Friday, 2 October 2015

Prison Reflections: the End of Summer

Now that we are into autumn, I have been reflecting on the impact of the seasons on life inside our prisons. I went into jail in the winter months and experienced a few springs and a couple of summers in closed conditions, as well as one glorious spring and a summer in a Cat-D (open prison).  

Summer sun... can be hot in prison
Of course, our personal responses to particular times of the year – or anniversaries or public holidays – are often determined by our past experiences and memories. Sad or tragic occasions can be recalled even more sharply than happy times. That’s why the Christmas season, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (read here), can be a period of deep mourning tinged with regret and a sense of loss for many inmates.

I can only guess at what the passage of the seasons means for those serving sentences far, far longer than my own. I’ve known men who have been inside for over 30 Christmases – and that also means they've lived through a similar number of seasonal cycles. That’s why the sheer enormity of a true life sentence is hard to comprehend to anyone who hasn’t lived through one – myself included. And in many cases that’s also true for victims of horrific crimes and their family members, as well as for the loved ones of those who are serving time inside. 

Annual cycles of memory may take us one year further away from trauma yet the pain rarely abates, although it may dull with the passing years. Loss – of life, of loved ones, of youth, of opportunity, of future – is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the most serious crimes.

I don’t have a personal favourite when it comes to the seasons. I enjoy the springtime as much as I enjoy the autumn. My own memories of summers, in particular, are happy. As pretty much everyone observes in middle age, the summers of our youth always seemed so much longer, as if they could last forever. Now the few really hot days of the English year usually disappear in the blink of an eye and we are back to autumn, with winter just waiting around the corner. 

Time: waits for no man
How true are the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song Time: “Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.” I remember first listening to those words when I was at school aged about 11 – and true to form – over 40 years have just gone by as if in an instant. I didn’t understand the real meaning then, although now I think that I do.

Inside closed prisons it can be difficult to keep track of the seasons, particularly if you are unlucky enough to be jobless and experience 22 or 23 hours per day of bang-up in your cell. Although I always tried to take full advantage of whatever opportunities I had to use the exercise yards and get some fresh air, I also noticed that many fellow inmates in closed jails rarely left their cells. I could name quite a few who I’d never seen on a yard over all the time I’d known them. 

Occasionally, the yard was almost empty even when 30 minutes of exercise was on offer (and not cancelled owing to staff shortages or security alerts). A few of us would agree between ourselves beforehand to go down and trudge together round the asphalt enclosure surrounded by the high mesh fence topped with coils of razor wire. In a few nicks there was a view of a lawn or even a small garden, although the worst were modern design prisons built around courtyards overlooked by cell windows. You were totally enclosed on all four sides, with only the sky above. Oscar Wilde accurately dubbed it “that little tent of blue, which prisoners call the sky” in his Ballad of Reading Gaol.

On the exercise yard
Summer can be a mixed blessing in closed establishments. True, more prisoners do venture out into the sun, especially during weekend exercise periods when you might be allowed outside for an hour. In the scorching heat of my first summer in a Cat-B we’d sit on the hot ground around the perimeter fence and chat with friends and acquaintances. Some lads even took off their t-shirts and tried to get a tan, although in theory this was prohibited. Severe sunburn, like illicit tattooing, is regarded as a form of self-inflicted injury.

The downside of a hot season is that some cells can become baking ovens, particularly when the new type of security window has been fitted. These don’t open at all, being closed units with a tiny side vent that can be opened or closed using a knob. When the mechanism is broken, the air inside – especially when it is a shared cell – can become unbearably hot. Keep a dog in such conditions and the RSPCA would be round breaking windows and handing out court summonses for animal cruelty.

In these humid conditions, when even breathing normally can be an effort, some of us were reduced to living in our underwear when we were locked down. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that tempers rise with the temperature and, in some cases, violence can flare up between inmates or towards members of staff. Such situation can be made much worse when a pad-mate is on methadone or some other medication, let alone taking illicit substances, such as so-called ‘legal highs’ such as Black Mamba or Spice which continue to plague our prison wings. 

Cell windows that open... luxury
In one Cat-B it was a joy to be in one of the upper tier cells during the summer. This particular establishment was a grim Victorian pile, but did have one massive bonus: proper windows that really opened wide on each side. Plus there was a welcome view over the prison wall to fields and trees in the distance (if you overlooked the car park of the industrial estate next door). Those windows pretty much saved my pad-mate and me during one hot summer as we’d press our faces to the open frame and drink in the cooler air.

Of course, the winter months could also be pretty awful, particularly if the in-cell heating failed, as it sometimes did, and the pipes went stone cold. Strict limits on quantities of bedding, particularly blankets meant that cold cells were more like meat freezers. We’d huddle in our bunks wearing several layers of outer clothing.

