Grass Roots of Change: Edlington tragedy highlights the need for improvements and reflections. Again.

grassrootsIf we can learn something from the case of the 10 and 11 year old brothers who this week stood trial for torturing two young boys in Edlington, Doncaster, it’s that criminal behaviour must be tackled far earlier than in a courtroom or a prison: at its grass roots. And, crucially, press and public opinion should endeavour to remain measured and sensible. If not, we risk missing the point and making hard jobs even harder.

Senseless violence is emotive enough to turn even the best of people into Daily Mail headline-chasing vigilantes, but when it’s at the hands of children it creates a wider sense of futility and failure. So we gain comfort from zero-tolerance-hate-preaching headlines. But, labelling kids – even kids who have killed – as ‘evil’ puts them in a little box of anomalies, sweeps them under the carpet and abstracts us from the reality that children like this exist. And from the possibility that they aren’t so anomalous; that they weren’t ‘born evil’; that their behaviour was avoidable, not inevitable.

In the Edlington case answers to ‘why?’ may lie with Doncaster social services – both boys were in care – and the family. The boys’ mother reportedly told The Sun, “It’s nowt to do with me.” But children of 10 and 11 don’t raise themselves. It has to be something to do with someone, or it could affect anyone or everyone.

The paths we build in our brains that enable us to differentiate right from wrong, show compassion to others and make informed decisions about our behaviour – that socialise us as ‘decent’ members of a society – must be mapped out as we grow. If this development is disturbed, children are more likely to grow up without the empathy, moral judgement and control necessary for normal, civilised behaviour. Some get around this through strength of character, great teachers, other family members, social workers and so forth, but others don’t.

Mark Johnson, an ex offender who now writes prolifically and lucidly on the subject, explains it well. He wrote this article for the Guardian. An extract reads:

“Anyone can tell you that the level of fear and anxiety that is normal and habitual for abused or neglected children is psychologically damaging. Recent research has shown that it is also biologically damaging. Violence affects the way the brain develops. In a safe family environment, kids develop their interpersonal skills. In a scary environment, there’s no way a child can do that. He’s got eyes everywhere, his heart’s thumping, his hearing’s sharper than a bat’s, and he learns to smell trouble the second he gets home from school. He can sense it from the hairs on his arms…”

“This is a child who is always at the ready. His body is pumping with adrenalin. He has a sensitised, overactive stress response system that leaves him without a biological mechanism to regulate his fear and anger. His emotional response to any situation is inevitably hyper-aroused; in fact, his body produces so much of the stress hormone, cortisol, that it actually damages his young, developing brain. At school, everyone walks on eggs around him because he explodes unpredictably and violently.”

“As a teenager, he becomes much more frightening because he’s carrying a knife. The only time he feels really calm is when he’s beaten someone up. That’s because he experiences the same neurochemical calm in his brain that he habitually experienced as a child in his relief at the end of some violent attack. He becomes known to the police. He has an asbo before he can read what it stands for. And, of course, he ends up inside. When he’s released, he’ll soon reoffend.”

This doesn’t excuse or forgive serious crimes – obviously, but it’s still a disclaimer anyone arguing this sort of line feels obliged to give – but it does reinforce the potential dangers of inadequate childcare, for all of us. As a society, we can throw child offenders – or any offenders – into institutions, but if we don’t understand and address the reasons behind their behaviour, how do we change, how do we move forward? For punishments only work to deter those who enjoy and value their lives. To put it simply, as an ex prisoner recently told me: “If there’s noone who cares about you, and you don’t care about yourself, you don’t give a damn if you hurt someone else. And you don’t give a damn if you’re thrown in prison.” 

A documentary I watched yesterday about the boys who killed Jamie Bulger highlighted how inaccurate media reports surrounding the case were. Far more gruesome acts were reported than actually happened. Yet they were what we believed. They were what people latched onto when boasting of planned vengenances against two children. And they were what we quoted when we claimed moral superiority, regardless of any knowledge of what we would have been capable of had we too been beaten, bullied and abused. Lives are lost at the hands of those who have never had a chance, but dignity and humanity is lost at the hands of those who, with all the chances in the world, cast the first stone without a second’s thought.


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Good Morning Brixton: Prison Radio Station Nominated for Sony Awards

ghettoblasterAmidst the disappointment of funding cuts to various well-established arts programmes within the prison system, here’s something positive: Electric radio, a prison radio station based at HMP Brixton, has been nominated for four Sony Radio Academy awards. These include a nomination in the interview category for an interview with Jonathan Aitken, former tory cabinet minister and ex prisoner – jailed for perjury – who has recently written a new report on prison reform.

Electric Radio is supported by the Prison Radio Association, winner of the Best New Charity 2008 at the Charity Times Awards. Broadcaster Jon Snow is a fan:

“I have chosen to lend my support to the PRA because I believe this is innovative broadcasting to a quite literally captive audience… the potential in all sorts of ways is enormous”.

