Content alert: there are descriptions of murder and other criminal activity in this feature.
When we think of imprisonment or someone being sent down, it usually is in answer to weeding out the baddies in society for crimes which deserve due punishment. However, if someone is wrongly convicted, placed or incarcerated because they deviate from social expectations – making them more susceptible to arrest or are objectors to political agendas, is it more convenient to remove someone from society completely, than a structured rehabilitation? Whether guilty or not, imprisonment is easily the most marginalised place to be – away from family and community, but often in a bid to keep the rest of society safe from dangerous individuals.
This piece examines the use of punishment or its misuse and how or when rehabilitation is applied upon an inmate’s release. An abolitionist approach is considered in the name of holding systems to account, such as with political prisoners.
Clare Barstow, 61, is a freelance journalist and artist from London. In the early 90s, she describes having a fairly usual life, with one relationship finishing, then meeting and moving in with a man whose behaviour soon changed and became violent toward her. Going to work in Italy for a time, she thought she had gotten away from him, but upon returning to the UK, a friend of a friend alerted her former abusive boyfriend of her whereabouts after he had made threats – ‘if he found her.’ Barstow had landed a live-in job supporting an older woman – helping her write her life story. One night, as it was her night off, she went for drinks with a friend in West London. Upon returning to the home of her employer, she discovered the older woman had been killed. Having discovered the body, the shock petrified her, but Barstow’s ordeal had only just begun . Her friend and alibi who she had gone drinking with that night, had gone to Poland, so she couldn’t find him. She eventually found him through putting up posters in Polish within that community. Despite finding him and him giving her solicitor a supporting statement along with other witnesses, it wasn’t enough to appeal her case, in the meantime, her former abusive boyfriend had disappeared. Barstow said of her new life inside: “I just had to look for ways to fill the time, but I did through my writing – I wrote plays, I started a magazine. I did education, I taught English, I taught people to read and write. I started campaigns for better conditions. It was pretty awful and just got worse – they just seem to take more and more from us. It was unsanitary, people were dying – not getting the healthcare they needed – there were rats, there were cockroaches, it was just awful.” She continued: “You just had to go with it – a lot of women killed themselves, because they couldn’t handle it – it was either sink or swim. I was in there for 25 years and because I maintained my innocence, I ended up doing ten more years than I should have.” Barstow described how women used to try committing suicide right in front of her and she spent nights down in cells, sleeping on mattresses to prevent other inmates from killing themselves. Throughout her time inside, she was determined to make a difference – while shining a light on inadequacies within the system. She always felt in a position to be productive with her skills – having done a degree. Engaging with rehabilitative courses or activities would equate to admitting guilt, so she had to create scenarios so she could choose her own path. While inside, Barstow connected with several rehabilitative charities – volunteering her time with her skills. Once out, she has transferred her work to the wider community and others who haven’t been so fortunate in getting the help they need or falling through the cracks.
“It takes a big leap of tuning into a different frequency, to imagine the system being abolished to something more transformative. I’d love to think that’s possible within the confines of the corrupt system we’re in, but I don’t know how we make that leap.” Kerry Greenwood
Kerryn Wotton, CEO of The Hardman Trust – a charity that supports people serving long prison sentences to take their next steps in life said: “They’re the author here – we give them a little bit of ink, but they’re holding the pen and they get to choose what they write in the next chapter and how they want their story to go.” She describes how the trust provides clothes, financial support, signposting information, help in setting up in self-employment or job searches – help with form-filling, I.T. or just getting reoriented to the outside. There are many other charities doing positive work, such as Women in Prison (WIP) or the partnership of the Kairos Community Trust and the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust (RAPT). Yet, with so much help on offer – why are so many coming out of prison, slipping through the net and not getting help?
