- This is the first in a planned series of guest posts from those contributors who have personal experience of different aspects of our criminal justice system. Jonathan Robinson is the author of two books about his own prison experiences - In It and On It - and he is an active campaigner for prison reform. He highlights the urgent need for a focus on education, literacy and vocational training in our prisons as central elements in rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.
When in prison (as a customer) I was always amazed by the good manners exhibited by most fellow inmates towards members of the fairer sex. Recently on a prison visit with the (proper) author Martina Cole, as a number of us journeyed outside pathways within the establishment, we passed a group of inmates traversing in the opposite direction – and very jolly they were too. Lots of elegant “welcome Miss” and “thank you for coming” demeanour flew around the acoustics. Frankly, the manners displayed were unquestionably better than the pristine occupants of Westminster during the fundamentals of Prime Minister’s Questions.
I stopped and chatted to one of the friendly mob. He grinned a pure swashbuckling Colgate smile – and having no idea that he was conversing with an ex-prisoner – remarked that I was a “brave one” in that I actually engaged in conversation with a (shudder) “serving prisoner”.
A brave one? I think not. I just like chatting with inmates – especially those who want to engage – get their teeth into rehabilitation; capitalise the time they are serving with productivity. The partial quota within that division is larger than you can possibly imagine.
Bravery is something that I wish (in spades) upon our new Justice Minister, Michael Gove. For in order to significantly sort out our dismal prison system he’s going to have to rip-up a lot of the existing stuff (not) going on – which inevitably is going to essentially significantly cheese someone off, some salutary organisation – or some tabloid paper – you know, the ones that invariably refer to prisoners as ‘lags’.
I have – for an awful long time now – been assuredly banging on to politicians, routinely mumbling dissatisfaction about the lack of purposeful activity in ensconced clink, making a complete nuisance of myself with a barrage of whys and wherefores... The same politicians who all to a man emphatically invariably see the recalcitrant prison issue as “an election loser” – the request to reverse that notion and make our fundamentally awry lamentable prison system something we can all be proud of – and Mr Gove’s initial toe in the water has been widespread welcomed by the rejuvenated prison reform mafia. The community who drone-on about fixing our primitive prisons of late has a potent spring in its step with the refreshing rhetoric coming from Mr Gove’s direction. Long may those atmospherics continue.
Be of no doubt however, that Mr Gove is going to need to be really brave in his reforms – for whatever he does – inevitable criticism is going to head his way. I hope he bites the perilous bullet – rides the storm – and stirs up a wayward disastrous system that for far too long has been asleep at the wheel, falling long short of its brief to rehabilitate its houseguests.
If he manages to hold-out – and insists on change – no matter who whinges; then that’s bravery...