Walking round the landings
Occasional flurries of snow meant that exercise was usually cancelled due to what was termed ‘inclement weather’. This is prison-speak for screws not wanting to be standing round in the cold or rain and is often the justification for not providing any fresh air or outdoor exercise. On days like these, if we were lucky, cells might be left unlocked for 30 minutes so we could wander round the landings instead, although when staff number were down we’d be locked back behind our doors again.

We certainly reconnected with the seasons at the open prison where I spent the last year of my time inside. Having arrived in late spring I was amazed at the amount of time we could spend outdoors at an establishment with not even a fence to keep us in, let alone a wall topped with razor wire. That year we had a particularly hot May and I volunteered to work on assembling a consignment of supermarket stock trolleys for a commercial contract the establishment had won. I spent five glorious days out in the sun working with a small group of fellow cons, including one lad I knew from a previous jail we’d been in together (which is, truth to tell, how I wangled such a cushy – and pretty well-paid – temporary job). 

There was no staff supervision whatsoever in that area and we just sorted it all out ourselves. It was almost like not being inside at all. Out in the warm spring air, in the sun, down by the prison vehicle sheds. Only a complete fool would have been tempted to abscond. 

A man looked out through prison bars...
That was the prelude to a memorable summer. We were free to spend free time walking round inside the ‘bounds’ of the jail, including the large sports field near the residential units. At weekends and after work we were free to lie on the grass, chatting or snoozing. We were even allowed to sunbathe (in moderation) and buy suntan lotion. 

When I walked on the field it was the first time I’d stepped on grass for a couple of years. In so far as prison life can ever be enjoyable, I suppose that was one of the high points.

Having now spent two summers out of prison since my unexpected release, I’ve certainly come to value the freedom and the fresh air much more highly than I did prior to being sent down. Whenever I look out of the windows at the sea or potter around our garden, I have a heightened sense of enjoyment and appreciation.

However, I’m still mindful of good friends I’ve left behind who are still inside, some facing many more years before they will get a chance to leave the confines of closed prisons. Sadly, some may never make it. I hope that they have at least a few happy memories of bright spring days, brilliant hot summers, mellow autumns or crisp winter days, when they were young and still free, to sustain them as we head towards the end of yet another year.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Branded: the Mark of Cain

For those who haven’t any personal experience of our criminal justice system it might be imagined that the day an ex-prisoner walks out of the jail gate they are free. In fact, as almost every former con will confirm, that is the moment that the real consequences of imprisonment start to kick in – and these are many and varied.

Prison gates
Most newly released prisoners face a period under Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) or National Probation Service supervision ranging from a matter of weeks or months right up to the rest of their lives, depending on the length and type of sentence. The usual determinate sentence is now a 50/50 custodial term, meaning that half of the total will be served in prison, followed by the same period on licence in the community. 

While the licence is in force, the ex-prisoner is liable to recall to custody at any time if the risk of reoffending is perceived to have risen or if he or she has failed to keep to the terms of their licence conditions (or have committed a new criminal offence). Lifers released on life licence face the risk of recall until their deaths. There is a range of variations, including extended sentences, but the idea that a released prisoner is therefore ‘free’ is in many cases a myth. 

Whilst on licence you will be told where you can live, where and when you are permitted to travel, with whom you can associate and what work you may be allowed to do. Although there are so-called ‘standard conditions’ that apply to everyone released on licence, some ex-prisoners have a vast range of extra conditions that can require them to report frequently to their supervising officer, as well as severely circumscribing their movements and activities. These conditions are linked to specific risks and most are imposed to protect the public or reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

However, even once an individual’s licence period has expired, the impacts of imprisonment can continue throughout his or her life, often in ways that are unseen. We still speak of a person being ‘branded a criminal’ – usually in the context of an innocent person having been falsely accused of committing an offence. Historically, branding (or tattooing) was used in many penal situations to provide a permanent mark of a person’s criminal past.

A Tsarist-era prisoner
Tsarist Russia was particularly punitive and prior to 1846 a convict sentenced to hard labour would be – literally – branded with the initials VOR (‘thief’), with the V and R burned into the cheeks, while the O was placed on the forehead. This form of physical mutilation ensured that, like the Biblical ‘mark of Cain’, the person would be instantly recognisable to the rest of society as a condemned criminal until their dying day.

In 1846, the new Russian criminal code replaced the initials VOR with KAT (from the Russian term ‘Katorzhnik’ signifying a criminal condemned to hard labour). This punishment continued to be applied until 1863. The branded criminal was thus made into a permanent outcast from normal society, even if eventually released from custody.

