After being released from prison, I vowed to my Nan and my family that I would never go back. I may have just broken that promise...
Over the next 12 months, I will visit Brazil, Singapore and Fiji where I will have the opportunity to live within the prisons in some of these countries to understand how they have significantly reduced the cost of prisons and reducing reoffending through volunteer-led custodial settings and societal acceptance of those being released. This is all thanks to being named as a 2020 Winston Churchill Fellow.
The inspiration behind my Fellowship
I remember being sentenced. There was an odd feeling of relief that I was given a punishment worthy of my drugs-related crime but there was also a pit in the bottom of my stomach that I will never be given the opportunity to turn this terrible situation around and properly be a part of society once more.
What I didn't realise is that this feeling is shared with many prisoners who want to turn their life around but do not know how or do not feel they would be given the chance. Many people inside feel that employment would be the key to their rehabilitation but feel that employers would instantly reject them due to their criminal offence.
This is why I started Offploy from my prison cell. I believed that we could give prison leavers the employability support necessary to secure sustainable employment whilst at the same time support employers with the right processes to safely and fairly recruit people with criminal convictions. Unemployment is at an all-time low in the UK; we need the talent to remain competitive in a free market and this just seemed like the obvious solution. You can read more about Offploy here.
Brazil, a country which has one of the world's highest incarceration rates per 100,000 (336 vs UK: 140 vs Norway: 63) has found an innovative solution to reducing the running costs of their prisons.
They have near 50 prisons that are legally and completely ran both by volunteers from the community and residents of the prison. These prisons focus on meaningful activity, faith and community to support residents to rehabilitate. Prisoners are called "Recurperandos" which is Portuguese for "In Recovery" as they see everyone as recovering to become contributing members of society.
I am currently sorting out the details but there are opportunities to live within these prisons for a couple of weeks to truly know how their system supports rehabilitation.
I cannot quite see the UK converting HMP Belmarsh to a volunteer and prisoner-run establishment but maybe there are elements of this model that could be applied to open prisons or for prisoners who are a lower risk to society. After all, shouldn't we try and do something about the £18bn cost of running the criminal justice system?
Why Singapore and Fiji?
The UK's reoffending rate of people being released from short sentences is quoted between 40 and 74% depending on the source, age and sentence length. Singapore's is at 25.9% and Fiji's... 3.5 to 4%.
Societal acceptance of people leaving prisons.
The Yellow Ribbon Project
This is an incredible initiative supported by the Singapore Government where citizens wear Yellow Ribbons to show their welcoming and support of prison leavers in their society. Once a year they also organise a community run around a prison to raise awareness. I will be getting my running shoes on and completing the laps in the hope of bringing such a campaign here to the United Kingdom.
The Yellow Ribbon projects believe prison leavers will serve a second sentence on their release when they are locked up by the walls of society. I have seen this same attitude in our headlines when positive prison stories are turned in the newspapers and residents are referred to as 'lags'.
The whole point of my Fellowship is to first change the attitude of society to affect the headlines and ultimately influence government policy. We must step away from warehousing convicted people, give them the tools to contribute to society and welcome them as our neighbours on release if we really want to reduce the cost of the criminal justice system and make our streets safer.
You can follow my Winston Churchill Fellowship over the next 12 months through the links below: