Friday 13 December 2013

User Voice may be small but they have a lot to say

Emma Parton

It's a fair assumption that probation officers come into this line of work due to a genuine desire to help, support and change people’s lives. This is often due to personal life experiences that enable us to empathise with others.  My life could have turned out very differently but I somehow managed to channel my negative experiences into something positive and this led me to where I am today. I believe in change and want to support people to change. Someone once said that I was a 'rescuer' although this has been to my detriment at times. As a Probation Officer, finding the right balance of punishment and rehabilitation is difficult. The ever increasing layers of bureaucracy has seen the Probation Service focus primarily on enforcement and the traditional social work values of advise, assist, befriend have become diluted. In the five short years I've have worked for London Probation I've seen a rapidly changing service. Some of it good, some of it bad but there’s no doubt that the 'streamlining' of services; a fancy way of cutting resources is detrimental to the rehabilitation process.

Service users expect a lot from probation and whilst we genuinely want to meet expectations, the already shrinking service means we simply cannot deliver it all. This leaves me like others feeling frustrated. The biggest changes are yet to come with the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda and Chris Graylings crusade to create a disjointed, profit driven, untried and untested criminal justice system (this is only my view of course). The next 12 months I face uncertainty, worry and a moral dilemma; to CRC or not too CRC. Do I compromise my values to work for a company I do not believe in? Will it become a box ticking exercise? The truth is no one really knows.

Amongst the day to day probation politics there is User Voice. I've always been a supporter of their work and it's hard not to feel inspired by their passion and innovation. Quite simply they are a breath of fresh air in the changing world of changing Criminal Justice. I see service user involvement as fundamental to improving Criminal Justice services. It adds value, credibility, breeds creativity and is solution focused. The outcome does not only benefit the service user but also the staff. A positive probation experience encourages compliance and engagement. For the officer; less breaches, less paperwork, more job satisfaction. Service user feedback is a hot topic and I’ve been extremely impressed by the level of support from the senior management team. I credit Heather Munro’s enthusiasm for User Voice as instrumental in embedding service user involvement within London Probation.

At times the feedback is brutal, it makes people feel uncomfortable. It causes mixed emotions. Sometimes I cringe. It causes this reaction because we care about our work, our colleagues and our service users. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, Probation Officers like to do more than just breach and recall but no one wants to be told they are doing a bad job. That said it is important to mention that a lot of service users give praise to their officers and the support they receive. However there is always room for improvement and this is what the community councils seek to address. The Probation Service needs charities like User Voice to simply tell it like it is. They say what a lot of Probation staff wish they could say. I have been welcomed into the team and feel truly humbled to be a part of the rehabilitation revolution if only for a short time. The staff are lively, inspirational and committed to the User Voice mission and to each other. User voice may be small but they have a lot to say.

Friday 22 November 2013

Finding a World of Freedom

Perdita Palmer

Money is freedom – so some say. But how does one define freedom?

Freedom. Think about it. It’s probably one of the most powerful concepts that determines, or in an abstract sense, surrounds politics, culture and humanity. Everyone strives for freedom but what are we actually striving for?

Some argue that education, opportunity, monetary gain in career success equals or enables freedom. But to do what? Travel? See the world? Revel in materialism? Does money provide reliable means by which to find, experience or succeed in love, self- satisfaction or pride? Money may enable one to access many aspects of life that everyone considers necessary or standard in order to conventionally or superficially ‘survive’ but whether one actually feels free or is free with any of these is a different matter. One might have more money than sense, but happiness, love, family, trust, honesty and satisfaction can never be guaranteed.

As the well known saying goes:

“When you are in the final days of your life, what will you want? Will you hug that college degree in the walnut frame? Will you ask to be carried out to the garage so you can sit in your car? Will you find comfort in reading your financial statement? No. What will matter then will be the people”.

You might be thinking: “what has this got to do with User Voice?” Well, a lot. User Voice and the people that have entered my life have taught me one of the most important and enlightening lessons of my life, so far. And I can tell you now that this lesson has changed the direction of my life in a rich and meaningful way that has left me feeling liberated, inspired, ambitious and free.

