Prisoners week: supporting offenders

DAN GUNN

Prisoners Week 1975 to 2014

The former head of Operations for the Scottish Prison Service reflects on the significance of prisoners week and the complexities of supporting offenders returning to their communities.

Norman Stanley Fletcher you have been sentenced to…

This is of course the opening line of the much loved much repeated ‘Porridge’ TV series which dates back to the early/mid 1970s.  1975 witnessed yours truly stepping tentatively into Perth Prison to remain ‘inside’ until ‘released’ earlier this year to begin my rehabilitation into society.  What does 1975 signify to you?

1975 saw the first attempt at Prisoners Week.  Taken up and built upon by the Scottish churches, it has gone from strength to strength with the continuing aim to stimulate discussion, highlight concerns and to share hope.  What are your thoughts of prison?  What are they based on?  Porridge or TV in general, or have you been ‘inside’ in some capacity?  Scottish Prisons ‘attract’ tens of thousands of people – prisoners, prisoners’ families and friends, official visitors, contractors as well as staff.

‘Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them’ (Hebrews).  Do many people in Scotland ‘remember’ or wish to remember?  We have just come through the referendum campaign.  In the latter weeks, there was much debate and discussion of social justice.  I listened, and in vain, for any discussion of Criminal Justice, or even Community Justice.  Thanks to the Kilbrandon report, initiated in the 60s but also implemented in the mid70s, Scotland has a proud history of focusing on the welfare of the child with minimal use of secure accommodation.  Sadly this caring, community based and inclusive approach did not extend into Youth Justice far less adult Criminal Justice.  Our long-standing response to crime has been characterised by retribution and consequentially we have one of the highest levels of prisoner population in Europe.

A starting point for any analysis of crime is poverty and inequality.  The countries with the greatest extremes of wealth are those with the highest levels of custody.  Tackling ever increasing inequality is at the heart of Scottish political discourse and the work of Scottish Churches.

Reducing re-offending is seen as the responsibility of the Criminal Justice system, but why?  Some might argue it is very convenient, allowing us to focus on ‘the other’ not on ‘us’ and our great public services, notably Health, Education, Social Work, in the language of the Good Samaritan, can pass by on the other side.

Prisoners Week has been a long lasting attempt by the Churches to inform society in general and their members in particular about the complexities and uncertainties of supporting offenders returning to their own community.

Look at some of the recent themes: Time to change; Welcome home?; Making it last; More than a number;  Dreams for our children; Who cares? 

You will note some have a question.  Arguably they should all end with a question mark.  Every prisoner leaves prison saying to his personal officer ‘ you won’t see me again’.  Half will be back within two years and half of that half will be back inside in weeks, sometimes even days.  The ‘time to change’ for many does not last long.  The ‘welcome home’ often includes the welcome back from the local drug dealer.  The ‘dreams for their children’ are undermined by lack of money through unemployment and in some cases lack of a home.  Many were much ‘more than a number’ in prison where they were known, called by their first name, given work and opportunities to address their offending behaviour and above all involved in planning their sentence and future.  But after release in the eyes of many services, they are only a number to report at a certain time and date or face recall.  Managing the transition from custody to community is the final test.

The most recent initiative has been designed by the Scottish Prison Service, appointing staff as Throughcare Support Officers to support prisoners proactively navigate their way back home to ‘making it last’.  Prisoners Week is about optimism not pessimism.  Why should ex-offenders not have ‘dreams for their children’?  Ultimately the fundamental question is ‘who cares?’

This year the theme is Behind the Mask.  We all have masks.  We all need masks.  How comfortable would we be if we removed any of our various masks?  Prisoners Week gives you and I an opportunity to reflect on how prisoners feel, leaving one of their masks at the prison gate.  How many obstacles do the unmasked ex-prisoners encounter in becoming again a member of Scottish society?  What price justice and who pays?  Can we prevent the next victim?  Supporting victims and offenders is not an either or but a form of justice for all.  Justice includes forgiveness, redemption and restoration.  The prophet Micah encouraged us ‘to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’.

Looking ahead can we leave behind all the question marks and the mask?

Dan Gunn recently retired as Head of Operations for the Scottish Prison Service.  He is an elder in the Church of Scotland.

 

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