My first encounter with the justice system was via the County Courts, the Court granted me a licence to operate as a publican. I was 20 years old at the time and was informed it was unusual for the Court to award such responsibility to someone so young.
Unfortunately, my second encounter, five years later, led to the Crown Court imprisoning me for a period of my life. However, the time was not wasted, I decided that the time would be used to educate myself since I entered prison with limited educational attainment.
In 2016, I graduated via the Open University (OU), in collaboration with the University of Law, achieving an Upper Second-Class Honours Degree in Law.
Whilst studying, I setup a Peer Led Initiative (PLI) in HMP Oakwood, a prison law support service called Your Consultation Group (YCG). The service was available to all stakeholders (i.e. prisoners and staff), it was designed to ensure all parties were clear of what their rights and responsibilities are, in line with the statutory and non-statutory legislation that governs the prison estate. The service evolved from being a trusted source of legal information to provide access to justice via solicitor clinics, and surgeries with the Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC).
The initiative was quickly recognised as best practice by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) and advertised in their online toolkit. Since then, our interactions with the PRT have involved submissions on policies (e.g., the recent white paper), presenting on lived experience panels via their Prisoner Policy Network (PPN), and discussions on specific subject areas regarding the prison estate.
Group numbers rose quickly to a sixteen-man team enabling it to manage the daily throughput of enquiries. The team developed a training course to ensure that caseworkers (serving prisoners) had a thorough knowledge of the relevant policies, and that they were competent in locating and providing the correct information in a way that all were able to comprehend.
In 2018, the prison introduced me to the then Director General of the Justice Analysis and Offender Policy Group, who in turn introduced me to the then Head of Deregulation and Operational Policy. This resulted in YCG critically evaluating non-statutory prison policy and submitting commentary on policy flaws and anomalies. The group soon received stakeholder consultee status.
A year after my graduation, I was a runner up in the Mike Batty Award, which was something I had never anticipated being put forward for. This is an OU award that was set up in 2008. It permits tutors to nominate a prison student - in The Midlands - who has demonstrated a high level of progression or has succeeded against all the odds. It recognises the students’ achievements and is also a commemoration of Mike’s work in this area. Such commendation made all the challenging work I had been doing feel worthwhile.
Early 2022, I was released from custody, and now I have setup a social enterprise (YCG Trust) which is the delivery mechanism for the PLI. We have engaged two former prisoners to work with us for the delivery of the initiative across the prison estate.
My further thoughts were much wider than the PLI described above and evolved because of seeing how difficult it was to educate yourself in prison.
It is often misconceived that prisoners have time on their hands to study, when in fact, prisons have engaging regimes that consume most of the day (running from 7am until 8pm in some establishments). Set aside attempting to find time in the day to study, access to technology is scarce, lack of access to forums and workshops restricts the type of courses you are able to study, moving from prison-to-prison causes disruption (e.g. one prison may allow you to study a subject and the next will not), often access to tutors is denied, and these are but a few of the difficulties to overcome.
Over the last six months, we have developed our Engagement, Education, Training, Employment and Accommodation (EETEA) model, a fully integrated solution to the reoffending rate which currently costs the taxpayer £18.1 billion per annum. Our fully integrated solution is delivered via our YCG companies. The engagement element is delivered via YCG Trust, the education and training are delivered by YCG Academy (via a digital platform), and the employment and accommodation aspects are delivered by YCG Pathways.
We collaborate with our justice partners the: CCRC, PPN, PRT, Chrysalis Foundation, and we are currently exploring collaboration with the Open Justice Centres’ Criminal Justice Clinic about how we can bridge the gap between sentencing and being able to utilise the services of the CCRC. Part of the discussions to-date have led to the offer of training in Criminal Appeal and Vicarious Trauma in the legal profession, whilst promoting education in the legal sector within our model.
My journey through the Justice System would have been unthinkable at the outset, my initial experience with the justice system was positive followed by my incarceration; however, it led to my academic achievements which have enabled me to work in the justice sector surrounded by peers that teach me something new every day.
My ambition is now to assist as many people as possible who start on the same journey I have been on, to not just aspire for a brighter future, but to achieve it. My aspirations are large; however, my journey has taught me that with arduous work, the right attitude and support you can achieve anything you set your heart and mind toward.
YCG currently employs five ex-offenders and is in talks with a prison about the commencement of its pilot, which will involve taking on many more with a view to reduce the rate of recidivism.
Raffaele Esposito is the Director of Public Affairs at YCG Pathways Limited.