We know these types of creative activities within prison have positive effects. I recently went to a talk on prison reform, where a group of ex offenders were speaking. Intelligent and creative, but with no formal education beyond the age of 14, they hadn’t been engaged by typical prison activities like bricklaying and woodwork. But, an aptitude for art, theatre, radio and television production – which they discovered through activities in prison – provided them with the skills, and self-worth, to break free from a life of crime, which all now have. One worked at the BBC, another was a successful journalist.

Yet more evidence that Jack Straw’s tendency to allow his prison policies to be governed by tabloid opinion, is short-sighted…

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The Truth About Lie Detectors, Or Not…



If it’s good enough for Jeremy Kyle, then it’s good enough for the Met and the Ministry. At least that’s what Jack Straw must have been thinking when he approved plans for sex offenders to take lie detectors as part of their probation conditions…

Now I’m not against this, in theory, but why, if lie detectors are considered reliable enough for this, are they never used in criminal cases? Many a court case could have benefited from the cold hard truth of the lie detector, no? Surely it would be the easiest way to tell fact from fiction, if it works.

If, it works. Lie detectors are only 96% accurate (another piece of knowledge gleaned from mornings with Jeremy) and often discredited as a way of seeking out liars. Hence why they are not admissable as evidence in court. But if they aren’t accurate enough for the courts, why are they being used in conjunction with something as serious as sex offences? And vice versa. I’m sure there’s a good explanation, I’d just like to know what it is…

For an example of why lie detectors can’t always be trusted click here.

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The Strong Arm of the Law: Heavy policing at the G20 protests

At the same time as the heavy handed policing at the G20 protests is being questioned, Amnesty have released a report into the brutality of policing in France.

Heavy policing reflects the climate of fear we find ourselves in. The police, as with any bureaucracy, are liable to use the full force of their power if laws aren’t drafted properly, and when fears of anarchy are perceived. Particularly, when it comes to emotive issues like terrorism, riots and greedy bankers.

And the guise of political activism is the best friend of the wannabe rebel, but still, was the police reaction disproportionate? I didn’t manage to get to the protests (work, work, work, work, work) but friends who did said the riot police, at a protest, seemed unduly heavy handed. My friends didn’t get any photos like these .

All photographs courtesy: Getty Images

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The Sound of Music: Music was torture in Guantanamo, says Binyam Mohamed

Binyam Mohammed said there was something worse in Guantanamo Bay than daily beatings and having his genitals slashed with razor blades. The torture methods he was talking about weren’t violent, but, he said, were far more disturbing and soul-destroying. He was talking about music.

Music Torture.

Full volume, 24 hours a day. Image courtesy

Sounds bizarre, given what a pleasure (most) music is, but I do remember screaming at someone in my halls playing their music loudly while I was revising for my finals. I’m not being flippant, the monotony of a constant beat, or schmaltzy chorus, when I needed a clear head was too much to bear. Like a car alarm going off, over and over and over. When you don’t know when something’s going to end, have no control over it or anyone infront of you to blame, it’s excrutiating. Isn’t it?

For this reason, and more, music is being used as a new form of psychological torture in the so-called war against terror. On the website of legal charity Reprieve, Director Clive Stafford Smith says that Binyam Mohamed told him, from Guantanamo:

“They hung me up. I was allowed a few hours of sleep on the second day, then hung up again, this time for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb…. There was loud music, [Eminem’s] ‘Slim Shady’ and Dr. Dre for 20 days…. The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night…. Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off.”

Mohamed was also threatened with having his eyes gouged out. But he said that losing his sight would be nowhere near as terrifying as losing his mind, which he felt he would after the repeated music torture.

James Lavelle Image:

James Lavelle Image:

Reprieve have launched a silent protest. The Zero dB project is backed by the Musicians Union, which is calling British musicians to make a stand against music torture. Artists who’ve backed the campaign include James Lavelle, Massive Attack, Elbow and The Magic Numbers

In a great video made for Zero dB, Tony Benn, who’s president of Stop the War coalition, said:

“The question of torture is a moral question: how you treat other people. So this idea that there’s a special type of war that justifies torture is a complete illusion. Nothing justifies torture.”

Music that’s been used by torturers includes:

• AC/DC – Shoot to Thrill
• Barney the Purple Dinosaur – theme tune
• Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive
• Britney Spears
• Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
• David Gray – Babylon
• Deicide – Fuck Your God
• Don McLean – American Pie
• Dope – Take Your Best Shot
• Drowning Pools – Bodies
• Eminem – Slim Shady
• Metallica – Enter Sandman
• Neil Diamond – America
• Nine Inch Nails – Mr. Self-Destruct
• Prince – Raspberry Beret
• Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name Of
• Sesame Street – theme tune
• Tupac – All Eyes on Me


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Insider Art: The Koestler Trust has its funding cut after 30 years

I’ve just found out that the The Koestler Trust, the UK’s best-known prison arts charity, has had its funding cut for 2009. Nowhere has reported this. (Well, not that I’ve seen). Why?

