27 July 2023

Q&A with Karene Taylor, Leaders Unlocked

Young adults

We recently interviewed Karene Taylor from Leaders Unlocked, which has been funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust since 2016. We spoke with Karene about the value of peer support, joining the Campaign Management Group (CMG) that influences T2A’s work, and how employing people with lived experience in HMPPS roles would change the system for the better.

What were your first thoughts when you were approached about joining the CMG?

When I first got asked, I was apprehensive about joining. I was thinking, ‘Do I belong alongside these people who have a history of working in the justice system? I’ve been in the system. Is that enough?’

When you’ve been in the justice system, you feel that your wings have been clipped. That’s why I ultimately decided to join. Representation is key, and I want other young adults to see that this is possible for them too.

I have a unique take and opinion that the rest of CMG can’t offer. I represent people that often aren’t heard. Going through the justice system as a young adult is incredibly tough, and if I can help in any way, I’m glad to have played my part.

How have you found the experience so far?

Young adult participation can be tokenistic, but I always feel my opinion matters.

I’ve found it eye opening to learn about the different issues affecting young adults coming through in the reports from our partners.

But I feel there’s a huge gap between what’s being recommended and what’s being actually done. There are amazing recommendations to improve things for young adults, but no action is taken. I would really like to push for the recommendations to be implemented, and then for us to build on what comes out of that.

How do you include young adults in the work Leaders Unlocked do?

At Leaders Unlocked, we’ve been going into prisons to talk to the young people about their experiences and the current issue we’re seeing where young adults are remaining in the youth estate beyond their 18th birthday.

I can talk to them because I’ve been where they are, and I want to make a difference. I want their real life honest-to-God opinions. We do reports, but they’re collaborative. We want to help and work with young adults and prison officers too.

We created guides to introduce young men and women to the adult estate. We heard what young people were saying and worked together to make a guide. We made it with them and for them.

This also led us to develop training for prison officers to help them communicate more effectively with young adults.

How have you been involved in influencing policy and research?

I’ve been working with Gemma Buckland and UKABIF on a project examining acquired brain injury (ABI) and neurodiversity in young adults. What we’ve found from the Freedom of Information requests about practice in police custody suites is that only two out of 40 police force areas have extra help available for people with a brain injury and none have specific approaches to consider maturity in young adults.

Of the two that did, 39% of the young adults they assessed had ABI or another form of neurodiversity. That must mean there are many young adults going through the justice system with undiagnosed neurodiversity or ABI.

There are also young people out there with undiagnosed autism or ADHD who don’t have the support they need to participate in their trial or to fully understand the process.

You deserve the right to a fair trial, but how can you have a fair trial if you’ve not been diagnosed, and that information presented to the court?

We have co-created a poster to help young adults with brain injury to understand what options they have for support and advice when they are in contact with the criminal justice system.

How can HMPPS empower young adults with lived experience to take on roles in CJS policy and frontline practice? What would the benefits of this approach be?

Leaders Unlocked are incredible at doing this. We say: “Your experiences are your superpowers.”

HMPPS should open pathways for young adults to take on roles in the justice system. But it should be clear that you’re not there as a case study or to add a line to a report about what you’ve gone through. This isn’t tokenism.

The message has to be that your voice can be impactful. We value everything you’ve been through and the perspective that gives you. We want you to work for us because of all that you can bring to the table.

What would the benefits of this approach be?

Young adults who don’t trust those in authority roles won’t tell them what’s going on, but people with lived experience can make those connections. They can say: “Talk to me. I get it. I know you’re struggling. Let me help.”

The young people who are in and out of the justice system don’t see themselves in the people they’ve worked with.

I would love to see prison officers with lived experience who can add a level of depth to those interactions with young adults.

It would make the rehabilitation programmes and activities much more effective as the people delivering them understand what life in the justice system is like. They can be role models for young adults and show them what’s possible.

That is absolutely inspirational for the young adults who are in the system. They can see that things can change and get better because right there in front of them is someone who was in their shoes and is now thriving.

What I’ve been through in my life has meant that I can speak to people who’ve been in trouble, to inspire them to change things. Some of the young people I’ve met would never have thought about using their experiences in that way, but they’ve come to meetings because I’ve reached out. Now they want to change things. They’ve seen it in me. They want it for themselves.