BY JAMES TWOMEY
The leader of a project that helps ex-offenders when they leave prison wants to change the narrative around probation services.
Michael Groce, 56, is a well known figure in the Brixton community for his work with ex-offenders and his connection to the Brixton Riots in 1985.
It was his mother who was shot dead lying in bed by police officers that provided the spark to ignite days of rage and looting in the area.
Michael, who is an ex-offender, has put all his efforts into restorative justice for his community.
Michael’s latest project, Locked in the Pen, gives former offenders an opportunity to address the criminal justice system and discuss the cycle of reoffending.
David Scott is a 39-year-old ex-offender who has been through the Locked in the Pen programme and said that without Michael’s guidance the programme would not be the same.
David grew up in Tulse Hill and was convicted for numerous crimes including a bank robbery.
“I think because of Michael’s experience it was a blessing for me,” said David. “I don’t think just anyone would be able to empower people like me. Rehab inside doesn’t have the same impact.
With help from Michael, David managed to find work as a barber and has just qualified for a SIA security licence.
David said: “I could connect with Michael. Just seeing what he’s doing helped me. The programme built me up as a person. A bigger man.
“For anyone coming out of prison now I would direct them to Locked in the Pen. Everyone on the inside is used to the same philosophy.
A lot of people come out and report to probation services but they don’t understand the life we’re living.
“You don’t know what it’s like you can’t relate. It’s an ‘us and them’ thing like prisoners and screws.
David said thanks to Michael and the Locked in the Pen project his future is looking bright.
“Locked in the Pen is a creative writing project,” said Michael. “It’s about delivering restorative justice back to your community through workshops and discussions.
“How can we better prepare these people for a life outside prison and how does restorative justice fit in?
“I’ve been an ex-offender for 30 years and my behaviour didn’t change until I started restorative justice.
If I could change given the criminal I was then there is a route of restoring yourself back in your community.”
Last Friday’s terror attack brought probation services into the spotlight as Usman Khan, the man responsible, was on probation for earlier terror offences.
The whole probation system has been criticised widely by political parties in the run up to next week’s election.
“The mayhem on the bridge was bad but the narrative that the probation service is falling apart is wrong,” said Michael.
“He was known to MI5 and with all their money and resources how can the probation service be responsible? That guy slipped through their system.
“But there does need to be more funding and involvement for front line services.
We need more people with better understanding of how to communicate with ex offenders.
“Cut the red tape and allow small companies to be paid on time and work under a common goal. Sometimes we have had to wait 6 months to get paid.
“The culture of probation services needs to change big time. If everyone’s doing everything they can as they say they are then something needs to change.”
“Another narrative that needs to change is the story of young black men.
I’d be dead if I’d carried on following that narrative but I had a spark of hope. I just needed a tiny bit to spark into something big.
“What happened after the attack in London Bridge I’ve never seen them do that for a young black person in Brixton. When I see people on TV talking about these things I see no one like me.”
Edward Shivmangal is an offender management co-ordinator for the London Community Rehabilitation Company in Lambeth and has worked with Michael.
He said: “The more successful interventions we deliver the more lives we change which will help make the communities we live in safer.
“I also believe that there is a lack of knowledge within the wider public of the good work we do and the hard work the people going through our service do for themselves.
“There are good news stories all the time. As a service previously probation has not really promoted the good work we do or blown its own trumpet as it were.
“Therefore, often it is the bad news that is noticed by the general public.”
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