No 1 on the wing

So I went to prison on Friday. Not for my crimes against blogging but to meet an offender who was involved with the theft of my school’s laptops over a year ago. It was part of a restorative justice programme and I was invited to meet him and explain how I felt about the crime.

I’ll admit it, I felt a little bit fraudulent about the process. This was not a personal crime: I didn’t feel violated and it didn’t affect me personally so I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to provide the offender with the required amount of anger to restore justice. But as I’d never been to prison before I thought I’d sign up and give it a go.

I had a pre-process meeting with a police officer who would lead the conversation and he took me through what the prison visit would consist of. He also went through what I would say and took notes in case I dried up on the day. I had to really think hard about what I wanted to say – in terms of being authentic and what I thought I should say in order for the process to work. I mean the actual fact that the laptops were awful and the break-in gave me a chance to improve ICT provision probably wasn’t the right message to pass on so I settled on the following:

· I did have to improve internal security on the school site which many parents were concerned about. (I had only been the Head for a month before the robbery happened and straight away I was telling parents that they would be unable to breeze through the school as and when they wanted because I was putting timed locks all over the place– and this tainted my ‘honeymoon’ period somewhat.)

· I had planned to improve the playground but had to spend that money on the internal security as well as improved laptop cages so, one of my big ‘pledges’ had to be put on hold.

· Time…this all took time and took up governor meetings and it was boring and tedious and not what I wanted to spend my first few months in headship doing.

· Staff stay late when we rent out the school hall in the evenings and now they were understandably anxious about an intruder suddenly appearing in their room.

So I turned up at the prison, handed in my keys, phone, showed my ID and we walked through a sort of security air lock room to get through to the prison site and went into the room. The offender was then brought in (I had been asked how I wanted to greet him – I went for a ‘Hello’ and a handshake) and sat down and the process began.

What struck me first, was how young and nervous the offender looked and very soon I found myself talking about the burglary itself. It turns out that he was not one of the people that broke in but was a ‘handler’. There were 15 laptops stolen, he was given 4 to stash (a year after they were stolen) and then tried to sell them on to, as it turned out, some undercover policemen who were taking part in ‘Operation Harvest’. He was serving a 21 month sentence….21 months in prison for trying to sell four crappy laptops.

I asked him how much he intended to sell them for: he reckoned £250 for the lot. He seemed a bit surprised when I told him that it had cost the school around £25,000 to get the security doors done, laptops replaced, networked, new security cages and locks. We both agreed that the cost of the illegal activity in terms of his incarceration and my budget going on security rather than a new playground hadn’t really been worth the potential financial gain. (I also didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was deluded if he thought he would make £250)

I asked him if he felt differently about the stolen laptops when he realised they were from a primary school. He said that at the time he was gutted because it meant they were actually stolen (this wasn’t the first time he had ‘handled’ goods but in the past he could just about lie to himself that the goods were kosher). This time he couldn’t do that and he knew one hundred percent that he was doing something wrong. That worried him. Although he admitted at the time it worried him because it was more likely he would be unable to sell them / get caught. Once in prison, he said he felt bad about the children missing out on ICT – you can read as much honesty as you wish into that last sentiment but again, he seemed genuinely shocked when I said it took over nine months to restore ICT provision (he had estimated a fortnight).

Then he talked about his sentence, the life he had left behind and his plans following his probation. This was, for me, the most interesting part. He talked about how he was now ‘Number one on the wing’. This effectively meant he was head prefect. If other inmates had problems with their cells or life inside, they would go to him and he would liaise with the screws, sorry, prison wardens. He helped set the menus, helped serve and clean up. As he was talking about this his whole body language changed. He sat up, he smiled and he looked proud. He enjoyed the responsibility and the respect it got him.

When he is released he will have many check-ups as he begins to rebuild his life on the straight and narrow. Life will feel very restricted. I reflected and said that it was just another chance for him to show responsibility like he is now as ‘Number one on the wing’. I also said that everyone’s life consists of being checked up on – I didn’t bore him about Ofsted and SIO visits and SATS and HMI and pupil premium and PE and pupil premium plus and universal free school meals and parentview – but I did say that my life is full of rigour and checks and it is dealing with these successfully that gives me a sense of pride. If he embraces these as opportunities to succeed at, he too will feel the pride he currently feels, and he will be in a better place to look after his three year old son, his finance, his ill mother and his deaf brother. We agreed that he had lot of reasons to make it work.

Now, I’m not saying that at this point in the conversation he looked at me and said ‘My God, you’re right, I never thought of that before: I’m a changed man! Thank you!’ But I think it resonated…a bit. Just as he left, we shook hands and he apologised for his crime and I accepted his apology and wished him luck. He gets out a day before my birthday…I’m not planning on inviting him to my birthday party but I will think of him: I hope he’ll be out of prison and I hope he’ll be more than number one on the wing.

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