Kerry’s son and the Family
Kerry Greenwood, a 56-year-old single mum in Exeter speaks openly about her 32-year-old son, who we will call T. Greenwood spoke of her son’s troubled history and time in and out of prison. As a young teen, it started with him hanging with a big crew of kids in a small town – looking for trouble or fighting. He once took a car, drove it, and crashed it – he took a bus once and went joyriding. He also, along with his Aunty Dubsy (deciding to become pirates one afternoon) stole the Dartmouth ferry and took it out onto the high seas. On that occasion, he managed to escape incarceration, but Aunty Dubsy wasn’t so lucky. Greenwood says: “Once he started on that path from a young age, he seemed determined to stick to it – it was just from one drama to the next, really.” That said, Greenwood describes his latest incarceration as a ‘fit-up’ As T and his girlfriend were homeless and drug-addicted on the streets of Penzance, they were approached by an undercover police officer, looking like an ordinary guy, asking where he could score. T went to get what the man wanted, but upon returning, was arrested on a drugs offense. Other arrests have been the direct result of altercations with the police for various reasons, but Greenwood says: “One time, I seem to remember him doing some course and classroom time with a lot of paperwork, but I can’t remember what it was for as it was some time ago. However, in recent years, he’s literally just been banged up in solitary confinement – especially with covid.” Upon his release she says: “I can honestly say from when he was very young, he received ‘very little help’ and right up to the present. The problem is when they release him, he’s still in the same situation before he went in. Quite often homelessness is the issue – he hasn’t got a home or a base. They send him off to drug rehabilitation, but in terms of somewhere to be, he hasn’t had any help at all.” She carries on stressing the negative effects her son has gained from spending time inside – beginning to lose parts of himself, not to mention the stigma attached to having done tine.
By contrast, Wotton says: “there are rehabilitative programmes available, people in prison can engage in education, gain work related skills and fill their time with useful activities. I know several people that have gained degrees in prison, learned a vocational skill or taught themselves to paint or draw. There are prison-based charities doing good work to support people to change their behaviour, get help for drug or alcohol misuse or learn new things. So, we’re not starting from a strictly punishment-based model where people are locked away with no opportunities, but I would say there is much, much more that can be done to change the culture and the focus of prisons.”
On the wider family, Greenwood says: “It is stressful, but I just try to be there for him, but it’s his younger brothers it has had the most impact on. Because of his behaviour, they are the main victims of ripples in the pond by a mad tiger shark – never settling down. It has affected the wider family – everyone’s always really worried about T.”
Barstow and others have pointed out – if one has a chaotic life, doesn’t adhere to structure or is just free-spirited, often what results is being recalled for not sticking to probation appointments or other conditions upon release. Could the point be made that, there should never be a one-size-fits-all with rehabilitation once outside? Often too many conditions will most certainly set many up to fail. Greenwood describes her son jumping through hoops, appointments and other stipulations upon release, but are conditions conducive to a positive rehabilitation where one can be supported to choose their own path of education, employment or other community-based activities – surely there could be a more balanced approach.
It of course stands to reason – people convicted of crimes are responsible for their own behaviour and are answerable to victims whose lives or families may be changed forever. Perpetrators of any offence must ‘want the help’ on offer or be willing to change their life. Wotton points out many inmates have been in the care system during childhood, due to poor parenting, abusive situations or the lack of opportunities within disadvantaged environments. However, Greenwood begs to differ – explaining how her oldest son had a much more privileged upbringing, in that he had both his parents around, with good incomes. Yet, when she and her husband split up when T was about 11 – he took it very hard. Whereas the two she still has living at home, have never had constant father figures and a much less affluent situation to their older brother and have chosen different avenues. It just makes her think, having it and then losing it being more of a trauma, than never having the stability children need in the first place, are factors to consider – so nothing is black and white, and life is peppered with grey areas.
The Abolitionist Argument
This source highlights the problem of homelessness once inmates are released and the fact that two-thirds of prisoners are drug addicted and three-quarters have mental health issues. Considering this, the mentioned December 2010 green paper authored by former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, takes a narrowly focused, target-based approach to rehabilitation and a seemingly umbrella approach to punishment – so what could be an alternative approach?
