Taking a (short) walk in their shoes

In the third blog from our youth justice ‘tagging’ volunteers, Donna McEwan, a Practice Advisor with CYCJ, is in for a shock…

I am an Electronic Monitoring Champion. This doesn’t mean I advocate tagging for all and sundry but think about how it could be better used as an alternative to secure care. So, in my capacity as an EM Champion I thought I should put my money where my mouth is and try it, just to experience for a short while what it could be like. I appreciate this was voluntary, with no consequences so really how hard could it be?

I can honestly say I didn’t appreciate how I would be affected by my short experience of being tagged! Yes, I said tagged. No, I wasn’t going through Court and fortunately I am way too old for the Children’s Hearing System. I volunteered to have myself ‘tagged’, in street parlance, and why would I do that? To try and understand on some small level what it feels like, to see if I really ‘had a clue’. Given that I am a social worker and previously “respectfully suggested” as a disposal to Court the use of electronic monitoring as a means to reduce offending, I thought I could imagine the impact; this was my chance to get some insight.

So after learning about the practical aspects of the services and roles involved in delivering the EM by G4S, observing how they respond and deliver the service (which in itself was an eye opener as to the level of human contact they provide for some people and their respectful manner) I agreed to be tagged. I quickly realised I hadn’t fully thought about or understood what I had signed up for.

The practicalities first. Jane* from G4S arranged to visit my house and duly arrived with no outward indications of what was about to happen. Friends, family and dare I say it even colleagues wanted to know: do they come with the police, do they have flashing lights, do you get shocked as a tester when they put it on? The answer is no to all! It’s very discrete, and given the only indication it was G4S was the lanyard Jane wore around her neck, she could have been there to read the meter.

So, Jane comes in and takes me through where would I like the box, explains the pros and cons as to different locations, and how everything works. Yes, there is a box, it looks like an old style fax/ phone with a handset and a couple of big buttons. Unless you know what it was you wouldn’t pick up on it. So my box was set up, plugged in and then Jane proceeds to attach my tag (it’s chunkyish) and not very attractive. I am instructed no accessorising…shame!

There was no way I was going to slide that baby off, not even with some olive oil and a shoe horn. The tag wasn’t too big but certainly noticeable. Jane explained that any tampering or attempts to remove it would be recorded on the box and fed back to the control centre who would follow up with me. So, with the tag on my left ankle I was walked round the perimeter of the inside of my home, climbed into my bed with the duvet over me, run a small bath in which I immersed my tagged ankle – all to demonstrate that none of these things will interfere with the tag signal to the box. My curfew times were set to allow for variation in activities I engage in that I enjoy, and are positive for me. More on that in a bit.

So with the practicalities out the way Jane took her leave. For the next eight days I would be sticking to my tag. Now, I think I am a sensible, level headed adult who in the main sticks to the rules and boundaries of societal norms. I can’t cope with not forming an orderly queue, always wait my turn and those who don’t comply stress me out. Basically, I thought this would be a doddle – how wrong could I be??

At first when I was at home it didn’t bother me having it on, just my husband and me. The first jaunt outside set the tone for the week to come – who would think a trip to the supermarket could be so anxiety provoking! Firstly my husband checked what time my curfew started to make sure we had time to go shopping (unfortunately we did) and off we went. I felt so self-conscious and was checking out whether it was visible or not – were people looking at me (this was a theme through my whole experience), what did they think I had done? No disaster happened and I made it home with nothing more than a curious look from the worker at the cash desk which may or may not have been to do with my tag.

This theme stuck with me all week as I perceived others to have noticed my tag and giving me disapproving or enquiring looks. No-one said anything – some edged away from me but no-one confronted me or raised it with me, so I am not sure what my fellow commuters noticed or thought. Actually that wasn’t what was important, it was my perceptions of their responses and how that made me feel that mattered. In this vein I wondered how a young person may respond if they perceived someone to have clocked their tag, if they perceive the world as hostile, would this just re-affirm their view? How do you prepare someone for how others may or may not respond to their wearing a tag? How prepared do we help them to be for these possible situations, especially when we know they may struggle with emotions. Do we think about if they feel embarrassed, or that the front is just that – a front?