Physical branding and tattooing, which were once also used in the English penal system, as well as the armed forces, gradually fell out of use, although like judicial ear-cropping and tongue-boring with red-hot irons they enjoyed considerable popularity during the 17th century. In the UK prison tattoos are now exclusively applied by prisoners to each other’s bodies, usually in return for payment, even if this is a violation of the rules. Russian prison tattoos are now so complex that there is even a three-volume encyclopaedia documenting the designs and their specific meanings within criminal society.

Anyone familiar with Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les MisĂ©rables (either the novel published in 1862 or the more recent musical or films) will be aware that the whole story is based on the idea of an ex-convict – Jean Valjean – trying to put his criminal past behind him after 19 years of hard labour in the galleys for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and then repeatedly trying to escape. He disappears and manages reinvent himself as a successful and respected businessman. Even though he eventually becomes town mayor under his assumed identity, Valjean remains the target of a relentless pursuit by Javert, a former prison officer who has become a local police inspector. 

Javert is absolutely convinced that no former convict is capable of reform or redemption. Anyone who has done time will no doubt recognise a certain type of prison officer in Hugo’s description of Javert. Every prison wing probably harbours at least one.

Jean Valjean: prisoner branded for life
By breaking his parole licence and destroying his documents shortly after his release from prison, Valjean is liable to be returned to penal servitude for the rest of his life. No matter how he has changed and regardless of the good he has done in his adopted home town, the ex-convict remains vulnerable to his secret being exposed. He bears the indelible mark of Cain, even if the physical brand isn’t visible.

These days, poor old Valjean wouldn’t stand a chance of reinventing himself, especially if on a long licence. Criminal records checks, DNA samples, fingerprints, facial recognition technology and his police mugshot would all conspire to ensure that he would be back in the slammer within hours or perhaps a few days. There is no escape. Indeed, forcible micro-chipping of convicts has occasionally been proposed by politicians chasing the law and order vote, as well as discussed enthusiastically in the tabloid media. Never say never.

Today, a released ex-prisoner will continue to experience the consequences of imprisonment. Any criminal record, even for relatively minor offences, can still have a profound impact on employability, access to rented accommodation, insurance and many financial services. However, having served a prison sentence, no matter how short, raises the stakes to a new level. Most custodial terms are an effective and permanent bar from many professions or occupations.

Although there is provision for the rehabilitation of some offenders after a specified crime-free period which varies depending on the original sentence, no-one over 18 who has been sentenced to over four years in prison can ever be legally free of their criminal record. As things stand, they are deemed to be ‘non-rehabilitatable’, even if they manage to live a completely blameless and law-abiding life.

Checking a CV for inconsistencies
Gaps in a CV need to be explained. There are requirements for disclosure of criminal records to potential employers, as well as some insurers who will increase premiums in many cases. Failure to disclose can in itself constitute deception or fraud. Although certain employers will consider ex-prisoners, opportunities are usually limited even for those who have decent qualifications and vocational skills. Many ex-cons leave jail facing the grim prospect of spending the rest of their lives on state benefits.

Finding affordable accommodation can be a major barrier to resettlement upon release from jail. Individuals who are labelled ‘high risk’ will often be placed in approved accommodation (hostels or managed bedsits), but the majority of prisoners aren’t in that category, so those who don’t have family or friends willing to put them up, at least until they get back on their feet, can end up on the streets or on park benches.

Suitable bed for an ex-con?
Add in the problems of untreated addictions and dependencies, as well as a high level of ex-prisoners struggling with mental health conditions, and the barriers can appear to be all but insurmountable. Based upon my own observations of fellow prisoners, those of us fortunate enough to have none of these challenges, as well as a family home to return to are very definitely in the minority.

I’ve written repeatedly on this blog about the issue of rehabilitation in our prisons – or more accurately, the absence of resources and any serious focus on trying to prepare inmates for release. As things stand the prison system is all too often providing costly human warehousing prior to opening the gates for those who are being discharged back on to our streets. 

Not the only prison baggage
Of course, institutionalisation is more likely for those men and women who have served longer sentences, but it can affect anyone who has been inside. I regularly advise people who are experiencing problems with a family member who has recently been released, but is finding it hard to cope on the outside. 

Adjusting to freedom – even when limited by licence conditions – and having to deal with responsibilities and everyday issues can prove an uphill task for many ex-cons. The struggles and heartaches that their families and friends often have to face are rarely acknowledged, but are very real nonetheless.

It’s sad to have to admit it, but I’m actually more surprised when I hear about someone I know from my years inside remaining crime free in the weeks and months following their release, than I am when I’m told that so-and-so has been recalled to prison or else sent down for some new offence.

