This post was first published on ex-offender.co.uk
If there’s one thing that really gets my goat about the Criminal Justice System as a whole, it’s the constant theft of goodness from those who provide them with their living. To listen to some of the ‘dedicated professionals’ sell their idea of what they ‘do’ for us criminals, you’d think a lot of them had been awarded sainthoods. Funny how the saintliest often looked very different close up. As any prisoner will confirm – and so do the courts – there are criminals on both sides of the door. Just because someone has keys or the social authority to incarcerate others, it does not automatically follow that their behaviour is anything a dedicated professional desister would choose to do.
Let’s get one thing clear. There exist truly dedicated and professional Criminal Justice professionals. I know because I have met them and, at some point in our contact, I was put under serious and unprofessional pressure by one or more of their colleagues and we dealt with the problem together. These were people with whom I forged rehabilitative alliances during my sentence and the mark of their professionalism was that they allowed me to teach them. I don’t believe I ever abused the privilege because it would have sabotaged years of dedicated work that began about 10 seconds after my wounding-with-intent offence. When my sentence was complete, I began my own professional desistance programme.
My desistance has everything and nothing to do with the CJS. It has nothing to do with it because my choice is my own – it is my choice as a free woman. I do it to a professional standard because my free choice has everything to do with the CJS. When I was banged up on the woman’s wing of HMP Durham at the height of the suicides, the Wing Governor told me my disciplinary standards were too high for the wing. Not, he hastened to add, that he disagreed with me. From what I could see, he did his best in one of the most corrupt places I have ever had the misfortune to dwell in. I arrived with the label ‘trouble-maker’ and retained it whilst resident there because the conditions were so bad. The way the women were treated was nothing short of criminal in some instances and it didn’t surprise me so many were dying. That the conditions that closed F Wing down continue to exist elsewhere in the Women’s Estate, even after Corston, says a very great deal about the ‘rehabilitation’ standards of the CJS as a whole.
Even though ‘you’ have been informed, we see no change in either your attitude or behaviour towards women prisoners. These are women who have already experienced systematic abuse; you’ve been told you’re abusing them; you’ve been told to stop. Nothing has changed, has it? It’s not so much a case of recidivism – you didn’t even try to ‘go straight’! The present CJS cannot deliver rehabilitation because it doesn’t know how. It’s a part of the problem and I’m sick of it’s evasions, avoidances and lack of responsibility.
When I see Probation, and its hatchlings, colonizing the word ‘Desistance’ it affects me in the same way as the sound of nails across a blackboard. There are individual Probation staff – usually working at the coal-face – who appreciate some of the points I make but, for the most part, “dedicated professional Probation Officers” cannot hear a word I say. They have appropriated the ‘good’ and dumped all their shadowy behaviour onto me. Calling me ‘vexatious’, after I complained about their attitude problem towards me. It’s why I sacked them when I was an offender.. No-one is as bad as I was painted on my first recall and it helps to have their bigotry in writing when I explain why I can’t work with Probation.
Looking through the ex-offender website blogs, what struck me was the level of contained anger in the posts. Here I add mine. The effect this anger has on me means that I become a ‘law-nazi’ – similar to a grammar-nazi. My anger is focused on those who break the rules. All those public officials who think its OK to lie – especially those employed within the CJS. That HMP Durham’s Suicide Prevention Officer always prefaced his information with “I do not believe in lying to prisoners” says a great deal about that officer’s professionalism and even more about his colleagues. The CJS can turn a mirror on its own behaviour before it can make any claim about its ability to rehabilitate anyone else. When it comes to desistance, the CJS is not playing in the premier league anymore.
Desistance belongs to those the CJS presently look down on – folk like me. It’s our way of proving you wrong about a whole lot of things. For me, desistance means that I can outdo each and any professional within the CJS because I know the whole system and your knowledge comes only in bits and pieces. Desistance is showing you – in word, deed and intention – just how little you know and how small-minded you have become. Desistance is me saying to ‘you’ that you can judge me when you’ve lived what I lived through; learned what I’ve learned; know what I know; and can do what I do. Desistance will be on MY terms; to MY agenda: with MY level of personal discipline; and if you want to learn, you can pay me to teach you. Desistance belongs to desisters. If you want to know about it, you talk to us and you treat us as equals with professional levels of respect. Anything less renders a CJS professional unfit for desistance work.
Desistance isn’t just a challenge for the criminal – desistance challenges society. Desisters choose not to break the law – how many of society can claim the same thing as they fiddle their expenses or lie on their tax return? Desistance is the ethical and moral challenge – from those you choose to call ‘unforgiven criminals’ – because our attitude, behaviour and outlook is demonstrably better than your own for the most part, especially given the challenges that beset us. Our failings are proof of humanity and there are only a few of you who manage to be as honest about yourselves as we are about us.
Ultimately, desistance is about forgiveness. There are all kinds of forgiveness and many different ways to forgive but it has to be earned. To make a bid for forgiveness, there first has to be a ‘sin’ to forgive – no sin, no forgiveness, and no learning discernment. In terms of desistance, it seems to me that parts of the CJS have yet to acknowledge that they have even sinned. At some point they’re going to have to acknowledge their behaviour… or change careers. Not my problem anymore – I left that kind of irresponsible behaviour behind me a long time ago. The CJS has some considerable catching up to do.
Personally, I think desistance could catch on. You know, a bit like the legend of the Danes who all wore Stars of David in solidarity with their Jews when the Nazis invaded Denmark. Anyone can be a desister from crime, especially today. We could all desist from disrespecting or devaluing other people for starters. Desisters are honest – we’re upfront about who we are and we’ve come up the hard way. If you find us angry and cynical, we’ve got good reason. We’re tired of dealing with thieves, liars and incompetents and, if I have anything to do with it, we’re about ready to show you the parts of us you have been refusing to see.
For all those who are tempted to perceive my previous sentence as threatening, on the bigotted grounds of my past criminality, I would ask this: what is it about applying the law equally and fairly to everyone that frightens you? Have you got something to hide?