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Interview: Edward Smyth, bid-writer, author, and doctoral student

05 November 2021

‘If I could improve one thing in prison immediately, it would be the food’

I write bids to the NHS and the Ministry of Justice commissioners, tendering for prison or community drug and alcohol services. I work for the Forward Trust in Business Development. I visit and talk to our staff and clients all around the country, and must then find a way to convey on paper the extraordinary job they do every day. I see what the Forward Trust can do, and I do believe we’re the best specialists in the drug-and-alcohol service.

Forward was set up in 1991 to replicate the success of abstinence-based drug and alcohol programmes in the US.
Our patron, Sir Anthony Hopkins, provided the funds to open the first intensive drug-rehabilitation programme in a British prison, operating from a Portakabin building at HM Prison Downview.

Since then, Forward has expanded into the community,
and now also provides housing, education, and employment services. This year, we’ll support 30,000 people to break their cycles of addiction and crime.

I came across Forward when I was serving an 18-week prison sentence in 2015.
They provide the drug and alcohol service in that prison, and, while I had no need of it personally, I remembered the name. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and so, as I came to the end of my MSc in Criminology at Oxford, and I saw a bid-writing job advertised at Forward, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Forward is proud that over one third of its staff have experience of addiction or the criminal-justice system.
So “I first encountered Forward while in prison” was an acceptable thing to say in a job interview.

I was very fortunate when I went to prison,
in that I knew I’d be at least OK afterwards because of my class and education, and because I had savings and a home to go back to — and astonishingly supportive friends. I quickly realised how unusual that made me. So, about halfway through my sentence, I knew I wanted — perhaps even had an obligation — to work in the sector.

Studying criminology was half wanting better to understand my own experience
and half making me more employable to criminal-justice organisations. It draws on sociology, psychology, law, and other disciplines, not least politics. It brings a variety of perspectives to bear on crime, and seeks better to understand it as a phenomenon.

I’m now a part-time doctoral student at Durham,
conducting research on effects of prison chaplaincy on the transition of prisoners to release, and how it supports prisoners making that journey.

Prison can be a quite an easy place to become a Christian,
but often Christians in parishes don’t know how to deal with people who’ve just come out of prison, and can snuff out the candle pretty quickly. There’s surprisingly little research into prison chaplaincy, especially in the UK.

Jonathan Aitken and I wrote Doing Time as the book we both wish we’d had on our first night in prison.
It’s my dream that it will be pressed into the hand of any new arrival to prison who wants it. It’s written in a fairly accessible style to account for the much documented low levels of literacy among prisoners, as well as the naturally short attention span of anyone spending their first few hours in prison. My next project is to find someone to fund the production of an audio-book version.

Our political system is why so little is done to adopt best practice in prisons.
Nicola Lacey wrote The Prisoners’ Dilemma, in which she emphasises the importance of the tiny number of floating voters who decide our elections, and the main parties’ consequent terror of being perceived as “soft on crime”. Somehow, we need to get across the message that doubling down on a system which produces a reoffending rate of 47 per cent among prison leavers — at a cost to society of around £11 billion a year — is really being “soft on crime”.

If I could improve one thing immediately, it would be the food.
There will always be those who argue that gruel and water is the appropriate prison diet, but it’s unclear to me how we expect people in prison to invest in their own rehabilitation when the daily budget per prisoner is £2.02, and the nutritional quality of the food produced is truly woeful.

I wasn’t brought up in a religious family,
but, one Saturday evening, when I was nine, out of the blue, I asked my mother if she would take me to the rather idyllic parish church in our village on the Isle of Wight, where I grew up. She wasn’t thrilled, to say the least, but she took me the next morning and until I was old enough to go on my own. I was baptised at ten, and confirmed by the saintly late Bishop of Portsmouth, Kenneth Stevenson, at 13. God was at work that Saturday evening in 1999.

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007,
and died in 2008 at the age of 47. This confirmed to her what she felt she knew: that there is no God. I wondered the same thing, at times, but, a couple of weeks after she died, I started my undergraduate degree at St John’s College, in Durham, and, between St John’s and the cathedral community, I was loved back together and deepened my understanding of God.

Years later, when I went to prison, there was a reckoning:
how can I call myself a Christian and have done something for which I’ve been imprisoned? As I write in the book, crawling back to God on your hands and knees isn’t a bad place to start rebuilding that relationship, and I’ve now done it a couple of times.

A lot of things make me angry.
At the moment, I’m fulminating that, in the last calendar year, we released over 3000 prisoners straight into homelessness. And then we wonder why they keep ending up back inside.

I began singing at university.
I’m not terrible, but I fear enthusiasm considerably outweighs talent. I’m a better conductor, and I recently took a choir of friends down to Wells Cathedral to sing the weekend’s services. I just about got out of the first rehearsal in the quire before crying my eyes out with happiness. For the moment, the “Come and Sing” evensongs at St Matthew’s, Westminster, provide my singing fix.

I was struck by the profound lack of live music in prison;
so I’m a trustee of a marvellous charity. Sing Inside, which uses group-singing workshops in prison to break down social barriers and encourage creativity, confidence, and a greater sense of self-worth.

This past year has shown me that it’s OK not to be OK,
that it’s OK to admit it to people, and that it’s OK to have more than one period of not being OK in your life. Your friends will still love you.

The best sound?
It’s a close-run thing between the sound of the sea, to which I fell asleep for most of my childhood, or the bells of Durham Cathedral ringing the quarters through the night.

The absolutely remarkable people I meet,
day in, day out, through my prison work and study, give me hope for the future. That and an absolute, iron-clad faith that God knows what he’s doing.

I try to thank God
— a lot — for the extraordinary, unexpected life I now find myself living. I pray for my friends who are my family, and I pray for all those whose lives are touched somehow by prison — including, of course, the victims of crime. I’m not in touch with anyone from my prison sentence, but there are still a handful of people I met in there for whom I pray.

I’d like to be locked in a church
with the non-Christian friend who messaged me the other day after I did a radio interview promoting Doing Time, saying: “You’re getting close to me believing in something.” A few hours locked in a church, and I reckon we could get that one over the line.

Edward Smyth was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Doing Time: A spiritual survival guide by Jonathan Aitken and Edward Smyth is published by Lion Books at £6.99 (Church Times Bookshop £6.29); 978-0-7459-8148-2.

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