Thursday, 30 June 2016

So Where Now For Prison Reform?

Michael Gove has done the dirty on Boris Johnson and is standing for the Conservative Party leadership. If successful, he could become the next prime minister. Where will this leave his plans for prison reform?

Gove: Boris didn’t even see it coming
As regular readers will know, I’ve blogged previously on why I feared Mr Gove would prove to be a big disappointment when it came to reforming our overcrowded, understaffed prisons (read here). After making all the right noises when he was appointed as Secretary of State for Justice in May 2015, there were a few quick wins (mainly reversing the most ridiculous policies of his unlamented predecessor Chris Grayling, such as the ban on posting in books to prisoners), but overall progress has been painfully slow.

True, there has been the much vaunted announcement of six ‘reform prisons’ where governing governors will enjoy far greater autonomy than their counterparts in non-reform establishments, but it’s unclear whether this experiment will deliver a model that could be rolled out across the whole dysfunctional system. It remains early days, yet with the current crisis engulfing prisons in violence on a daily basis time may fast be running out.

It is also worth noting that Mr Gove has encouraged governors to make more use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) as part of the resettlement process. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, ‘Calamity Chris’ who responded to a handful of serious incidents by doing his best to eliminate any potential risk to the public by imposing restrictions on the granting on ROTL. These include requiring time-consuming psychological evaluations, as well as increasing the amount of bureaucracy involved prior to the granting of temporary release. The end result has been to set back resettlement work at many jails, especially Cat-Ds (open prisons).

IPP: no laughing matter
Mr Gove has also asked the new chair of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, to review the way in which prisoners who are still serving the widely discredited indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) are treated. Although the sentence – introduced in 2005 by former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett – was discontinued in 2012, around 80 percent of the 4,100 IPPs continue to be held beyond the minimum tariff handed down by the courts. This alone costs the taxpayer an estimated £500 million per year.

Of these prisoners, 400 or so have now served sentences five times longer than their tariff, often because offending behaviour courses are unavailable or because they live with mental health conditions that hold back their progress. It is also well documented that IPPs have disproportionally higher rates of suicide and self-harm than other inmates.

However, it is should also be noted that behind these positive initiatives lies a prison system deep in crisis. Anyone still in any doubt about this should take a long hard look at the report issued in May by Parliament’s Justice Committee, the body of MPs that oversees the work of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

Justice Committee: damning conclusions on prisons
The Committee’s damning conclusions were summarised by committee chairman Bob Neill MP: “The Ministry of Justice hope that prison safety would stabilise. In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so.” He also warned that without swift action, the entire prison reform programme would be undermined.

Violence – both between prisoners and against members of staff – has continued to dominate our prisons, while suicide and self-harm statistics remain appallingly high and show no sign of abating. Moreover, overcrowded wings are quite literally awash with drugs of all kinds and illicit mobile phones are readily available to keep criminal businesses operational from behind bars. These challenges are evident in the pages of almost report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons or the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

In the last couple of years our prisons have become much more dangerous places. Incidents of ‘concerted indiscipline’ – which can range from a few prisoners refusing to return to their cells, right up to full scale riots that leave whole wings uninhabitable – take place behind the high walls out of public view. Few cases actually make it into the media unless one or more prisoners actually manage to make it up on to the roof where the authorities can’t keep it quiet. Often it is only the local papers that report on the disturbances taking place.

Tactical response: a cell extraction
In May, Parliament’s Justice Committee heard evidence that HMPS’ Tactical Response Group – often dubbed ‘the riot squad’ – is now being called out 30-40 times per month to deal with prison unrest. One of the most recent serious riots took place at HMP Erlestoke, a Cat-C establishment near Devizes, on 11-12 June. Two wings were reportedly trashed and around 140 inmates transferred to other prisons. Whether or not there was a direct link between the smoking ban, which began at Erlestoke on 23 May, remains to be confirmed officially. However, such tensions are unlikely to have helped matters.

A significant amount of violence in prisons is gang-related, as well as linked closely to the drugs trade and cycles of debt that this encourages. Although the new Psychoactive Substances Act, which became law on 26 May 2016, criminalises the possession in prison of what were once called ‘legal highs’, it is probably too early to predict what the impact on the availability and use of such drugs in prisons will be. Past experience with other illegal drugs suggests that the affect may well be marginal, other than putting the prison disciplinary system under further strain.

EU prisoners face tensions
It also cannot be ignored that the current tensions over the Brexit debate might fuel violence in at least some of our prisons. Most establishments have prisoners from other EU countries who tend to band together for protection or for social support and given the current levels of disorder and violence in our prisons, clashes between individuals or groups of nationals cannot be ruled out.

Many prisons also remain understaffed and this continues to have a negative impact on the daily regime provided, leaving more and more inmates locked in their cells for up to 22 or 23 hours per day, thus fuelling resentment and anger. At the same time, the recruitment drive to plug gaps in staffing at prisons in England and Wales was not delivering very impressive results. Of the 2,250 prison officers recruited in 2015, only 440 remained in post, a situation attributed to poor retention rates.

