Road to Somewhere
In his time he’s donned military uniform for the Queen and served a prison sentence for theft. Now Paul Cowley’s life has taken a very different path.
Paul Cowley's CV really is that short: thief, prisoner, soldier, priest. After a difficult childhood, he fell into crime, but in his case, his criminal career was short…
Q: What made such a difference?
The army saved my life. If the army hadn’t given me the opportunity of joining up, I think I would have ended up dead or in prison again. The army is an institution and I like institutions: you know where you are with them. They have boundaries, rules, and I needed that in my life. But it couldn’t really prepare me for normal life, so in some ways, (when I left), I was back where I was before, except I was fitter, stronger, more determined and, looking back, quite angry. What I never gained from my military service was a moral code. Morally, I was a nightmare.
Q: But God intervened…
My first encounter with the God stuff was when my mother died. When I was sorting her stuff out, I found a Bible. It had a number in it, so I rang it, and a lady answered… she told me my mother had become a Christian and the Bible was given to her on her baptism.
Q: In your book, Thief, Prisoner, Soldier, Priest, you talk about a particular army instructor you really disliked,
Eric Martin. And yet you met him again and he had changed?
He was a completely different man, almost unrecognisable. I hated him in the army; he was crazy, a nightmare. He was a boxer and you never knew what he would do next, if you annoyed him. He had an encounter with God and it completely changed him.
Q: And he gave you a scary Bible verse?
Matthew chapter 22, verse 13, is not a Scripture I would really give anyone. But it worked for me. I needed something to shake me. I was a drowning man, not interested in anyone except myself. I would just use people to get what I wanted, then dump them. I was afraid of nothing and cared for nothing. In my experience of being a Christian and a priest now, I realise that God knows us so well, and really knows how to get our attention. Because of the love He has for us, He will use any way He can to rescue us.
Q: When you left prison, you said ‘I’m never coming back here.’ And you didn’t, but most prisoners do. What can be done about the constant cycle of reoffending, and how bad is it?
There are nearly 93,000 people in our UK prisons, and only 3 per cent will never be released due to the horrendous nature of their crimes. So 97 per cent will be released at some point … and within one year, approximately 65 per cent of those released will be back in prison.
Q: You pinpoint six main areas of concern in your book – what are they?
The formative years; the political situation; the physical state of our prisons; more training for all prison staff; mental health issues; and spiritual input.
Q: Surely it is too easy to say ‘It was my parents’ fault…’
There are no excuses for crime, but there are many reasons for it; criminal behaviour can be established early within a child’s mindset, birthed in low self-esteem, trauma or copied behaviour. At the time of writing, the largest group of prisoners in the UK are white males, making up 74.3 per cent of the prison population. Statistically they come from broken homes, are poorly educated and have drug or alcohol dependency, and a high percentage are dealing with some level of mental illness.
Q: So we need to start preventing crime early on?
I believe focussing on the family and schooling is paramount in preventing crime. If the statement released by the Bromley Briefings (Autumn 2015) is true, that ‘three-quarters (76%) of children in custody said they had an absent father and a third had an absent mother’, and ‘39% had been on the child protection register or had experienced neglect or abuse’, then we have to take the information and translate that into radical care earlier on.
Q: Constantly changing ministers doesn’t help?
Since 1997 I have met with over ten ministers of state for prisons, shortly after their appointment, advising them on reoffending issues. Productive conversations have taken place, only for them to be moved, in a matter of months, to another role within the government. Each minister comes up with interesting ideas which are often changed by the next minister. When Rory Stewart took over from Liz Truss, he developed the ‘10 Prison Project’ which highlighted ten prisons to serve as models of excellence for the rest of the prison estate and this has proven to be a success.
Q: Don’t governments think that most of the electorate don’t care so it doesn’t matter?
Governments are reluctant to spend huge amounts of money on prisons as they would appear to be a lower priority. But the changes needed by the prison system demand long-term solutions and therefore have to become part of cross-party policies, otherwise we will keep going over the same ground.
Q: What is wrong with our prisons?
Many of our prisons are in a diabolical state. Most need to be renovated or rebuilt and many need repositioning. In the UK there are ninety Victorian prisons and they are simply not fit for purpose.
Q: And their staff?
With an increase in staff sickness levels and lack of adequately trained staff, the prison system is under huge strain. Prison Officers’ Entry Level Training (POELT) takes ten weeks from application to working on the wings. Having spoken to various prison officers recently, I was told that they are highly stressed because they don’t know how to cope with the inmates’ level of mental illness, especially the violent prisoners and self-harmers.
