Newsmaker: Political prisoner - Julian Corner, Chief executive, Revolving Doors Agency

Katherine Demopoulos

If you've ever wondered why well grounded and innovative criminal justice strategies don't get off the ground, then speak to Julian Corner.

Formerly a civil servant, Corner moved into the voluntary sector when he found that he had reached the limit of what was achievable within government for reducing re-offending among ex-prisoners.

Aged just 32, Corner now heads up the Revolving Doors Agency, the London-based charity focused on ex-inmates with mental-health problems. Revolving Doors believes in taking a rounded approach to each person it encounters.

Rather than compartmentalise individuals, it recognises that each comes with a complex set of issues that must be tackled together. It was this joined-up approach that was lacking in government, and that attracted Corner to the charity.

An interest in public policy drew Corner from the world of academia to the civil service. Following a stint at the Department of Education, he co-authored the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) 2002 report on reducing re-offending among ex-prisoners. Corner hoped the recommendations it made on tackling factors such as housing and finances for ex-prisoners would result in a well rounded policy document, bringing departments together for an integrated solution.

In fact, what he experienced was 18 months of negotiating, with plenty of dug-in heels, which led to a watered-down policy document - a 60-point National Action Plan that he deems an "inaction plan." He says the needs of a largely neglected and complex sector of society were thwarted by politicking, departmental self-interest and a lack of real understanding or leadership.

He says: "Although the Government has taken huge steps forward in putting in place education and drug treatment and, to a certain extent, some healthcare for prisoners, it was ducking a lot of the issues which the SEU report had come out with - about prisoners' finance on release, their housing needs and their access to things like primary care."

Corner says decision makers often don't understand the reality of the lives of people caught up in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, decision makers don't grasp the situation that the ex-prisoner may be released into, one that may have been exacerbated by imprisonment itself.

"What a number of government departments seem to assume is that prisoners can come out of prison, homeless, out of contact with their family, with no healthcare, no money, with a drug dealer standing at the end of the road, and that somehow they will be able to make this work. Any objective analysis would say that you're setting this person up to fail, which is a rather dangerous thing to do with somebody who apparently was of such concern that you had just been locking them up."

The SEU report came up with evidence-based recommendations across the spectrum of offenders' needs. But Corner says departments prevaricated: firstly because of the perceived difficulty of selling to a punitively minded electorate a strategy that sought to improve the accommodation or personal finances of offenders; and secondly, there was a feeling that only one department, the Home Office, would actually benefit from the concerted action of nine departments.

The SEU needed a cross-departmental offensive to cutting re-offending, but departments were unwilling to commit themselves. "That isn't a priority of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster, or the Department of Work and Pensions. Their priorities are elsewhere. So how do you get them on board to reduce re-offending?"

And despite Tony Blair's assertion that the SEU report "highlights how intrinsically linked this level of social exclusion is with re-offending", Corner says there was a lack of central, sensible leadership to link departments: "To join up government policy it needs to have been led from the centre. In order to grasp some of the more difficult issues of social exclusion, you need direct authority from Number 10." However, the Prime Minister's priorities moved on to more visible issues.

In the end, two years of talking led to the National Action Plan that was released in July. Corner says there is not that much in it that demands real action. Crucially, the issues of discharge grants, accommodation, and primary care have been fudged and will continue to catch out offenders.

After the frustrations of being involved in a policy that will continue to see people with complex needs slipping through cracks in the system, Corner is clearly happy to be leading Revolving Doors. Positioning itself as a research organisation that wants to understand the multiple needs of its clients and influence government and other organisations, Revolving Doors puts its money where its mouth is. It has developed linkworker schemes that aim to help clients navigate the myriad systems they encounter post-release, as well as involving clients in developing its agenda.

And though Corner's own future career path is undefined, his empathy for the individual and his wish to remain firmly grounded in ex-offenders' needs is the driving force behind his work.

"Our clients are whole, complex human beings and all they want to do is live a rewarding life - but often, the system seems designed to prevent them doing that. At the end of the day, if we can make a difference for these people, then we have made an enormous difference. It's about creating possibility in an area that a lot of people have actually just written off."

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