Whatever the outcome of Mr Gove’s bid for the Conservative Party leadership, it seems a fairly safe bet that his time at the MOJ is effectively over. It could be argued that in the 13 months he has been in post he has at least initiated various policy reviews and that some of these will take time to come to fruition. Supporters will no doubt cite the launch of the ‘reform prisons’ as evidence that there is at least the potential for fundamental change in the way our prisons are managed at a local level. Critics point out that many so-called new initiatives have actually been attempted previously, but have been abandoned for a range of reasons, including cost or political expediency.

HMP Wandsworth: overcrowded
On the other hand, our prison population remains stubbornly high, at 85,130 this week in England and Wales, although this is slightly down on the 85,576 incarcerated in the same period in 2015. Many prisons are also grossly overcrowded, such as HMP Kennet which is currently as 188 percent of normal capacity (329 inmates compared to 175 certified normal capacity) or HMP Wandsworth at 170 percent (1,600 compared to 943).

Bold initiatives, such as granting early release to many prisoners who are serving short sentences for non-violent offences, or greatly reducing the number of unconvicted people being held on pre-trial remand do not seem to be on the MOJ agenda. It is worth noting that on average only 17 percent of the 10,000 remand prisoners will actually receive a custodial sentence at court. The remainder will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted or will be given a non-custodial penalty. Each prisoner still costs the taxpayer an average of £36,260 per year, innocent or guilty.

Then there is the vexed question of foreign national prisoners who usually account for around 10,000 of the prison population at any time. The Early Removal Scheme (ERS) which offers foreign nationals who volunteer to leave the UK up to 270 days ‘discount’ on their sentences does exist, but as the Justice Committee has regularly highlighted, it is very poorly managed and numbers taking advantage of it remain low. In addition, there is a lengthy list of categories of prisoner who are not eligible for this incentive (which is separate to the bilateral system for transferring foreign nationals back to their home countries to continue serving their sentences).

MOJ: more budget cuts to come?
Finally, there are the budgetary implications of prison reform, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty following the recent referendum vote to leave the European Union. If the impact of austerity was severe for the prison sector in England and Wales, it remains to be seen what further damage a lengthy recession and reduced public spending could inflict. Reducing the overall prison population may become more than a reforming objective. It may become an unavoidable economic necessity.  

If Mr Gove’s time at the MOJ is indeed coming to an end, he will leave a poisoned chalice for his successor. Expectations for fundamental reform of our prison system remain high and, as the Justice Committee has warned, the current situation is simply not sustainable. On the other hand, staff morale is at rock bottom and the strategy for recruitment and retention of new officers is not proving a success. Whoever takes over may find that there is a very long, hot summer ahead regardless of the weather outside.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Guest post: Employment with a Criminal Record

A View from the Front Line

By Kate Beech, Managing Director of Chance 2013

(This guest post has been contributed by Kate Beech who is the Managing Director of Chance 2013, a national employment agency that recruits for employers from only among people who have a criminal record. The views expressed below are Kate’s and there is no commercial relationship between Chance 2013 and Prison UK: an Insider’s View).

In 2013 I set up Chance 2013 as an employment agency exclusively for people with a criminal record. Oh boy, was I naïve at the start. I had no experience of the criminal justice system and had never even been inside a prison until 2012. So you may ask: why on earth did I start it? I have to admit that I’ve thought that myself many times when let down by yet another potential client who changes their mind about giving people a chance or when a potential candidate for a job doesn’t turn up for interview or else fails a routine drug test.

Naïvety made me think that Probation (both NPS and the CRCs) would welcome me with open arms as part of their rehabilitation role must surely be to help with employment. I was so wrong. After three years there are still many probation officers who claim to have nobody on their caseload who is looking for work. I’m not saying that they are all bad but it seems that a significant proportion are not interested in helping those they supervise and are merely ticking boxes. The work programme providers are a mixed bunch as well, even though there are vast amounts of money involved to get their clients into work.

Getting involved with the criminal justice sector and seeing how it works is fascinating. Why can some prisons offer opportunities for prisoners to obtain useful qualifications and tickets such as Personal Track Safety (PTS) or Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards, when other establishments seem horrified at the idea and continue with courses that are as useful on the outside as a chocolate teapot?

PTS card: required to work on the rails
We’re talking to prisons about courses that would be helpful on release and have the trainers ready, but surely that isn’t really our job? There is an acute skills shortage in many areas including engineering, civil engineering and construction so WHY aren’t more prisons addressing this as a priority, thus enabling people to find legitimate paid work quickly on release? Since finding and keeping gainful employment is recognised as a major factor in reducing reoffending after release from custody, then surely it is an obvious way forward.

Getting a job is difficult for many these days, but it can be nearly impossible if you’ve got a criminal record. Even the most self-confident individuals can feel intimidated and be made to feel stupid by the very young, often inexperienced advisors at Job Centres.

JobCentre Plus: not always pleasant
I had the misfortune of having to sign up with a local Job Centre 25 years ago and the person who I had to deal with was probably one of the nastiest that I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The truly shocking fact is that the staff do not appear to be any better in 2016, even with all the training and support they get prior to dealing with their clients. Going to sign on is not a pleasant experience for anyone who wants to work and having to disclose an unspent conviction must make it even worse.

