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A positive state of mind: real life stories of desistance

A conference on desistance and the secure estate would not be everybody’s first choice for a Friday night out. It’s a testament to the high regard in which the conference organiser Bilal Dunn is held in that nearly 100 people made the trek to the Hendon campus of Middlesex University, in the outer reaches of north London, to attend a captivating and emotional event on Friday 1st August.

The evening had a range of speakers from Kevin McGrath -  the High Sheriff of London and the founder of the Clink restaurant charity,  which runs a number of high cuisine restaurants based in HMP establishments across the country training prisoners in the various culinary trades to work in the best restaurants in the country - through to Bobby Cummins OBE, founder of Unlock the national association of reformed offenders and a former government advisor on the inquiry into the death of Zahid Mubarak.

All the speakers spoke with a great conviction and intelligence, sharing sharp analysis and a passion for the need to reform the system to give those held in custody dignity and a chance to rehabilitate. The potential benefits for society are not only saving on the huge resources squandered across the justice system but also the opportunity of a better society where the belief in rehabilitation not retribution is a core value.

Bilal spoke candidly about his own life and journey and what had led him to change. His talk wove a story of personal transformation within academic theory and critical analysis of a failing system.

He contrasted the approach in the UK, which has the worst prison system outcomes amongst Western European countries, with a number of international examples. His most notable example was Norway, where the introduction of the government’s reintegration guarantee in 2005 set a context for agencies to place the rehabilitation and effective reintegration of the offender back into society at the heart of the Government’s approach to the Norwegian justice system

Bilal spoke critically of the penal/justice system in relation to his own road to desistance. He made clear that the system does nothing to create an environment for the kind of personal change that would instigate a desistance process. In the UK there is a sense that whenever desistance occurs within an individual it’s despite the penal/justice system rather than because of it.

 There are many great books and theses on desistance theory but this event probably gave me a greater understanding of desistance and how it can be a force for good than from reading a dozen books.

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