We ex-prisoners are all still branded in various ways. We may no longer have our faces or bodies burned or marked with tattoos signifying our fallen state, but in many different ways we are now a class apart, most of us for the rest of our lives, whether guilty or innocent, reformed or unrepentant.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Reimagining Our Prisons

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about how British prisons could be reformed in ways that might actually do more good than harm to prisoners, to staff, to victims of crime and to our communities in general. At present, ‘prison reform’ – at least as far as successive governments seem to be concerned – is actually a weaselly code for further cutting of costs regardless of the harms that result. Reimagining the prison is something entirely different, although reducing costs could still be one of the positive outcomes. 

Prisons: do we need them?
The first question is whether I believe that prisons are necessary for public safety. My quick response is yes, I do. In common with most people who have served a prison sentence, I can think of a small number of individuals that I have got to know personally inside who I believe are so dangerous to others that their presence in any community – no matter how closely supervised – will be a ticking time bomb, liable to explode at any moment. 

Their anti-social attitudes and distorted thinking, even when suppressed or concealed during offending behaviour courses, virtually guarantees that they will reoffend, creating misery for new victims as they go. So yes, I believe that we do need our prisons to contain the most dangerous individuals in order to reduce the risk that more innocent people will get seriously harmed or even killed. In some cases, this includes members of a prisoner’s own family or neighbours.

However, the number of very dangerous men – and they are predominantly male – in our prisons is comparatively small. In fact, the select and notorious group of lifers who are considered so dangerous that they are serving what are known as ‘whole life tariffs’ (ie they will almost certainly die in prison with no foreseeable prospect of release) is limited to around 60 out of a current prison population, as of the time of writing, of just over 86,000, leaving some 85,940-odd who can expect to be released at some stage, assuming that they don’t die of either natural causes while in custody or because they are themselves the victims of violence whilst inside. 

The only way out for 60 prisoners
Of these prisoners, 11,785 or so are currently on remand (of whom around 70 percent will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted by a jury or, even if convicted, will not be given a custodial sentence and will be released immediately from court). Thousands of others are serving short sentences – ranging from a few days to less than 12 months – during which they will never have any opportunity to address the reasons for their offending behaviour or access to any kind of meaningful support for various addictions or dependencies (drugs, alcohol, gambling). Such sentences can only be seen as being purely punitive, since there is not even the pretence of any rehabilitation on offer.

In the media, and on this blog, I’ve often described imprisonment in Britain as having been reduced to costly human warehousing. It often doesn’t even reduce crime significantly since various criminal activities seem to continue across the prison estate, particularly drug dealing, by means of illicit mobile phones, corrupt members of staff and networks of associates inside and out. Much as this ‘hidden offending’ continues to plague local communities, even when the driving force is behind bars yet still making money.

Coming out worse than they went in?
Worse still, individuals living with mental health problems and drug habits often seem to emerge back onto the street in an even worse state than when they were sent down. A significant number are discharged with heavy addictions that they didn’t have before they came into jail. If prisons were hospitals, the measurable outcomes would be far worse than even the most dysfunctional NHS trust on record. In these respects, imprisonment often causes harm, rather than reduces it.

So how can we start to reimagine our prisons? In my opinion the first challenge is to break our national dependency on – and obsession with – imprisonment as a response to crime (or most antisocial behaviour, for that matter). A surprising number of those detained on short sentences are actually irritating pests or nuisances, rather than violent offenders posing any real danger to the public. Jailing most people convicted of financial crime (especially theft and fraud) is particularly pointless, since imprisonment usually deprives the offender of any opportunity to recompense their victims.

Another particularly important question is why are we routinely holding thousands of unconvicted citizens on remand, particularly when the majority won’t even receive a custodial sentence assuming that they are eventually convicted in court? In some cases teenagers of 18 or 19 with no previous criminal record are being held on remand on Cat-B prison wings (and even in shared cells) with convicted, sometimes very dangerous adults. This is a recipe for disaster, including exploitation, bullying and even sexual abuse. Moreover, exposing impressionable young people to an environment where hardened criminality is rife is hardly likely to improve their life choices or reduce the risk of reoffending.

Remanding Young Prisoners (18-21) in adult prisons
By adopting a radical new approach to the issue of remand, where the automatic presumption should be in favour of post-charging bail (with appropriate monitoring and conditions as deemed necessary) as in the USA, this would mean that the onus would be on the prosecution to justify remand to secure accommodation – such as a bail hostel – in each case rather than sending those not yet convicted to prison, particularly those who have indicated that they will plead not guilty. Only in the most serious cases where there is a genuine risk of flight, intimidation of witnesses or other violence should the custodial threshold be met. 

Even then, I would propose the use of special remand units where convicted and unconvicted prisoners are not held together. In reality, this is already enshrined in law, however most prison authorities simply choose to ignore the provisions of the Prison Act (1952) and have been known to threaten or punish remand prisoners who dare to complain.

