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Introducing Dr Jo Easton: Unlock’s new Director of policy and advocacy

In this quickfire Q&A Jo talks about what brings her to Unlock, what drives her - and her surprising previous career.

How did you come to work in the criminal justice sector, and what drew you to Unlock?

I came to work in the criminal justice sector from an initial passion for human rights. I have been a lifelong member of Amnesty International, and had always enjoyed getting involved in their campaigns when I had spare time. So when I was looking for a change of career about fifteen years ago, working on human rights seemed an obvious choice.  

My first step was to study for a Masters in human rights, then I took my first policy role at a small charity that supported families who had lost someone during the Northern Ireland conflict. The focus was pushing for independent investigations, and the role they could play in helping families understand what happened and move on. This experience eventually led me to INQUEST, which supports families through the investigation process after someone has died in custody. This gave me my first experience of the justice system, and ignited a passion in me to work for the rights of people detained by the state – a passion I followed by taking on a PhD part-time which looked at the value of families participating in investigations after a death.  

A few years into my PhD, I started work at the Magistrates Association, which is a charity that supports magistrates by providing training and advocating for a fairer justice system. The scope of this role allowed me to work on varied topics across both family and criminal justice, which was great. But my main passion was always to be supporting people with convictions to fight the stigma and discrimination they face. So I moved first to the Independent Monitoring Board and Lay Observer (IMB & LO) secretariat and now Unlock. 

I have always been impressed with the work that Unlock does – the impact that you have had on changing the system has been inspiring and I love the model of starting with what people with criminal records are saying and turning it into advocacy and influencing work. It not only empowers people, but also legitimises the policy work and helps focus on real-life impact. One of my family was in prison and I saw first-hand how that affected their life going forward, so I have a personal interest in supporting people with criminal records. But even more than that – my initial passion for human rights was always about challenging the othering of people and fighting for the principle that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. So an opportunity to use my experience to push for change for people with criminal records feels like a perfect convergence. 

What are you most excited about now you’ve joined?

There are so many different things I am excited about now I have joined Unlock – with the list getting longer every week that I am here – it is hard to give just a few examples. But I think the two biggest things for me are to get changes that will make a real difference to people and to try and change the understanding about what a criminal record means. The former is exciting because you know that whether the change is smaller (persuading one employer to change their recruitment practices) or larger (getting a change in law), it is going to make life better for someone.  

But influencing the big picture is a challenge I can’t wait to face – working to change how people see someone with a criminal record to reduce the stigma and discrimination. I know it’s a huge task, but working alongside great colleagues and other superb charities, I really do believe that if you find the right way of engaging someone, there is the potential for them to change their mind.  

Another area that I am particularly interested in is considering intersectionality; looking at different groups and the unique challenges they face. I have previously done work on the disproportionality of the justice system for minority groups, why young adults should be treated differently and how mental health or substance abuse problems closely correlate with getting caught up in the justice system. So I would love to continue that trend! 

What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities created by the current political climate?

The biggest challenge posed by the current political climate has got to be working with a government that is continuing a long-time trend of talking tough about criminal justice. Introducing new criminal offences, new orders to impose incredibly intrusive restrictions and a commitment to more prison places indicates a punitive rather than rehabilitative mindset, as well as escalating the public narrative about crime. But there are always opportunities, if you know where to look.  

There have been recent positives in acknowledging that a more nuanced system that takes account of someone’s maturity as well as mental health or substance abuse problems, with an interest in problem solving, is the gold standard. And there is still undeniable agreement that ensuring people coming out of prison have access to accommodation, education, and jobs is what success looks like. This all means there is potential to push for more reform of the criminal record system – removing anomalies that lead to unfairness and making sure people only face restrictions when necessary and proportionate. As always, it is important to remember that even if the tide seems to be going against you, there are always dedicated people who are willing to put the effort into making things better – you just need to find them. 

Positive change can sometimes feel very slow. What motivates you to get up every day and work to change things?

First and foremost, I really enjoy what I do – I know how lucky I am to have a job that gives me a chance to make a real difference and I am very good at celebrating the small wins. Sometimes that win is actually to prevent a new regressive change being brought in, rather than getting real progress but I always remember that what I am working on has real impact.  

I am a real nerd – I love nothing more than watching parliament tv and spending hours trawling through legislation. I always focus on the detail and am very process-driven so policy and advocacy work suits me perfectly. But policy changes are not intellectual exercises. They affect people who deserve more chances than they are currently getting – to be included, not excluded and the chance to live their lives as fully as possible. I can’t think of anything more motivating! 

Tell us a surprising fact about you

I was at a wedding with an ex-colleague the other week, and she said she was astonished to find out that I have tattoos – but I am not sure that that counts as at least two of my tattoos are pretty obvious! So something less obvious that is a bit of a curve ball is my previous career. Before I started the Masters in human rights, I worked with horses – retraining them and treating them as an equine physio (a bit like a sports physio for racehorses). In fact, I continued as an equine physio on weekends to help fund my PhD and still sometimes treat the odd old client now! 

Written by:

Jo is Unlock’s new Director of policy and advocacy.

Follow Jo on Twitter.

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