My journey has gone from conservatism, ignorance and boredom to freedom of thought, satisfaction and appreciation. Having had a very privileged upbringing, it is common of many of my peers to follow the expected timeline of life progression. So, you go from completion of secondary school, to university and into a job that reflects your desire to maintain and replicate the standard of living we are all used to. Yes, privilege, education and financial stability provides opportunity and freedom of choice but how free actually are we? It might sound strange but overwhelming opportunity is actually largely restricting. So much choice equals indecision, confusion and most profoundly dissatisfaction.

I feel as though many of my peers lack in education through experience because of the expected timeline progression. But the opportunities I have said yes to, have led me down a different path that now makes me feel detached from my familiar peers.

My journey began with the shock of someone close to me facing a long stretch in prison. This turned my life upside down and was the catalyst for my desire to become a successful defence barrister but also to enrich my life by understanding and appreciating the lives of others. My personal experience opened up a whole world of understanding but also frustration. The ignorance that fills society about many aspects of the criminal justice system and the people that pass through it infuriates me daily. I used to be one of those conservative bigots who at one stage would have supported an individual such as Chris Grayling. But tragedy happened to me, tragedy happened to my family and it’s not until it happens to you that you can then understand and appreciate other people’s stories.

This society is filled with so much superficial public discourse instilled by the powerful who more often than not have no idea what the people they are there to serve, face. In many ways, I wish I had remained in my bubble and had not experienced such a tragic situation. But in many other ways, I feel as though it has educated me in such a way that makes me cringe at the thought of how I would have lived my life. Before my journey began, I had no idea what I wanted to do but I was money motivated. I had no real passion in life apart from money. Without a specific passion to follow, I was on the brink of entering a career in headhunting/recruitment that would have filled my daily life with aggression, close mindedness and a vulgar desperation for the big pay cheque at the end of the month. How sad. And how lucky I am now to have escaped that.

It’s easy to hear about someone else’s story and have a momentary feeling of sympathy or compassion but how genuine and long lasting is it? My story, however tragic it has been has not even compared to some of the stories attached to some of the individuals I have got to know. But, because of what I have experienced so far, I can truly understand and appreciate the hardship that now inspires me.

Life isn’t about money. Of course you need money to survive but there is much more to life than materialism, the superficiality of relationships, the sick desire to appear a certain way or attempt to embody someone you are not. There are people in this world that have been at rock bottom and faced such tragedy in their life but had the individual strength to acknowledge it, face it, overcome it and carry it with them to save others. Many of these people I have met, I work alongside daily. To come from working in a corporate environment in the city, bored out of my brain, counting down the minutes until the day ends and feeling miserable, bored and so selfish to take for granted the ease and stability of my life compared to where I am now, is amazing. And it’s just the beginning. The moment I walk into my work place now, I can feel the electric passion that unites every single one of us. This is a feeling that I have been lucky enough to experience and learn about; I seek this continuation of satisfaction throughout my career and throughout my life.

Bigots exclude people who have been through the criminal justice system. People even look at me differently and want to dissociate themselves with me because I’m attached to someone in prison. But these individuals, I pity.

My life has taken a completely different direction than was expected, working with individuals who originally felt unfamiliar to me, but I’m proud.

I’m proud to be surrounded by people who are educated, ambitious and enriched with a pure understanding of life. There is no individual better than an ex – prisoner to be able to know and understand the true meaning of freedom. The thought of the raw sense of freedom upon release, a feeling that I have not personally experienced, is so powerful and challenges what most people’s definition of freedom is.

Call me pensive but the last two years of my life have awakened me and have made me a better person. The people I work with every day make me a better person. To have experienced such a transformation is heartwarming. A job shouldn’t be undertaken just for monetary gain. A direction in life shouldn’t be pursued just because it is expected of you or because it’s convenient.

I broke my socially expected rules and feel as though I have found freedom to now live my life.

Thursday 31 October 2013

'Our greatest assets are those we seek to give a voice'

Chris Dossett

‘What’s your story’ the youth wing of User Voice was born in 2011 following a consultation with over 740 young people across England. True to the principles of User Voice, young people themselves took their experiences directly to key decision makers, presenting their findings to Members of Parliament. The organisation has since evolved, engaging with well over 2000 young people with functioning youth advisory groups across the country; most of which I have had the privilege to be involved in. As we enter 2014 there has never been a more important time to give services users a voice and I believe User Voice is the most equip to do so.

