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I’d just finished my talk about the effects of imprisonment on children and families and was gathering up my notes when a woman approached me and said, “It’s so good you’re giving those people a voice.” In the pause that followed, whilst inwardly bristling, my brain struggled with how to respond. A whole speech was rising up inside me. Instead, I heard myself say, “Thanks”, and we went our separate ways. Here’s what I wish I’d said:
There are no ‘those people’; there’s only us. To create a world of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘my’ people and ‘those’ people, ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people may on one level be an easier way to live; after all, it distances us from the potential we all have to hurt others and means that we don’t have to confront our own weaknesses and failings. But ‘othering’, as criminologist Fergus McNeill notes in a recent essay, “is self-defeating and we need to be vigilant about it and against it.” Separating ourselves from people who are different to us, or ‘othering’, offers no space for people to change and, in the context of criminal justice, leaves people with convictions with no hope of contributing meaningfully to society. In order to encourage public dialogue around these issues, and to help challenge assumptions, this year’s Prisoners’ Week theme in Scotland is ‘Just Us’. Rev Bill Taylor, chair of the Prisoners’ Week Trust, explains: “We felt that this was an important theme because on the one hand it invites a compassionate response to the human condition and on the other challenges us to explore how we are just in our relationships with one another. When in our communities we see each individual as a person, with all that this involves, we hold out hope.”
Secondly (and the part of her statement that really frustrated me), I was not ‘giving’ people affected by imprisonment a voice; when someone in the family goes to prison, those left behind don’t suddenly lose their voice. What happens is that we either don’t offer the safe spaces for people to feel they can talk openly and honestly, or – and this should really worry us – we simply don’t listen.
We’ve been thinking a lot about this at Families Outside and asking how we can hear people’s voices and really listen to their stories. Our organisational tagline is, ‘Voicing the needs of families affected by imprisonment’, and we’ve been reflecting on the difference between putting words into people’s mouths, which can be patronising and insulting, as opposed to taking people’s own words and finding ways of letting them be heard – something which is empowering and powerful.
We’ve also been trying to take this a stage further and thinking about ways in which we can provide opportunities for family members’ voices to be heard. Towards the end of 2014, we issued a specific invitation to family members to attend a Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Children & Families Affected by Imprisonment (these meetings are always open to anyone, but we were aware that it takes a lot of courage to attend such gatherings). We were excited about their attendance and felt pleased that they wanted to contribute. The feedback afterwards, however, brought us up short: those who had attended felt excluded from the meeting, even by the seating arrangements – with ‘professionals’ in the middle using microphones and ‘others’ at the back, listening in, family members felt that it was hard to find their place. “It was intimidating”, one of the women told us. The next Cross Party Group was different; entitled, ‘By Families, For Families’, this time we asked family members themselves to shape the agenda items and ask the questions they wanted answers to. The result? A much more engaging and meaningful discussion. And not just for family members: the professionals and MSPs present also appreciated hearing directly from people who themselves were affected by the issues. As Mary Fee MSP notes, “There’s something about the impact of hearing people’s own stories in their own voices that’s particularly powerful.”
It makes sense for those who make decisions to hear directly from the people they are making those decisions about. That’s why the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice (CYCJ) organised the Living it event earlier this year here in Scotland, bringing children, young people, politicians, and practitioners together to share insights about the criminal justice system and make suggestions for how things can be improved for Scotland’s children and young people. Claire Lightowler, director of CYCJ, said, “This was an exceptional event. Young people whose lives are affected by the policies that are made at Parliament got to speak directly to the policy makers and share the reality of their lives. We are extremely proud of [the young people who spoke] for their bravery in sharing what were often painful memories. Their hope for the future is humbling and inspirational. We have heard their call for change and now we must work with them and other children and young people as partners in this, with a determination to improve things with them and for the next generation.”
For policy and decision makers to hear people’s voices directly is powerful, but it can also have a transformative effect on those who speak. Janet (not her real name) is one of the women who spoke at the ‘By Families, For Families’ Cross Party Group. She says, “I felt very liberated and empowered for the first time in a very long time. My voice mattered, we mattered, and the difference in the other people who spoke after the meeting was quite extraordinary. Leading on from the Cross-Party meeting, family members [formed] a [peer support] group which is a work in progress, but hopefully it will lead to more people feeling stronger, having a voice, and feeling empowered going forward in life.” Janet’s feedback (and that of other family members) is changing the way we do things. There are other peer support groups like the one Janet mentions starting in different areas, and we’ve titled this year’s Families Outside conference, ‘By Families, For Families’, which involves family members co-facilitating discussion groups. In addition, our new youth project, KIN, run in partnership with Vox Liminis, will create opportunities for teenagers and young people who are affected by imprisonment to speak out about the changes they would like to see. And in the autumn, we are launching Free Speech, an opportunity for young people affected by imprisonment to develop public speaking skills and then put those skills into practice.
Of course, those speaking out need the right support (we’re engaging a public speaking trainer for Free Speech, for example), and there will be times when it is more appropriate for someone to speak on a person’s (or group’s) behalf; keeping people safe is paramount. With support, and in the right context, however, it is life-changing for everyone. Sounds like a good idea to me.
Sarah Roberts is Families Outside’s Child & Family Support Manager.