Prison

Prison

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Self-Harm: the Unseen Prison Epidemic

The rising number of prisoners who commit suicide whilst in custody in our prisons tends to be making the news headlines at the moment. The main reason is that this statistic – with all the human misery and pain that lies behind it – is sometimes considered to be a barometer of the escalating crisis within our jails. However, in my view it is the far, far higher number of inmates who resort to self-harm that represents the real epidemic.

Self-harm: a coping mechanism
This week saw yet another damning report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. This time it is HMP Hewell in Worcestershire that is under fire for its high level of violence, and as usual where there is violence, there is often a serious underlying drugs culture on the wings. And thus it is at Hewell, according to the inspectors. Nothing new there then.

While the latest statistics for deaths in custody – one murder and six suicides since the last visit by HM Inspectorate – it was another, equally awful observation that caught my attention: the fact that self-harming is seen many prisoners to be only way they can get “access to basic amenities” at Hewell. If ever there was a stark indictment of the reality of life in our prisons today, I’d say that observation would encapsulate it.

This particular Cat-B establishment, in common with so many others, is both overcrowded and understaffed, according to the Inspectorate, and this, I suspect is what lies behind a significant amount of the self-harming that is going on, just as it does in other prisons up and down the land. So why do many prisoners feel it necessary to injure themselves – usually by cutting their own flesh with disposable razors or other cell-made sharp implements?

A tool for crisis management
Cons know that owing to the current staffing crisis inside the prison system they are likely to be routinely ignored if they follow normal procedures – that is, by submitting written applications, whether these are for major issues, such as transfers to jails nearer their families, extra pin-phone credits so they can contact family members in an emergency or complaints about victimisation or bullying – or more mundane matters, such as property lost in the laundry or a request to speak to their internal probation officer (offender supervisor). Because of scarce frontline staff resources and current overcrowding, the ‘app’ (application) system is often the first area where things simply cease to function, or else go so slowly that nothing ever appears to be happening.

Cutting up, however, cannot be ignored because it involves filing reports and the likelihood that the person injuring themselves will need to be placed on the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) system which is used to monitor prisoners deemed to be a risk to themselves. Put crudely, self-harm is used to get the attention of staff, particularly senior officers on the wings. It is a symptom of the extreme stresses within what is now becoming a highly dysfunctional type of crisis management.

In itself, this is nothing new as any cons or screw will confirm. Every prison has a problem with self-harming because some prisoners rely on hurting themselves as a method of managing stress. Others become addicted to the practice whilst in custody, although a fair number of people who end up inside actually started self-harming in some form or other prior to coming into custody – often in childhood or youth as a response to abuse or other trauma.

A common sight on prison wings
As the lyrics of the haunting song Hurt by Nine Inch Nails put it so eloquently: “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, The only thing that’s real.” Self-harm can sometimes be seen as a means of exerting control over practically the only thing a person has left: their own bodies. For these reasons, there will probably always be some degree of self-harm going on in our prisons, even without the current crisis.

What is much more disturbing at the moment is that – as the inspectors have found at Hewell – the many problems impacting on the effective management of the Prison Service now seem to be institutionalising the practice as a means through which prisoners manage their own everyday lives. Self-harm is becoming one of the marks of the powerless to gain the attention of those in positions of authority. At the very least, a self-harmer gets a face-to-face interview with a safer custody officer, usually a wing manager. Crude, but seemingly effective.

When I was in prison myself, I came across this in practice mainly in relation to accessing mental healthcare. In some establishments getting an appointment to see members of the mental health team has become virtually impossible unless there has been a major ‘incident’ – usually involving self-harm or at least a credible threat of suicide that has generated a written report by staff. 

As I have noted before in posts on this blog, I’ve assisted fellow prisoners with written applications to have urgent appointments with mental health professionals only to get negative replies back of the “computer says no” variety. However, once a wrist has been slashed with a razor blade (or even just scratched to the point blood has been drawn), the prisoner is taken to healthcare to be patched up and they almost always get an appointment with someone from the mental health team. This practice is quite simply the result of woefully inadequate resources.

More than sticking plaster required
Back in September, Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling pledged to improve mental health services in the prisons in England and Wales. In a speech on the subject, he promised to “get to grips with the challenge of mental health in prisons”. Sadly, it’s all pie in the sky at the moment, despite the high proportion of inmates within our prison system who have mental health needs that are often undiagnosed. Everything comes down to budget and resources, particularly too few experienced staff.

