Debates in the UK over how we can reform the punishment and rehabilitation of criminals are rife. The voices often lost within the debate are those of the offenders themselves – those who have lived and breathed the prison air and suffered the glare of society’s eyes upon them as they struggle to assimilate into a crime-free life. Can we, as a society, forgive, listen to and help offenders rehabilitate, or is severe punishment the only answer? According to ex-offender and award-winning author Frankie Owens, if we can forgive and genuinely try to rehabilitate offenders, then society will be a safer place.
This was the convincing discourse presented on October 2, when the Howard League for Penal Reform Society jointly hosted a thought-provoking event with LUU CrimSoc. Members of the two societies joined Owens, author of ‘The Little Book of Prison: A Beginners Guide’, and other affiliates of the criminal justice system on a walk from Harrogate to Leeds. Owens is currently walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise money for the Forgiveness Project, a charity which helps victims of crime while reducing reoffending rates through restorative justice.
Owens, who is bipolar and suffers from hypomania, was arrested 30 times in three months and was ultimately given a four month prison sentence. He admits that he does not fit the stereotype of a typical criminal; prior to his incarceration he was very well educated and had a successful career. He is certainly not a hard-nosed criminal who has been in and out of prison all his life, yet as a first timer, he was not numb to the system’s flaws and was able to recognise why certain people continue to reoffend after they are released.
Owens’ book has been supported by other ex-offenders with very different backgrounds to himself including Ben Ashcroft, who joined him on the walk. Ashcroft’s life-story, documented in his book ‘51 Moves’, is both harrowing and inspiring. His adolescence was spent in care homes, secure units and young offenders’ institutions. As often happens, he projected his own pain onto society through crime. He has been out of trouble for 10 years now and works with young offenders. Ashcroft’s determination to help others, despite the stigma attached to his past is heartwarming.
Owens’ book has been praised by criminal justice officials and academics. He boasts that the governor of his prison has a copy of the book on his desk. In addition, he was awarded the 2011 Koestler platinum award. The CEO of the Koestler, Tim Robertson, states the book left him “wondering why we have prisons at all”. According to Frankie:
“‘The Little Book of Prison’ and the ‘Beginners Guide’ doesn’t glamourise the prison system. What it says is: you’re going in and this is what it fundamentally is like… it’s a book about the process.”
Clearly Owens is making waves within the system. However, he has suffered set backs. When the book was first published, he sent information about it, outlining how it helps people, to a newspaper. He recalls:
“They took the photo of me smiling and listed all my offences, without listing my bipolar or anything. At the same time I heard about the Forgiveness Project and I thought, ‘I am going to do something to try and highlight this.’”
He was inspired by a feature he heard on Radio 4 in which a woman was speaking about her own experience of being raped and her decision to offer workshops to help sex offenders rehabilitate. Owens is not naïve to the courage a victim must have to take part in such restorative justice; yet he argues that, where possible, this form of rehabilitation is a winning formula.
“If a victim can forgive then I think that society at large at least needs to contemplate forgiveness.”
Owens hopes to raise £10,000 for the Forgiveness Project to help fund workshops where victims and offenders can meet. He says the cost of such restorative justice is high but certainly cheaper than prison. According to Ben Coleborn and Richard Holdsworth, the presidents of CrimSoc and the Howard League Society, prison costs more than sending an offender to Eaton for a year, with the the average annual cost for one offender standing at £36,000.
Awareness is also key to acquiring more funding for restorative justice projects. During Owens’ 1,160 mile walk, he has met a variety of interesting people: staying with a vicar, meeting an ex-Hell’s Angel working with under-privileged children and even chatting to some police officers who were “completely anti everything [he does].” Owens doesn’t shy away from a debate, yet he is comically deferential in his treatment of those who disagree with him; he jokes that the police officers “were drunk on a night out.” In his lecture he has the crowd laughing one minute and contemplative the next. The mood becomes emotional when Owens fights back tears, talking about the time away from his daughters in prison. His career in consultancy has undoubtedly helped him to engage with people and capture their attention.
So what is it that Owens wants to change? Firstly, he believes that punishment should be categorised more effectively; he feels that he should have been given mental health care rather than being imprisoned and that other offenders would benefit from community sentences. Secondly, he acknowledges that high-risk criminals do need to be kept in prisons but maintains that rehabilitative programs need to be used in conjunction with prison sentences. He highlights programmes such as the ‘Writers in Prison Network’ or ‘Storybook Dads’ that help inmates deal with their emotions. He also supports vocational programmes. He jokes how, ironically, Timpsons runs a programme that hires offenders to cut keys, helping them acquire employment skills. And thirdly, he supports increased funding for restorative justice and rehabilitative projects.
Overall, Owens categories offenders into three groups; the first are most likely to reoffend; the second, like him, have been shaken by the system and will never reoffend; the third, if simply punished, will reoffend, but if given rehabilitation can turn their lives around. Accordingly, he believes that if we target this last third, then we can reduce the reoffending rate in the UK, which currently stands at 60 per cent of those serving short prison sentences.
Much credit must to be given to Holdsworth and Coleborn for hosting such a rousing event. Holdsworth, president of the LUU’s newly formed branch of the Howard League Society, discusses how the
group aims to increase public awareness about much needed reforms in the penal system. The national organisation, which has been around since 1866, has been successful at lobbying government, especially in the area of community sentencing. Much of Owens’ dialogue is in line with their discourse. Coleborn also asserts that inviting speakers like Owens not only encourage debate among the student body but also enhances academic learning.
Many who came to the talk have their own opinions about whether or not forgiveness, rehabilitation and punishment should be used together. Owens may not have won over all his adversaries and many may be pessimistic about any real change occurring within the rigid structures of policy making. Yet the talk will not be forgotten. Men whose pasts are tarnished with regret and delinquency, yet whose futures are full of hope and promise to help reform the lives of others, are truly inspirational.
To make a donation to Frankie Owens’ campaign please go to www.justgiving.com/Frankie-Owens
Words: Kirsty Munro
Photo: Richard Holdsworth