How to Stay Out of Jail review – almost miraculously uplifting TV

What’s the opposite of a trigger warning? A joyful vow? A promise of redemption? A wild-eyed clutch of the arm and a plea to read, watch or listen to what follows? Whatever it is, Channel 4’s documentary How to Stay Out of Jail needs one. At long last, it will irrigate your spirit with something other than tears of despair.

It is unpromising subject matter for such a project. This is a film following people who have come to the attention of the police after such actions as hitting their child with a leather belt, drunk driving, threatening a neighbour – and then the arresting officer – with a spade, handling stolen goods (and suspected links to many burglaries) and child neglect. When we first meet them, there is nothing much to get the hope or even empathy glands juicing.

Then we see them with their assigned members of Checkpoint. This is a team of specialist officers led by DC Jo McGregor-Taylor, to which custody sergeants across Durham may refer anyone they feel could benefit from the team’s swift, interventionist approach. Participants must promise not to repeat the crime and confront any underlying causes identified; they must apologise to their victims and adhere to any other conditions Checkpoint deems necessary. They sign a contract. If they stick to it, their charges will be wiped. If they breach it, they will head to court with a recommendation from the police for an increased sentence.

Jo, lead detective at Checkpoint.

Creating hope … DC Jo McGregor-Taylor, lead detective at Checkpoint in How to Stay Out of Jail. Photograph: Channel 4

What unfolds thereafter is exactly what you want to see. Exactly what you spend most of your time screaming that these people should be offered while watching other programmes about the police, criminal justice, prison, foster care, education, legal or any other system in this beleaguered, unkind and austerity-led land.

The Checkpoint women – and they are all, probably not coincidentally, women – roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to unpicking people’s problems and working out what brought them from there to here. Complex needs are identified, unravelled and addressed. Difference is made.

John was referred to Checkpoint for hitting his son with a belt; he faces the possibility of a six-month sentence and removal from the family home. Stammering, anxious, ashamed, he can hardly look at his case worker, Lucy, during their initial interview. It is his first offence and took place after a breakdown at work, an overdose and three years of unemployment. He lashed out after his son was sent home from school, where he has – unsurprisingly, you might say – been having many problems, for making racist comments.

John signs up willingly to his contract and manages everything except attending therapy for his anxiety. Talking about problems is not what his late and much-loved army dad taught him. “You don’t want anyone else to worry about you.” Lucy has someone – another man, a little older than John – come round and talk to him instead. You can almost see weight lift off his shoulders.

Most of Checkpoint’s other clients – many of whom had chaotic childhoods, often marked by bereavement or time in care – find help, succour and experience some measure of recovery, too. Some don’t. More embedded, chronic problems such as drug addiction are harder to overcome – although who knows where John (a different one), who is an addict, might be now if someone had intervened earlier in a life that began with him being fostered at six months old.

I said that the Checkpoint staff “roll up their sleeves and get stuck in”, but that diminishes the skill with which they address varying and often contradictory needs within clients, never mind between them. It also downplays the enormous amount of work – and negotiating – it must have taken many others in the policymaking chain to get this initiative off the ground. Its origins were not examined by the programme, but I would have loved to hear about them.

Checkpoint is so simple, so sensible and so directly in opposition to the prevailing punitive mood – to the modern preference for being seen to do something rather than build something new and real – that long before you see the resulting stats it feels as though you are witnessing something extraordinary. (Those stats show that Checkpoint participants reoffend at a rate of 26%, compared with the standard 60%.) “We can’t make miracles,” says Rachel, a member of the team. “But we can believe in someone, we can be real, we can be human.” It sounds miraculous enough.


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