It’s all fine and good for the directors or owners of large corporations and businesses to say that they support the current ‘ban the box’ campaign and that they have no problem with taking on employees who have a criminal record, but the actual person - perhaps relatively low down in the business HR department - who handles the initial application may not be aware of this policy. Why can’t we as a society be more grown up about this and accept that when someone’s sentence, whether custodial or non-custodial, has been served it’s time to move on and put it in the past where it belongs? Hopefully, our agency removes barriers that include having to write disclosure letters - we’re not interested in them - and our clients aren’t either, as they trust us to put forward appropriate candidates for the vacancies.

Banning the Box: does HR know?
Now that we’re working with reputable, well-known local and national companies yet another issue has arisen. It’s always been a case of which to concentrate on first: the candidates or the jobs? However, now we’ve got stacks of jobs on offer where are the candidates? Statistics I’ve found seem to show, maybe incorrectly, that there are approximately 250,000 people being supervised by Probation or CRCs at any one time, so again I ask, how can we reach them and help put them on the path to legal employment?

Advertising vacancies only open to those with criminal records could be seen as discriminatory, yet at the same time many companies and employers can still discriminate against those with unspent convictions. And it’s not only those who have more recent convictions who may need help. How many of the 9.2 million people in the UK with a criminal record are stuck in a job they hate or are too well-qualified for because they are afraid to rock the boat and fear the possibility of their past history with the criminal justice system coming to light? With enhanced checks how relevant is it that an applicant for a role as a carer was caught shoplifting 20 years ago?

We’re having success stories and here are just a few I’d like to share with blog readers:

The first guy we placed 2 years ago with a very well known civil engineering firm has just been promoted, with a large increase in salary. He is so different now and has grown in confidence immensely. Life is great for him and he’ll be their managing director in the future (well, I have to keep him on his toes!)

DT - started with another civils company on a trial basis for three months. After a couple of weeks they were so impressed with his work that they started sending him on courses. He’s now working full time with them and loving the job. He says we’ve not only changed his life, but also those of his children. I ask you, can there be any better reward than that?

PS & MC are now fully trained “superstars” (according to their bosses) in traffic management. Again following a three-month trial period they’re now both working full-time and will go far I’m sure. They now also have qualifications which should mean they’re never out of work again.

So to end. Where are the enthusiastic candidates for the positions Chance 2013 are seeking to fill for our clients? My absolute mission is to prove once and for all that people with a criminal record are no different than those without and will prove to be an asset to an employer. Before you shout, of course there may be some failures, but surely that’s just life and is the same for any employment agency.

On a personal note I’m so proud of every success and keep in touch with everyone who has been placed by our agency. Anyone who fails or is struggling continues to get our support, as well as that of the charities and agencies we link with. We don’t want anyone to just slip unnoticed back into old ways just because there is nobody there to help.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Dickensian Disasters: Wormwood Scrubs

The Scrubs in London has been a byword for grim Victorian-era prisons, yet the latest HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) report has managed to exceed all expectations. From drugs and rampant rats to filthy wings and a pervasive climate of fear, HMP Wormwood Scrubs seems to have it all.

By any standards this is a failing prison in crisis and the report highlights some of the reasons for the culture of idleness, violence and squalor that would not be unfamiliar to Charles Dickens himself. In fact, some of these revelations might have actually managed to shock him, especially the violence, idleness and easily availability of drugs and illicit alcohol behind bars.

Just in case anyone doesn’t fancy trawling through the 120-odd pages of the inspectors’grim report (read here), I have selected a just few of the choice highlights:

Half of the prisoners felt unsafe, with many too afraid even to leave their cells
Recorded assaults against staff and other prisoners had doubled
Drugs were easily available, with 15 percent of prisoners failing mandatory drug test (MDTs), although there is no testing for new psychoactive substances (NPS)
There was significant evidence of gang-related activity and debt
The vast majority of inmates – 75 percent – were confined to their cells for 22 or more hours a day, while only 25 percent were engaged in activities.
600 prisoners out of 1,258 were unemployed
Most prisoners had not been assigned an offender supervisor
There was a backlog of risk assessments

Broken window, broken system
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the physical conditions of the prison are poor and the place is infested by rats. The endless litany of structural problems includes broken windows in which paper had been stuffed in a bid to keep out the wind and rain. Prisoners at risk of suicide were being held in cells with jagged glass shards from shattered panes easily accessible, an invitation to disaster if ever these was one.

The report also highlights staff shortages and a toxic combination of poor relations between the prison management and the Prison Officers Association (POA) which have been involved in a bitter dispute over working practices. It is noted that attempts by the governor to sort out the daily regime (timetable) had been a source of friction and extended negotiations. Despite an eventual agreement between the two sides, even the revised schedule wasn’t being delivered consistently.

Against this backdrop, there was little incentive for prisoners to behave, not least because if they did get ‘nicked’ (put on a charge for breaching the prison rules) there was such a long backlog of governor’s adjudications that many charges had to be discontinued because the process simply ran out of time. Presumably some prisoners serving short sentences were actually released before they could attend an adjudication. In other words, the internal discipline system was basically a farce.

