. Engaging with kindness should be the very least we do when we engage with our world every day. To many I realise that sounds almost evangelical, which in itself is painfully sad, but in reality a baseline of respect is a simple well-established foundation for improvement in all walks of life.

That baseline allied to a lifetime of experience honing entirely transferable skills gives me hope that a small contribution can be achieved.

I meet people regularly also from all walks of life who challenge that outlook many of them heavily influenced by years of institutionalised working but as my dearly departed and much-loved father used to say, “the world would be a boring place if we were all the same kiddo”. I have missed my Dads kindness and love in my life for almost twenty years now but his wonderful example, alongside his memory, lives with me every single day in life. That relationship I recognise now more than ever was a luxury many are not afforded and that makes my drive to engage with kindness even more relevant in my humble opinion.

From that vantage point I am at times utterly dismayed even ashamed at the way those with so called lived experience are treated by people not who should know better but who absolutely know better but do it anyway. (Like our prison officer in the first diary excerpt below or the criminal justice social worker in the second excerpt)

That same viewpoint has led to my working on a new development called Hidden Voices, a project aimed at offering a safe platform for those with experiences they would like to share to do so. The pledges already received in terms of written contributions at this early stage are truly humbling and the potential for collaboration with supportive partners also welcome.

When I embarked on this journey and was presented with the challenge of creating a voice which not only had something approaching relevance to contribute I also had to find a mechanism to do that. When I looked at options – or as I in previous world would have called exploring concepts – and discovered First Time Inside as a possibility I was honestly stunned. Stunned because no similar service existed, something so basic in terms of human decency and in that surprising realisation that service provision gaps so basic existed this crazy ride began to the point that today I find myself talking about lived experience and those with that experience in such an impassioned way.

This blog is not about me, it never has been although I’ve utilised my own experiences to populate the content, this blog has always been and always will be about offering reflective opportunities – in a professional manner where possible – for those who have no voice or no platform to have that voice heard.

There are a great number of hugely talented, undervalued individuals who have the capacity to contribute to a discussion on real change. I have had the honour of meeting quite a few of those people and I have chosen not to embarrass them by mentioning them here today.

My experience of meeting them has seen me acquire a genuine admiration for their courage and resilience. I see wonderful human beings who are not waiting to be asked how they can help rather they are just getting on with it. Their motivation is simply to help perhaps more should adopt their style.

Let’s not consider creating a working group of lived experienced individuals to support organisational efforts, for example, unless we truly in our hearts can say we are doing it with a realisation that we are employing expertise we do not have personally with the value reflected in that engagement. Let’s not invite people to join the party without first removing that glass ceiling of imposed aspiration. Let’s not speak about the value of lived experience without first displaying that value in the way we engage it. Until then lived experience is in danger of being no more than a label which will continue to lack respect. Lets stop taking and start walking.

It’s not good enough to simply tick a box, we are better than that and I am confident many want to demonstrate that. Let’s be noisy together.

 

 

Diary excerpt one – a bad day for a prison officer and a good day for an inmate?

“There was staff training today and we were all confined to our cells alone for the majority of the day with a break in restriction only for lunch. Work details were cancelled, education classes postponed and even the gym and physical activities were set aside to accommodate whatever the training being delivered was. It was a glorious sunny day but I couldn’t have been happier being locked up in isolation today despite the fact I’d miss my art class and a chance to attend the gym.

On the outside I love interaction, I love speaking to people. I love the ebb and flow of a decent discussion listening to others points of view and debating the business of the day. In here real conversation exists only in the fleeting contact with some of the more socially inclined staff who are above patronisation and can see a glimpse of your ability to be more than a number behind walls. I added to my dismally amateur poetry collection today and have even taken to decorating my walls in verse – paper not graffiti – I’ve actually came back to my cell at times and found guards reading them. I hope they’re not looking for inspiration because the subject matter is being defined by my surroundings at the moment.

Going back to staff training I hope there’s a motivational coach in here today because the staff seem miserable at work. Not necessarily stern or strict as you might imagine but utterly demotivated and looking for any way out. We have something in common at least.

This morning during the extended lock up period I could hear doors opening and closing along the wing and realised the sound was getting closer. A tea pack was delivered to each cell. A small plastic bag tied off at the top containing a few tea bags, small coffee sachets and a couple of small milk containers. That would have been a nice touch but mine went straight in the bin because of the guards chosen delivery method. The door was opened and I saw the tea pack in hand. My natural instinct was to smile and say thank you but what happened next prevented that. The pack was dropped on the floor by the door and kicked along the ground a few feet towards me. I felt degraded, angered and humiliated all in a flash by that action. I was going to mention it to my personal officer but chose not to what’s the point? I’m certain staff training didn’t include the delivery method of tea packs. You realise your current and potentially future value to the world at simple moments like that.

Anyway, the tea pack incident aside today was like an oasis in a desert for me. Confined to a room without anyone to speak to. Confined to a room without a view of the world. Confined to a room without a toilet seat – it all seemed so relaxing. You see for a whole day I didn’t have to be alert, I didn’t have to endure the smothering drug culture and I didn’t have to put on my survival cloak today. Some time I think I should apply for acting roles when I leave here because every day is about putting on an act one way or another. It’s exhausting beyond words and soul destroying in a dark miserable way. On the outside I crave human interaction, In here all I crave are family visits because only then can I let me cloak slip and speak to people who want nothing more from me than to get out and get home to be with them again. I had an idea for starting a new business today but will come back to that some other time. The three verses of my latest poetry effort are about the lack of real conversation, the overt drug use and how staff and I get through the days. I hope they don’t read my diary when they search cells whilst you are out doing other things.

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

Conversation is rare but speech is loud
Layers of humiliation dismantle the proud
Forlorn quest for normality dulls the senses
Security vetting required to paint fences

Shards of life extinguished by grief
Dreams fragile as cherry blossom leaf
Daily doses of patronisation
Replacing the illusion of rehabilitation

So in a sad way today has been a good day without the need to talk to anyone I wouldn’t mind hearing the staff training lasts all week, that would be like a lottery win. Tomorrow I have a family visit and I can’t wait to briefly hold them, drink in their faces and listen to them talk about their daily lives even though their lives have been damaged by my actions I crave their contact in every way.”

Diary excerpt two – meeting Criminal Justice Social Work

“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…”

Thank you for reading the First Time Inside blog, please feel free to share or comment and have a great day @firsttimeinside out.

 

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