Expert Series Part 1: Let's Talk about Reform, not Rehabilitation

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.

Even in prison I was an activist. I had to put it together and learn their language.  That’s what I’ve done.  I’ve learned over the years, picked up experience.  I’m doing better now verbally and I started focusing on my strengths – my writing – and people listened.
I’ve got a voice, a message and I’m getting a platform. The more platforms I get, the more I get listened to and hopefully the more I can influence things.  It is all about positivity.

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:

  1. Our central point: Talk about reform, not rehabilitation
  2. Removing distractions: Reduce spin, to focus on solutions
  3. Media influence: Change the narrative, from inciting fear, to celebrating success, and find new platforms to share message

 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. 

I’m not going to cry about it.  No-one wants to end up in prison, no one wants to end up on the streets, no one wants to end up homeless.  I take ownership for the decisions I made. And make. I deserved every single second of every single sentence I served.
These days David is fully committed to not breaking the terms of his licence.  He says he would probably die of shameif he ended up in prison ever again.  But because he cares, he hasn’t turned his back on those who are still part of the system and is laser focused on raising standards and better outcomes.
This leads us neatly to the guiding principle of Reform. 

I tried to play the game my way and sometimes it blew up in my face.  Because prison is an occupational hazard. I know that’s a cliché but for me it was. And for many lifers it was.
So we don’t come out bitter and twisted.  It’s not about us, it’s about the system and what we can do to change that system.

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. 

The important thing that needs to be discussed is that nothing has changed.  It’s the same narrative.  It’s the same problems in prison; people are becoming involved in the debate and they talk as though they have found a new solution.  But they haven’t.  We are moving into the season where there are seminars and talks.  But it’s all words and promises.
There is a lot of talk about whether people in prison should be called ‘clients’ or ‘residents’.  I don’t care what you call me, as long as it’s not disrespectful.
According to latest seminars the word ‘accommodation’ is dehumanising.  But no-one at these seminars has been homeless.  It is the people living in three or four bedroom houses who are saying that the word accommodation is dehumanising. Do people who are homeless think of the word ‘accommodation’ as demeaning?
This kind of debate can quickly end up with different agencies arguing over language, but also with each seeking to blame each other or deflect responsibility for things that aren’t working so well.  Consequently, a lot of energy ends up wasted here, which could be better challenged into effecting real, positive change on the ground, especially if people can work together, rather than blame each other.

 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.

 If you were in a cul-de-sac of 40 people, I bet you wouldn’t know any of them.  Or you might know the first name of two of them and the surname of six, but that’s it. In prison I’d know the first name and surname of everyone.
In the outside world, if there is a small catastrophe, for two weeks afterwards we are a lovely country.  That’s prison every day.  Every Sunday you’ll have three or four groups of six or seven blokes having a cook up, that everyone has put in to.

And visitors soon find themselves included in this esprit de corps:

One of the most heart-warming things in prison is when people come in on a visit and the person they are visiting will ask them to buy something from the canteen for someone else.
An underlying ethos of respect that comes from living and working together, and when working together roles subtly shift again, from inmate to employee, or inmate to student.

The relationship between prisoners can be very supportive and respectful.  When you are at work together you are work colleagues.  So you don’t talk at work about not getting your parole, you talk about the work you are doing.  You don’t hear about problems of knives in the kitchens – it’s where people are working. When you are in education, you’re in school and the staff there really do help you.  Teachers care.

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. 

How sad is it that I felt I had to go back to prison because I felt I was a better person in that ‘negative environment’ than I was in so called positive society.  It doesn’t make sense.

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. 

The media does it through fear. That’s what the media narrative is with regard to prison – it’s all about fear.  How will you ever change the public perspective if you are going to do it on fear all the time?
The way we’ve been doing it doesn’t work.  And the way we’ve been doing it is highlighting the negatives of being in prison.
People are interested in stories, journeys, someone’s life being shit and then turning it around.  It’s why we love gangsters.
I can tell you about where I’ve come from, how I was brought up, the decisions I made, the irresponsible choices I took, the selfishness I had and the difference in me now and what I’m doing now.
There is so much evidence that good things do happen in prison, ranging from the smallest celebration of survival, in an environment where suicide is sadly all too common, to stories of creativity, upcycling, creative writing, new skills developed, employment and helping others.  David is ever keen to showcase what’s works well in prison – the things we don’t hear about from our media, the unsung players (both staff and inmates) – and how prison and education within prison takes people on a journey of reform to help establish a better path for the future.

 I am who I am because of prison, not in spite of it. 

This is about focusing on the positives.  John McAvoy (who broke both British and World indoor rowing records while in prison)should be the face of the criminal justice system. We should be all over him because the public will love that story.  What the public won’t love is us putting John Warboys on the front of newspapers every week.

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 …