Moreover, all too often, erratic or bizarre behaviour by cons is dealt with as a disciplinary issue – sometimes punished by solitary confinement or similar means which can make a bad situation much worse – rather than seen as a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. Without any effective screening system these problems usually go unrecognised unless experienced wing staff spot the warning signs and make sure reports are made to the right professionals in healthcare. While we have acute staff shortages across the prison estate, the risks of serious cases slipping under the radar – at least until it is all too late and someone has either committed suicide or harmed themselves very severely – are much greater. 

Based on my own experience inside different prisons I believe that current levels of self-harm represent a much more accurate indicator of the serious problems afflicting our prisons than the headline suicide figures alone. In many cases, mild incidents of self-harm are quite literally a cry for help or assistance by men and women who are in crisis, but who are being ignored by those who have a legal and moral duty of care. However, when a prisoner resorts to cutting his or her own flesh as an institutionalised means of accessing prison services or amenities – as HM Inspectorate has reported at HMP Hewell – then we really do have a major crisis on our hands, while Mr Grayling and the senior management of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) all have blood – quite literally – on theirs. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

A Life-Shaped Hole

Although I’ve known a number of people who have died – some of them at their own hand in prison – the recent death of my father has been the first bereavement in our immediate family for over 25 years. It’s a strange feeling, not having him around even though, like many fathers and sons, we had our differences over the years.

Father and son
I have a confession to make. My father, who in his mid-80s was getting more and more confused as his dementia progressed, never actually knew I’d been sent to prison. He was so used to me being based abroad with my work and only visiting on the infrequent occasions I was in the UK that he really didn’t notice my absence. Even when I was in jail I always managed to send him birthday, Christmas and Father’s Day cards, so I gather from other family members who did know the truth that he wasn’t any the wiser about my involuntary stay as a guest of Her Majesty.

Once I was in a Cat-D (open) prison during the last year of my sentence, it was even easier. I used to phone him from a local payphone in town when I was out on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) or from my home phone line when I was out on resettlement leave for a few days each month. To be honest, I felt that he had quite enough to worry about without my predicament making the situation any worse. 

Since I had already emerged – physically, at least – unscathed from three nasty civil wars out in Eastern Europe, I don’t suppose that he would have been overly concerned for my personal safety while I was locked up. However, I really didn’t feel that it was necessary to inform him. I sometimes used to tell myself, without much conviction, that I’d explain everything once I’d been released. In fact, I never did. Was it moral cowardice on my part? Perhaps it was, if I’m being honest.

Keeping up the contact
By the time I’d been released – very unexpectedly, as well as eight months early – the opportunity just didn’t arise. By the time I’d reached his hospital bedside some months later, it was all too late to explain anything anyway. He was barely conscious and although there were flickers of recognition, we knew that the end would be just a matter of hours or days away. 

On balance, I think I’m glad that he never knew I’d been in the slammer. As I look around the room in which I’m sitting at the moment, there are framed photographs of various members of the family, including an embarrassingly high number of me at various stages of my life. Me as a baby, then as a young child, next at school, followed by university graduation portraits and then as a young, recently commissioned Army officer (as a Navy man, my dad wasn’t very enthusiastic about that, to be honest). I was his blue-eyed boy even though, like many men of his generation, he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, and I’m sure that the thought of me having been a prisoner would have weighed heavily on his mind in his final years.

When I started clearing out some of his paperwork last week – including a cache of household bills from the 1960s – I even discovered a dog-eared paperback copy of a book I’d published some years ago. I hadn’t even realised he’d ever read it. Yet here it is, a blast from the past, heavily annotated in his handwriting. Sometimes our own parents never cease to surprise us.

"I've got something to tell you, dad."
If I had been able to speak to my father face to face about my time inside, I’d have told him how much I’d learned, both about myself and about the prison system, not to mention sharing in life-changing experiences with some of my fellow cons. I’d have wanted to tell him that I think I have become a nicer person as a result of being banged up. I’m much more willing to listen to other people, as well as being less judgmental, particularly about the faults and failings of others.

