It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.
A message I have carried whilst campaigning for reforms in our prison system has been one of making the walls of justice invisible. The walls that ensconce societies; mums, dads, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, other family members and loved ones and/or friends.
As someone that became, somewhat, institutionalised to the safety and comfort of prison, I saw those walls as keeping people out. I also saw this as a good thing. How ironic then, that here I am now, writing an article promoting transparency to those very same walls that were my protectors.
I have seen, and, as regular readers of my writings will be aware of, also played a part in several campaigns relating to prison reform, both here and across the Atlantic in the United States of America. One of the main benefits of social media.
There is an organisation in the US which has created a hashtag campaign which I believe our prison system could also benefit from. Who knows, it may even give our beleaguered regulators the support that has been lacking from successive governments for as far back as I can remember.
FAMM Foundation was established in 1991 by Julie Stewart after her brother received a harsh and excessive sentence for a first offence. The judge, who sentenced him to five years without parole for growing marijuana, also criticized the harshness of the punishment. However, the mandatory minimum sentencing meant he had no other option. Since then, even after her brother’s release, Julie has campaigned for a fairer and more effective US justice system, with others now carrying the baton.
‘FAMM’s greatest asset has always been the stories of its members. By sharing the impact of unjust sentencing and prison policies on incarcerated individuals, their families, and their communities, FAMM has helped create urgency around the issue and made the problem feel real to the policymakers who have to be moved to make meaningful change. This two-pronged approach — public education and targeted advocacy — is core to FAMM’s success to date and will remain critical to its work as the organization expands its organizing efforts nationally.’ (FAMM website)
On 8th July 2019, FAMM started the #VisitAPrison campaign. They began by encouraging state and federal lawmakers to #VisitAPrison in their district by sending letters to them all. There is an online PDF (available here) which contains four simple steps on how American citizens can get involved. People across the USA are uploading videos urging their politicians to #VisitAPrison.
We have an organisation here in the UK called the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), who were established in 1981 in London, and, along with providing advice and information, also carry out various research into issues affecting prison. In 2018, PRT launched what is known as The Prisoner Policy Network.
“The Prisoner Policy Network was launched in 2018 to support prisoners to contribute effectively to policy issues that affect them. Prisoners have embraced this national opportunity to be heard and this consultation has been marked by prisoners being proactive about getting in touch and working with prison staff to organise workshop visits by the PPN team.” (PRT website)
The first report entitled ‘What Incentives work in prison?’ was well received and was followed up with the recent publication, launched at HMP Stafford, ‘What do you need to make best use of your time in prison?’. The PRT understand the importance of, for the want of a better phrase, getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth. Therefore, I would urge organisations here in the UK to set up our own version of #VisitAPrison and start encouraging our politicians to get out there and visit environments where some of society’s most vulnerable citizens reside;hopefully, along the way and , through inclusion, society itself will start to take a different perspective when it comes to our criminal justice system.
I’d like to see us go one step further in fact and , in a process like the BBC’s ‘Question Time’, bear witness to Bob Neill MP, chairman of the justice select committee, taking his team and colleagues on the road with a tour of our prisons. Front-line staff and prisoners as the audience.
Together we can, and together we will make those walls invisible.
Prisoners’ lives matter too.
Featured image CC BY 2.0 Washington2Washington
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