Next I believe we should address the issue of short sentences that are purely punitive, rather than containing any element of rehabilitation. My own view is that any custodial sentence of less than a year is absolutely pointless. Sending someone down for a few days or weeks is a complete and utter waste of scarce resources. It also vastly increases the risk of homelessness on release. A positive move would be to abolish all such short custodial sentences in favour of more supportive community-based penalties, which most research (including the Ministry of Justice’s own data) indicates are likely to be more effective in actually reducing low-level reoffending.

Prisons cannot cope with the elderly
Reducing our historically high prison population should also be a key priority. Is prison really an appropriate place for the very elderly, the terminally ill, females (most of whom are not violent), the profoundly disabled or those living with serious mental health problems? In many cases I would argue not and repeated reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons reinforce the view that the Prison Service is not equipped or funded to address such complex needs. Moreover, the rigours of imprisonment can affect these groups disproportionally, so perhaps more radical solutions are required. 

Some countries do not allow for the imprisonment of the elderly at all (usually those over 75), so why not learn from effective solutions that other jurisdictions have already identified? An interim solution might be to designate specific units or wings for prisoners who have specific needs where the focus is less on security and punitive regimes, and more on care and rehabilitation. Perhaps a pilot project involving secure residential accommodation for the elderly where they could both access their pensions and contribute to their own living costs might be worth exploring as an alternative to jail.

I believe that imprisonment needs to be regarded primarily as a necessary measure designed to contain those individuals who are assessed as being so dangerous that they cannot safely live back in the community until their behaviour and attitudes have been sufficiently modified, whether through education, therapy or vocational training. These targets need to be realistic and achievable, based on the offences committed, as well as the length and type of sentence.

David - now Lord - Blunkett
The absence of this structured approach was one of the many fatal flaws in the now discredited Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), introduced by the then Labour Home Secretary David (now Lord) Blunkett in April 2005 and abolished by Parliament as an abject failure in 2012. A significant number of prisoners were handed IPPs with short tariffs for relatively minor repeat offences. 

Some who were given minimum tariffs of a few months or a couple of years in the early days of the sentencing regime are still languishing inside today, often because the main evidence of reduced risk required to satisfy the Parole Board is successful completion of offending behaviour courses that simply haven’t been available owing to shortages of resources. As the High Court ruled back in 2007, this is unlawful. In reality, it amounts to arbitrary detention that now achieves nothing beyond destroying those individuals – and their families – who are caught up in the nightmare.

I am convinced that if we really want to reimagine our prison system, then an urgent solution needs to be found to address the IPP problem, since these inmates account for around 4,600 (as of March 2015) of the current prison population. Managing them and their cases also places considerable strain on understaffed prison offender management units. Those interested in reading more about this issue can find a recent House of Commons briefing paper published in August 2015 here.

Solving the IPP question would both address a failed policy that even its architect, Lord Blunkett, has since admitted is “unjust”, as well as allow for a significant reduction in the ‘lifer’ population. This, in turn, could free up resources to improve the management and monitoring of those who would be released on licence back in the community.

Can HMPS be made fit for purpose?
I am convinced that if we take the approach of reducing the prison population very substantially – perhaps by identifying specific groups that do not really merit or require confinement, as well as actively seeking more effective alternatives – the Prison Service could be made fit for purpose, even in an era of austerity. The current overcrowding crisis could be addressed, while existing staff resources could be better deployed to refocus on offender management, rehabilitation, education and the tackling of security breaches. The reasons for low staff morale also need to be addressed.

Recently, Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, has made encouraging noises about prison reform. He has highlighted the need to put education at the centre of rehabilitation, as well as raising the issue of earned early release. 

Specific proposals have yet to be unveiled. However, while our prison population remains historically high at over 86,000, the scope for genuine reform is going to be severely limited, due to a toxic combination of overcrowding, understaffing and lack of resources. Unless the prisons budget is going to be substantially increased – which seems highly unlikely at a time when spending is being cut – then the only viable way out of the current crisis is likely to be a substantial reduction in the prison population. Hopefully Mr Gove will arrive at a similar conclusion.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

City Trader Tom Hayes: Getting a ‘Lump’

One of the first questions any newly convicted prisoner gets asked on his or her arrival on a prison wing is “How long are you doing?” Once he gets through Reception – and perhaps a first night unit – one of the UK’s latest intake of cons, disgraced former City trader Tom Hayes, is going to be answering that question a fair few times. No doubt he will get used to telling fellow inmates that he has just been sent down for 14 years. That, as Ben, one of my witty mates from my own time inside would say, is “a real lump” of a sentence.

Tom Hayes: served a 'lump'
Of course, in reality despite the tabloid headlines Mr Hayes is ‘only’ going to be a prisoner for the next seven years. That’s still a long stretch.