Scrubs: not much rehabilitation here
It is also of concern that support for any meaningful rehabilitation or resettlement was noted as being very poor. Despite repeated warnings about the risks of privatising much of the Probation Service, the former Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, went ahead regardless. If proof were needed that the resulting Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) just don’t deliver, then the evidence is here in this report. Formerly, 95 percent of prisoners being released from the Scrubs had some form of accommodation to go to. Now the figure has fallen to 60 percent. Given that stable accommodation is universally recognised as a vital factor in reducing reoffending, this should be of concern to everyone.

The report should also be a red flag for the current Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, since he has repeatedly stated that education should be at the heart of rehabilitation. According to HMIP, there has been deterioration in education, training and employment at Wormwood Scrubs.

In the interests of balance, it is only fair to note that in the latest report the chaplaincy is assessed as performing strongly, while mental health services are judged to be good. However, those are particularly noteworthy because of the abject shortcomings documented across the rest of the establishment.

The Scrub's most contented inmates
No-one who knows anything about our penal system is under any illusions that Cat-B local prisons are easy to manage. They aren’t. By their very nature they have a continually changing population of prisoners (some on remand, many convicted) who arrive directly from the courts, bringing with them a wide variety of problems, including drug and alcohol dependencies and mental health problems, many undiagnosed. Some new receptions will just be starting long sentences, with all the tensions and frustrations that usually involves. However, the Scrubs seems to be trapped in a culture of institutional failure.

Of course, it is not alone. In the past two or three years there have been very few outstanding examples of successful establishments that are delivering against the Prison Service’s own targets. Most HMIP reports highlight a need for improvement, yet even by the generally dismal standards of prisons in England and Wales, Wormwood Scrubs is a genuine disaster area.

Ironically, according to the Guardian, a leaked earlier draft of this report was even more damning about the prison’s failings (read here). This raises potentially embarrassing questions about why the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke – a former senior police officer and the preferred candidate of Mr Gove – saw fit to tone down criticism of the Scrubs. This leak also suggests that someone inside the Inspectorate isn’t happy with the decision to water down the report’s conclusions, so perhaps future leaks may occur.

In these difficult times, a tame chief inspector could prove to be the undoing of the HMIP’s credibility. Unless the official watchdog barks loudly enough, those further up the food chain are unlikely to listen or take action.

Watching the watchdogs
There were already serious concerns that the HMIP under Mr Clarke might be more ‘accommodating’ to the government’s political sensitivities than it was during the tenure of his predecessor Nick Hardwick. The charge of ‘sexing down’ the report is a serious one and some explanation will be required.

Nevertheless, the report as it stands is a shocker. So why have things gone so badly wrong? Simply blaming antiquated Victorian-era buildings isn’t really an excuse. True, ageing, crumbling brickwork with bad drains and dodgy plumbing doesn’t make managing a prison any easier or cheaper, but relations between staff and inmates – and between frontline officers and senior management – are actually much more important, as is establishing a workable, dependable daily routine.

Prisoners are generally prepared to put up with grubby, dismal cells as long as they get time out from behind their doors to work (and earn a few pounds), attend the gym to let of some steam, get to the library and have visits from their families. Keep the regime running and cancelled activities to a minimum and most prisons can be kept on an even keel even when resources are scarce. Fail to achieve those objectives and any establishment – even a state of the art modern jail – can quickly descend into chaos, frustration and even serious violence. The acknowledged history of poor industrial relations between the POA and the prison management at the Scrubs suggests that, as is often the case, prisoners have been caught in the middle of a toxic dispute over working practices.

We have heard a great deal in recent months about Michael Gove’s reputation as a prison reformer. Even the prime minister has enthused about the need to sort out our failing, dysfunctional prisons. However, over 11 months into the current government’s mandate, the deep cracks are so evident at jails like Wormwood Scrubs that urgent action is needed to demonstrate all this talk of reform isn’t merely puffs of meaningless hot air from Westminster.

Andrew Selous MP: in the firing line?
Moreover, surely someone needs to be held accountable for the deplorable state our prisons have been permitted to descend into. No amount of pious platitudes from ministers, or from Michael Spurr, the head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is going to fix this mess. Action is required now.

Sadly, criticisms of this particular jail are nothing new. Back in September 2014 the Scrubs was condemned by the inspectorate as ‘filthy and unsafe’. Five prisoners had committed suicide there in 2013 alone. Yet two years on the situation has continued to deteriorate. Why? Is this the result of incompetent leadership at governor level or does the root of the malaise go far deeper - and higher?

It also raises the question as to why Andrew Selous MP, the prisons minister since July 2014, has not been summoned to Parliament to answer for this catalogue of institutional failure which has occurred – and is still occurring – on his watch as a junior minister. If any political head should roll over this shameful excuse for a prison, then Mr Selous would seem to be a prime candidate for the loss of his, followed by a swift return to the obscurity of the Tory back benches. Whether anyone else would step up to take on the poisoned chalice of our prisons is another question, but the time has surely come for someone in the Ministry of Justice to take responsibility?

Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Journey into the Depths of the Night

Readers of this blog often ask me about what my experience of imprisonment means to me as an ex-prisoner. Usually they are facing a prison sentence, sometimes quite long stretches, and are trying to make sense of what is about to happen to them. Or else it could be family members who are anxious over what their loved one might be going through in jail and concerned about how incarceration might change the person they know and care about.

A very dark night
Although it’s relatively easy to describe the basics of prison in a straightforward, factual way, it be can much more difficult to deal with the psychological and emotional impact of confinement. Prison changes everyone. Often for the worse, but sometimes the experience can also provide an opportunity for personal growth and greater self-awareness.

Prison is a voyage of discovery, a journey into the depths of the night, the longest night of the human soul, and maybe it is a wicked thing to say, but it has been a blessing in the heaviest disguise.

I rediscovered these words – written by the English novelist John King – when I was searching through some prison paperwork this morning. I had read his dystopian account of confinement, The Prison House (2004), when I was banged-up in a pretty grim Victorian-era Cat-B prison and this particular sentence really stood out. In fact, it came to mean so much to me that I actually wrote it out on a spare prison envelope and pinned it to my cell notice board next to my bunk. This scrap of paper is one of the survivals from my time inside and I have it on my desk beside me as I’m typing this post.

A blast from the past
Seeing time in prison as a journey appealed to me, as did the idea of using my time inside as a journey of discovery about myself, as well as others. Almost anyone can imagine being deprived of material possessions, decent food and even sympathetic human contact, but really experiencing this for months or even years is entirely another thing. You can never really be sure about the limits of your own endurance until you have explored them.

The view of imprisonment – and human suffering – as a dark night of the soul isn’t new. The 16th century Spanish friar and poet St John of the Cross explored this in his famous poem Dark Night of the Soul. John was no stranger to imprisonment, having been jailed by a faction of his fellow friars who disapproved of his reforming zeal. During the nine months he was imprisoned in the most terrible conditions he was regularly flogged – at least once a week – as well as being nearly starved to death. Those saintly friars really knew a thing or two about dishing out Christian charity. No doubt they would be readers of the Daily Mail nowadays as they seem to have shared similar views on the best way to treat prisoners.

St John of the Cross
Eventually, John managed to break out of his cell, then climbed out of a tiny window and escaped from his torturers. He went on to become one of Spain’s most celebrated poets and religious reformers.

Fortunately, my own time in the slammer didn’t involve physical flogging, but there was a degree of emotional battery, including periods spent in solitary confinement and the realisation of what losing your liberty really means in practice. No longer having any real choices. Not being able to engage directly with family members and friends at will. Obeying orders, no matter how ridiculous or unfair or humiliating they might be. Being told off like a naughty child. Witnessing acts of extreme violence. All of these can have lasting impacts, emotional as well as psychological.

Occasionally, I still get angry about things that occurred in prison, even though I’ve now been out for two years. Not all of these incidents happened to me, but often to those around me. There were acts of gratuitous cruelty, sometimes committed by members of staff, but often between prisoners themselves. Like other closed communities, prison can offer a playground for sadists who enjoy causing pain and hurt to others, so perhaps that should come as no great surprise.

On the other hand, I have also witnessed amazing acts of kindness and selflessness. I’ve written about this phenomenon previously (read here), but it is still worth emphasising again that many prisoners demonstrate a genuine capacity for caring for those around them, especially those who are in distress or suffering from ill-health. Recognising this was also an important part of my own journey through this unfamiliar terrain that I was exploring.

Behind cell doors
Of course, I had my own ‘dark nights’ in my cell. Everyone does. There were nights after the lights had gone out that I genuinely hoped I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Or that if I did, this would all turn out to have been a very long and vivid nightmare.

At times, I was genuinely amazed at how resilient I actually became behind bars. Experiences that I’m sure would have left me crushed or devastated in my previous life could now be endured or even laughed off. I had never really taken Nietzsche’s famous comment “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” seriously before, but it was a common expression amongst prisoners. I doubt that the old German philosopher could have imagined that one of his quotes would become the motto of many prison inmates, but it really has, even if many of those who quote it have no idea of its origins.

I’m sure that testing your own limits is a strong driving force for many explorers and adventurers. Programmes about travelling to distant or inaccessible lands, or else rowing across vast oceans, have become part of the stable diet on television, particularly when some celebrity or other is dragged through the wilderness or the snow. Even US President Barak Obama recently got in on the act (backed up by an enormous retinue of secret service agents and other flunkies who mainly kept out of camera shot).

In some way or other, it is a fascinating experience to pass through some testing ordeal and emerge at the other end a stronger, better or wiser person – preferably all three. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a period of imprisonment might have a similar impact? That is an important question at the time when there is an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of prison sentences.

Read in prison
So could time in prison ever be ‘a blessing in the heaviest disguise’ as John King had his narrator state in The Prison House? Well, in some cases, I think it can be, even when it has been reduced to little more than human warehousing.

