This is the seventh in a series of guest posts written by ex-offenders who have turned their lives around and now work, in one way or another, in the criminal justice sector.
Today Paula Harriott tells how she survived prison to find her voice and has built a professional career giving a voice to others.
A professional profile
My Linkedin profile looks quite professional, even if I say so myself:
You can find out that I actively ensure that all the policy and practice at RDA is founded in the perspective of those that use services, that I act as a consultant to the Big Lottery Fulfilling Lives programme on service user involvement, have written toolkits on the * how to “ of service user involvement and above all, work enthusiastically in the field of criminal justice and across the spectrum of multiple and complex needs, advocating that listening to the views of those that use services, and acting on their insight, is the first step to changing the system for the better.
The trauma of incarceration
What that Linked in profile doesn’t explicitly tell you though is that 2004-2012 I was serving an eight year sentence ; 4 years in prison and 4 on license in the community and that it wasn’t my first contact with the system either.
It doesn’t let you into the personal world of the semi-dysfunctionality that is my normal, the sadness, guilt and regret that is also part of my personal and professional story.
It doesn’t tell you about the deep pain of being an imprisoned mother of five children , it doesn’t tell you of the trauma of incarceration and the lifelong sentence of trying to make anew , faced with the debris and the struggle to make sense of good and the bad consequences.
It doesn’t tell you of the disappointments, the discrimination, the stigma, the judgements and the plain cruelty I have had to battle to reach here either.
But then neither does it tell you of the fabulous people who have extended their hearts to help and to support.
The chaplaincy in prison (hence I am now a Trustee of the Community Chaplaincy Association).
Adam Nichols the CEO at Changemakers (now working here) who employed me straight out of prison, who supported me through a series of anonymous hate mail sent to the Head Office and gossip and whispers and always reassured me of his ability to defend his decision to employ me in light of press interest.
Mark Johnson , the CEO at User Voice, who taught me to find my voice and integrate my story with an ever increasing level of self-honesty, as well as numerous others who have kindly shared what they know of themselves and their networks in order to help me.
Too many to name in person, but I salute you all ; and I shouldn’t forget the team I work with at RDA, led by Christina Marriott, who support me always with their values and insight. Just like I could not have survived prison without the support of my fellow prisoners, I also acknowledge that as an ex prisoner, I cannot survive the world of professional work without authentic support from my colleagues too.
How did I get here, invited by Russell Webster to write about my journey? It’s been a mixture of dedication, persistence, passion, anger, pain, bitterness and a quest for joy and social justice, And there has been some good luck too
It all started in prison as a peer supporter ; supporting women to access distance learning and then moving to act as a prisoner resettlement advice worker with NACRO. I will never forget the embarrassment of being asked by prison staff in the resettlement building to refrain from using the staff toilets and to return to my cell block to use the prisoner loos.
I found myself a ROTL placement at the Scarman Trust, a small charity concerned with community development I was really proud of myself as an admin worker ; that pride shattered when the Sun followed me for a day and published an horrific story:
Drug lag let out to work in drug rife Handsworth
with the most awful mug shot. I will never forget that journey on the train sitting opposite commuters reading the story and looking directly at me as I tried to avoid their gaze and the fear that I felt at being so publicly outed
Why service user involvement?
Well, it is because once you personally know what it feels like to be stripped of your identity, to be a number not a person, when speaking out risks punishment, when judgement permits cruelty to be normalized, creating a space for a voice is vital.
It’s vital on a personal level, because it acknowledges the personal value of that voice, and that is a strong message to the individual and to the organization as well as the pragmatic benefit of utilising customer insight to drive service improvement
At Scarman Trust and at Changemakers I learnt the power of community development through strengths based approaches and through appreciative enquiry and at User Voice I had the opportunity to be part of a groundbreaking approach to developing user voice in prison and in probation.
More recently I have utilised what I have learnt to work in a more strategic way, feeding grassroots knowledge into policy development spaces
In all of these endeavours I remember what drives me: a belief that prisons are mainly full of people who have encountered numerous and complex challenges in life prior to becoming offenders, and who need support to recover and that fixing this desperate state of affairs is everyone’s responsibility.