Dear Mr Grayling,
I read with great interest your speech on Tuesday. As someone who has been to prison, and now recruits and trains mentors, I am doing the work you want to encourage. But I find your description of me as an ‘old lag’ offensive and ignorant, adding as it does to the prejudice and discrimination that people who have served a sentence have to endure.
As an educated man, I’m sure you’re aware of the importance of language and how negative language impacts on how people are treated. If you genuinely want people who have served sentences to become mentors then you first have to welcome them back into the community to reintegrate. Which means unlocking the doors of prejudice that are preventing people from getting work. However, the Rehabilitation (discrimination) of Offenders Act 1974 has meant that for 10 years I had to disclose that I had a record. As an honest person who always disclosed that meant no employer would take me on as they just saw me as an “old lag” or “ex-offender”.
Housing is another area which we also face discrimination. Recently I saw a room advertised and telephoned the landlord. We got talking and he asked me what I did as a job, i told him what I did and then he asked me how I got into it. When I told him that I had been to prison he told me he wouldn’t want me bringing my criminal friends back to his house. I told him my friends included a police officer and people of different faiths. He said he didn’t believe in faith and so wouldn’t want them coming back to his house either. Again this landlord just saw me as an “old lag” or ex-offender”.
What makes a good mentor is the ability to empathise, showing unconditional love, compassion, kindness and a non-judgemental attitude. Not seeing a person as the worst thing they have ever done but actually seeing the gold in every person and shining a light on the good qualities they find difficult o see in themselves.
It’s not just me. Members of an online forum provided by the national charity for people with convictions have recently debated this issue. Unlock’s executive director Chris Bath told me, “Some people feel ‘ex-offender’ is a powerful statement of where they’ve been and proudly take ownership of the term. But most just want to be referred to in the same way as everyone else; Charlie the playwright, Karen the criminologist, Steve the fantastic dad.”
Like me, Chris feels a change of language is critical if we are to tackle the life sentence of stigma attached to even a minor criminal record. He told me, “One service provider I spoke to recently referred to ‘PG9s’ – a reference to the Work Programme which separates claimants into programme groups. People used to talk about ‘blacks’ and ‘gays’ – it’s a dehumanising technique. If it is absolutely critical that we refer to the characteristic, we need to think in terms of people with convictions.”
If you have the time, the poem Please Hear What I’m not Saying by Charles C. Finn may help you better understand the issue facing the people you need on your side. www.poetrybycharlescfinn.com/pleasehear.html