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"Re-hab doesn't do what it says on the tin"

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

- written by Eric Ellison - The Guardian

The road to rehabilitation is not an easy one to tread. It is littered with obstacles – some, seemingly laid by a criminal justice system bent on setting up offenders to fail. And we know that society at large does not roll out the welcome mat for those returning from prison. But what about those organisations set up to support offenders trying to go straight? Surely they do what it says on their tins?

Not so, according to two sisters I recently had the pleasure of meeting. In 2003, they were sentenced to eight years in jail, for conspiring to import and supply cocaine. It was their first offence, they were aged 19 and 18, and came from a respectable family. They were not drug users. They openly admit that their crime was motivated by greed, but say in mitigation that they were seduced by the apparent lifestyle of the "successful" role models of their area – the drug dealers.

The sisters spent the first two years of their sentence in London's Holloway prison and witnessed scenes that aged them far beyond their years: women "cutting up" on a daily basis; women having their babies taken from them; a friend who hanged herself and was brain dead for months before her life-support machine was switched off; and, of course, the drug-taking and bullying.

Shocked and appalled by what they saw, they vowed to work towards preventing other young people from treading their path – "to show people the real consequences of crime".

They gained qualifications in English, maths and business studies. And after their release in 2007, they embarked on their mission with high hopes. Over the next 18 months, they worked with three organisations, all either funded by the government or involved with government agencies. And the sisters say the experience did little for their own rehabilitation. Their work, with vulnerable women and children and discharged prisoners, was unpaid, but they were promised places on the payroll, only to see staff with no criminal records constantly jumping over them in the promotion queue. Worse still, they say they were made to feel "different" from the "clean" staff. They say the organisations treated them as token ex-offenders, ticking the right boxes.

The sisters' experience is not unique. Several ex-offenders who have come into contact with rehabilitation agencies say condescension often hangs in the air at such meetings. Some say they feel they are "trundled out" as tame ex-cons.

Fortunately, this story promises a happy ending.

The question of leopards and spots stems from a biblical quote that goes on to note "then may ye also do good that are accustomed to evil". I am not a God-botherer and have no truck with the concept of evil. But I know good when I see it. And I see it here. Pity others didn't.

Eric Allison writes on criminal justice.

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