I remember men who I’ve met in prison who have overcome a lifetime of literacy with the help of volunteer mentors trained by the Shannon Trust and can now read and write for the first time. I’ve spent time with them in prison libraries while they choose books to read for themselves.

Then there are those who have lived dangerous and chaotic lives on the street who have had the time to reflect on their choices, as well as starting to confront some of their inner demons. Others have actively sought mental health support or help with their dependencies. Some embrace therapy to equip them to better manage their anger and lack of self-control. Many are all too aware of the suffering they have inflicted on others, something that can be very difficult for some people to live with.

However, progress towards rehabilitation can be intense and time-consuming which is why short prison sentences are often counter-productive. Confining people with complex personal and psychological needs to tiny shared prison cells for 23 hours a day will very rarely address any of these issues. It is rather like putting a patient in hospital and then confining them to bed all day with no treatment whatsoever or, in too many cases, without even an initial diagnosis.

No substitute for mental healthcare
If a 5-minute conversation during the reception process with a member of the healthcare team is the total extent of most prisoners’ assessments, it is unsurprising that so much mental illness goes unrecognised and untreated in our prisons, while incidents of self-harm and suicide are increasing annually. The simple truth is that the necessary resources just aren’t there to cope in this era of overcrowding and understaffing.

Exploring our prison system isn’t just about confronting one’s own fears and anxieties during the voyage of discovery. It is also about seeing how others behave and how they are treated – or else how they are warehoused and neglected prior to being released back onto the streets. If we really want people to change for the better and to cut rates of reoffending, then sentencing thousands to watch the Jeremy Kyle Show all day on TVs we rent them for 50p a week really isn’t going to make any difference.

Had I never had these experiences myself, I would never have written so much about prisons and imprisonment based upon my own journey into the depths of the longest night. John King was right. For me, it really has been a blessing, even if it was in the heaviest of disguises.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Preparing for Prison

I’ve written previously about various aspects of imprisonment, including practical preparations such as packing your personal possessions (read here) and some elements of prison psychology, but recently I’ve been asked several questions about whether anyone can really prepare mentally for a custodial sentence. I think this is a very important issue, so I thought I should share some of my own reflections with readers.

Be aware of how courts work
A major factor in preparing for the possibility of a sentence of imprisonment is whether you intend to plead guilty or not guilty. If a guilty plea is almost certain to result in a custodial penalty at court, then a degree of mental preparation is essential. If you haven’t been in court for a trial, it might help to attend someone else’s case and just sit in the public gallery to see how things work before you take your own place in the dock. I did that myself and found it an interesting and helpful experience.

While awaiting the hearing and sentencing, there is also time to make other necessary preparations, depending on the anticipated length of the sentence. This can include settling financial and business affairs, storage of possessions if you might lose your accommodation, dealing with childcare (if required), finding homes – temporary or permanent – for pets and asking trusted family members or close friends to deal with personal issues in your absence.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, so it’s difficult to offer an exhaustive list. What is certain is that if all these matters have been sorted out before your sentencing hearing, it can relieve a great deal of stress once you are behind bars.

Except when in prison, of course!
As a prisoner, it can be much more problematic to do everyday tasks, such as simply contacting your own bank. The prison PIN phone system will not permit you to register or call most bank telephone numbers unless you happen to have a specific branch contact, which seems to be rarely issued these days. Forget about telephone banking, because it’s basically impossible to use. Nor is there any chance of accessing online banking services.

The best you can hope for is that you’ll be able to send written instructions to deal with banking issues by post. Of course, this also means that any confidential financial matters are likely to become known to the prison censors if your correspondence is being read.

It is worth being aware that there are also some specific financial activities that prisoners are not permitted to engage in whilst in custody following conviction. These restrictions include:

any transaction to run a business
any stock or share purchase or unauthorised sale
entering into any loan or credit agreements
gambling or the making of payments for other games of chance

So if you have any business activities that are ongoing or other financial commitments, alternative means of managing them will have to be found. In such cases, advice from professionals is likely to be essential. Remember that all your existing insurance policies, including home and car cover, are also likely to be voided by a criminal conviction unless declared.

Don't ignore dental health before prison
Another hot tip is to ensure that you have had any dental treatment before you are sent down. Prison dental care can be truly shocking, so a good check-up before you go to jail is vital. Sort out any dodgy fillings or other problems, because toothache when you are banged-up in your cell can be utter misery and you can easily wait weeks or even months for an appointment. Some people can also find the sheer humiliation of being taken out of prison for treatment while dressed in prison clothing and handcuffed to an officer a very traumatic experience.

However, preparing for imprisonment if you are pleading not guilty and will be facing a trial can be much more complicated. In reality, no matter how strong you believe your defence to be things can go wrong under the glare of the bright lights in court.

Your fate in the their hands
Witnesses might not say what you expected them to; you might not fare well under cross-examination and there is always the risk that some unexpected piece of prosecution evidence might be served on the day in court (I’ve seen this happen more than once). Your barrister might screw up your case too. Finally, the jury – 12 random men and women – may simply not believe your defence and vote to convict you, even if you are genuinely innocent. Even if two jurors have doubts, the votes of the remaining ten are sufficient for a conviction.