Like the vast majority of white-collar cons he’ll probably keep his head down, conform to the prison rules and get released on licence in 2022 (assuming he doesn’t appeal either his sentence or conviction – or both). Then he’ll have another seven years under supervision back in the community, liable to recall to prison should he commit another offence or if his level of risk rises for any reason (excessive consumption of alcohol, taking drugs or anything else that might annoy his offender manager). He will have to live where he is told and until 2029 will only be permitted to work in a job that his supervisor has approved.

Double-cuffed to an escort
Still, all that is far in the future. Today Tom is now deep in the belly of the beast that is our prison system. 

I well remember the cold click of those bloody handcuffs before I was led out from the cells under the Crown Court for my first ride in a tiny locked cubicle inside a GEOAmey ‘sweatbox’ vehicle on my way to the local Cat-B nick. I think that’s the point you actually realise you are now merely a number and the property of the state… hands cuffed together, then double cuffed to an escort officer – just in case you suddenly decide to try to make a run for it in a moment of insane panic.   

A lengthy prison sentence – for whatever offence and whether you are in fact guilty or innocent – can be very hard to process at first. In Mr Hayes’ case, it was made very clear in the judge’s sentencing remarks that he would serve seven years in custody, but would be liable to recall to jail for a further seven years after his release. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to receive a ‘lump’ of a sentence like that and not feel utterly KO’d by it. 

Justice can be painful
For those who haven’t been inside, seven years is a long stretch – a lot longer than I did myself – although a fraction of what a life sentence is likely to be these days. There are various ways of getting your mind around such a penalty. Some cons start by working out the actual number of days in the custodial part of the sentence. 

Since he’s supposed to be pretty good with figures, our Tom will soon work out that he has 2,557 days (including two extra days for the leap years in 2016 and 2020) to reflect on his offences: rigging global Libor interest rates. As I type this post he has spent one night inside, so just 2,556 days and nights left. That is ‘a real lump’. And it will soon be confirmed in writing when a member of the prison staff hands him the document containing his sentence calculation.

Other coping strategies include marking off the days in a diary or on a calendar. At least a determinate-sentenced prisoner like Mr Hayes has that luxury, whereas a lifer (or anyone still serving the now discredited Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection or IPP) remains in a state of limbo for years, usually well past any minimum tariff handed down in court, in some cases for decades. All IPPs received a nominal sentence calculation of ’99 years’. Imagine getting that paper shoved under your cell door during your breakfast and not choking on your soggy, stale cornflakes.

Last Chance saloon
If Mr Hayes and his legal team are planning to launch an appeal of some kind then the reality of his current situation might not kick in yet, despite all the humiliations of the dehumanising reception process. Somehow, at that stage, the sentence doesn’t seem ‘real’ until the final appeal has been dismissed. However, barring a successful outcome at the Court of Appeal (or Supreme Court), sooner or later the reality will sink in.

Given the length of the custodial element of his sentence, Mr Hayes’ won’t be heading to the relative comfort of a Cat-D (open) nick anytime soon. In most cases the maximum period that any prisoner is supposed to spend in open conditions is 24 months, so even with the best will in the world, he’ll not see the outside world again until at least late in 2020 and then only during Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) from his Cat-D.

Since he will start his sentence as a Cat-B, that will still leave at least five years of closed conditions to survive. An educated guess is that he’ll serve around two years in a Cat-B before getting re-catted and transferred to a Cat-C training prison for a further three years or so, possibly a bit longer, before he gets reviewed and then – in all probability – approved for transfer to open conditions.

One of the problems that the Prison Service will face with Mr Hayes – as it does with any well-educated former professional – is what to do with him for the next seven years. His sentence planning will be an interesting exercise. 

Libor... now a dirty word
There are very few offending behaviour courses suitable for those convicted of similar financial offences, let alone the first man convicted in Britain of Libor-rigging. It might be a bit of a struggle for the average offender supervisor to fully understand the mechanics of the offences that earned Mr Hayes’ his sentence. I’m not convinced the usual victim awareness course on offer in most nicks is going to address this type of complex offending behaviour.   

I suspect he’ll end up working in prison education departments as a peer mentor supporting other cons with their literacy or numeracy. Otherwise, he might just end up mopping wing floors as a cleaner for the next few years – or else banged up in his cell for 23 hours a day. Who knows?

Typical Cat-B: Tom's new home for a few years
At the moment, however, I imagine that Tom is going through all the usual emotions common among first-timers. He’ll probably be shit scared as a result of watching too many US prison movies, such as The Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke or Brubaker. I very much doubt that he’ll be assaulted (or worse). Probably a fair number of cons will have seen him on the TV news and some will be interested in his case. Maybe a few will ask him for investment tips...

