Away from prison: the distance travelled

The British government's new policy of cutting re-offending rates by introducing a crude payment-by-results won't work. There should be many markers of success. Rahila Gupta watched Jen Joseph and Carrie Rock performing in Phyllida Lloyd's production of Julius Caesar

14 or so women posing for a photo in a studio The cast in rehearsals for Julius Caesar at Donmar Warehouse.
Photo: Helen Maybanks

In the run-up to the all-woman Julius Caesar which opened on 30 November at the Donmar theatre in London, there has been a great deal of focus in the media on how the women actors will approach male roles and some analysis of why it is set in a prison. However, there has been less interest in the fact that two of the actors are women who have been nurtured by Clean Break,  the theatre company that works with women ex-prisoners and women at risk of offending. Jen Joseph and Carrie Rock (pictured below) do very well in the roles of Trebonius, one of the conspirators who killed Julius Caesar and the Soothsayer of ‘Beware the Ides of March’ fame respectively and a variety of other roles.

Two photos side-by-side, one of two women in character, one of a woman in character surrounded by other cast members Frances Barber, Carrie Rock and Jen Joseph in in rehearsals for Julius Caesar.
Photo: Helen Maybanks

Although the women went through a tough audition, just like any of the other actors, the initial invitation to the audition came as a result of Harriet Walter (playing Brutus), a patron of Clean Break, introducing Phyllida Lloyd to the company. For Jen and Carrie, this opportunity is a dream come true. Working with these ‘esteemed actors’, Carrie says, ‘It’s like having a master class every day here. To just watch them act and to listen to Phyllida direct. We would’ve paid to have this master class. So we’re learning absolutely loads.’ Jen agrees that it’s ‘an honour to be directed by Phyllida’ and only half-jokingly hopes that Julius Caesar will be a stepping stone to ‘Lorraine Kelly’s couch – being interviewed for the new face on TV then I’ll know that I’ve arrived.’

Jen and Carrie should be the poster girls for this government’s proposed new prisons policy, their payment by results approach which already has its own acronym, PbR, where government funding will be tied to the cut in re-offending rates. In her own words, Jen is a ‘single mother, strong, independent, trying-to-survive-in-the-world-woman, got caught up in the, how shall I put it, the flattery of life which took me … to a place where I no longer knew that independent woman. I can honestly say that prison took away the confidence and surety that I had about myself and made me a crying, weak, scared-to-go-out-woman.’ She served one year of a two and a half year sentence for a crime that she’s not prepared to disclose for fear of losing the respect of other members of the Julius Caesar cast.

Finding herself unable to cope with her mother's death and bringing up a son with behavioural problems on her own, Carrie began drinking heavily. Coming to Clean Break,‘completely changed my life. I was getting drunk every night. At the interview, they said you know you won’t be able to drink on the day you come here ... straightaway, that night I didn’t drink. I had such a good time there, I made friends, I was excited and happy. Made me realise that I didn’t really have an addiction to alcohol, it was more of a habit. I had nothing else going on in my life. Soon as I was doing something I loved, I had a reason to go to bed at night and a reason to get up in the morning. Became easier to look after my son…’

Unfortunately though neither Jen nor Carrie could be the poster girls for PbR because, like everything else, this government wants to do it on the cheap. When Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, calls for a revolution in rehabilitation’, who could disagree with a fine sentiment like that? But when he adds, ‘That revolution will be built around the principle of payment by results’, there’s the sting in the tail. A coalition of 71 organisations, the Criminal Justice Alliance, has pointed out that a ‘simplistic binary re-offending measure’ like PbR cannot measure the ‘distance travelled’, because keeping on the straight and narrow is a slow process: there should be many markers of success such as reducing the frequency of re-offending and even increasing self-esteem. There are fears that the way in which the scheme has been set up that smaller voluntary organisations may not be able to bid for these funds, unless they are part of a consortia where the specialisms and expertise of smaller organisations can get lost.

Besides a major component in cutting re-offending is helping ex-offenders find jobs and housing which, in an age of austerity, is really the government’s responsibility. Grayling introduced PbR to get people into work while he was work and pensions secretary. Official figures last month showed that the programme had succeeded in getting at least six months' work for only 2.3% of the unemployed people on it. If the funding of the voluntary sector was to rely on this many organisations would go to the wall.

Services like Clean Break are extremely effective but they are not cheap (although they are cheaper than prison) given the intensive education and support they provide to the women. As Lucy Perman, Executive Director of Clean Break, points out, ‘The very nature of our programme is that it's tailored and bespoke to each woman, not really the PbR approach. It's not a straight or short path to helping women move away from crime; we don't have a one-size-fits-all model.’ Additionally, many women offenders have a history of abuse, mental health, drug and alcohol issues, all of which require intensive support, and where supply of services falls woefully short of demand.

Cutting re-offending rates is the holy grail for everyone who works in the criminal justice system. Yet here are some of the contradictions in policy and practice that may keep this goal out of reach. Prison has a notoriously poor record for cutting re-offending rates, yet more and more women are sent to prison - an 85 per cent jump in the last 15 years to 4,141 in November.  Community sentences keeps women in contact with their families, thus improving rehabilitation and reducing re-offending. Yet this is undermined by Cameron wanting to make community sentences punitive. The other Conservative mantra of keeping the public safe is not really an issue where women’s imprisonment is concerned. Most women are put away for non-violent crimes; a massive 25 per cent of women are locked up for breaching court orders in cases where the original offence would not have attracted a prison sentence. In fact the public is ahead of the government on this. The Prison Reform Trust carried out a poll of public opinion on women’s imprisonment: a vast majority of people (over 60%) believed that effective drug, alcohol and mental health services were the answer to re-offending rates.

The economic arguments are the most baffling. Chris Grayling wants to “focus on making the prison system cheaper not smallerWe either have fewer people in our prisons. Or we can bring down the cost of each prison place’. But there is an unacknowledged flaw in this argument – the cost of each prison place goes up if there are fewer people in prison because overall costs of running a prison remain the same. This militates against community sentences unless it is part of a properly thought out strategy in which prisons are shut down. “Each prison place costs nearly £45,000 a year, but half of prisoners re-offend within a year of leaving” acknowledges Cameron. On a PbR basis, prison is definitely failing. If the economic arguments fail to sway this government, we have to conclude that it must be the political arguments that keep this iniquitous system in place. But even those do not make sense. If public safety is not really an issue with most women, then the punitive element of custodial sentencing is the only factor driving the prisons policy. However, most women have already been punished – by poverty and abuse. Not only are they punished twice but the impact will be felt on their children for years to come and that will rebound on society itself – the real sting in the tail of prisons.

Jen and Carrie have come out from under their duvets where they hid for so long, feeling unmotivated and perceived as society’s rejects as their worlds crumbled around them. Without the help of expert intervention, that is where they might have stayed. Women like them deserve better than the mealy mouthed measures proposed by the government.

 

About the author

Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and New Humanist among other papers and magazines. Her books include, From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters ed. (Zed Press, 2003), Provoked (Harper Collins, India, 2007) and Enslaved: The New British Slavery (Portobello Books, 2007).