The biggest privilege of working in research is meeting people, hearing their stories and gaining insight from their experiences, positive and negative, with a view to improving lives.
Whether working on brand development, or communications strategy, we cross paths everyday with the most extraordinary individuals. And by listening to experts and sharing what we hear, we all learn something valuable.
In Prescient’s new ‘Expert Insight’ series we would like to start with the subject of Reform in the Criminal Justice System, and our expert in this field is David Breakspear. David is more than qualified to speak on this subject, having more than 15 years of experience in her Majesty’s Prisons, where he has worked in numerous roles and helped his peers on their collective and individual journeys towards a better place.
David is an energetic, engaging ambassador and passionate reform activist. He is also a published author and some of his blogs have been published by the Criminal Justice Service and recognised by Sir Bob Neill, Chair of the Justice Select Committee. He has been a St Giles peer advisor, worked for the DWP on a voluntary basis and has also received Recognition Awards, notably for his status as ‘Father Figure on the Wing’, earned through always making time for people and knowing how to make things better; not worse.
This is a man who understands the system because he has lived it first hand and has made a point of studying it, and himself, through its process. An avid learner, with an open mind he respects what works well about prison, can see where changes need to be made, and is brutally honest about what he’s seen and how and where there is a need for improvement.
David’s distinctivly positive approach is one compelling reason why people with authority are beginning to actively listen to his words and take notice. There’s no doubt he knows his subject inside out and his altruistic agenda proves his commitment to reform, with benefits for all of us.
We covered many areas in our discussion, but for this initial piece we’ll focus on three core take outs, which relate to the principles of reform and how we can all benefit from changing our perspective, and shift the dial from fear to positivity, if we genuinely seek better outcomes for people who find themselves in the criminal justice system:
Talk about reform, not rehabilitation
Let’s begin with the premise of rehabilitation and why it is the wrong foundation for positive outcomes. At first glance ‘rehabilitation’ might sound like a great idea to those of us who have never seen the inside of a prison, as either inmate or visitor.
However, when we consider that rehabilitation means ‘restoring someone to their former self’, we can begin to understand how there is nothing motivating about going back in time for those who’ve started out in the bleakest of places. Surely we all seek a positive destination, not a chaotic or precarious one. David’s personal experience is a case in point:
I was homeless and on drugs when I went into prison. I don’t want to go back to that. I went into prison with a pair of boxer shorts and a pair of socks and that’s all I had in my life. So if I rehabilitate myself I’ll be back on the streets in a shop doorway, taking heroin and crack. I don’t want that life.
David doesn’t see himself as a victim, and he is first to take responsibility for all the choices he’s made in life, both good and bad. He’s smart and has an agile mind, helped or hindered by a collection of diagnoses ranging from PTSD to social identity disorder. He is crystal clear that he does not blame the system or others for choices he made in life that led him through the Criminal Justice System and a series of sentences in Category B to D prisons.
Reform is a journey, a positive concept and growth mindset, that acknowledges a bleak starting position, while encouraging movement towards a better place. It applies equally to individuals, systems and institutions.
The word you need Is Reform. You reform your character. A leopard can’t change its spots but it can adapt its behaviour. In the same way we can adapt to our environment. And because of my outlook on life I’ve been able to do that. I’ve talked to students at Universities and I’ve been homeless on the street. I’ve adapted.
Reform is more than a word. David drives home the point that agencies and the public at large must understand that this not just a tweak in language. It is distracting and unhelpful to get caught up on semantics rather than finding tangible solutions.
Removing distractions: Reduce spin, to focus on solutions
Thus, a second, contextual issue we discussed, very prevalent in recent times is the energy invested in debating what nouns or labels to use in prison discourse, rather than finding solutions that actually improve outcomes. For instance, endless debates on whether the word ‘accommodation’ is demeaning to inmates is actually less helpful than helping prisoners make positive choices, learn and grow.
What you see is, ‘it’s not my fault, it must be theirs’ – not ‘what went wrong here, how can we look at this together and how can we fix it?’
In truth, there is plenty that is actually working well in prison, despite the lack of funding and endless recommendations – in one institution’s case as many as 80 recommendations, but no additional funds to facilitate implementation.
Again, David has a wealth of examples of what works well and it may surprise people to hear that life inside prison may be more consistently compassionate than life on the outside, with a great deal of comradeship and mutual support.
And visitors soon find themselves included in this esprit de corps:
At its best prison is an environment where reform happens through genuine care and effort, by a collective of people. And this can be hard to replicate on the outside.
Media influence: Change the narrative, from inciting fear, to celebrating success, and find new platforms to share message
All this links neatly to the third issue that needs to be addressed, namely the media narrative, which is routinely based on fear and misinformation. David argues that there is a real need for the public to get behind reform and points out how media influencers and opinion formers have traditionally hindered rather than helped the cause for reform.
Why hinder? Because fear sells newspapers, and it’s not hard to whip up fear among readers when tackling stories of criminal activity. But as we have heard this doesn’t tell the full story – how life in prison often succeeds in helping people turn their lives around.
And if the mainstream media are reluctant to do this, David is thankful for the opportunity provided by social media platforms such as twitter, where individual voices can be expressed and heard. He especially advocates the use of such platforms by Prisons themselves and it’s well worth a look on twitter to see some of the work undertaken in individual establishments.
To hear more from David and follow his journey, please do read his blogs and follow him on twitter, where he can be found at @Areformedman