PCC Blog 73

Emerging from one of Doncaster’s prisons last week, I realised that many of us have probably just come as close as we ever could to being a released prisoner.

When the anti-coronavirus lock-downs finally ended, we took tentative steps to return to ‘normal life’ and sometimes found it quite disorientating. Going out again made many of us feel uncertain and a few were quite disturbed. One of my neighbours says that even now she finds going into a supermarket difficult. We had to re-tune our minds and it wasn’t always easy.

When a prisoner leaves he – they are mainly males – comes out through the main gate and enters what is now the half remembered, half forgotten, world of freedom. The longer the sentence, the more difficult the adjustment – because the world of freedom demands a different mind-set from the world of incarceration, where every minute of every day has been determined for you.

But you have to adapt quickly. A range of practical matters can seem overwhelming. Where are you going to stay? How can you get a bank account set up? What about benefits? You leave with the clothes you came in with, but it was summer then and it’s winter now. How are friends and family going to react? It is hardly surprising that so many ex-offenders find themselves back inside in a relatively short period of time. And that is not in any of our interests.

Part of the point of my visit was to see what the Serco-run prison at Marshgate has done to make this leaving work better. They have a project they call the Departure Lounge. (I wrote about the theory of this some time ago, but seeing it in reality has made me appreciate it more.)

The Departure Lounge has been created in the visitor centre just outside the main gate. No one is obliged to go there because once the men are through the gate they are free to do whatever they want – and some simply pass on. But for those who call in there are helpful people from the prison and from charities to help them make the return to the world they had lost.

In the Departure Lounge they can get a cup of coffee and pick up a packed lunch. Workers from the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), as well as prison staff, are on hand to help ex-offenders negotiate everything from accommodation to a bank account, and a local charity assists with clothing. If families have come to meet them, they can do that in the Departure Lounge as well.

One major obstacle to successful resettlement, and one that is often overlooked, will always be not just the material needs but the sheer difficulty of changing a mindset – from being incarcerated to being free. And because of coronavirus, those being released now will have spent a large part of the last eighteen months locked in a cell for 23 out of 24 hours each day.

There is nothing easy about resettlement but the Departure Lounge makes a significant contribution in these most difficult of times. Yet its funding is only secure until next April.

Knife bins

From time to time someone emails asking me to fund a knife bin in some part of the county. One person recently wanted me to fund 40 in Barnsley alone – though I am not sure what signal that was supposed to send. Another says he is currently putting them around several places at his own expense but would like endorsement and some funding.

Occasionally I am rebuked in the media for not giving funding to someone who believes they have the answer to knife crime – and it’s a knife bin.

There is, of course, nothing I or the police or the local authority can do if people decide to do this and can find somewhere to put the bins. But when they approach me for funding I do ask a few questions:

  • Why are you putting it in this place rather than another? Is there some evidence of need?
  • Does the local community want it? How do you know?
  • And crucially, how often will you empty the bin and what will you do with any blades you find there?

Earlier this year I declined to fund one person who, in answer to the question about what he did with the knives he collected from an existing bin, told me that he kept them ‘under the bed’ – which, of course, would be an offence. Needless to say, I was condemned in the media for my refusal, yet no-one from the media ever thought to ask why I wouldn’t do it.

The Violence Reduction Unit is currently funding several bins in different parts of South Yorkshire, including two last week in and near Schofield Park in Mexborough. But we do so only after an analysis of where the need might be and where the local police will empty the bins and dispose of any knives on a regular basis.

The Queens’ representative and a great support

Andrew Coombe CVO, the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, retires this week. I wanted to place on record my thanks to him for all that he has done for the county during his term in office and especially for the police. While some of this is known, much has been out of sight.

Among the many causes he has espoused, his work for community cohesion has been so important. He brought communities together, particularly during those difficult times of great tension following the Jay Report, when Rotherham was subjected to repeated and ugly demonstrations and marches from far right groups. He identified community leaders and arranged meetings so that issues could be calmly debated and solutions found. It diffused tensions and enabled people to get to know one another on a more personal level.

And he has always been a supporter and friend to the police service, not least at those times when either individuals or the whole of policing faced a hard time. He came recently to speak to the families of officers who had died while on duty when they gathered for the dedication of a memorial to them in Sheffield Cathedral.

I recall one of his first engagements shortly after he became the Lord Lieutenant. He came to a police awards ceremony, held in a marque at the Niagara Sports Club. It was, I think, the first time he had worn his full dress uniform and he was still getting used to it. I walked behind him in a short procession as we made an entrance into the marque where police and their families were gathered. My role turned into picking up the spurs as they fell from his shoes and then pushing them back into place just before he walked onto the stage.

We thank him for his thoughtful support and wish him well for the future. The trouble with retirement is that the days get longer while the years run like rabbits.

Stay safe and well