November 6, 2020

Care Leavers in Custody - An Inside View from The Outside

Tusnyme Ghilani
Former Service User
Student of Crimonology, De Montfort University

This week InsightsOnline brings you something special as part of National Care Leaver's Week. Tusnyme "Tee" Ghilani is a care leaver and former prisoner who has excelled following her release and is now reading for a Criminology degree. Read on for her truly authentic, inspiring and thought provoking blog which takes us inside the hugely challenging world of young adults who leave care, struggle and then find themselves in the prison system.

I didn’t know what it meant to be a care leaver. As far as I was aware, I was just an abandoned child who was constantly being passed around by different systems. It started with the parental system which wasn’t very effective, so I moved on to the care system where I was repeatedly passed around care and foster homes. Then finally, I fell into the criminal justice system, further isolated and separated from society when my behaviour became uncontrollable. As a care leaver, I already associated bad behaviour with being removed from placements. So, arriving in prison at the age of 19 I didn’t care, because you don’t understand the impact of that metal door closing on you and being all alone with only your thoughts.

Throughout my time under social services and the leaving care team I had many different workers which could be frustrating. This can be the case for many different reasons - breakdown in relationships, probably a bit to do with my bad behaviour and possibly lack of staff to maintain caseloads. All of these factors led to at least some of us as care leavers building up a very negative image of workers from that sector. However, being a care leaver in custody is the perfect time to work on the relationship between personal advisers and care leavers as they are in a stable environment where progress and goals can be monitored by all the people involved in the young adult’s care. During my time in custody I started to become more aware of the issues around services provided to care leavers in custody. It quickly became apparent that many care leavers in custody feel that because they are in custody and not actively causing an issue, that they become lost and forgotten within the system.  Creating that stable environment with active support throughout their custody journey can have a very positive impact on prison community morale as well as teaching the young adult how to have meaningful interactions.

When a relevant or former relevant child enters custody, the leaving care service still has a duty of care and is required to continue pathway planning. They should also have seen the young person within 10 days of them being in custody. This is so important as it just gives the young adult a familiar face to interact with during their first few weeks as this can be the time that is especially scary and overwhelming. You also have to remember during this time most other inmates would have had contact with their family members which is something care leavers don’t always have the luxury of being able to do. If involved early, the responsible local authority can then begin to work with the criminal justice services to support the young person emotionally, practically and financially whilst in custody and heading towards release.

The prison’s approach to dealing with the care and development of care leavers is something that is constantly evolving and the more the support needs of care leavers are understood and explored, the better the outcomes will be. My own experience is limited to only two female prisons however I found that the peer advisor system was particularly effective when working with care leavers as they sometimes felt more comfortable approaching groups of their peers than members of staff. Peer support are also able to provide a more constant level of help as they are integrated within the prison and are there from day to day, whereas a particular member of staff may not be. Also, care leavers can be incredibly reserved about declaring their care experience due to the negative connotations being in care holds. However, I was privileged enough to see an abundance of real relationships and support networks being formed between care leavers who shared a common path and staff members who became role models and people to aspire to rather than individuals solely there to carry out our ‘punishment.’

Being a ‘care leaver’ comes with a stigma attached that is usually negative, so when asked the question on entry to custody if they have any care history you will find they rarely disclose willingly. Another reason they are not forthcoming with this information is due to their sometimes, shaky relationship with people in authority. Getting people to be more forthcoming with this information is something that is always going to present as a problem, but I once again recommend that staff use the peer system to encourage this. Engaging help from other care experienced individuals seems be very effective. Also, taking time to explain to the young adult exactly why the question is being asked will help. If they were made aware it was to better support them and identify key people involved in their progression, they would be more laid back about divulging key personal details. Some young adults are already defensive due to the situation they find themselves in and may only become more so when questions surrounding their care experience are approached. It is important for all prison staff to try and understand care leavers and adapt their approach when working with them.

The role Leaving care workers play within a young adult’s rehabilitation process is incredibly important. In my case it was the first time I had been isolated away from all the negative influences in my life and was finally thinking clearly about the direction I wanted my life to take. This provided the perfect opportunity for my leaving care worker to have new conversations with me about my personal development and ideas that I perhaps wouldn’t have been open to hearing had I not ended up in custody. My view is that there are also a lot of improvements to be made to the accommodation provided for care leavers on release. This could possibly be the most important part of a care leavers rehabilitation. For the period of their incarceration they were provided with a stable ‘home setting’ devoid of chaotic day to day life pressures. If they are then released to accommodation which doesn’t add to and encourage that development and stability, all that hard work and progress that was made whilst in custody has to start all over again.

