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Challenging negative stereotypes

The Unpacking Everyday Encounters seminar was chaired by isles MP Alistair Carmichael. Photo: Patrick Mainland

SOCIAL isolation, prejudices within communities and alternatives to prison were just a few of the complex local issues explored at the Unpacking Everyday Encounters seminar on Tuesday, writes Patrick Mainland.

This year’s event, the fifth annual ‘Unpacking’ seminar, had a particular focus on the importance of everyday ‘banal’ conversations. In other words, how reaching out to isolated people, particularly ex-prisoners attempting to reintegrate with their communities, can be done in small, simple ways.

Over 40 people attended the event at Islesburgh, which featured a number of speakers and workshops. It was organised in association with the Shetland Community Justice Partnership. Previous seminars had dealt with the topics of justice and forgiveness, among others.

Chaired by MP Alistair Carmichael, the day’s keynote speaker was Rob Strachan of the Scottish Prison Service.

He began his talk by outlining the current state of Scotland’s prison system and the many challenges it faces, including a changing prisoner population and the limitations of the prison estate.

Strachan emphasised that we as individuals had a responsibility to challenge negative stereotypes, and to provide support to those trying to integrate back into communities, with the hope of stopping them from reoffending in future.

He also brought attention to other problems faced by ex-prisoners, such as a “myriad of bureaucracy”.

Providing more of a local angle, freelance consultant Fiona Robertson spoke about efforts to tackle feelings of loneliness and isolation within Shetland, and her involvement in the Make a Difference sessions.

These sessions were developed following the 2016 Shetland Commission on Tackling Inequality, which highlighted among many other issues the negative impact of loneliness in local communities.

Robertson explained that these negative feelings can come from all manner of situations, including major life experiences, changes in personal circumstances, and the actions of others. However, the sessions had provided much insight into the causes of loneliness and had positively impacted on participants.

Last to speak was Caroline Cooper of the Scottish charity Families Outside, which supports families affected by imprisonment – an often overlooked aspect of society despite an estimated 20,000 children in Scotland having a parent in prison.

She explained the many difficulties faced by those in this situation, from money problems, to physical and mental health problems, as well as encountering prejudice from others.

The presentations met an engaged audience who asked a number of questions and brought up further points, including more discussion on how various institutions – the government, agencies, media, and members of the community – can work together to find more effective methods of justice.

One such method is restorative justice – with Clair Aldington, of charity Space2face, pointing out that research shows restorative methods to be very effective, with the question now being how best to implement it in the criminal justice system.

The second half of the day consisted of a number of workshops led by some of the speakers on the panel as well as others including procurator fiscal Duncan Mackenzie and the founders of Space2face, Clair Aldington and Alyson Halcrow.

If there was one unifying message to take away from the event it seemed to be that all of us have a part to play in how we integrate people back into our communities – and that a little goes a long way in how we achieve this. Even small talk can bring big benefits.