Wednesday, June 22
A Life Wasted
How could I not blog this
My son Stephen is currently in the very prison mentioned in this article - he is in exactly the same situation as Andrew O'Connor. On holiday from his independent school, the school that I had bargained, sold and mortgaged my sould to get him into (because education is the most important thing for young Black men) Steve was arrested, aged 12, when the 'friends' he was with from his previous primary school 'taxed' 2 other boys during the school holidays. Stephen was there, but was not involved. However it was my son who was arrested and jailed in Exeter prison, an adult jail. The white boys walked away. Our solicitor had advised that if Steve owned up to being with the boys, and apologised to them, their parents and the court, that he would be acquitted., so he did. He was convicted of robbery. No-one else was even charged.
Steve is now 23. He was introduced to drugs in Portland Young Offenders Institution, the place, along with Exeter Prison, that he's spent most of his adolescence. Of the past ten years I'd estimate he's spent 8 in custody of one kind or another, though he has actually committed only 3 petty offences. The sentences have been for breach of licence, breach of probation or of community service, all sentences imposed for previous breaches. It;s like Kafka. His whole time in custody he was becoming more and more involved with drugs: first cannabis, then speed, then heroin, then whetever he could get his hands on, and mostly all at once. We had to move house twice because drug dealers would come round and try to brace me for money they said he owed.
And it wasn't for lack of family support. I tried and tried to get help for us and for him, but neither our doctor, nor social services, nor probation were in the slightest bit interested. He was in the system now, just another young Black man to be categorised and warehoused. Because, as any fule kno, all young Black men are innate criminals, or if not then they must be mentally ill.
Stephen is in custody again now, I'm not sure why. He was released in May from yet another spell in Exeter, again for something he had not done. As one does, he went to the pub, but unfortunately it was with someone he had known at Portland. At closing time, the boy (I hesitate to call him a man) mugged another customer and stole his mobile phone. Steve, having been known to Plymouth police, being Black, and in the vicinity, was of course arrested as well, though there were witnesses to say he had nothing to do with it. The Plymouth court remanded him in custody until May when it went to a full hearing; of course he was acquitted. At this, Exeter prison just released him into the street: he had nowhere to go (the sheltered housing we and his social workerhad previously arranged had evicted him, due to his arrest, and there is no duty to house released remand prisoners) no money (his benefits were stopped, and because he was only on remand, there was no discharge grant) and no medication.
Medication because Steve is now classified as paranoid schizophrenic. The drugs he was introduced to and the treatment he recived from other inmates and screws when in custody have fried his brain and he is now very disturbed. How could a talented young man, described at school as academically gifted, a scholarship boy, South West under-13 100 metres champion, picked for Bristol schools under-13 rugby team - someone with a committed, educated and very vocal parent - how could this happen?
I don't know where we go from here. Stephen is 23, he's an adult now. No-one is authorised to speak to me or give any information regarding his welfare, because he's over 18. I donb't know what to do to help him: my hands are tied. All I'm able to do is grieve, as the son I love more than life uitself spirals down into - what? What will happen? It's like a death but not a death. A death of hope, perhaps. They stole my son, they ruined his life and I don't know if we can ever get it back. Steve'll be released again in July. Back to square one. And he's not alone, there are thousands like him.
Read this. I guarantee by the end you'll want to scream in rage and frustration at the way a whole generation of young men has just been written off as so much inconvenient rubbish, because they didn't fit New Labour political and fiscal priorities, and how they are now being blamed themselves for the government's own failures. They're not rubbish, or scum, or feral children or any other of the pejorative tabloid descriptions - they're real people, they have mothers and brothers and are loved and wanted, and we want them to have a future. The way we are treating our young men, and especially our young Black men, is the real criminality here.
I look at pictures of my son at 11, his face so full of promise, his eyes bright, his future ahead of him. I read about Andrew O'Connor, who didn't even have the advantages my son had. If there is no hope for my son Steve, what is there for the Andrew O'Connors of this world?