Prison can provide an understanding and nurturing environment for the care leaver and positive progress is still being made on this. However, we must ensure that this support doesn’t immediately stop when they move through the gate. That constant level of care, being able to approach someone at any point, that constant safety net must not be removed all at once with no follow through. The preconceived ideas care leavers have about finally being released can be clouded by excitement and we rarely take the time to consider how daunting the process of a fresh start can be. Care Leavers probably require even more hands on post release support than they themselves could foresee.

Being back in the community, I had so many ideas of what I wanted to achieve, but no idea of how to go about doing so. There are a lot of things to be taken into account such as financial dependency, organising and running a house hold and also the difficulties having a criminal conviction can present. It is very important to build good relationships with your probation officer as they support your applications and advocate on your behalf as they have done for me many times when faced with adversity. However, of all people released from custody, I believe care leavers are amongst the most vulnerable of individuals, with many of them ending up back on the street, returning to bad associations or in some cases returning to abusive partners as they have nowhere else to go. I ask all professionals to please be mindful of this when dealing with us. People involved in my care learned that as a care leaver I really struggled to ask for help even when I desperately needed it. In order to help me the best way they could, they often checked in even if I didn’t and wouldn’t take ‘I’m fine’ as my final answer. Sometimes care leavers need a bit of a push before they will voice concerns.

Throughout my life, I haven’t been able to identify positive role models and have a bad habit of looking for that role model in negative people. However, during my time in custody I was surrounded by so many positive role models. For the first time, members of staff who only knew me due to a crime I had committed, believed in me and that I had the potential to achieve so much more. The staff provided me with a clear environment for growth and development and supported me every step of the way. I am an incredibly ambitious individual with dreams most of society would believe not to be possible for me. But the prison staff I encountered and who were paramount in my rehabilitation never let me stop reaching for the stars and adapted my care plan to ensure I was fulfilling these goals. If it wasn’t possible me to achieve something immediately due to being in custody, they looked for alternative ways for development or alternative solutions. These members of staff continue to have a positive impact on my life even after release, either directly or indirectly and have provided me with not only the skills to achieve but the hope that it is possible.

As prison staff, for most people in custody you will be their first port of call and be the people who interact with the individuals the most. Therefore, the care and time you give, particularly to care leavers, listening to their troubles and dreams goes a long way towards them having a ‘can do’ mind-set on release. Even on my bad days, I remember the staff from OMU, the safer custody teams and all the brilliant external agencies I was able to interact with while in custody who gave me back my voice. When I first entered custody, for a long time I was very reserved. I hardly interacted at all as I was very broken-spirited. But going to prison was the saving grace that I so desperately needed as I then was guided and championed into becoming the successful adult I am today.

Through all areas of the criminal justice system I have had the pleasure of interacting with a range of staff. Prison officers, Probation workers and local authorities individually do amazing work, but I feel a more inclusive and coordinated programme of support needs to be given to care leavers. From my own experience there is sometimes a lack of communication between supporting agencies. A lot of care leavers leaving custody, like me, choose to move to a different area of the country for a fresh start. However, this is one of the hardest tasks you can attempt and a more full-on care plan and interaction is necessary because if you’re anything like me, I struggled to ask for help and found myself suffering in silence at many points. There are many different ways to bridge gaps in communication between agencies, but I definitely recommend having all parties together either electronically or face-to-face prior to the young adult’s release. This ensures everyone is aware of the role they are playing within the care leavers rehabilitation as well as giving professionals enough time to carry out any remaining tasks before the young person’s release.

On entry to custody, I had a very single-track mind, I was there for punishment and I had every expectation of returning to the life I led before custody. I never imagined that people who were essentially strangers would see something different in me. Yes, I already had the passion, but without the platform and support I don’t think it would have been a reality. It wasn’t something I was able to do alone and thankfully I wasn’t, despite my pre-conceived ideas surrounding prison staff. You never know the impact you will have on another person’s life. Something as simple as a little time out of your day can become a lost young person’s redemption.

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