The successive government now admits “we did a great job punishing people, we did a great job with crime going down and we did a poor job reforming people. We need to make sure there is mentoring, a buddying system, giving probation the autonomy they need.” – Sadiq Khan Shadow Justice Secretary (2013). Currently, under Justice Secretary Chris Grayling the criminal justice system is being privatised, untested on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world. Therefore, it is now more important than ever to monitor impact on services users. User Voice is the mechanism in which to do so as it exists to bridge the once vacuum between those who decide policy and those that experience it. Offering some of the most excluded people in our society to have a say over decisions that affect their lives.

Having worked across the youth service, youth offending service and on the troubled families agenda, as well as studying participation; never have I seen such genuine empowerment as witnessed since joining User Voice 6 months ago. I contribute this to our model of engagement and that User Voice lives its values as an organisation; employing those who have been through the criminal justice system. This is unique as it is apparent through the entire organisation from the CEO, to management, right to the front line. In doing so User Voice has developed a team with genuine expertise and experience of the problems we seek to solve, creating genuine passion and understanding which lacks in other organisations. 

With a democratic progress of engagement I have witnessed young people empowered and able to offer some of the most insightful understanding to offending I have ever heard. With such strong values through our organisation I see our staff motivating institutions and our many partners within the criminal justice system; enabling them to better understand the experiences of the very people they are employed to work with.

Whilst I remain optimistic, not everyone believes in giving us a voice, nor anyone who has ever offended. Our journey as an organisation must continue as we produce growing evidence that our model works and we continue to challenge the very culture of our institutions and society.

I would like to conclude by stating that our greatest assets are those we seek to give a voice, those who are turning their experiences of crime into positive, beneficial and lasting change for others. I feel deeply privileged to have the opportunity to learn from them every day. 

Friday 25 October 2013

The Pressures of Making a Quick Buck...

Peter Nzekwu

I come from a place where most of the illegal activities I was involved in were usually done for one reason and one reason! Immigration problems stopped me from working and making money legally so I had to find as many other ways of doing so as possible.

Understanding that most young people are confronted with situations unique to each person, and that that is what leads them into a life of crime, is very important.

Some offend for money, some offend to look cool and others offend just because they don't feel like there's anything better for them to do.

What it is that we need to get through to these young people is that: easy come, easy go!

Young people are very impressionable and will usually see something they like, admire or want, but underestimate how much actually needs to be done in order to achieve their goals.

The concept that anything worth doing is worth doing properly, is one that young people can greatly benefit from.

The key is not to expect too much of young people but rather to hope that they broaden their horizons, as they are still developing as a person and need room to learn from their own mistakes

The ones who are more mature in their attitude towards life and the idea of volunteering should, in my opinion, be rewarded for this with paid opportunities. Mainly because young people need financial stability just as much as adults.

Provide young people with more to gain and I guarantee our young people army grows faster than imagined.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

'We are like a family, we look out for one another and work as a team, helping others have a voice'

Gail Bland

My name is Gail, I am an ex-offender and I have worked for User Voice since January 2012 as a Programme Manager setting up and developing a service user council within probation. Also, I deliver a peer mentoring accredited training programme to service users who will then mentor other service users.

Employment for people with criminal records is very difficult especially in today’s current economic climate.  Employers seem to shy away from employing ex-offenders, very often their CV’s go straight in the bin; they don’t seem to be able to look beyond the offence.

I committed a crime 12 years ago and received a 12 month sentence suspended for 2 years.  My experience of probation back then was not a very good one, there was help available but the organisations giving this help and support only seemed interested in ticking a box to say that they had worked with an ex-offender, they often classed a conversation as support.  I often think what if User Voice had been around 10 years ago, personally I wish it had.  I have seen a change in probation's attitudes towards service users.

I was fortunate that I was able to keep my job after being given my sentence, my problems started when this organisation went into administration.  I was out of work for 2 years, applying for all sorts of jobs, the rejection was terrible, this left me feeling depressed and worthless.  When I did get an interview they focused on my offence, and then I heard nothing from them.

