Trouble in Paradise: ‘Positive Prison ? Positive Futures…’; An Interview with Pete White
What kind of society do you want to live in ? One which is structured around control and retribution or one which is built on the principles of rehabilitation and forgiveness ? For me this question sits at the heart of what we refer to as the law and criminal justice system.
I had always imagined that justice involved fairness, balance, and representation, but like many things what is held in the imaginary does not marry up to what is found in actuality.
When I first heard Pete White talk about ‘Positive Prison? Positive Futures…’ I was elated, surprised and conflicted about what he was doing. Positive Prison? Positive Futures… ‘is a community of interest which draws upon the shared lived experiences of people who are or have been subject to punishment’.
You can listen to an interview come conversation with Pete below:
Pete had been addressing a room full of people at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh who had congregated at one of the Royal Society of Arts. I had been standing in the corner feeling out of sorts, a skint guy in a room brimming with well healed posh people. I felt quite isolated and were it not for the genuine warmth and humanity of Jamie Cooke, the high heid yin of the RSA in Scotland, I would not have stuck around to listen as I had felt quite anxious.
The thing is that Jamie really lives a mission of finding people who are on a mission and doing what he can he authentically tries to support those who are trying to enrich and add value to the world. Lacking the affectations which are rife in the high viz ‘charitable’ world, he had brought together a clutch of intriguing people to present their lives work to raise the profile so to encourage engagement.
Pete had given a short presentation which respected people who had come out of the criminal justice system as citizens voicing the need to change the way which society marginalises them. To me this was manna. In my own life I had fallen foul of the law and what had corroded me was the number and nuance of the social justice issues which are not addressed. I felt elated to have found someone championing a right to reply for those who had been through the criminal justice system.
This kind of work and represenation is badly needed for an enlightened society, one which moves beyond an almost superstitious punativeness which cannot look at the social reasons behind much of what amounts to crime. Poverty is a terrible thing, and compounding poverty is an ignorance that paradise is complicit in. If we take the thinking of Socrates seriously then evil is a result of ignorance, and our society is implicated in creating the evils it pats itself on the back for fighting.
Once Upon A Time
I had suffered from being put out of work for a drugs possession which I saw as the community extending the punishment which had been metted out to me by the law courts, but without end. Over a charge of possession of drugs I had been summarily dismissed from a job cleaning fat off of the floors at a corporate chipshop in Newhaven years before.
I had thought that this conviction was a part of the past and had dealt with it. Particularly so because it was a ‘spent conviction’ as they say; A spent conviction is a conviction which, under the terms of Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, can be effectively ignored after a specified amount of time. This means that parliament has legislated that I do not have to inform employers of my conviction and that I had ‘paid my dues’, so to speak. However it was found out and I was summarily dismissed from the job with no notice.
This distressed me as I had done community service with Apex International (the agency which oversaw it) and they had presented me as an example of success to their funders. Apex International were great and focused on informing me about my rights (yes, rights !) and developing the skills which would serve me in my life to lead a productive and meaningful life. It was educational and thoughtful, and the people involved were not there to torment me with some malformed idea of retribution.
I had been caught in possession of drugs for personal use and prosecuted for them. I had no means to pay the financial fine and so was referred to Apex International to do community service. The impacts of being caught and processed by the criminal justice system were enough to cause great distress, but what I never understood was the extent to which the society around me was to label me and define me by that label. Not only this but it was revealed that some people and structures in society take it unto themselves to extend the sentence into the social and economic environment which is beyond the scope of the law.
In short, any kind of criminal conviction can and is used to ‘other’; The practice of Othering is the exclusion of persons who do not fit the norm of the social group, which is a version of the Self – according to The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. The psychological and emotional distress it causes to be excluded and to have the rug pulled from under your feet every time you stand up is incalculable. It caused depression and justifiable paranoia and hurt.
Whilst my peer group were commonly doing the same thing, and generationally it was the case that if you were not taking drugs you were in the minority, it seemed that it was those who got caught who were used as polar examples to scape goat whereby older generations (I was a teenager at the time) judged you to be ‘the source of social ails’.
Even more fundamentally, I was impacted on by the fact that this kind of ostracism is codified into the structures of society – the institutions, the businesses, and the medical system. What I have come to study as structural and epistemic violence leaves the individual bereft of the character, values and dignities which are a part of ones self. This is particularly so to the corporate worlds where information systems are automated in the backgrounds like the credit system, background checks on job applications and in the swilling emerging masses of big data.
What you say no longer holds value for some people or in some situations even though how you might have contravened the law may be totally irrelevant to the situation. I had a drug offense, is this any reason to summarily dismiss me from scrubbing floors ? If I had financial affluence available to me I might be able to have brought a legal case against the company for dismissing me, but if I had that kind of money I would likely not be scrubbing floors in the first place. For the vast majority representation by the law is beyond their reach.
