Exit Ahead: Cognitive Thinking & Changing Course

By Mark Leech

Who knows where the journey ends once we tell that first lie – and the second that inevitably follows once the first has been discovered?

Thirty-four year old Fiona Onasanya had been the Member of Parliament for Peterborough for just seven weeks when in July 2017, no doubt distracted, her thoughts elsewhere, the MP and practising solicitor failed to notice the speedometer on her car slip past 40 in the 30 limit – and she missed the road-side speed camera too, until it flashed and caught her car in its trap.

Three weeks later when the section 172 road traffic forms arrived in the post, requiring her to disclose the name of the driver, a clearly marked ‘Exit’ presented itself – all she had to do was take it.

Had she done so, by admitting she was driving, not paying attention, doing 41mph in a 30 limit, there the matter should have ended; slapped wrist, three points, minor fine perhaps and a few finger-wagging tweets on social media from those who would have insisted that an MP should have known better – and they’d be right too; its 30 for a reason after all.

But she didn’t.

Instead, when she signed the forms insisting a friend was driving, not her, and popped those forms in the post, she flew straight past the ‘Exit’ and continued her journey to disaster – but there was another Exit ahead – would she take that perhaps?


A month later, when interviewed under caution by police, instead of taking the Exit by claiming confusion: “I’m so sorry, I’ve now checked my diary, I had the dates wrong, it was me driving after all, ha ha ha, I’m a new MP, life has been so chaotic, I am so so sorry …blah blah blah” – as a solicitor she knew how to mitigate.

But again she ignored the Exit.

There were other Exits too on the road ahead: her first court appearance; then entering of a plea; followed by committal proceedings, and right the way up to the start of her trial, her path was littered with Exit signs – admittedly taking any of these would have presented increasingly greater difficulties in explaining away why previous Exit signs had been missed, but defiant to the end she ignored them all, went to trial – and lost.

The friend she claimed had been driving wasn’t even in the UK on the date the speeding camera caught the car in its double flash, a fact not even she could explain away.

Blindness to exits, or her obstinate refusal to take them, resulted in a three month prison sentence, the loss of her Parliamentary seat and its £79,468 a year salary, her reputation was trashed and finally, today, she was struck off the Solicitors Roll – and all for what?

11 mph.

In group therapy at Grendon prison I learnt to recognise these dangers, it was part of what was called cognitive thinking, a process of learning to recognise dangerous situations, come up with options, and then take one of them.

Recognising Exits is crucial.

During my time in prison I met numerous people serving life sentences for murder, and mostly because they failed to recognise Exits.

Exits that had usually presented themselves many times on the day they took someone’s life.

Exits presenting numerous opportunities that day to turn off, change course, resist peer pressure, seek help, turn left, not right.

Exits that, had they been taken, would have saved a life, spared their future and avoided the devastation the families of those murdered have to go through all because the Exits were ignored.

It’s never too late to take the exit – but you have to recognise they exist to do so.

Which is why prisons like Grendon, and all Therapeutic Communities in prisons, are so vital.

They equip people with exit recognition skills and the ability, no matter what the pressure to continue on a course destined to end in disaster, to take the Exit before it’s too late.

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales, he tweets under the name @prisonsorguk

HMP GRENDON – An Impressive Prison Working With Long Term Inmates

grendonandspringhillsignHMP Grendon offered excellent opportunities to the men it held to understand and address their offending behaviour, said Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the training prison in Buckinghamshire.

HMP Grendon holds just over 200 men, all of whom are serving long sentences. All were at the prison to undertake accredited therapy in one of five democratic therapeutic communities (TCs). Grendon is one of only two prisons in England and Wales dedicated specifically to this type of work. TCs provide prisoners with a range of therapy so they can understand and address their offending behaviour and live in a collaborative setting with their peers and staff. Prisoners are given a say in the day-to-day running of the jail, which aims to equip them with greater insight into their own behaviour and instil in them a greater sense of responsibility. This happens within the usual security imperatives of a category B prison. At its last inspection in 2013, inspectors described a safe, decent prison with an excellent focus on therapy but with some improvement needed on the provision of training and education.

Inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • most men reported feeling safe and secure and far fewer men than at the last inspection felt victimised by staff;
  • violent incidents remained infrequent, the prison operated without a segregation unit and very few men were required to move to other jails for security or disciplinary reasons;
  • although the physical fabric of the prison was shabby, men showed respect towards their living environment and staff made efforts to ensure they had the wherewithal to live decently;
  • relationships between staff and prisoners and among prisoners and their peers were excellent and underpinned much that was positive about Grendon;
  • therapy was the main purposeful activity and consumed a significant proportion of the day;
  • time out of cell was excellent, a range of activities were offered and work, skills and learning provision had improved; and
  • the whole prison was focused on providing a rehabilitative culture and environment.

Inspectors found, however, that the automated night sanitation system was outdated and presented real challenges.

Peter Clarke said:

         “The strong picture we reported at our previous inspection had been enhanced, and outcomes were even better. Nearly all recommendations we made previously had been achieved, or significant progress made in doing so. Many men at the prison recognised the benefits of the opportunities offered and how they would help them live offending-free lives in the future. This was in no small part down to the strong, principled and focused leadership of the prison, which provided more junior staff and prisoners with role models, exemplifying the positive behaviour and thinking expected of them. Not every prison can or needs to be a therapeutic community, but the values, principles and practice seen at Grendon could provide positive lessons and inspiration for other prisons. HM Prison and Probation Service should ensure this example is shared more widely for the benefits of others.”