READ THE WHOLE THING
Think of Andrew O'Connor. When Michael Howard tells you that prison works, when the prime minister celebrates his tough line on crime, when you hear once again that this country jails more of its men and women than Burma or China, think of Andrew O'Connor - petty thief, pain in the neck, prolific offender, habitual prisoner, dead.
There is nothing so unusual about his being dead. People who work with offenders will tell you that, as things stand, there really are only three ways that most repeat offenders finally stop breaking the law: they grow out of it; they kill somebody and get locked up for life; or they die. Some of those who die commit suicide, some of them accidentally overdose, most of them just die from general neglect.
As offenders go, there never was anything very unusual about Andrew O'Connor. Any social worker or police officer or prison officer reading this story could stop now and, with their eyes shut, they could predict just about all of his background: his family were poor, he grew up on crap estates, he never knew his father, he was knocked about by his stepfather, he was a nightmare at school and a pest on the streets, he was put into care, he was sexually abused. By the time he was 10, he was being arrested. By the time he was 15, he was doing custody. By the time he was 30, he was dead. Nothing unusual. There are thousands of Andrew O'Connors shuffling through the dark tunnels of our criminal justice system.
Now, watch how the judges and the politicians play their hand. And look back, in particular, at what happened after the prime minister, in the autumn of 2001, decided to make good on his pledge to be tough on the causes of crime by personally commissioning the Social Exclusion Unit in the Cabinet Office to find out what he had to do to stop the endless reoffending of people like Andrew O'Connor.
The SEU set off on a mighty investigation, using five civil servants to work full time for nine months, trawling through statistics and research, visiting prisons, interviewing experts, talking to officials in government departments, all in search of an answer.
And they found it. In July 2002, they published their report, Reducing reoffending by ex-prisoners - 218 pages of analysis, packed with facts and figures, supported by more than 400 footnotes. Its conclusions were clear.
Essentially, they boiled down to three big themes. First: "Prison sentences are not succeeding in turning the majority of offenders away from crime."
Second: "A prison sentence can - and frequently does - make things worse."
Finally: the real key to reducing offending was to attack its causes (just as the prime minister had been saying). Homelessness, unemployment, drug and alcohol problems, mental health problems, physical health problems, educational problems - these were the seeds from which crime grew, seeds which were fertilised by the impact of imprisonment.
In many ways, there was nothing new about these conclusions. Any frontline worker in the criminal justice system would have recognised them. The importance of the SEU report was that these conclusions were backed by irresistible evidence, supported by seven different government departments which had been consulted, and delivered direct to the most powerful figure in government, who duly welcomed them as "a significant contribution to our understanding of what works in combating crime". This was a chance finally for the criminal justice system to start to make a difference.
It could make a difference to the communities who suffered from the crimes of prolific offenders: the SEU found that released prisoners were streaming unchanged out of custody and committing something like 1m offences a year and that these offenders alone were costing at least £11bn a year. (That did not count the value of what they were stealing or damaging; £11bn was simply the cost to taxpayers of pushing them through this ineffective process of punishment.)
And it could make a difference to the offenders themselves. By the time the SEU report was published in July 2002, Andrew O'Connor, then 29, had been convicted in the courts of Devon, where he lived, on 24 different occasions. Never once had any of those court hearings done anything conceivably likely to stop him offending because none of them did anything to tackle the causes of his crime. They treated him as though he really were the Daily Mail's caricature of an offender, breaking the law because he was "a bad person", simply in need of stiff punishment to deter him.
Andrew O'Connor was not this caricature: he was a young man whose life had collapsed under him like rotten floorboards.
He grew up without his father. His stepfather thrashed him with a belt, so the boy used to run away and sleep in the woods for days at a time. His mother reluctantly agreed to put him into care for a while, never knowing that her much-loved nine-year-old boy would be slippered, caned, bullied and used as a sex object by an older boy and one or two members of staff.
