Quakers in Criminal Justice

Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

Conference Report by Adrian Smith

Over forty Friends met from February 23rd to 25th at Ammerdown for what proved a very rewarding, if rather breathless, two days' conference. I noted a healthy mix of old acquaintances and people I was meeting for the first time.

Our Friday evening speaker was Sir David Latham, a former High Court Judge and Chairman of the Parole Board. In retirement he has served on a working party, whose recently issued report advises on mental health in the criminal justice system. He told us that as long ago as 1968, a survey revealed that 90% of prisoners had one or more of the five signs of mental disorder. More recent investigations tell us that almost half attempted suicide at some point in their lives, forty-two per cent have been excluded from school, and one hundred and fifty years after elementary education became obligatory in Britain, one third of the people entering prison cannot read. The working party considered the whole question of criminal responsibility in light of mental illness. The police need help in identifying an offender's mental state as they decide what course of action to take.

Cambridgeshire, Leicestershire and the West Midlands are giving a lead here. In Cambridge, MIND runs two safe houses where people exhibiting florid mental health problems can be taken. (In one case known to me, a troubled young man was consigned to prison because there was nowhere else for him to go, and during the night his cellmate murdered him.) People with acute mental health problems should not be held in custody suites: the therapeutic route is usually much better than a criminal trial. In the West Midlands, “Operation Turning Point” defers not just sentencing but prosecution of low risk offenders, offering instead a programmed intervention.

During Epilogue in the chapel on Friday night, we remembered two long-standing QICJ members, David Binney and David Hoare, who have recently died.

On Saturday morning, Tristan Cox gave an upbeat presentation. He is a music therapist at the Fromeside Secure Unit, Bristol. Its aim is for the unit to act as a “brick mother”, to encourage inmates to take responsibility for their own lives. People suffering from psychosis have had their sense of self shattered. The unit provides both care and control. Music, dance and gym offer a chance of growth. Tristan played a moving recording of himself accompanying an inmate in therapy, which illustrated nurturing mirroring and feedback.

Our next session was in “small groups” to which we were allocated in tens. My group included a Quaker prison chaplain, who as a teenager had been in trouble himself. What better qualification could you have? Another member serves at the prison termed “the worst in Britain” according to the Daily Mail. (And if the Daily Mail says something, it must be true.) Another member of the group gave us the disastrous news that funding for Circles of Support and Accountability is being withdrawn, in spite of the undoubted success of Circles in preventing future crime. Another member was a former IPP prisoner who got parole at a first hearing, which is almost unknown. A fifth member ran a women's centre in Birmingham. We were encouraged to sign up for two workshops out of a choice of four. I chose two which were off my usual spectrum. Julia Horn explored concerns about inequality and mental health, as expressed in popular music. We heard a recording of a black singer, Tracey Chapman, drawing attention to the part frustration and hopelessness lead to violence. (Another seventeen U.S. teenagers had been shot dead in Florida the previous week.) Marian Liebmann's workshop explored the idea of using comic strips as a way of helping people face up to their offending behaviour.

During Saturday afternoon a few intrepid Friends set off through the mud for the monument on a nearby hilltop, while others were content among crocuses and daffodils in the grounds. Melanie Jameson laid on an extra session entitled “Prison Reform: what's happening behind the scenes”. Though the recommendations of four recent reports have been largely ignored (Caustor, Taylor, Lammy, Coates), there are surreptitious hopeful developments. However, the government requires further huge savings by the Prison Service, and staff have been reduced, though the stress of prison work means that many officers leave anyway.

The first session on Sunday morning was addressed by Kimmett Edgar, Head of Research at the Prison Reform Trust. He told us prisons were not safe places, and idleness is corrosive of mental as well as physical well-being. Lack of resources means less than lack of vision. Giving prisoners more responsibility, as in becoming Listeners, fends off despair. HMP Dovegate has installed phones in the cells. Offenders are often victims as well, and an unintended consequence of the restorative justice procedures we all favour can be to restore the original injustice society has inflicted on the offender.

Finally, we gathered in the Chapel for an hour's worship introduced by Martin Wright, who gave us a succinct overview of the weekend. I came away stimulated, and sorry I have to wait another year before seeing my QICJ Friends again.