Believing in second chances

Should having a criminal record mean you end up ‘doing the time’ even after you’re released from prison? Against the context of CYCJ’s work placements with the Scottish Prison Service, Nina Vaswani argues why giving someone a second chance in life – especially if their offence was committed as a child or young person – is so important.

“You’ve done the crime, now do the time.” A common refrain that is still heard in society today. Whether you subscribe fully to this mantra, or whether you take a more nuanced view that a range of individual, social, economic and political factors are implicated in the commission, detection and sentencing of a crime, few would disagree that a serious crime needs to be dealt with in some way or another.  This might be traditional punishment via incarceration; a community-based criminal justice order; diversion to an intervention to address pertinent needs and issues; reparation to victims or some other form of intervention, but all involve doing some kind of ‘time’.  Fair enough, I hear you say.

But what if you ended up doing time for your whole life?  Although only 11% of people in prison in Scotland are serving a life sentence for their crimes, the ramifications of having a criminal record can be long-lasting and far-reaching.  We know that engaging in meaningful employment or education after spending time in custody is hugely important for successful rehabilitation and desistance from further offending. For example, the Ministry of Justice reports that reoffending is lower in people who gain employment in the year following release from custody than in a matched comparison group. But unfortunately the charity Unlock warns that around three-quarters of people leaving prison will not have paid employment to go to upon release.  Furthermore, people with convictions face significant barriers to securing meaningful employment, especially in relation to disclosure and discrimination.

So it is heartening to see some high profile employers who have come out in support of recruiting people with convictions (nationally Virgin, Timpsons and Greggs spring to mind) and any number of smaller companies who are quietly working away to recruit the best person for the job and who see the person first before the offender.  However, a 2010 survey found that almost 60% of employers stated that the disclosure of unspent convictions would have a negative effect on decision-making, even if the candidate was equal to other candidates in all other respects, and around one-in-six employers would automatically exclude a person with unspent conditions, regardless of the nature of that offence.  And young people are even less likely to have had the opportunity to develop work-related skills, or to build up work experience and a work history that they can fall back on when navigating the journey from custody to employment.  To make things even more difficult, while there are opportunities for young people to attain qualifications while in custody, they face significant barriers to continuing their education upon release (Recruit with Conviction, 2016).

Of course there are always circumstances where offences need to be disclosed, with very serious offences for example, or where an individual wishes to work with vulnerable groups.  But as Richard Branson said, “We don’t condone crime in any way but we do believe in second chances.”  And here at CYCJ we too believe in second chances, for everyone, but especially so for people who committed their offences as a child or young person.  As a result we have been partnering with our colleagues in the Scottish Prison Service, and have become an approved placement provider for selected individuals who are on day release work placements in preparation for a move to the open estate and their ultimate return back to society.

Enter stage left Sam.  Sam was our first placement (some would say guinea pig – sorry Sam!) and it’s safe to say that all sides approached the placement with an element of trepidation. What would he be like? How would we feel in our new roles as ‘supervisor’, with our monitoring and reporting requirements to the prison? What if something went wrong?  Sam himself stated that he felt daunted and was worried about whether he’d fit in, or if he’d have anything to contribute to our work.  Well, it’s safe to say that all of our worries were unfounded, although there were numerous teething problems that we had to work through.

To give one example, we thought the trouble would be in providing internet access as we had been advised by the prison that there was a blanket ban on internet access for all prisoners. (Really? No internet? As a researcher I can’t even begin to imagine doing my job without the internet.  How on earth did people manage to find out about anything in those dark and primeval days before the internet? Oh wait, without endless social media updates and interruptions by email people probably got quite a lot done, but I guess that’s a subject for another blog…).  Anyway, with some negotiations between CYCJ, the Scottish Prison Service and IT we managed to secure limited internet access for Sam so that he could get on with his work, only to find that in the decade or so since he had been in prison the internet had changed beyond recognition. As Sam noted “I also had some problems with working the internet, this is something I thought education departments in prison could better prepare prisoners for whilst they are in prison.  The internet is a massive part of society and anyone in prison for a long time will have been left behind by how much technology has changed, both in its design and importance.” This is really important, with so many resources and services accessible online, sometimes exclusively so, (think job adverts and application submissions, online training courses, benefit applications, service directories etc) how can we expect people to reintegrate into society without these skills?

