It was 30 years ago, when I was still a young reporter for the Catholic Herald, that my editor sent me to interview Lord Longford. I was very reluctant to go, knowing only his tabloid caricature as “Lord Wrongford”, the misguided defender of Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderer.
It took about 30 minutes in his company for Frank Longford to win me over.
What did it was when, in context of the thousands of prisoners (almost all of them not infamous) he had visited since he started going into jails as a young city councillor in the 1930s, and he remarked on the importance of always holding firm to the prospect of rehabilitation.
“Once you start saying that any individual cannot be reformed or redeemed,” he told me, “you are not only letting that individual down. You are letting yourself down”.
Part of the human condition, he explained, was that we are capable of change, by the grace of God.
To deny that about others is to deny it about ourselves.
It was a view that sprang first and foremost from his strong Catholic faith. And that maxim, three decades on, is what informs the work of the Longford Trust, the charity set up in his name.
In Frank’s memory, and with the support of his family, friends and admirers, the Longford Trust continues to believe that those in prison can be rehabilitated. To which end we offer scholarships each year to 20 young serving and ex-prisoners to go to university. Another firm belief of Frank’s was that education changes lives.
And it does. Our awards – of financial support and mentoring from our band of trained volunteers – last for up to the three years that a degree takes. Of the almost 200 prisoners we have now worked with, over 80% have gone on to graduate, get a job, stay out of prison, build successful lives, get married, and have children. Only five per cent have returned to jail.
That has been achieved at a time when the general reoffending rate for those who have been released from prison is between 40 and 60 per cent of prisoners, depending on age group. That’s what a helping hand, an open mind and a willingness to believe in rehabilitation can achieve.
Among the many obstacles that those ex-prisoners we support face, are those that pop up when they apply to universities. They may have worked hard to achieve the right grades for entry, but their criminal record means they have to undergo a risk assessment.
There is currently no agreed format for this, no right of appeal, and no overall body ensuring that such assessments are carried out fairly.
Universities, I am constantly told by organisations such as UCAS (which handles the admissions procedure), are independent bodies, and their hands cannot be tied on admissions to anything so restrictive as a code of conduct.
Bu they are also funded by the tax-payer, and this taxpayer would like to see a little more consistency and justice, and a little less scepticism about rehabilitation, in how they operate. In fairness, some are blameless, but they are a small number.
Most of our Longford Scholars have to fight their corners hard, and endure multiple setbacks, in order to end up with a university place.
However, once there, something almost miraculous happens. The same universities that have hitherto been so reluctant to take an ex-prisoner onto their courses, discover that these individuals are not a type but human beings.
Once tutors and administrators start dealing daily with the actual person behind that list of crimes detailed on the application form, they find someone not unlike themselves, although often with a life story that has some bearing on why they ended up behind bars.
The figures are familiar but bear repeating. Some 70 per cent of prisoners have been excluded from school during their time in education. Equally high numbers come from broken homes, or have been in care, or have mental health issues.
So what is to be learned from this curious process? At its simplest, when we talk about prisoners, always remember that each one is a human being, with the potential to reform and rehabilitate him or herself. Don’t treat them as a group apart, to be put behind locked gates and walls because they are different from us.
They are as precious in God’s eyes as the rest of us. And most of all remember Frank Longford’s words: never write them off as beyond reform or redemption for that diminishes every single one of us.
The 15th Longford Lecture will be given on Wednesday November 16th, 2016:
“Michael Gove: What is Really Criminal about our Justice System?”
More information can be found on the Longford Trust website.
CTS Prison Appeal will be open until the end of October 2016. There are different ways you can donate:
– on our dedicated JustGiving page
– via phone by calling our office
– text BIBL16 to 70070 to donate a Bible (£10)
Thanks to your support, we have helped many prisoners. This month, we can achieve even more. Thank you