In reality, as long as he keeps his head down and avoids getting into debt or the temptation to try drugs, his worst enemies are likely to be regret and desperate boredom under the mind-numbing regime. Once he gets off of Entry level (the first two weeks) and out of grim – and grimy – prison clothing he’ll start to feel semi-human again. If he’s lucky he may make a few good mates who’ll provide advice and moral support – and he’ll come to realise just how much he will need the love of his own family to get through the coming years.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Our Prisons: Dirty, Dispiriting and Dehumanising

Anyone who has ever been inside a UK prison – at least on the actual wings and landings where prisoners live – will be familiar with the raw, rank smell of captive humanity. You can’t cover it up by sloshing heavily diluted disinfectant over the lino floors or giving the railings yet another coat of green paint. The stench is always there and newly released prisoners often speak about “washing off the stink of prison” as soon as they possibly can.

Looking for new ideas?
Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Justice, seems to have finally acknowledged the urgent need for change in our prison system, although whether that will turn out to be merely a calculated pretext for more privatisation of penal institutions and outsourcing of services remains to be seen. However, he could do worse than make some unannounced visits to the worst of our failing establishments: Pentonville, Winchester, Holme House and Lincoln for a start. 

Once he has walked through the wings and smelt the stink emanating from a couple of these choice nicks, he might be motivated to starting sorting out the very real problems that have been inherited from his unlamented predecessor ‘Calamity’ Chris Grayling. I’m more than happy to provide him with some practical pointers.

Back in September 2013 all new male prisoners (including those previously held on remand and subsequently convicted) have been put into prison uniform – although in reality there is little ‘uniform’ about some of the filthy, tatty rags provided to new cons as they pass through reception and thereby cease to be human beings. This is the state of existence now known as ‘Entry Level’ within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. It is supposed to last for a minimum of two weeks, but can be much longer.

Prison 'uniform'
Perhaps it is intended to be part of the psychological ‘shock and awe’ of capture, although I suspect that the stripping of male prisoners and redressing them in ill-fitting, stained jogging bottoms and tops, t-shirts and underwear is more to do with chronic shortages of just about everything in the average prison stores. When Mr Grayling’s ill-thought out plans to ‘get tough’ on male prisoners (female inmates are exempt from compulsory wearing of prison kit) was launched, it seemed that no-one actually bothered to check whether thousands of men could be clothed by the Cat-B reception prisons or if prison governors had sufficient budget to procure stocks. By and large they didn’t – and still don’t.

At the same time, Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 also delivered a double-whammy since prisoners could no longer ask families or friends to send in new underwear or other clothing. Some prisons do allow for a single ‘reception parcel’ of basic clothing for issue as soon as the prisoner has completed his time on Entry Level and been promoted to Standard (although a fair number of prisons still won’t allow the use of civilian clothing until inmates have reached Enhanced, the top tier of privileges).

The alternative is to purchase civilian clothes – that make a prisoner feel half-human – from one of the approved catalogues available from the wing office. Some of these offer such gems as designer t-shirts (£25+) and trainers (staring at around  £40). Absolutely ideal for inmates who earn – if they are lucky enough to find a prison job or education course – around  £8-12 per week. Most of the cons purchasing such luxuries have private cash being sent in to their prison account weekly or monthly by their families, whereas the vast majority are stuck with whatever the prison happens to have in the stores or, more likely, doesn’t have. 

Victorian-era prison cell: built for one, houses two
I recently received a letter from a friend of mine who is serving a long stretch in a notorious Victorian-era inner city Cat-B jail while he waits for his appeal against conviction to be heard – something that could take a couple more years at this rate since he’s had trouble finding a decent solicitor willing to take his case for the peanuts Legal Aid pays these days. He tries to stay upbeat, although I can sense the rising desperation in his letters.

This particular prison – which regularly gets shockingly critical reports whenever HM Inspectorate of Prisons visits – seems to be plumbing the depths at various levels. However, it’s only when you get this sort of inside information from someone you know and trust that you start to understand just how grim and grubby everyday life can be inside our prisons these days. It has definitely got worse over the last two years.

I’ll share some of the highlights of his daily existence at the moment. For the past year, the maximum number of prison boxer shorts and socks that can be exchanged at his prison each week is three pairs (occasionally two). Three years ago we used to be issued five or six pairs per week.

Now add the usual stains...
Now these intimate garments are almost always well stained and soiled, despite having supposedly been laundered before being exchanged on a Friday afternoon. Size is potluck. At least oversize boxers can be secured with a piece of shoelace or a knot… smaller sizes can be – understandably – agony to wear for bigger men. 

This means that at least one pair of underwear must be worn for three days (or handwashed in the cell sink and left to dry over the heating pipe, assuming that is still working). Drying clothing in the cell is officially against the rules, but most screws seem to turn a blind eye. However, that is why the atmosphere is often so humid and unhealthy.