I’m not sure that he would have understood everything, but I do believe that I’d have been able to convince him that imprisonment has provided me with a rare opportunity of experiencing the system from within, as well as allowing me to give others an insight into the escalating crisis inside our jails. Perhaps, if he had lived long enough to see my future book about the social anthropology of prisons in print, he’d have worked his way through it with a pencil, highlighting questions and observations.

Funeral rites
On balance, however, I think I was right in not burdening him in his final months with what might well have been an inexplicable situation for him to grasp. During our telephone conversations over the past year or so he was aware that I was in good shape and at least he wasn’t worried about me as his own health declined. Sometimes the truth can be unnecessarily harmful and destructive, even if we convince ourselves that honesty is always the best policy.

During the planning for his funeral over the past week, I’m just very conscious of the fact that I – unlike so many fellow cons who suffer a bereavement while they are inside – have been able to participate in arranging the ceremony and preparing to say goodbye in an appropriate way. There will be a large photograph of him, from many decades ago, looking dashing and handsome in his naval uniform, my choice from the many pictures that chronicle his life. I’ll also be delivering the final address myself, something that I’m sure wouldn’t have been possible had I still been a prisoner at the moment. 

Given the current staffing crisis in our prisons, I very much doubt whether I’d have been granted ROTL on compassionate grounds to attend the funeral had I still been banged up, especially in a Cat-B or Cat-C where such escorted visits are now becoming a rarity due to ‘operational’ constraints. I really feel for any serving prisoners who find themselves in a similar position and won’t be there with their families to say goodbye together. So, all in all, I have very much for which I should be grateful, even at a time like this.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Beautiful People… in Prison

A post with this sort of title might seem strange, particularly over a weekend during which the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has promised to introduce tougher penalties for prisoners who assault staff. Of course, as anyone who knows anything about prisons will be aware, this belated attempt to deal with the rising number of violent incidents inside our crisis-ridden jails is nothing more than a bit of window-dressing by embattled Justice Secretary Chris Grayling who is so completely out of his depth it is now a national source of embarrassment. 

Does he really give two hoots?
The latest move won’t convince anybody – screw or con – that Mr Grayling really gives a damn about what is going on in our nicks while he is in charge. However, it does seem that the rising tsunami of public criticism – from just about every direction, including the Daily Telegraph – is goading him to act tough at a time when tensions inside our prisons are reaching boiling point, mainly as a direct consequence of his mismanagement. 

To be honest, prisons are full of people who tend to make bad choices (and not only the cons, for that matter). They also accommodate a fair number of men who have serious anger management problems. When current chronic frontline staff shortages result in such people being locked behind their doors for up to 23 hours a day, the result of cancelled work, education, gym sessions and even healthcare appointments, then it is unsurprising that volatile blokes kick off. I’m actually amazed it doesn’t happen more often.

Being fair, working as a screw isn’t a job I’d choose personally. It sometimes mystifies me why some of the decent officers I’ve got to know well have made what is a very strange career decision to spend their own working lives behind bars – often serving more time in the slammer than your average murderer. Of course, they do get to go home at the end of their shifts, but it’s still a pretty grim environment, especially at the moment when everyone’s morale is at rock bottom.

Working behind bars
I wouldn’t fancy telling some very large bloke with a very short fuse that he isn’t getting out of his pad (cell) because of staff shortages, or that his medical appointment has been cancelled at the last minute… or even – and this is the killer – that family visits have been called off. That’s usually when you hear the baying for blood and the sound of breaking glass on wings.

Funnily enough, some years ago when I was a university student one of my fellow ‘inmates’ was none other than our own Mike Spurr, currently the head of the dysfunctional National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which is supposed to be running our prison service. As the current crisis gathers pace, I sometimes wonder whether he ever regrets his choice of career.

Back then, when he still had a serious acne problem and a very unfashionable haircut, Mike and I used to play darts together in our tiny college bar and, over a few pints of 80/- real ale at 50p a pop, I did my best to convince him that going into prison management as a graduate trainee wasn’t the brightest thing he could do with his life. Of course, he didn’t listen and look where he is now... sitting on top of the NOMS volcano.

Mike: regretting his career choice?
Since I gather that Mike does follow this blog from time to time, it would be interesting to know if he remembers our little chats in that smoky, pokey little bar in the basement just before we embarked on our respective career paths. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into one another at some conference on penal reform and laugh about how things have turned out, although I doubt it.

