Justice must be done: persistent prolific offenders, serious thieves and violent criminals must go to prison. Enormous harm is done to society by those who insist on breaking its rules. That’s why reducing reoffending is so crucial, even before we consider the human cost of so many wasted lives.
This was the attitude I took to Acorn Treatment and Housing after accepting the Inner City Challenge extended by the Centre for Social Justice. I wanted to understand how abstinence-based recovery could end re-offending, rebuild lives and bolster society.
On arrival at HM Prison Buckley Hall, I learned I was to have the experience of a visitor not an inmate, for which I was grateful. The wings were clean with single cells and everyone works, but who would want to be locked up 15 hours a day in such a small space, with the lavatory in the corner?
I saw the beginning of two types of treatment for drug addiction: maintenance on methadone and abstinence. I’ll long remember the other-worldly look on the face of one young man high on methadone and the description I heard later of its use: that it makes zombies of living people. Apparently addicts remain on methadone for 20 years or more in some cases. It seems an awful way to deal with people.
Abstinence begins with addicts making a choice to live differently. That is followed by a long struggle to face life as it is, past and present. For the addict, the “clean” life is just for today. Whereas on the wing everyone is a tough guy, in Acorn’s prison group work, people face themselves and reality. Whoever thinks that is the easy option has not experienced it.
Acorn’s clients leave prison to live with one another in supervised houses. I arrived at the house in which I would stay in Levenshulme, Manchester, to discover remarkably smart accommodation for six men. Acorn staff wouldn’t ask recovering addicts to stay anywhere they would not: they are mostly recovering addicts too. That’s what enables them to get alongside their clients with authority and humility in the struggle together towards real life.
And what clients they are. I enjoyed their company, care and good humour notwithstanding their records of theft and violence. In the course of a vibrant conversation which rattled to and fro through the evening, each had their own harrowing story to tell and point to make to the MP. But every one of them shared a single clear goal: to succeed in rehabilitation and so secure a decent future. All knew their choice was rehabilitation, prison or an early death.
In the morning, we headed out to play football. I was rumbled immediately at the sports centre. One of the men from another house observed, “You look too healthy to be here.” “I’m an MP,” I replied. This provided serious comment on the health implications of addiction: everyone else looked much older than their natural age, had lost teeth or had gained heavy scars beneath extremely short hair. Despite ribaldry about my being a marked man, the game was energetic without being exceptionally rough or ill-tempered. We felt better for exercise, underscoring the need for it in a healthy life.
After an inexpensive lunch – clients manage their own money – we headed to the treatment centre for group therapy. Like the clients, I had prepared a diary on the previous day, covering “activating events” and how I had responded to them. With the camera running, Tam, our counsellor, led me through my self-assessment then asked the others for comment on me personally. Had I really signed up for this? I was oddly grateful for the group’s generous remarks, the camera went off and the session continued.
I would not want to be one of the clients. The ferocity with which they must face themselves and their lives is a fearsome thing. Hard, frightening men wept. I recoiled from the horror of what they had done and the horror of what they had suffered. Their past gave no excuse for their futures and they were going through the process of learning to make that freedom a reality.
It was harrowing and brutal. Anyone who thinks the process of achieving abstinence-based rehabilitation is easy has not sat in such a room for such a session. If justice had not already been served in their sentences, then it was served there. It had been for many days before and it would be for many days following.
We went on to an evening meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, which would be a long-term source of support after Acorn.
The following day, it was graduation for two men who had completed the programme. It was extremely emotional as they shared their stories. For most of us, such degradation, torment and suffering is the stuff of statistics, the news and dry reports. It is not, thankfully, a reality lived, a burden borne and a terror left behind.
The people I saw at the end of Acorn Treatment’s programme were rounded individuals at peace with themselves and the world. They were not merely confident that they would avoid reoffending, they were ready for productive and fulfilling lives. The simple things brought them satisfaction: being back in relationship with father, son or partner, having a decent home, buying a bike that isn’t stolen and holding down a job, whether voluntary or paid.
Acorn Treatment and Housing does more than help addicts beat addiction. They also help people return to work. Restore is a furniture restoration shop transforming old and unwanted wooden furniture into stunning “shabby chic” pieces. The shop was pretty and stylish and the cafe excellent. The workers were settled and happy. You would not know from where they had come.
My placement with Acorn was emotionally exhausting. To share a few days full-time with people who have experienced life’s very worst aspects would be a challenge. To layer on top the drama of active rehabilitation was searing. There must be justice but, after that, mercy, forgiveness and transformation. That is what Acorn Treatment and Housing delivers: a full package to remake lives, offered with the humility and authority of recovering addicts.
If people will make that crucial choice to set themselves free, support towards abstinence is how we should help.
To find out more about the CSJ’s Inner City Challenges click here.