Then he started going out with other kids, nicking stuff from shops, setting fire to an empty building, stealing cars, taking pills, screwing houses, smoking dope.
By the time he was 12 he was the walking, talking, non-stop offending embodiment of what the SEU report was describing. Prisoners are 13 times as likely as anybody else to have been in care. They are also 13 times as likely to be jobless, 10 times as likely to have played truant at school, six times as likely to be very young parents. Eighty per cent of them cannot write with the skills of an 11-year-old. More than 60% of them have drug problems. More than 70% of them suffer at least two mental disorders.
Andrew O'Connor had all this. The courts, however, carried on hurting him, as though they had some moral right to pile torment on a 10-year-old, as though they really thought that by doing this, they were protecting the community from his offences.
He was convicted of stealing cars in Plymouth. So they endorsed his licence. That made no difference at all. He didn't have a licence: he was only 12 at the time. He carried on stealing cars. So the courts endorsed his non-existent licence again when he was 13 and once again when he was 14 and yet again when he was 15. On the last two occasions they also disqualified him from driving, never minding the fact that he was still too young to qualify to drive in the first place, never wondering why this small boy was earning a living by stealing expensive cars for adults in Plymouth and taking his pay in cannabis and amphetamine.
From the age of 10, he came up in court for burgling. The bench imposed a care order on him. But he was already in care. That was part of the problem. They fined him too, even though they knew very well that his only source of income to pay the fines was more burgling.
When he was 14, they started locking him up. That year they sentenced him to three bouts of custody, amounting to 10 out of the ensuing 13 months, even though it was plain that he was coming straight out of custody each time to carry on with his offending. When he was 18 they gave him three years' probation, never minding the fact that they had already given him two years' probation, not once but twice in the previous 10 months. He went ahead and carried on offending.
After the courts failed, the prisons failed too. By the time the SEU report was published, Andrew O'Connor had been released from custody 11 times and he had never received any effective help for any of the problems that made him an offender. Over and over again he would come out homeless and jobless, bingeing on drugs and alcohol, haunted by personality disorders created by his abusive childhood, unregistered with a GP, still unskilled, still unable to read or write like an adult.
Each time he stumbled straight back into crime: thefts, burglaries, assaults. On one release he was given £10,000 in compensation for the sex abuse he had suffered in care. He blew the lot in weeks, on drugs and generosity to strangers. Sometimes it took him only a day to get back into trouble; never more than a few months. Blair's government already knew quite a lot about this and had started to talk more about rehabilitation. Andrew O'Connor had heard the talk and he had believed it.
On his last big release before the SEU report, in March 2000, he wrote to his legal adviser, Nicki Rensten of the Prisoners' Advice Service: "I've got a good personal officer. He's set up meetings for my release and is in touch with my probation officer. He's guaranteed me I won't just be dumped on the streets like last time.
"They're working to set up a package for me with the best support I can have ... Between him and another officer, they have phoned the council housing and DSS on my behalf. He says he'll get probation to pull some strings to get me in my own council flat on release with help with clothing, furniture etc, and help to set myself up working ... I want to live in this lovely place in Devon called Teignmouth ... I think I'll give prison a rest in future. I think this is going to be a good year."
It never happened. Andrew O'Connor was pushed out of the gate of Long Lartin prison one morning with no address to go to, no job to go to, no GP to look after him and only £46.75 of discharge grant to last him the several weeks it would take him to sign on.
None of the help he had been promised materialised. The housing office in Teignmouth said it did not have to house him, because he was not vulnerable enough to qualify. Without an address, he had even less chance of finding a job. The DSS gave him no help with clothing or any of the other basics which he lacked after a four-year prison sentence; his discharge grant soon ran out and, when he eventually received his benefit, he found the minimal weekly payment had been cut even further to make him repay a crisis loan he had taken out six years earlier. His former GP refused to take him back even when he broke his foot.