The cuts come after more than 30 years of funding and support, from the upper echelons of the judiciary, the chattering classes and the government. Sir Alan Moses (high court judge), Sir Roger Graef (film maker) and Lord Ramsbotham (ex prisons minister) are among the trust’s advisors, with Ramsbotham the Honorary president.

I don’t know the ins and outs of the government’s decision – I’ll try and find out – but the decision will no doubt sadden and infuriate those who have seen first-hand the calming and rehabilitative powers of the arts within prisons.

Apparently the KT no longer ‘meets the criteria’ for this type of funding. After 30 years? Perhaps it’s Jack Straw’s ‘public acceptability’ test again. Perhaps Straw should bear in mind that there are – shock horror – people inside prison who aren’t ‘evil’ or ‘without hope’, who profoundly benefit from the rehabilitation arts provide. Which means, ultimately, so do we.

Here are some examples of artwork produced by inmates. You know, to brighten all this text up a bit. And because they’re pretty good:

Award Winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Award Winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

The artist writes:

“This is my reality on canvas. I spent 5 years sharing cells with other inmates – it’s horrible. I know what I did, and punishment is part of the process, but 23 hours a day locked up! What good is it achieving? Now I am lucky to have paint, brushes and easel in my cell. I thank the Koestler Trust for giving me a goal every year. Art will not just make a difference when I am released – it is the difference. Even my dad told me to “get a proper job” until he saw some of my paintings: now I have his full support!”

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

The artist writes:

“Dean Stalham at the Koestler Trust asked me to finish this drawing for a play he wrote for the Union Theatre in London. My family saw the show and told me about it. The picture was projected onto the stage for a scene about chasing the dragon (taking drugs) underneath the escalator at Green Park tube station. So the picture shows the escalator as a dragon. Perhaps it is also about being de-humanised by addiction, or by prison, and crying out to be in a better place.”

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

The artist writes:

“I wanted to show what I see on an everyday basis. Here are the different characters who serve our food, with a range of approaches to their job. You can be met with smiling faces, but this only makes you more suspicious of the food!”

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

The artist writes:

“The plane parts all in different places represent the mess my life was once in. My partner and I were trying to get away, and the clock is past the hour because I was always too late. But the man sitting calmly at the departures desk shows that life isn’t such a calamity – it’s what we make of it.”

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Award winner 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

The artist writes:

“This picture represents the long, dark tunnel which greets people facing a life sentence. At times it feels like there is no light at the end, hence the black centre. Being selected for this exhibition has given me a massive boost in self-confidence. People have always put me down, this has made me feel worthwhile.”

And some more:

Highly Commended 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Highly Commended 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Lady with Green Hair – Aleksandar Bjelovuk, Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, Bysshe Blake Award for Mixed Media (£30 prize) 2008

Zebra – David Dixon, HMP Lowdham Grange, Notts, Highly Commended for Oil/Acrylic

Highly Commended 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust

Highly Commended 2008. By kind permission: The Koestler Trust



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Restorative Justice bites back: the IRA Brighton bomber and the Woolf within

Last year I went to a talk on Restorative Justice at the Soho theatre. I’ve been thinking about it again as I’ve just found out two little areas of Norfolk, where I go often, are now ‘increasingly using Restorative Justice to resolve community issues.’

For a great Radio 2 podcast on Restorative Justice – with Jeremy Vine and Lucie Russell, Director of Smart Justice, plus guests – click here.

At the Restorative Justice meeting I went to, the infamous Brighton Bomber Pat Magee was speaking:

Magee, a former IRA terrorist who masterminded the Brighton bombing (a plot to assassinate Thatcher and members of her cabinet, which killed 5 people) met Jo Berry, the daughter of one of his victims. Magee, like most political terrorists, regarded himself as distinct from other criminals and murderers, arguing that he was seduced by political ideology and driven on by his public profile.

Magee was released in 1999 under the Good Friday Agreement

Magee was released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement

This changed when he met Jo Berry, who had initiated contact with him of her own free will. Magee told our small group that he used to dehumanise the ‘enemy’ and now realises he was thinking of humanity in “extremely reduced terms.” Jo, in making sense of her father’s death was able to forgive his actions. Incredibly they are now friends and campaign together for Restorative Justice.

Campaigners for Restorative Justice (RJ) believe that by introducing criminals to the victims of their crimes, a restorative approach can help combat this dehumanisation of victims, and not just on such a large or high profile scale. The idea is that offenders see the human effects of the harm their actions have caused, in a way not offered by traditional criminal justice. Victims too can have their needs met, and questions answered.

Clearly, it’s controversial. Barristers are understandably sceptical and, personally, I do agree there are serious issues concerning which stage of the criminal justice system it is introduced at. But, it tackles crime from a different angle and has been shown to have a good record at cutting reoffending, which surely makes it worth a look.

I wrote a feature on RJ recently and spoke to a lot of people who’d had positive, even life changing, experiences as a result of RJ. Who am I to argue with these two:

Video courtesy: Level films


Filed under Crime and Justice, Documentary, Justice