Having painted such a grim picture… of prisons, rather than college bars… it may come as a surprise to read that in my experience there are some very decent people serving time in our jails. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I believe that some of these blokes are innocent and have been wrongly convicted, while plenty of others are guilty as charged but have genuine remorse about the impact upon others of the crimes they have committed and want to change for the better.

I chose this title for my blog post after having had time to do some reading during this period following my father’s death, but before his funeral. The famous American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – best known for her analysis of the various stages of grief following a bereavement – once made some observations that I find both interesting and thought-provoking. 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
She wrote: "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have know defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."

Funnily enough, I was immediately reminded of some of the people I’ve met in prison who fall into that category of Kübler-Ross’ ‘beautiful people’. There are men who have lost everything that they could conceivably lose – family, home, careers, good name, reputation – and yet they still manage to find time to listen to the problems of others. Some volunteer to work as Listeners (Samaritan-trained peer support), others as Insiders (peer mentors), while some don’t take on formal roles, but are just there when you need them.

When you are a prisoner – no matter what the offence or sentence – sometimes you really need a kind word, a friendly smile or a good mate in whom you can confide without fearing that your particular problem or anxiety will be all over the wing before tea-time. In my experience, every prison wing has at least a few of these folk. Without them, prison truly would be a much darker and more dismal place.

Comforting others
The prison experience can affect people in different ways. Some are completely broken and destroyed by the impact of incarceration, but others seem to find themselves in a way that might mystify outsiders. They grow as human beings and turn their own experiences of loss and rejection into an inner strength that not only enables them to survive a spell in the slammer with their own humanity intact, but they can also find sufficient inner reserves to offer support to others who are less able to cope. 

I well recall an incident at a Cat-D (open) nick when a female member of staff was attacked from behind in the dark in a car park within the perimeter. She was quite badly injured, but it was a con who saw what had happened and chased off the attacker, before protecting her, while another raised the alarm and got medical help. Her status as a member of staff was irrelevant to those prisoners. They acted instinctively to help someone who was terrified and had been injured – with humanity.

I genuinely believe that this sense of concern for humanity is one of the reasons that daily life in our prisons during the current crisis is able to continue without a degeneration into widespread violence and an explosion of frustration. Of course, I can’t predict how long the present situation can endure before individual establishments reach breaking point and control is lost, but at a time when resources inside prisons are very scarce, it’s often the unseen support that prisoners offer each other that is preventing the rising rates of suicide and self-harm from rocketing much higher.

When you have a few decent, level-headed cons on a wing, the atmosphere can be more positive. Experienced screws know this and a fair few do appreciate the invisible support and counselling networks that develop among the prisoners, not least because these can go some way to reducing the number of violent incidents, including self-harm. Although levels of violence inside the nick are getting worse, fuelled by tensions caused shortages of staff, believe me the situation could easily be far more volatile if it weren’t for those influential cons who are doing their best to keep a lid on the boiling pressure cooker.

So when you next read in the media that there has been some terrible act of violence in one or other of our prisons – whether against staff or fellow inmates – it might be well to reflect on the fact that the overwhelming majority of cons weren’t involved. The Daily Mail and its ilk love to portray all prisoners as evil, worthless, violent monsters. They never mention those who are called on to use their humanity and skills to pick up the pieces in Chris Grayling’s increasingly dysfunctional prison nightmare, often showing much greater humanity and real concern for others than he ever could.   

Friday, 7 November 2014

Prisons and a Death in the Family

When you are in prison, one of the most difficult things to have to cope with is the death of a close family member or loved one. By its very nature, bereavement is a time when families usually come together for mutual support and comfort, as well as to share their memories of the person who has just died. It is an important opportunity to pay your respects and this, in turn, can help to ease the process of grieving. When you are inside a prison this often just isn’t possible and it can be incredibly painful, leaving a long-lasting legacy of deep hurt.

Death of a parent can be traumatic
Many prisoners find that they have been absent throughout a family member’s final illness or, if the death has occurred suddenly, there hasn’t been any chance to say goodbye. Perhaps because of the criminal conviction there has been a rift in the family, with many things being left unsaid, very often an apology for all the hurt and distress that has been caused. This can be a source of lasting guilt. Or maybe because of ill-health the person wasn’t able to visit the prisoner for months or even years prior to their death.

Having elderly parents, or family members who have serious life-threatening or limiting illnesses, the prospect of a death when you are in custody can be a constant reminder of why the loss of liberty that comes with imprisonment is – and should be – the punishment handed down by the court. Not being able to hold the hand of someone you have loved, and who has loved you, often unconditionally, as they pass away can leave a very significant sense of loss that can take a very long time to come to terms with.

When I was a prisoner, I was always conscious of the risk that one or both of my own elderly parents might die while I was still incarcerated. Although prison chaplains and some wing staff can provide words of comfort in these difficult circumstances, it’s at times like those that you do feel most isolated and alone in the nick, despite – or perhaps because of – having so many strangers around you.

Behind bars: very much alone
As an Insider (peer mentor) in prisons, I have spent a fair amount of time trying to support and console fellow cons who have experienced a bereavement. Usually, it tended to be a parent or grandparent who had died, but occasionally it was a partner or even a young child. For many men, being banged up in a shared cell (‘two’d up’), they find it difficult even to start the grieving process.

Big ‘hard’ men on prison wings don’t often cry, even if they are full of grief and pain. While they might be able to shed tears after dark in their own single cell, having another bloke sleeping a couple of feet away can severely limit the opportunities to have a good cry. It all seems like weakness.

I used to arrange for them to come round to my pad (cell) at a time when my pad-mate was doing something else and shed a few tears. As I’ve written before on this blog, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve sat on a bunk with my arm around quite a few lads who were in deep distress, including one who had just lost his own infant son to a congenital condition. Just allowing these men the space to cry, to mourn and to speak about their loss in confidence was important.

Part of the practical impact of being imprisoned is all about powerlessness and I’ve seen the terrible grief and frustration that cons can feel when they desperately need to speak to a seriously ill parent, partner or relative, or even one of their own sick children, when there is no chance of getting access to either a wing payphone or to a phone in a staff office or the chaplaincy.

The empty hospital bed
I’m very aware of all of this as I type because my own father died yesterday after a short illness. He had been in declining health for a year or so and, being in his mid-80s, he was unable to fight off the final bout of pneumonia.

My sister and I had been able to spend time beside his hospital bed for the last few days of his life, even when he had been unable to recognise us. It was important to us, both psychologically and emotionally, that we were able to see him in his final days and to assure him of our love. Our relationship hadn’t been without its ups and downs, but he was a good father and had always been there for us.

Although I am still very early in the grieving process, my father’s death has not come as a shock. We were mentally prepared for the worst and the doctors and nurses caring for him at the hospital had been tactfully and sensitively explaining his deteriorating condition. When death finally came, it wasn’t unexpected.

Attending a funeral: on ROTL?
Perhaps inevitably, I have reflected on how I would have reacted had my father’s death occurred while I was still in prison. The final establishment I’d been at until earlier this year is a long distance from my parents’ home, so the chances of getting Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to spend some time with my father during his final illness might not have been great. No doubt I’d have been called up to the office to be notified by a chaplain or a wing officer of my dad’s death and then I’d have been left to grieve alone.

Of course, since I was at a Cat-D (open prison) for the last year of my sentence, I suppose there was a chance that I’d have been given permission to at least attend the funeral without an officer as an escort. Turning up at a sombre family event of this type in handcuffs and chained to a screw – even a decent bloke I got on well with – is not something that I’d have really considered inflicting on my relatives.

Had I still been in a Cat-B or Cat-C, I suppose I’d have made the difficult decision not to have submitted an application to attend at all. I think that it’s a fair bet that current staff shortages in many establishments mean that scarce resources are making such escorted visits on compassionate grounds much more difficult to organise, even if the will is there from governors to make them happen.

A final resting place
However, mercifully, I’d already been released months earlier and so I had the chance to spend some time with my father before he died. Perhaps it wasn’t enough, but I am finding it a great comfort to have been able to say goodbye.

I’m now also realising just how much paperwork, bureaucracy and arrangements are required, even when a person has died of natural causes in a hospital. Being able to take on most of this responsibility myself is proving to be quite therapeutic. Again, had I still been in prison, none of this would have been possible, including just picking up a phone to call relatives or council offices to notify them of the situation.

