Today I was a contributor for an international event, held by the Cyprus Prisoners Organisation. Here was my question and my response:
How can journalism assist in changing the mindset of society towards prisoners?
Journalism and the media has a huge part to play within the perception of rehabilitation and punishment of those who have committed crime. The impact of journalism on those convicted, their families, the victims and communities is significant.
We are very good a celebrating punishment, through the shaming and demonising of those who have committed offences, some of which are the most vulnerable people in our societies. And yet, the celebration of their rehabilitation is lacking or forgotten.
From an academic perspective, the movement away from crime is challenging and a rocky road for many. Illuminating the success stories of those who have committed an offence is part of that process, as individuals take on an identity of "active citizen" rather than "offender". I have regularly been told that these success stories are not newsworthy but believe strongly that these stories bring hope, faith and understanding, that could be transformative in nature.
My specialism is around relationships within Criminal Justice Practice and how relationships with those that have offended can be a powerful vehicle for change. if we highlight new identities through the telling of stories, we not only humanise the "offender" but we reinforce the way in which they are living and the benefits of this new way of life. It is about narrowing the gap between “offenders” and society (because “offenders live in society). Journalism could support this process, if it chose to.
During COVID 19 we have prisoners in the UK making clothes and PPE for the NHS, carrying out charity events, holding food bank donations events and sending letters of appreciation to prison staff, who are risking their lives everyday, when they walk into prison. These actions are greater than themselves, and symbolic of the fact that an individual is more than his or her crime. They are people that care and want to be a part of something.
Belonging is such a fundamental part of the rehabilitation process and if we can nurture this within journalism, we will bring greater stability and hope to our communities.
Stories of humanity have been captured around the world. From clapping on the street, music from balconies and acts of kindness. The surprise and newsworthy message here is that those people who are often seen as monsters or animals are also carrying out these actions, in an attempt to belong and connect.
By magnifying rehabilitation within journalism, it would also have a huge impact when understanding our Criminal Justice Systems and the role each service (e.g. Probation or Prison) has. Prison Officers are not recognised for the work they do and the skill it takes to work with some of the most complex and vulnerable people in our society. When things go wrong, Criminal Justice staff are shamed and demonised also and this is the perception that sticks. There are so many incredible people that work in Criminal Justice, who endure significant stress and pressure due to their roles. If journalism highlighted these individuals and their worth, the legitimacy of staff would flourish.
To do this, involving journalists transparently with the purpose of capturing humanity and growth with “offenders” is needed. It is the unheard and unsung facet of society that brings with it excitement, knowledge and understanding.
We are currently running a Project called that Everest Reform Project (www.everestreform.co.uk)- a challenge whereupon 2 prison officers and 2 former-prisoners climb Everest for charity together to raise awareness of the importance of rehabilitation and growth. All the support staff will have lived experience of prison and these officers will need to trust people, that they may have once locked up. We want to initiate a social movement that brings with it an greater understanding of the people in prison, their backgrounds, their experiences of trauma, stigma and discrimination and the belief that anyone can change. My organisation, Penal Reform Solutions (www.penalreformsolutions.com) is dedicated to this and we need journalists to support us in this.
For me it is about what we see when we think about prison. If we see it as a meaningful and safe space, where people can rehabilitate and not commit crime in the future, then we are growing communities and instead of people leaving prison with mental health issues, addiction issues and poor coping strategies, we are instead meeting active citizens that have grown and learnt from their mistakes. A colleague of mine regularly presents the question: who do we want our children to meet on the street? I want my children to meet the people I know prisoners can be if they are supported. People that are more than their offence. That support needs to also come from journalism because if it did, if we supported rather than demonised, it could be transformative.