Monday, 21 December 2015

Putting Margaret in prison will only make her problems worse.

A little over two weeks ago Margaret Wooliscroft was jailed for twenty eight months for breaching an ASBO placed on her five times. The front page article in the Sentinel telling her story sprinkled with claims by neighbours that she had led a 'reign of terror' around Brindley Ford as part of an ongoing dispute over use of the lane by her farm. It also contained the none too flattering comment made by her barrister that she was a 'disagreeable old trout.'

It could have been any tale of a neighbourhood dispute gone too far, the sort of thing that is the stock in trade of any provincial newspaper. I happened though to meet someone a few days after reading the story who has known Margaret for most of her life, the version of events she told me changed my perspective.

Margaret Wooliscroft has suffered from serious mental health problems for many years and has lived a life of frugal isolation on the smallholding left to her by her father that belongs to the century before last, or earlier.

The setting may be modern; the basic scenario though could have been lifted from the pagers of a novel by Thomas Hardy. Not for the first time an awkward outsider has ended up on the wrong end of a serious injustice.

There is no doubt that Margaret could be 'difficult' and would be unlikely to 'engage' with social services of her own volition. That is no excuse though for the way she has been allowed to fall though the cracks of a system that should have done more sooner to help her.

Her conviction and subsequent imprisonment are all to sadly symptomatic of a system that seems to be going back to the values of Victorian times. These, despite their Middle England friendly image, are unthinkingly harsh and show little compassion to anyone who differs from a tightly defined norm.

Their first, last and most powerful instinct when faced with a lifelong member of the awkward squad like Margaret is to hand out punishment. Even though in most cases; and certainly in this case, finding an alternative solution would be fairer for all concerned in the longer term.

Fairness is a term that has assumed an almost totemic stature for we Britons, yet as a society we seem to be fast losing sight of its true meaning.

Margaret Wooliscroft may have been a 'difficult' person, but anyone with even the most basic understanding of mental illness knows that those people who present with the worst behaviour are often the most in need of help. As for the dispute over access to the lane she had come to see as her property that could have been resolved through restorative justice, something Staffordshire Police endorse, in a way that allowed all parties to have their say and sought to find a workable compromise.

All handing her an ASBO and now sending her to prison has done is further entrench Margaret's feelings of alienation and insecurity, feelings she expressed through antagonism. The actual dispute at the heart of this sorry story remains unresolved, in fact it has probably been made worse.

We talk endlessly about the importance of fairness, yet only want to practice it when doing so requires no effort. That makes a mockery of the whole concept; to mean anything fairness must be applied to the most troubled people, not just those who know how to flatter the egos of those handing out the help.

This skewed view of fairness also sets us up as individuals for the fall that lurks at the edge of every life. It takes only one wrong turn, one of the cruel prat-falls life delights in inflicting on the unwary, to put any of us in Margaret's shoes.

Adrift on a sea of troubles and faced with a bureaucracy that has been made hard by having to meet ever more confusing targets and distracted by boxes hungry for ticks. If that happened wouldn't we want to be treated with real fairness by a system that's first instinct was to help not punish?

The answer is yet; so doesn't an awkward woman like Margaret Wooliscroft deserve the same?

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