Q: Do other countries do a better job?
Having spent two days visiting Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison, I saw with my own eyes a radically different institution from the ones I am used to. Hoidal, the prison governor, said, ‘I want the inmates to be calm and peaceful, not angry and violent.’ During my time there I saw officers interacting with inmates, eating together, playing sports together; they talked to them and motivated them. Hoidal calls it ‘dynamic security’, reminding me, ‘We don’t have life sentences here, so we are releasing your neighbour.’ However, in Halden Prison it costs £98,000 per person per year to house a prisoner, compared to between £40,000 and £50,000 in the UK. It takes two years to train their officers but they do have one of the lowest reoffending rates in the world.
Q: What about mental health issues?
Inmates with serious mental health issues should not be in our standard prisons because they not only impact the prison staff, they also impact other inmates. And prison staff are not trained to deal with them; they need to be in specialist care. The criminally insane need to be in secure mental institutions like Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital run by the NHS. But we only have three in the UK: Broadmoor, Ashworth Hospital near Liverpool and Rampton Secure Hospital in Nottingham, and these are at capacity. Suicide watch (an officer sitting outside a prisoner’s cell door, checking an inmate’s behaviour every fifteen minutes) is costly and time consuming, and needs to be dealt with by people far more experienced. It is unfair to put the weight of severe mental health issues on often young, inexperienced officers who are not trained.
Q: You believe spiritual input matters – why?
Interestingly, crime was recorded at its lowest in the UK between 1880 and 1920, and it is not a coincidence that this was also when the largest number of children under fifteen years old attended Sunday school. Sunday school helped children to read and write and taught them a moral code based on the Ten Commandments. In More God, Less Crime, renowned criminologist Byron R. Johnson states: ‘Religion is a powerful antidote to crime . . . faith-motivated individuals, faith-based organisations, and the transforming power of faith itself are proven keys in reducing crime and improving the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.’
Q: What else do chaplains offer?
Pastoral care is very important. During the induction process it is carried out by the chaplaincy team who ask how an inmate feels and what their concerns are. This can make a big difference at the point when they have lost their freedom. A chaplain can bring a sense of shalom (peace) even just for that short period of time. I often think back to my time in Risley. If someone in authority had said, ‘Come and sit down, son; have a cup of tea. Things will get better’, it would have meant the world to me.
Q: What are your solutions?
I put ‘repentance’ first because, in my opinion, it is the most important. However, repentance often comes about due to an inmate having attended a course for rehabilitation, so they often go hand in hand. Repentance is crucial for change. For an offender to recognise their part in a crime and having a heart to repent and change will result in them taking responsibility and acknowledging the consequences.
Often when I visit men and women in prison, they tell me they are innocent, and they believe it, even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Admittedly, there are occasional miscarriages of justice, but generally it takes a while for them really to embrace their part in a crime: what they did and whom they hurt. But when that revelation comes it can be a real release and also devastating at the same time, because suddenly the burden for their crime rests on them. Once you get a conscience and start to have empathy for your victims, change can truly start to happen. Saying sorry, or repenting, is a hugely powerful act. It should be encouraged and facilitated as much as possible, and if you find yourself in prison, it’s a good place to start.
Q: What about rehabilitation?
Prison is never a neutral experience. Prisons will either school an inmate in new forms of criminal behaviour, or hopefully set them on a road to change. Rehabilitation is the key to unlocking the prisons but also to making society safer. Most offenders will be released one day. Do we want them to be rehabilitated and transformed as human beings contributing to society, or do we just want them to stay on the treadmill of reoffending?
Q: What can a mentor add?
The average person has to make 2,000 decisions in a day, yet an inmate will make 200. You can give a person a house or a flat to live in but if they are not ready, they will sabotage it. You can give someone employment but if they are not ready, they will leave. A person can find a partner, get their kids out of care; but if they are not ready, they will self-destruct. If they have a mentor, however, someone to talk to, a potential nightmare situation can be averted. Coming out of prison is often a huge adjustment for an offender to make and having someone walk with them through it can be greatly comforting and empowering.
Q: How would you sum this up?
We have to think differently about the men and women in our prison system as they need more, not less, investment. Identifying and encouraging what works in reforming lives and character is an urgent matter for the public good. This is my passion not just because I’m a Christian, a priest or a social reformer, but because I’m a husband and father, and I want our streets safer for my own family and yours.