Military training is supposed to prepare troops for the ‘shock and awe’ of capture by the enemy. Nothing can really prepare a first-timer for the shock of imprisonment. From that moment the judge has pronounced sentence and spoken the fateful words: “You can take him (or her) down,” your life has changed forever. Even if it is a short sentence or your legal team launches an immediate appeal, you are still a prisoner.

In the dock in court
If the dock officer has a bit of decency, then you may not actually be handcuffed in the dock before you are led to the door at the rear that leads to the cells beneath the courtroom. Some have stairs, others have lifts, but passing through that door is like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. It is another world where everything has suddenly changed.

Having got to know literally hundreds of people who have had exactly the same experience, I think the overwhelming sense is one of absolute fear of the unknown. Perhaps it gets less traumatic the second time (fortunately that’s not something I can comment on personally) – or third or fourth time, but that first time produces a range of emotions that cannot be erased from the mind.

There’s rarely a week when I haven’t reflected on that day from different perspectives. Watching or reading the news can trigger memories when the story is about someone being sent to prison, a conversation can have a similar effect. There is an indelible trauma of losing your liberty as you walk through that back door on your way to the cells beneath.

Double cuffing a prisoner
Never underestimate that cold click of steel as your wrist is cuffed, chaining you to another human being who now has control over you. Most newly convicted prisoners are so shocked at the experience that they become compliant. I know I did.

Some dock officers will be as humane as they can be within the rules. Once you have been body searched (not a full strip-search at that stage, just a thorough pat down) and have had all your valuables confiscated and inventoried on a property form, you will be locked into a holding cell – a very bleak room indeed – but also offered a cup of tea. Then your solicitor and/or barrister may arrive in the cell block to discuss the situation, particularly whether you are intending to appeal either conviction, sentence or both.

Finally, after what can be a long wait of some hours in the holding cell, you will be handcuffed again – two pairs this time, one set chaining your wrists together and the other linking you to the escort officer – before being led down the corridor to the waiting transport van (‘sweatbox’) where you will be locked into a tiny cubicle with a rock hard seat and a tinted window for your journey of shame to the nearest Cat-B local prison where pretty much everyone will start their sentence, unless already a provisional Cat-A inmate (usually murder, terrorism or serious organised crime).

Sweatbox on the way to a prison
If you are lucky (or not remotely famous/infamous) then the press won’t be waiting in the hope of getting a tabloid ‘snatch pic’ of you shambling in your chains to the van or else through the window of the sweatbox. Some courts have a closed area at the rear of the building where prisoners are shielded from the worst of the public exposure and ridicule, but others don’t.

I was lucky and no press had even bothered to show up on the day, so unimportant am I, but others have not been so lucky and the trauma of the ritualised public shaming can diminish them as human beings. Can you prepare mentally for that? I very much doubt it.

In all probability, you won’t even know which prison you’ll be taken to on that first day. For loved ones who have been in court or waiting back at home, this can be a period of silence and anxiety. You ‘disappear’ into the criminal justice system, only to emerge as a number. It can be a good idea to ask your legal team to let your family know what has happened under the court, but often even they have no idea where you are heading either.

It can be a strange and very melancholy journey in the tiny cubicle. As you leave from the rear of the court you may see streets that earlier that day you were walking as a free citizen, unless you were already held on remand. In my case I looked at the small coffee shop that my solicitor and I had had our coffee each morning before the session in court. We drove past landmarks that I recognised from my past life – in fact just a matter of hours before. W.B. Yeats was spot on when he wrote in his poem Easter 1916 of how people and commonplace things have “all changed, changed utterly.”

You will see people on the streets passing by, perhaps glancing at the prison van with curiosity or hostility as they imagine what kind of monsters and wrong ‘uns are confined within. They are free, but you are not. This is really where the true ‘otherness’ of being a prisoner starts.

Waiting outside the prison gate
When you arrive at your destination prison you may still have time – occasionally hours – to wait before you are re-handcuffed and escorted into Reception to be ‘processed’. This involves being formally identified, photographed, strip-searched, re-clothed in prison kit, interviewed and assessed by staff. You’ll be asked a lot of questions, but told very little about your fate.

I’ve dealt in an earlier post with the subjects of prison strip-searches in Reception (read here) and having your personal possessions sorted into two heaps: those permitted and those forbidden. The former – often a very small number – will be placed into a large transparent bag with HMPS on the side and you will be allowed to take them with you to your cell. The remainder will go into sealed black property boxes until either they can be handed out to visitors or stored. You probably won’t see these items again until the day you are released or if you eventually make it to an open jail.

Different prisons operate differently. Some have ‘first night’ centres where new arrivals are accommodated and watched closely lest they succumb to despair and attempt suicide. Others have ‘induction wings’ where you might spend anything from a few days to weeks, depending on the availability of cells on normal wings or house-blocks.

The moment before the door slams
Forget the holding cell under the court and the journey locked in the tiny sweatbox cubicle. It will be the moment that you are in your first cell when the heavy metal door is slammed shut for the first time and you realise that there is no handle on the inside that you really come to understand that you are now a prisoner.

