In this blog Equalities Ambassador Johanna-Alice Cooke discusses her personal journey and the system of rehabilitation in Scotland.
I’m Johanna and I’m a volunteer Equality Ambassador with EaRN. Not long ago I was something different… This blog is about recovery, offending and why how we treat those moving away from offending behaviour is an equality issue affecting us all.
My offences were committed in a clump in the summer of 2016. I’ve three Statutory Breaches of the Peace convictions, and served an eighteen month community payback order in consequence. That’s the bare facts, but below the surface, I’m a woman scarred by an abusive childhood, who did desperate things that only hurt herself in a mental health crisis.
My sentence was a positive thing for me because in Scotland a lot of offending behaviours are also seen as public health issues rather than solely as criminal justice issues. My sentence was for support and treatment in a vulnerable women’s recovery and rehabilitation project called Willow here in Edinburgh.
No one ever changes a person in any positive and lasting way by treating them unjustly or by stigmatising them. What happened to me in the supervision sessions, which I would have attended without the order, was that my story was heard, the injustices in my life recognised, and the reasons I went off the rails identified and acknowledged. Once I was understood as a person, I moved into group sessions, a lot of which were about mental health and recovery – one option was the same Survive and Thrive course the NHS delivers across Scotland each year. Another was an introduction to MBT, a therapy expressly designed to help people with my kind of issues. I finished up in individual sessions with a clinical psychologist working focussing on me and my recovery.
So many of the women who offend in Scotland suffer from Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (or Borderline). The offences we commit are generally less serious and less violent than those committed by men. The reasons women offend are often rooted in the poor mental health that exposure to abuse and neglect throughout their lives engenders.
The Scottish approach is simple: Address the mental health issues that underlie offending behaviours and you can increase quality of life and reduce the potential for reoffending at the same time.
It’s not easy recovering. You expect to be hated, stigmatised and blamed. You can be bereft of even hope of hoping. You need to learn to want to hope, to hope, and to trust the people supervising you are there to first help you, and administrate your sentence second. You have to reach deep inside and recognise this is an awful, painful and protracted process of learning to be more in control of your emotions, thoughts and life.
Another thing I am is a psychology student. So I understood the process at Willow and how it could help me. I saw other women without that insight hoping and engaging anyway every day. I saw women like me recovering and doing it together just reinforced our progress.
The system works. Investing in helping offenders rather than inflicting punitive sentences positively changes lives.
At some point your time in the safety of somewhere like Willow ends, and the wider-world awaits you. Only you don’t take that step alone. You just direct where the transition takes you and get supported through it.
For me that’s Volunteer Edinburgh. I wanted to be part of creating greater equality. Walking through the front door and telling my story for the first time was really terrifying!
For a recovering offender like me, what we most need after spending years being helped to put ourselves back together is for that to be recognised. It’s not wiping the slate clean, it’s simply seeing us holistically.
Holistically is exactly how I was seen here, and how I became an Equality Ambassador, doing work I love. Since then I’ve talked with a really diverse range of people and only ever seen compassion for me and admiration of the work projects like Willow do when I tell my story.
I’m also autistic. I find it hard not to be open and honest and to the point. So when I tell my story it’s everything, not a version that makes me look good. I don’t have to look better than I am. I made some mistakes and did some wrong things, and I’m someone who took all the help available and became the person writing this. That’s enough.
I’m one of the success stories, I won’t reoffend and I’m not alone in recovering from offending. What I feel towards our justice system which could have punished me, but showed me compassion and invested in helping me instead is simple gratitude.
Whilst my story is personal, the wider societal issue here is reducing offending in Scotland.
That’s why how we treat recovering offenders is an equality issue that affects us all. Yes, we need to assess offenders leaving a sentence carefully. That’s common-sense. However we also need to see the person holistically. Rejection and self-hate are big parts of the poor mental health that many of Scotland’s female offenders suffer. When we finish a sentence, we’re like people the day a cast is removed. We work, but for a time we aren’t resilient and break easily.
Being seen as people and having our offending placed in the context of what we’ve done since, as well as the offending, and recognising the work we’ve done to recover and change, supports us and shows the stigma of minor offending does end and that recovering offenders can re-join our society with minimal barriers. To not have that reinforces rejection and self-hate and pushes us back towards the kind of poor mental health where we could offend again. And that is bad for everyone.
But if recovering offenders enjoy better mental health and don’t offend again, everybody wins.
How often can we genuinely say that?