He ended up sleeping in a friend's car where he was arrested and sent back to jail for failing to tell probation where he was living, even though they themselves had allowed him to be released without an address to go to.
By now, of course, Andrew O'Connor was dead. While the government had been sitting on the evidence of the failure of prisons, the numbers being jailed had carried on climbing and Andrew O'Connor had been behind bars again.
During the two years when government departments were busy blocking most of the SEU's findings, he had managed three months at liberty, ended up with a crack habit and a bed in the Salvation Army hostel in Devonport, Plymouth.
One night he walked into a snooker club and asked for a drink. They told him he would have to pay £10 for membership. He told them he would pay £5 this week and £5 next. The bar staff told him to get lost. He told them to give him a drink or he would take everybody in the bar hostage. He was unarmed, but the club called the police and he ended up doing 16 months for affray. When he came out of that sentence, he lasted one day before being sent back for breaching his licence: they said he had stumbled drunk into a probation hostel; he said he was having an epileptic fit.
He spent four more months in prison in Exeter. He did a course in enhanced thinking. When they asked him for his objectives, he wrote "No objectives - you won't get anywhere." He told them: "I never had a proper childhood so am unsure a lot of the time how I should respond or even if what I am thinking or feeling is appropriate for the situation." He passed the course.
He filled in a form at the prison: "Paramount, I need structured care plan to make sure of good recovery. I would like to achieve outside counselling for the root causes of my problems, so the right support and right environment, ie around my family, with intense counselling, this would be the best plan for me."
He had a big reconciliation with his mother, who said he could come home to live with her. He wrote to a friend: "My mum is taking three months off work to love and support me, take me to meetings and appointments, help me fill out forms, take me places and reintegrate me into society generally."
As usual, it never happened. There was a meeting in the prison to discuss his release. His probation officer failed to turn up. The prison workers agreed that he should go to his mother's with help from a local agency to deal with his drug habit. But the probation officer then over-ruled this and said he had to go to a hostel miles away from her, in Cornwall. The hostel housed sex offenders and, recalling his past abuse, O'Connor refused to go there and, in protest, then refused to work with the local drug agency.
His mother spent the three weeks before his release phoning the police and probation and the prison, warning them that Andrew would not go to the hostel and had to come to her. Most of her calls went unreturned.
On Thursday October 23 2003, he walked out of prison. On Wednesday October 29 at 7.30 in the morning, at the Peppermint Park caravan site in Dawlish, south Devon, he was found dead. The pathologist said he had had an epileptic fit in the night.
If he had been at home, if he had had a GP, if he had had a life, maybe it would have been different. As it was, he was living a half-life.
He was fully clothed. His mother said he must have slept that way so he could run away if the police came to get him. She wrote afterwards: "Andrew was a victim before he was born and continued to be a victim. He wanted to come home. In the last 20 years, he never had his own bed. It breaks my heart and fills me with so much pain to know one of my children that I loved, suffered so much for the biggest part of his life, because of my mistakes, to let him go into care, and the mistakes of a system that was supposed to care for him. Why was it so hard to get any real help? Is it easier to just lock someone up to keep them off the streets?"
11/28/2004 - 12/05/2004
12/05/2004 - 12/12/2004
12/12/2004 - 12/19/2004
12/19/2004 - 12/26/2004
12/26/2004 - 01/02/2005
01/02/2005 - 01/09/2005
01/09/2005 - 01/16/2005
01/16/2005 - 01/23/2005
01/23/2005 - 01/30/2005
01/30/2005 - 02/06/2005
02/06/2005 - 02/13/2005
02/13/2005 - 02/20/2005
02/20/2005 - 02/27/2005
02/27/2005 - 03/06/2005
03/06/2005 - 03/13/2005
05/08/2005 - 05/15/2005
05/15/2005 - 05/22/2005
05/29/2005 - 06/05/2005
06/05/2005 - 06/12/2005
06/12/2005 - 06/19/2005
06/19/2005 - 06/26/2005
10/30/2005 - 11/06/2005