Everyone is supposed to go through induction, which can last a week or so. This is where staff or other inmates – often peer mentors called Insiders or Buddies – will try to explain as much of the complex and arcane processes and procedures of prison life as they can. They should advise you of your privileges (not many on the new Entry Level) and how you can progress to Standard and then Enhanced within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. If you’d like to read more it’s all here in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013.

You’ll be assessed for mental health (often no more than a few quick questions, such as “Are you feeling suicidal?”) and tested for education skills. Don’t expect a degree – or even a PhD – to prevent you being assigned to a very basic level of literacy class if they need to get classroom numbers up, especially just before an inspection or visit from Ofsted. Still, my advice is take whatever education or work is offered.

Got a cleaning certificate already?
Often ‘free-world’ qualifications will be ignored in favour of dog-eared prison certificates. This can be how repeat offenders manage to get all the best jail jobs. “I’ve got my Industrial Cleaner’s Level 2 from Wandsworth.” Go to the top of the list for a cushy wing cleaner’s post. Ask anyone who has been inside. They’ll tell you the same. It’s just one of the many ways that recidivism is routinely rewarded in our nicks.

You’ll also have to learn a seemingly enormous list of prison rules and petty regulations. Even a relatively minor slip-up can cost you dearly and there’s often very little leeway given. In my first week at a Cat-C prison I once took a wrong turn along an internal walkway and ended up on a wing that appeared identical to my own, but which wasn’t mine. I politely asked a passing wing officer for directions and was shouted at, made to feel about 7-years old and told I was “bloody lucky not to be down the Block on a charge for attempting to escape.” Thank you too, Guv. Have a nice day.

"Want a brew in your pot?"
Then there is the prison slang that gets used everyday. A typical conversation between two seasoned old cons would probably be pretty unintelligible to most outsiders. Many everyday objects, from china tea mugs to rolling tobacco, have different names in convict jargon. This can also vary from prison to prison. I’ve blogged about this here. It’s worth learning the slang just to be able to understand what others are talking about.

I’ve also written about sharing a prison cell with a complete stranger (read here). In fact, unless you are a lifer or starting out in a Cat-A prison (high security estate), the chances are you will have to ‘two-up’ – share – with some random fellow con. Officially it is policy to segregate smokers from non-smokers but this doesn’t always happen, especially in this era of chronic overcrowding.

Two'd up: sharing a cell
If you are lucky, you’ll eventually get the chance to move in with someone you get on with tolerably well. If you are very fortunate, you might share with a pad-mate you actually like. That happened to me five times during my sentence – I consider myself very lucky – and I’m still friends with several of these lads. We have shared history, so to speak.

So is there any way to really prepare for all of this? It’s a bit like trying to plan for an expedition to an unknown and very strange land. You can try to imagine it and the people or dangers you might encounter, but to be honest there isn’t much you can do to prepare mentally to cope with the fear, anxiety, sense of daily humiliation and loneliness you are likely to experience as a prisoner. Prisons are also very noisy establishments, so if you are a particularly light sleeper or can’t nod off when someone else is snoring loudly above or below your bunk, then I’d recommend investing in a pair of foam earplugs.

There are some aspects of prison life I don’t believe anyone can prepare for. Watching a fellow con being beaten until they bleed or having boiling water and sugar thrown in their face (‘jugging’) or discovering a cell-mate hanging lifeless from the end of your shared bunks, those events – which are mercifully rare – can’t be anticipated. They are traumatic and you just have to deal with them as best you can. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many inmates – and a fair few prison staff - suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even if it hasn’t always been diagnosed.

A real prison WC in a cell
On the other hand, if a custodial sentence really is on the cards, then I suppose you could rehearse by sleeping on a rock hard mattress in your bathroom, next to the toilet for a few nights. That’s probably the nearest you’ll get to an authentic preparation for life in an English prison cell.

For me, one of the most important aspects of getting ready for imprisonment is to ensure that you have a strong support network on the outside. If you have close family and friends talk to them about your forthcoming sentence. Don’t let them find out from the local paper (or even the evening news on TV). Ask a loved one to let the people you want to hear from know your prison number and address as soon as you can send it out or give it over the phone. Make sure that you have a small address book with all the names, addresses and phone numbers of anyone and everyone you are likely to want to write to, including your bank.

It never hurts to do some reading up about prison in advance and there are various books available, as well as informative websites and a few blogs. However, there can be no real substitute for living the reality of prison on a day-to-day basis. Avoid most TV prison dramas and films. They almost always show a sensationalised version that will bear little or no relation to reality, which is mainly about surviving the grinding boredom.

Finally, my advice is to try to stay as calm as possible. Prison can be a real test of character and you will have to rely on your own mental and emotional resources. However, if you are sensible, keep your head low and steer clear of drugs, debt, stealing from other cons and ‘grassing’ (informing on fellow prisoners), you are unlikely to be the target of any violence. Above all, stay in contact with family and friends if at all possible. Their support can prove vital in helping to maintain your sanity and emotional well-being while you are behind bars. Never take that for granted.