Another issue that was quite unexpected was some of the negative attitudes towards his placement that Sam encountered from his peers, the community and also from a minority of staff at the prison.  Sam felt that there was a sense among peers and staff in the prison that by working in a University he was ‘getting above his station’ and felt saddened when he observed fellow commuters on the train move seats upon realising that he and his (sometimes boisterous) peers were on release from the ‘jail’.  However, despite worries, frustrations and hiccups, the placement was a worthwhile one, with lots of learning on both sides about how to develop and improve.  As Sam said “Experiencing how research is done and getting an opportunity to read current research was invaluable [and] gave me a deeper understanding of current knowledge regarding youth justice,… it was valuable for myself and also constructive for the prison to allow me to use the skills they [had given me] the opportunity to learn.”

Enter stage right, Paul.  Paul was our second placement, and it’s safe to say that he benefited from a lot of the legwork, learning and confidence that we and the prison had gained from the placement with Sam.  The placement was set up more quickly (a key frustration of Sam’s), ran more smoothly, and we knew where we needed to invest more time and support (internet training!).  This didn’t mean that the placement wasn’t without anxiety, especially for Paul who, like anyone starting a new job, felt nervous and out of place on his first day but who had the added complication of perceived stigma and shame to deal with. “Felt slightly awkward as everyone was battering away typing and laughing and I’m sitting over here being the new guy, who is also the jail guy”.  But Paul soon settled in, and began to feel like one of the team.

We had learned from Sam that it was best to stretch our placement workers, rather than try to be helpful by allocating the small and achievable tasks which, while important, might not be the most exciting or inspiring pieces of work (we all have tasks like that in our jobs don’t we…!).  So second time around we let Paul loose with some reading and gave him the opportunity to develop his own ideas and shape his own workload.   He settled on the very personal and tangible issues of shame and stigma in criminal justice, and you can read his excellent, thoughtful and considered paper here as well as his powerful blog about his own experiences here (I dare you to read this without a tear coming to your eye).

To conclude, these two placements have had very real benefits. Most obviously for Sam and Paul by giving them the opportunities to get involved in work placements that have high ambitions for their futures.  But there have been huge benefits for us at CYCJ (we’re not completely altruistic you know!)  Not only have we been able to develop our understanding by drawing on the lived experience of young men who have been through our youth and criminal justice systems and are ready to emerge out the other side, but we have also increased the capacity of our small team and have benefited from the hard work and excellent outputs that Sam and Paul have completed for us.  Most of all, I at least, have gained a sense of pride.  I am proud of our Director, Claire, for making these placements happen.  I am so proud of my awesome CYCJ colleagues who welcomed Sam and Paul with open hearts and minds, and who accepted them unquestioningly as peers and equals, and didn’t even spare them from the CYCJ office banter (poor Sam and Paul).  They didn’t seem to mind too much though, and as Paul commented “I really enjoyed my time there, it was a massive deal for me and everyone was great. You were all very patient and understanding, and you made me feel welcome and normal…”

Not least, I am immensely proud of Sam and Paul, for what they have contributed and achieved at CYCJ but also because they have tried so very hard not to let their pasts (which they very much regret) define or limit who they have become as grown men.  But for them to truly become who they can, and want, to be, it’s going to take much more than they alone can do. We (that means me, you, employers, and society) need to ensure that we also don’t define them by their past selves either, and that we fully embrace rehabilitation and reintegration. They’ve done their time, so let’s move on.

*Names have been changed

**Picture posed by a model

About our blogger

Nina Vaswani is a Research Fellow with CYCJ, and the lead for the Research workstream. Find out more.

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