Even going back to the start, having someone you don’t know come into your home and go round every part of it with you is quite intrusive. I did all my housework just to make sure everything was presentable.

Once on – it is restrictive! I found myself having to think more about my journey home and working out exact timings for trains to be in on time. Even leaving in the morning required more planning in order to get to work without leaving too early before my curfew was up. I will say the two evenings with later start times were brilliant, they allowed me to go to the gym and attend a work event – though I still missed my curfew start following the work event as I didn’t get home in time. What this allowed was flexibility, and if I had been more creative this flexibility could have been limitless (to a degree). It let me understand that the tag times can vary each day, they can be in place for part of the week and don’t have to be so restrictive. For a young person, you could work with this creativity to allow them to access positive activities, and just reduce the opportunities for those times that it’s really needed.

It is restrictive and does limit opportunities, which is the purpose; however, I think we have to ensure the opportunities we are limiting are the right ones. There needs to be some kind of contingency plan as well – for me this became evident when I needed some time away from the daily stresses of family life with someone who would listen and offer support. However, when I arrived at my safe haven I realised I had 30 minutes until my tag kicked in and whilst I was able to manage my frustrations, a young person in a similar situation may need more scope, otherwise we risk creating pressure cookers without the opportunity to vent. Perhaps for a young person, a second location where they could go could be built into their plan.

So, family? Apart from the curiosity as to whether I got shocked if I missed my tag time or the police arrived and huckled me away (again the answer is no on both counts) they were quite supportive. My husband would check every day what time my tag kicked in and what train I would get home, so he supported me and encouraged me to stick to it. Extended family were also supportive and my brother thought it was excellent his social worker sister was on a tag!

The tag itself was not small! At first it didn’t bother me but as the week went on the physical aspect of it became uncomfortable. Trying to pull on socks and get them underneath it was a job in itself, at first I panicked as thought it would show up as a tamper with the strap but thankfully it didn’t. As for getting trousers over it – skinny jeans, I don’t think so! Even just thinking about what you can wear over a tag is something that never entered my head until this experience.

Overall I learned quite a few things about what I would want to think about if I was working with a young person and when a tag may be an option. Firstly, I support it wholeheartedly, why would you not if it provides an opportunity of lesser restriction? It allows a young person to continue living in the community – yes, with limits but lesser limits than if they are locked in secure or custody. There is much more needed than just the tag. It is not the answer but a tool that needs to be well thought out in how it is used; it needs to be individualised; workers need to think through the implications and the actual supports around that tool need to be specific and flexible. This will not be an option for everyone and it does runs the risk of up-tariffing young people, so it needs to be used wisely.

We need to better inform those making decisions on Movement Restriction Conditions (MRCs) in the Children’s Hearing System particularly as to the principles of such an order and what must accompany a tag; it is not punitive but a chance to support a young person on that journey to learn and move away from behaviours that pose risk to themselves and others. It’s an opportunity for them to learn within the normal adolescent environments whilst managing and reducing risk. As well as those making decisions it is for workers to ensure they fully consider its use, in a robust, meaningful and individualised manner with understanding of the implications of its implementation for the child and their family. Beyond this they need to be articulate in proposing its implementation and creative in its application.

Having spent a week on a tag by choice, even with no consequences when I was unable to comply, I recognise this is not a soft option. Its application in minimising and supporting reduction of risk is valid and will not be appropriate for all but it will be for some.

Donna and her fellow volunteers were tagged to increase awareness and understanding of Movement Restriction Conditions (MRCc), and to highlight any capacity for improvement. Read CYCJ’s paper on MRCs and Youth Justice in Scotland. 

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