A Stretch day out in Oxford

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A STRETCH DAY IN OXFORD

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Probationary

Last week I happened to be going up to Oxford to attend a charity event for Stretch, when it transpired that Carlotta and Vicky were going to be there too. This was a very fortuitous convergence as it meant I was invited to join them at the Howard’s League conference in Keble College about the future of care leavers. This began with a ridiculously delicious dinner in a hall as tall as it was long it seemed, and it was very long indeed. It oozed brains, the past, Englishness and privilege. As someone who has never considered acquiring wealth or status a priority (well sort of status, but not via the establishment), I have never really seen such spaces as within my remit of attainment in any way or form. But, I must confess, when actually in one, it does engender a certain sense of awe and I wonder at the people who have this as part of their daily lives. Ultimately having the same effect on me as visiting a prison, I suppose. Spaces designed by human hand. They tell you a lot about how we understand ourselves.

But what about transitions between those spaces? Enter Probationary, a game we played in the afternoon, in a much more modest space (do you like my transition between these paragraphs?). Produced by FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) after running  a number of workshops with men on license, Probationary takes the player through the various stages between being released from prison and being safe from returning. In my team of four, we were each given a character card – I was Jonny. He was 29, disciplined and had served a three year sentence. He was also homeless, with various restrictions on his license of people he couldn’t see and jobs he couldn’t apply for. Ok, so I couldn’t apply to do a PhD at Keble College as I’m not qualified, but not being allowed to apply for a job in hospitality? It’s not always walls that hold us in.

As we went round the board, or tried to, we each had to remember when we had to ‘check in with the Eye’. The Eye, in real life, was a very warm and concise Master of Ceremonies who knew the game inside and out thank goodness, because it was complicated. This was conceptual, because life on probation is complicated. The game very cleverly weaved realities for people who are on license by factoring in skills gained, emotions felt, and relationships garnered. The latter could be lost owing to an emotion, but skills were always kept. However, the emotions are unweildy during such a precarious chapter of existence, and fate often delivers a blows as families remain distant, or more worryingly, the system itself lets the licensee down often owing to a high turnover of Probation Officers, their whimsy, and lack of supporting admin. The PO cards came with characteristics too, and getting a good one created a cheer! However, landing on a certain square could change all that. Jonny had seven POs which could absolutely happen in a fairly short space of time for a released prisoner.

Checking in represented an appointment with our PO and if we forgot it could result in being sent back to prison. In real life, it might be less to do with the licensee forgetting, and more to do with not actually being able to attend. Jonny for example who was homeless would need to find the fair to get there. I thankfully remembered all of Jonny’s appointments but some members of the team didn’t and had to go back to Release.

Maybe it was because of this that I had the dubious pleasure of winning! Jonny got a home, a job, lots of positive emotions and relationships, symbolised by charming little plastic houses, rings and clusters. But alas, there was little to no skill involved. And that was the biggest lesson from this game. Relying on luck is not a way for anyone to live.

Probationary brought up lots of questions – both about life on probation, and how the game was designed to give us almost a virtual experience. It’s interesting that a game, as well as a story, can be an instrument of learning and empathy building.

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Children Heard and Seen

When I was 12, I had an aunt who was sent to Holloway prison. She was leaving behind my 3 year old cousin who had no-one to look after her so my mum took her in and she stayed with us for the summer of ’88. The effect of this on me was profound, and too much for discussion here, but it was nothing compared to the effect that my aunt’s departure had on my cousin. I saw first-hand the effects of the devastation caused upon the wellbeing of a child in this circumstance and I will never forget it. Therefore it gladdens me immensely that Children Heard and Seen exist. Founded by Sarah Burrows, the charity offers targeted intervention, parent programmes, and mentoring for children who have an incarcerated parent or parents.

The event was a celebration of art work by children across the county who had answered the brief ‘What would it be like to have a parent in prison?’ They did this through drawings, paintings and poetry. Daniel Lee and Korky Paul who wrote and illustrated the book Finding Dad were judges, as well as THE Sir Trevor McDonald! He happened to take the seat right in front of me and I kept looking at the back of his head like it was the dark side of the moon given all those years we only ever saw the front of it on telly!

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What struck me about the work on display was that the question had clearly been given to children who were imagining what it would be like, and to those who already knew. Amongst those who had imagined, similar themes came up – shame, fear of bullying, still loving the parent. But those who were living through the experience understandably offered a wider and more nuanced range of responses, from highlighting mental health issues to choosing optimism.

The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the screening of a short film by Lukee and his mentor about having his father in prison. Lukee stood on stage to introduce the film, and talk a little bit about mentoring and how it has helped him. He was beyond adorable, this kid. Part of me wants to say that he was just your ordinary 10, 11 maybe 12 year old boy, but he wasn’t. He was shy and nervous, yes, but as I watched the film, he also struck me as being a person who had somehow found joy out of surviving despite the odds, despite the pain.

The film was great – funny, touching, poignant, informative, and lead with such a strong voice in Lukee. His final message was to other children in his position, ‘YOU haven’t done anything wrong.’

Everyone was crying after that. Apart from Lukee, thank goodness.

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