Human beings are social creatures; the mammal homo sapiens absolutely needs the succour of inclusion in the troop. Social exclusion is one of the worst things to be visited upon animals with such make up. It not just effects people psychologically and emotionally, but physiologically. There is lots of evidence to this effect, for instance social status predicts wound healing in wild baboons. To strip people of social status is to inflict great harms, and in this light criminal justice necessarily needs to be constituted of a morality which is beyond cruelty; elsewise we endeavour to build a cruel society.
The Right to Move On and the Right to be Forgotten
I have encountered many lovely people who simply do not believe that there is not a level playing field in the United Kingdom; typically they are people who have seen the best of society encountering the ideal character of people and situations. It takes time and discussion and investment to look beyond our own experience to what and how others have experienced the world.
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds – there is trouble in paradise. Life is so profoundly different for so many people, and society is structured in an unjust way. Society is a work in progress and must be understood as such
The same thing is said by me or said by someone else is valued in different ways. I can write all I like about issues but the likelihood of having the content of my thought valued for the content is radically reduced compared to someone who has status. Fortunately (but by no means a panacea) I can quote people verbatim who do have status to illustrate my points.
Professor Lesley McAra is the Chair of Penology at the University of Edinburgh and has earned her status through the content of her thought having been examined. What follows is are extracts from a talk which she gave alongside Pete White on ‘Are Scottish Prisons Fit For Purpose’:
“The criminal justice system in effect, curates its own client group. The consequences for people who get caught up in criminal justice is that it entrenches them in poverty. “
“…something which I feel really deeply strongly about is how criminal convictions follow you and you cant lose a sort of stigma that goes along with a conviction which limits you from getting a job, and that is one of the reasons why it is exceptionally important that we change the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland.
Young people before 2011; If you were a young person who admitted an offense in the Children’s Hearing System that counted as a conviction but it would stay on their record until they were aged around 40. So a system in Scotland which we believed was decriminalising and de-stigmatising was actually really stigmatising people because this stayed on their records. The law changed; I worked very closely with Maggie Mellon (no2np.org/tag/maggie-mellon) and the Scottish Human Rights Commission on this to campaign to get a change in the law about this.”
“The age of criminal responsibility in Scotland, which although it might creep up to 12, still is 8 years old – one of the lowest in the world – and it is a huge and international embarrasment that it is so low.”
People have the right to have their past mistakes forgotten, but there are significant problems with this due to the way that information is collected, stored, moved around and leaches. The need for individuals to “determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past” was proposed as a part of the EU Proposal for a General Data Protection Regulation.
More obvious in this is how people are demarcated out of work and ultimately into poverty. On the same panel as Prof Lesley McAra told us that “75% of all employers will bin their application as soon as it has become clear that somebody’s got a conviction”….
In 2013 the Guardian newspaper reported on how “One of Britain’s most senior judges, Lord Dyson, the master of rolls, ruled that a blanket requirement on job applicants to disclose minor offences, including cautions, amounted to a breach of their right to a private and family life.”
This kind of respect for privacy links with disambiguating the prison from the panopticon society – one where society has become the prison itself through the collective actions of unelect officials. People have a right to grow, develop and move on from their mistakes. This is necessary for a healthy society in which it is possible to engender rehabilitation, understanding and forgiveness.
For a greater discussion of the importance of privacy in society you can listen to the presentations given and read the annotated transcript of the audio recording of three thinkers, Professor William Webster, Professor Charles Raab and Dr Andrew Neil. Each is involved in thinking through what is at stake in various aspects of privacy, surveillance, security and anonymity.
Epilogue But Not The End
Now I have been writing from probably one of the lowest ends of the scale of experience in terms of the criminal justice system and I feel it is very important to openly voice my experience precisely because of the damage and disruption it has had on my life.
The effects have permeated and changed every aspect of my life and interaction with society. I am one of the least impacted though I have suffered from spiraling consequences which led early on to destitution and various physical and psychological health problems; I worry about the impacts that other people have had to weather.
The criminal justice system and its prisons are sites of various moral and intellectual failures which need to be addressed. Locked inside that self curated system of criminal justice lies vast troves of human talent and capability, knowledgeable and valuable people who need to be valued as people when they leave the criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system must also leave these people alone when they have served their sentence or we run the risk of a society generated around stigma and populism. If we are to think through how to generate a better criminal justice system and society, people who have been a part of it are a vital source of insight and wisedom; thus the likes of Pete White and Positive Prison? Positive Futures are essential pieces of the puzzle of improving society.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky said “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” but even more so we need now to examine society beyond its prisons…