The Abolitionist movement is worldwide and in answer to holding the police, criminal justice system and other state institutions to account. As the article points out, it isn’t always ‘what you do’ but ‘who you are’ that lands one in prison. We have all seen, or been indifferent to, police brutality – a man of colour with mental health problems being wrestled to the floor and rendered unconscious; a whistle-blower detained for leaking classified coercive information or a female refugee put into detention, separated from her children after seeking refuge from war or persecution. One will do less than half the time for rape than revealing war crimes has become the new truism. In the U.S. none of the police who shot Breonna Taylor, a young woman of colour, through her apartment door one night in Louisville Kentucky, went to prison, as she was innocent of her ex-boyfriend’s drug activities. Neil Parish, a former British politician, sitting in the house of parliament hasn’t faced criminal charges for openly watching pornography on his phone – the examples are endless. Far too often, the traditional systems in place are guilty themselves of harming or harassing instead of protecting and often hinging on class, race or whether one has additional needs – none of this is new, but how does such a long-standing machine become decommissioned? The above article points out the capitalist nature of the beast, but while states the current system isn’t working, despite a long and perilous road – it also suggests there is no charted map to a more transformative approach. The piece highlights worldwide, how minorities within populations, such as ethnic or communities of colour make up much higher numbers within prisons. The same applies to people with additional needs or who identify as LGBTQI+. Those with protected characteristics, are not only exposed to high levels of violence in what is termed ‘organised abandonment’ within prisons, it takes many forms by the state such as under-funding, grossly substandard conditions or torture. Even on the outside – ‘organised abandonment’ manifests through gentrification or other forms of ill-treatment, within a thinly veiled culture of loathing by those in power or of the state apparatus. For example, the above article points out as of a year ago, 750 police or officials from London’s metropolitan police department faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Yet only 163 arrests resulted – a fraction being held accountable for their actions and abuse of power. Within the New Internationalist article, a woman cites – she doesn’t want her rapists sent to prison, where sexual exploitation and violence is rife, she wants the perpetrators to address the motivation behind their action – fundamental social change. Likewise, she wants to be believed, not put on trial as a victim, where women can not feel safe about reporting rape – fundamental systemic change. However, fundamental social and systemic changes are complex transformations manifesting over generations. The Cradle Community in the UK is one example of an initiative and collective effort to encourage healing and cooperation in answer to violence. The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC) based in Oakland, California, addresses child sexual abuse within a framework of healing or resilience for perpetrators and victims. These initiatives can only be positive measures, albeit against a backdrop of tightening draconian measures – such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. “The data shows our current approach isn’t working. According to the latest Bromley Briefing, 44% of people reoffend within a year of being released from prison. This creates more victims, costs society more money and the person going back to prison is caught in that ‘revolving door’.” Wotton asserts. This said, it is difficult to join the dots of how a more transformative approach might work.
Modern Political Prisoners
From the Glavnoe Upravlenei Lagerei – commonly referenced as (gulag) of Soviet labour camps, to the British Union of Fascists (BUF) historically, political prisoners were most concurrent with the early to mid-20th century, in response to dissidents to extreme or dictatorial regimes. These days, it could be anything from conscientious objectors or, as in recent decades it’s safe to say, it has been open season on whistle-blowers – from Julian Assange to the less well-known protestor against environmental degradation.
In a recent zoom meeting with Just Stop Oil, a new environmental campaigning group, where speakers were previously incarcerated for protest – for example, opposing the HS2 construction, known to cut through ancient woodland or communities. One woman said of her experience – when she went to the sentencing, she saw 3 men who looked like typical traditional judges, and one said: “I don’t know what you’ve been protesting for, and I don’t care.” There was solidarity among the protesters inside and they were respected by even hardened inmates for why they were there. One speaker told of how bad prison was, when he and his cellmate pressed the button for a warden, to tell him their toilet didn’t work, the warden just shrugged and walked away. On a positive note, a woman spoke of how down and depressive things became, but when inmates were able to meet up, there was strength in comradery and a prisoner’s union was discussed, as inmates often work while inside.
Whether spending wasted years at the butt end of a miscarriage of justice, as with Clare Barstow, reoffending, due to lack of adequate rehabilitative measures as in T’s situation or simply stifled as a whistle-blower, the criminal justice system will only improve with higher levels of funding; when systemic ills are addressed, such as intrinsic prejudices or a more transformative approach is adopted within society with more organic approaches to the causes of crime. There will always be the Fred Wests or Ian Bradys to be found and removed and for that, the criminal justice system could be commended, but there will always be others waiting in the wings. The police may never be abolished any time soon, but when asked of her opinion on a more transformative approach, Kerry Greenwood said: “It takes a big leap of tuning into a different frequency, to imagine the system being abolished to something more transformative. I’d love to think that’s possible within the confines of the corrupt system we’re in, but I don’t know how we make that leap.”
Editor’s note: If you would like to get involved with or know someone needing help who has been released from prison, visit: