There has been a strong feeling of injustice among the innocent people of Britain. The pandemic has locked us up and given us a ‘stay at home’ sentence that has felt unwarranted, and sometimes eternal. The virus has – without being overly dramatic – ruined our lives, imprisoned us in our homes and kept us from the people we love. Although extraordinary circumstances, these feelings are not as ‘unprecedented’ as people may think. In our prisons, these realities are lived out constantly by inmates who are also in their own lockdown; they are ‘locked-up’. Although in general attitudes towards prisoners are very Daily Mail, my experience growing up around people who work with inmates in the North East of England has given me a different perspective on the criminal fraternity.
Perspective is vital in understanding any social justice issue we see in the media. America called the 1971 spike in crack cocaine abuse ‘A War on Drugs,’ but if it was called a ‘Drugs Epidemic’ would that change your perspective? One heading indicates a criminal justice issue, and the other a health care issue. One perspective will say that you have to keep pulling people out of the crime river, and the other will tell you to look upstream to see why they’re falling in. Our perception is heavily determined by the language that frames the issue. This language also filters down to the attitude of those working on the front line.
‘If they are breathing when they come in, and breathing when they come out, we’ve done our job,’ is not a compassionate view. Your perspective could lead you to think that incarceration in itself will somehow stop someone from reoffending. Unfortunately it won’t.
In the UK, inmates get out of prison in a worse condition than they came in. In 2018, 75% of ex-inmates reoffended within nine years of release and around 40% within the first year. However, the solution is relatively clear and brings us back to what we all need; a job, a house and a sense of community and belonging. These three essentials can positively bring ex-convicts back into our society. Let’s use this gem and apply it to our own lives.
In 2018 I visited the largest gang rehab centre in the world, Homeboy Industries in Downtown L.A. They use education, employment and most importantly compassion to reintroduce the most notorious gang members into society. When I visited The Homeboy Bakery (one of the employment enterprises) and met a 6’4 man with devil horns tattooed onto his forehead, I interrupted his intricate cupcake decorating. He smiled at me whist carefully dusting the icing over the batch. Although we came from entirely different worlds, we met with a mutual love of cake.
The men and women who come to the centre are not evil, they are hurt. And although devil horns tattooed on someone’s face may seem threatening, looking beyond the exterior is not that hard when the love for their families, their community and baking radiates from them. He came out of his lockdown, and was not afraid of going back to work. He did it with such dignity that something beautiful and delicious was made.
Will we come out of our incarceration as better people too? Our weekly ‘Clap for Carers’ brought together communities and was for many the social highlight of their week. In order to retain this connection, we need to preserve what we’ve built. Organisations such as Junction 42 based in Newcastle have a ‘Connect’ group on a Tuesday evening for the ex-offenders who find their sense of belonging in the shared experience of rebuilding their lives. Having been to one, I can tell you that their rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ was loud, tuneless and unapologetic, yet the tsunami of passionate voices brought me to tears. This united voice reflected lives full of pain and suffering, transformed into a unique connection you might only have ever seen at a football match. Being a fresher in September will bring a new community, and through a shared experience of the virus, I imagine that many of us will automatically feel a sense of belonging to one another. It will certainly mark us out among other years.
Homeboy Industries and Junction 42 taught me that to bring individuals out of lockdown will take community and hard work. It’s no longer about how long we have been locked up, or who ate the bat in Wuhan. What’s important now is what we have learned during our time away, and how we apply it to be better people. We must learn to accept what is past, trust in people who know more and get back to baking cakes and singing Amazing Grace. It’s up to all of us to start again and make new progress in the way we live, so we never need to be locked up to realise what’s important.