Inside out: working with offenders

Last week David Cameron made a major speech about prison reform, in which he set out his vision of ‘a modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system’. Although the Prime Minister reiterated his belief that the role of prison is primarily to punish, he was also keen to emphasise that ‘we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope.’ This week, the current Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, and his predecessor, Chris Grayling, jointly published an article highlighting the importance of rehabilitation, arguing that prisoners must be ‘kept occupied with useful activity, whether studying towards educational qualifications or doing worthwhile work whilst behind bars.’

For those of us with a longstanding involvement in the rehabilitation of offenders, this was music to the ears – and long overdue. Government ministers seem finally to have woken up to the fact that investing in rehabilitation makes sense pragmatically – it prevents future offending and lowers the crime rate – but also morally. As the Prime Minister said in his speech: ‘in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.’

In at the deep end

My own interest in this issue goes back a long way – to the very beginning of my working life, in fact. Working with offenders helped to launch my career and set me on the path to the work I’m doing today as an academic. However, it came about through a series of accidents. When I finished my first degree, I had to wait a year before starting a postgraduate course. In the interim I applied to do some full-time voluntary work as a Community Service Volunteer. You filled in an application form, went for an interview, and then waited to be sent to wherever there was an organisation that could make use of your skills.

Prime Minister David Cameron Visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison And Makes A Speech On Criminal Justice

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, visiting Wormwood Scrubs prison, London

For some reason, I was sent to work in a hostel for emotionally disturbed ex-prisoners in Worcester. Iris House provided accommodation and support for men who had serious problems rehabilitating into the community. Some had been in secure hospitals, such as Broadmoor and Rampton, and many were persistent and serious offenders. Our job was to house them, feed them and offer practical and emotional support. It was all a bit of a shock for a rather sheltered English Literature graduate from suburban Essex.

We were a small, mostly young team and we worked in pairs, alternating between day and night shifts. The atmosphere in the hostel could be quite oppressive: some of the residents had violent pasts and a few had to be controlled by heavy medication. But there was also a quirky side to the place that was sometimes like being in a dated TV sitcom. For example, the highest room in the hostel was home to a very well-spoken white-haired resident, a former fraudster, who treated the place like a hotel and somehow managed to have residents of humbler origin waiting on him hand and foot.

Then there were the two probation officers attached to the project. One was a Salvation Army officer who fancied himself as an amateur psychoanalyst; he diagnosed one resident’s burglaries as ‘night-time penetration offences’ and put them down to sexual frustration. The other probation officer was a rather glamorous Swiss woman, at whose leaving party the project manager memorably, and inappropriately, thanked her for being the team’s ‘sex object’. But that was typical of the sexual attitudes prevalent at the time. I remember a tense house meeting at which the male residents vigorously denied accusations that ‘homosexuality’ was rife in the hostel. And then there was the stash of pornographic magazines kept in the medicine cupboard, which we were expected to hand out nightly with the sedatives.

The experience of working at Iris House was certainly a baptism of fire. It left me with a sense of the emotional damage suffered by many people who end up in prison, and of just how difficult it is to resettle such people into anything like ‘normal’ life. I returned to academia as a PhD student in Manchester with a sense of relief, never thinking that I would ever return to working with offenders. However, a couple of years later, feeling an urge to do some voluntary work in my spare time, I happened upon a literacy project run by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), just a few streets from the university. Thinking this was an area where I could make a contribution, I signed up to spend an hour or so a week, helping mostly young male offenders with their reading and writing. In the process, I became keenly aware of the fact that a large proportion of offenders (60% of UK prisoners, according to recent figures) have poor literacy skills, making it tough for them to hold down a job or simply cope with the demands of everyday life, and as a consequence making it more difficult for them to stay out of trouble.

Essex boys

My student grant ran out before I finished my thesis, so I moved back home to Essex and began to look for paid work. I took a series of part-time teaching jobs – with the Workers’ Educational Association, local further education colleges, and a memorable spell teaching numeracy to blood-spattered trainee butchers in Smithfield. But then, quite by chance, a family member spotted a tiny ad in a local paper, seeking a full-time course development worker for a brand new education project being set up by NACRO in Basildon, about 15 miles from where I lived. It seemed tailor-made, so I applied and got the job.

The project, based in the local probation office, was one of a number being started around the country, funded under the government’s Voluntary Projects Programme for unemployed people. By coincidence, the scheme’s HQ was in Manchester, just around the corner from where I’d done my voluntary work: in fact, that project was being used as a template for the new centres. I went back to Manchester for my induction and met others who had been recruited to run similar schemes in other towns and cities. They encouraged me to apply for the vacant project manager post in Basildon: so I did, and I was successful.

Eventually we recruited other team members, two of whom – Debbie Amas and Sandy Ruxton – I’m still in contact with many years later, and indeed Sandy and I recently worked together on a research project with vulnerable young men. Our brief in Basildon was to provide basic education classes for offenders – again, they were mostly young, mostly male – who were referred by the probation service. But we also offered volunteering opportunities for the more able probation clients: one of our volunteers was David Akinsanya, who went on to become a successful filmmaker.

To begin with, the project didn’t have premises of its own, so we had to hire rooms in local community centres. Most mornings would find us loading equipment into the boot of a car and driving to one of the outlying estates, where we’d set up our classes. It was often a little chaotic, to say the least, but hugely rewarding when it worked. Again, it was a revelation to discover just how many of those who ended up in the criminal justice system had been failed by the education system. More positively, it was encouraging to see how a second chance at learning could help them to turn their lives around.

A clean break

After a year in Basildon, I found a more permanent job at yet another NACRO project, this time in inner London. The North London Education Project had been set up to provide housing and support for ex-prisoners who had begun to study inside and wanted to continue their education on their release. It owned two hostels – one in Islington, the other in Hackney, where I was based, and where my main responsibility was setting up a new education day centre in the basement of the building. This was partly for project residents, but also for local probation clients, and for local unemployed and disadvantaged people generally. We developed a lively programme of day and evening classes – not only literacy and numeracy, but also computing, cookery, dance, weight-training – even a political discussion group.

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

My job also involved visiting prisons to interview prospective hostel residents. This was both the most fascinating and the most dispiriting part of the job. We accepted referrals from all over the country, but our closest links were with the two North London prisons, Pentonville and Holloway, which were thoroughly depressing places to visit – the former because of its grim Victorian architecture, the latter because it housed many women who really shouldn’t have been there. Many of the women were themselves victims of violence, while others had psychological problems that were only made worse by incarceration. As I was writing this post, I read about the tragic case of Sarah Reed, a woman with severe mental health problems who died in her cell at Holloway only last month, suggesting that very little has changed in the intervening years.

For many of the men and women locked up in these prisons, education classes were a real lifeline – a route to new opportunities on their release. However, the prison education staff worked in very trying circumstances, with classes frequently being cancelled or prisoners refused permission to attend them, at the whim of prison officers.

It was an invigorating time to be working in inner London. Our project was at the heart of a vibrant multiracial community, working alongside a number of other innovative community projects, and we were funded by generous grants from the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority (neither of which any longer exist). As I wrote in another post, it was a rude shock when I eventually moved to Oxfordshire, and found myself working on an all-white rural housing estate, with huge social needs but very little funding.

In moving to Berinsfield, I also left behind working with offenders and moved into generic community education work, and then later to The Open University. However, I never lost my commitment to the cause of offender rehabilitation, and my belief in the vital importance of education as a part of that process. In fact, soon after joining the OU I wrote and presented a programme on Radio 4 about women in prison, which involved revisiting some of the community organisations with whom I’d worked in North London, such as the Clean Break theatre company.

The need for a ‘third space’

My attitudes to crime and offending have inevitably mellowed over the years. When I worked for NACRO I was influenced by the ideas of radical criminology that were in the air at the time, viewing crime as a symptom of social inequality, and offenders as people who did what they did because they had very little stake in society. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, or being a parent, or a property-owner, but these days I find myself more likely to emphasise the role of individual responsibility and the impact of crime on the poor and powerless. I wrestled with these issues in a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post after the riots of 2011.

End-of-award conference for the 'Beyond Male Role Models' project, march 2015

End-of-award conference for the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, March 2015

However, I’d still maintain that we need to strike a balance (as I think – to be fair – the government ministers do, in the interventions I quoted at the beginning) – between emphasising personal responsibility for crime, and attending to the social and relational factors that contribute to offending – and re-offending. As part of the Beyond Male Role Models research project that Sandy Ruxton and I, with other colleagues, were involved in recently, we interviewed young men at a support project for ex-offenders run by Action for Children in the west of Scotland (some of them were featured in the film we made as part of the study, which you can view here). Reading through the transcripts of the interviews took me back to my time in North London and those depressing prison visits, to the projects I worked on in Basildon and Manchester, and to the hostel in Worcester where my involvement in this work began. The stories the young men told were depressingly familiar: a lack of jobs, poor housing, chaotic childhoods and problems of addiction and abuse handed down from one generation to another.

But we also heard more positive stories of young men who, despite their terrible experiences, were beginning to turn their lives around. For some, it was the experience of becoming a father that was the catalyst for making the transition from irresponsible to responsible young masculinity. For all of them, the support project itself was a vital ‘third space’ where they learned new skills and began to see the possibility of leading a different kind of life – rather like the education projects that I was privileged to work on all those years ago.

The government’s new focus on rehabilitation is to be applauded, but as well as reforming what goes on inside prisons, I hope they won’t overlook the agencies and projects working with ex-offenders ‘on the outside’, many of which are facing cuts or closure at a time of austerity. As our recent research and my own experience show, these projects have a vital part to play, to quote David Cameron, ‘to help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path’.


Beyond male role models: gender identities and work with young men, the research project that Sandy Ruxton, Brid Featherstone, Mike Ward and I worked on together, was featured this week in an article at the Huffington Post, based on an interview with me.

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