According to his letter, he’s only been issued with one laundered towel a week (it used to be two or three). These aren’t large, of course… about the same size as a standard hand towel in your bathroom at home.

Prison gym kit (compulsory wear in this particular prison’s gymnasium) now doesn’t get changed for five weeks. Since some cons also sleep in these light blue vests or wear them as underwear when it gets cold, the stench of stale sweat is easy to imagine.

Same dirty sheets for weeks
When it comes to cell bedding the situation is much worse. Sometimes sheets can’t be changed for weeks – he writes that the worst so far has been three months with no changes. 

A surprising number of adult prisoners, especially those who are taking heavy medication, including those who are given a daily ‘chemical cosh’ because they are living with mental illnesses, wet their beds regularly due to deep sleep or nightmares. Again, just imagine the smell of ammonia wafting across the landings each morning. My correspondent hasn’t even managed to change his single pillowcase for the past four months since the stores are constantly out of stock.

It doesn’t get much better when it comes to obtaining cleaning supplies and basic toiletries. It’s now impossible to get any kind of sanitising tablets for the in-cell toilets, so these breed germs and stinks, especially when two or three adult men share a Victorian cell originally designed for one. It’s a similar story when it comes to getting cleaning cloths or scouring pads. 

A real prison toilet
It’s probably only a matter of time before one or more of our overcrowded prisons is hit by an epidemic of dysentery or worse, especially in the hot summer weather. Of course, the knockout blow is that there are times when no toilet paper is available to be issued.

Prisoner communications are also being hit by shortages, particularly for the poorest inmates who rely on the free weekly sheet of lined paper and an envelope. According to the Prison Rules these are supposed to be issued weekly, however my friend informs me that they recently went for over a month with none available. 

For inmates who have no external financial support from family of friends and no work, these free 2nd class letters are a lifeline to enable them to maintain ties with the outside world. Prior to September 2013 most prisons permitted prisoners to receive either writing materials and stamps from family or friends, or at least stamped addressed envelopes. Of course, Mr Grayling put a stop to that even though it is widely recognised that family support does play a vital role in resettlement and reducing reoffending after release.

So is all this deprivation really necessary? Unless you are a sad, sadistic punishment freak of the sort that gets a grubby thrill out of the gratuitous suffering of others, then the short answer is no. 

In the past the Prison Service saved taxpayers’ money by permitting many essential items – such as underwear and writing materials – to be posted in to prisoners by family members or friends. Many prisons also permitted occasional parcels of clothing and towels as long as maximum limits on most items were respected. This meant that many inmates actually consumed less of the available budget. In effect, prisoners and their families were subsidising the overall cost of their imprisonment.

Moreover, it was also recognised that allowing well-behaved inmates to wear their own clothing had a genuinely positive impact on key issues such as self-esteem. In the more progressive regimes, prison uniform was pretty much restricted to those inmates undergoing punishment or on the Basic regime because of a pattern of poor behaviour. Since Mr Grayling’s ‘reforms’ as one prisoner remarked to me recently: “We are all now on Basic”. Hardly a positive mindset conducive to reform.

'Calamity Chris'
So what can be done to sort out the mess left by ‘Calamity’ Chris? Scrapping the revised IEP system would be a good start. Prior to 2013 it had been tried and tested for years before Mr Grayling and his ideologically-motivated minions caused havoc with it – to the horror of many prison governors and experienced officers. The former system essentially rewarded good behaviour while penalising misconduct, while the current one just seems to be dedicated to punishing everyone just for the sake of it.

The former IEP scheme also gave individual prison governors a reasonable degree of local autonomy over what they permitted in the prisons under their charge. This was effectively removed when PSI 30/2013 was implemented.

Mr Gove has already shown that he is willing to be more flexible and pragmatic than his benighted predecessor by ditching the incomprehensible restrictions on prisoners’  access to books sent in by friends and family. It would be an even better start to his period in office if he has the courage to scrap PSI 30/2013 completely and turn the clock back. By abolishing the pointless and demeaning Entry level and by getting as many male prisoners as possible back into their own clothing, shoes and bedding Mr Gove would be able to reduce unnecessary expenditure on procuring items that play no real part in rehabilitation. 

Newly arrived prisoners are often particularly vulnerable, especially if in custody for the first time. Stripping them (literally) of their clothing and identity before forcing them into what are often dirty, worn and ill-fitting garments really isn’t a good start, especially at time when too many are feeling suicidal or tempted to self-harm.

While Mr Gove is at it, he might also review the Enhanced level of the IEP scheme to make it really worth gaining – and keeping. Having already raised the idea of ‘earned early release’ he might consider adding some real incentives to the IEP system so that in the future it could offer an effective means of rewarding prisoners’ hard work, educational attainment and volunteering activities. Now that really would be a radical reform.