I was given a break by an old work colleague who knew all about my offence, this made me feel great again; it was with a charity that trained and gave work placements to ex-offenders and those coming to the end of their prison sentences.  At last a job to help others in a similar position, or so I thought.  Some members of staff gave me a hard time, they went to the board asking that I be finished as I had a criminal record how ironic when these were people supposedly helping offenders and ex-offenders, they did not get their way.  I will never ever forget that experience and don’t want to see others experience it.  I stuck it out and I left when I wanted to leave I did not let them force me out.

I am really privileged and honoured to work for User Voice, the staff all have a vast amount of experience, knowledge and passion and the one thing that really sticks out for me is nobody judges you, we are like a family we look out for one another and work as a team, helping others have a voice.  I love my job, and the service users I work with are fantastic, it's great to see them gaining confidence and belief and becoming stronger each day.  

Wednesday 9 October 2013

'It's fair to say if you do the crime you do the time, but how the time is spent will determine whether or not they will serve further time in prison'

Tanayah Sam

For the past 20 months I’ve had the privilege of being a Programme Manager for User Voice. 

I facilitate three Prison Councils, which requires me to work inside those establishments four days a week. The job at times can be challenging but even more rewarding. User Voice Prison Council is not just a means for Prisoners to have their voices heard, but also at times it has enabled prison staff to have their voices heard also. 

It’s been three years since I was released from prison having served a 9 year prison sentence. The irony of it is the jail for which I received the 9 year sentence is the jail I now spend two days a week in facilitating the User Voice Prison Council and its Director was the Governor of one the jails I served time in on that sentence.

Since my release I’ve always had a strong desire to be involved in an organisation that pushed for a service user response within the criminal justice system. Facilitating space for co-production, enabling the service user and service provider to have dialogue to create better opportunities for rehabilitation and showcase desistance. 

It’s fair to say if you do the crime you do the time. But how the time is spent for many will determine whether or not they will serve further time in prison in their future. Only offenders can stop offending so the service user should have a voice in how best services can provide a meaningful service to help them break the cycle. 

Monday 9 September 2013

"We are the vehicle for the young people; we carry their voices and their courage to the decision makers"

Ricky Sykes

Hi, my name is Ricky and I work for User Voice as an Assistant Programme Manager, working on youth projects.

To find myself working with User Voice has been a great inspirational journey; day in and day out I still feel the privilege of working on my passion which is supporting young people.

For many years as I ground away at life with the little wisdom I had, I would ask myself time and time again, why do things keep going wrong?  Why do I find myself making the same mistakes over and over again, finding myself in situations and places surrounded with the same people making the same mistakes as I was? It wasn’t until coming to work with User Voice that I got my answers to the numerous why’s that I had asked myself over and over. I now understand that it was to give me that depth, that understanding and that energy to help transform Young People’s lives through my own experience of challenges, victories and failures.  I now find I am able to truly relate with the struggles these young people are facing daily, (and the direction they are heading in), if they aren’t to receive the support, understanding and care they so need.

To be a part of a team of people with the same passion and drive as myself at User Voice is also a privilege I find myself in every day of the  week,  as we come together to bring about change.  We are the vehicle for the young people; we carry their voices and their courage to the decision makers who then get the opportunity to hear from young people first hand; their struggles, desires, and their ambition, as they try to positively affect their own and their peer’s lives despite the challenging environments they face daily.

I believe that Young People should be allowed their mistakes; I explain to them that this doesn't mean I don’t want them to make the right choices but I do respect their personal journeys.  They may stumble, but that isn't necessarily a reflection of the quality of the work being done with the individual. I try to remain open minded and non-judgmental allowing young people the room to make mistakes and to grow from them; they know that I will be there for them regardless and that I value them.

‘’The proof is in the pudding!” so they say, well if that’s the case then I have tasted some pretty tasty proof puddings whilst being at User Voice!  My colleagues and I have witnessed some amazing transformations take place in the many Youth Offending Services we have worked in. To witness the change in character from the young people as they really feel listened to, valued and respected is amazing and never fails to remind me of why I work with User Voice.

My thanks to all the User Voice team and young people that I've worked with for your trust and belief that things can get better as long as we keep  believing  in people.

I will continue to do my best to bring about positive change as I work here at User Voice and as I gain more privileges meeting more young people and the professionals working with them, and enjoy my journey and learning that is never ending.