Swimming against the tide

Swimming against the tide

A sea tide in Cornwall at sunset

Tides will eventually change. Photo: mindlander1231/flickr CC.

A review of the Quakers in Criminal Justice (QICJ) conference – Woodbrooke 25-27/02/2011

by Ronan Falsey

As someone who had only relatively recently started attending Quaker Meetings nine months ago, and as it was my first visit to Woodbrooke, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect! (Although, I had heard the food was excellent!)

My own interest in criminal justice went back much further than my involvement with Quakerism. Having served a 10-month custodial sentence in my early 20s, I had seen much of the suffering and hardship from the inside and had developed strong opinions on criminal justice and imprisonment. So a decade later I decided to seek appointment to the IMB (Independent Monitoring Board) first at Bedford prison, and currently at Chelmsford prison. For me, the opportunity to meet with other Quakers, and people believing and practising Quaker ideals and Testimonies in the Criminal Justice system would be the marrying together of too very firmly held beliefs.

The conference began on Friday evening with the usual chat and tea to allow everyone to feel at ease. Friday’s programme started with a really fascinating presentation from Peter Clarke, the director of Glebe House in Haverhill, Suffolk, a therapeutic community for young men aged between 15 and 19 who are vulnerable and at risk. For me, what a great way to start a conference to see a restorative, constructive, trusting and ultimately successful alternative to the traditional ‘nick’. I went to bed that night feeling good, and hopeful that the next two days would restore my faith in the criminal justice system and open my mind to new alternatives.

Saturday was a busy day, lots of eating and talking in between, but a pretty packed schedule of presentations and smaller group sessions. The latter were used to break off to discuss various issues from our own personal experiences to what central committees at Friends House in London were doing on certain issues. One such issue I was particularly interested in was the ‘Learning by Experience – Personal Narratives from the criminal justice system’ which is run by Paula Harvey of the Crime, Community and Justice Group. As an ex-offender myself – I was comforted and excited by the prospect of a programme that would listen to those people and assess the real cost and effect of sentences on offenders and their families and communities.

On Saturday afternoon a video called ‘The Fear Factory’ was screened. The film revealed that prison is not only and expensive but counter-productive method, and those that watched it said they found it a bit depressing but very interesting. I am sorry now I didn’t get to see it, but it is available at www.thefearfactory.co.uk/ for anyone interested.

The annual general meeting was held, and chaired by Ann Jacobs and Simon Ewart, – amazingly the only annual general meeting that I‘ve ever attended that I’ve managed to stay awake throughout – largely due to Simon’s animated and not too serious manner. None the less, business was taken care of, budgets agreed, appointments made and so on.

Throughout the conference the themes of Restorative Justice and mental health featured strongly. Some terrifying statistics on mental health were presented, which explored the incidence of mental health issues in prisons in contrast to those in the rest of the population:


Schizophrenia / delusional disorder 8% 0.5% 16 times more in likely prison
Personality Disorders 66% 5.3% 12.5 times more in likely prison
Neurotic Disorder such as Depression 45% 3.8% 12 times more in likely prison
Drug Dependency 45% 5.2% 8.5 times more in likely prison
Alcohol Dependency 30% 11.5% 2.5 times more in likely prison


This is scary stuff when you consider the traumatic effect being ‘locked up’ has on anyone, and my own experience (as a person diagnosed with no mental health issues, but having spent time in prison) is that prison in itself was the one time in my life when I felt most as risk of ‘triggering’ a mental health issue. My own experience too was that those lads on the wings who were most obviously suffering from mental health or dependency issues, found the prison experience most difficult to deal with.

Sunday morning started with Meeting for Worship, which I felt was a particularly ‘Gathered’ Meeting as I now had a real sense of the hope, compassion and vast experience of those in the room. We departed, again after some great food, on Sunday afternoon, and personally I left the conference with a restored sense of faith in, maybe not the current criminal justice system, but at least in some of the individuals working within it.

I attended the monthly IMB board meeting at Chelmsford prison two days ago (10/03/2011) with a restored hope and a new sense of confidence in my own convictions that together we can indeed make a real attempt at ‘swimming against the tide’… after all, tides by nature will eventually change!


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