Anyway, this is the reason that regular readers will have to wait a short while before I have the chance to post again. I will be back soon. Thanks for waiting.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Kids Who Kill and Our Prisons

Whenever a child commits murder – or some other heinous crime – there is the predictable media-led sensation. Child psychologists are rolled out to pen ‘expert’ opinions on why kids kill, educationalists give their views, politicians have their say and there is general hand-wringing and angst over where we have all gone wrong. Often the blame is shifted onto ‘modern’ culture, particularly over violent video games or the easy availability of knives or guns.

The horrific murder of teacher Anne Maguire in April by a 15-year old pupil armed with a kitchen knife is a truly nightmarish saga from any perspective. Every teacher deals with a certain number of troubled children during their career, but – particularly when dealing with disturbed teenagers – there is a degree of risk. Usually this is manageable, but very occasionally the troubled teen turns violent. 

Classroom: a safe environment?
Actual murder in the classroom is, mercifully, very rare indeed, but nonetheless it is a terrifying prospect. I’m sure that when the news broke about the brutal circumstances of Mrs Maguire’s killing, it sent a shudder down the spine of everyone working in education. It’s impossible to imagine what her family is going through, although in their media interviews they have behaved with dignity and restraint, despite their obvious distress.

Although children who kill are a tiny minority of those who populate our prison system, they pose a seemingly intractable problem. Handing down a life sentence with a substantial minimum tariff to a young person who is not considered legally competent to vote, to leave home, to drink alcohol or to even buy cigarettes might be considered something of an anomaly. 

With an adult murderer, the courts are dealing with a person who can be held fully accountable and legally responsible for his or her actions. At the age of 15, a child can’t buy a lottery ticket. Society – and our legal system – seems to demand that children who are deemed incapable of exercising minor decision-making capacities in their everyday lives, suddenly become fully responsible for themselves and their criminal actions. 

A time of innocence?
Since England and Wales sets the age of criminal responsibility, the ‘defence of infancy’, at just ten years old (in Scotland it’s 12), this is in many ways a deeply imbalanced approach. In many other countries, the age of criminal responsibility is set much higher – often at 14 (as used to be the case under English common law) – but in some cases as high as 16 or, in a few cases, 17 or even 18. Even so, few European countries would consider sentencing a child as an adult.

The boy who murdered Mrs Maguire was 15 at the time of his crime, so there is less ambiguity than there would have been had he been much younger. Even under the old common law he would have been deemed capable of being tried for murder. During the trial, it also became clear that this was far from being a spontaneous outburst of temper or momentary loss of control. In fact, the evidence indicated that the crime had been planned over a long period of time, although the motivation still seems unclear. He also pleaded guilty, but has expressed no remorse. All in all, a deeply troubling situation that seems to fly in the face of common notions about childhood being a time of innocence.

In fact, anyone who has dealt with troubled children in a family setting, or in a professional capacity, knows only too well how violent, calculating and manipulative some of these kids can be. Years ago I did a placement in a notorious secure unit for very dangerous children held in custody after committing serious offences. There were never less than three adults present at any time, both to maintain order, as well as to protect staff from false allegations of assault or abuse. 

Some of these children were so severely disturbed, damaged and dangerous that, at least privately, I wondered whether they would ever be considered manageable risks in the community. Years later, when I was in prison myself, I did wonder whether any of the lifers and long-termers I encountered wandering around the wings in Cat-B or Cat-C prisons were the same kids I’d met back in the 1980s now grown into completely institutionalised adult cons. 

YOI Aylesbury
The future for the boy who murdered Mrs Maguire is very bleak. At the age of 16, he has been given a mandatory life sentence with a minimum term of 20 years. This is substantially above the average adult minimum tariff of 12 years. However, the judge Mr Justice Coulson, cited his “total and chilling lack of remorse” and observed that he might never be released from prison. So what does this mean in practice?

Initially, he will begin his sentence in a specialist unit of a Young Offenders Institution (YOI). When he gets to the age of 18, he will face being transferred to a YOI that accommodates young men aged 18 to 21. And after that, he will enter the adult prison system, possibly for the rest of his life.

As I’ve written in a previous blog post Glen Parva: More ‘Scum’ than Lord of the Flies, I’m fortunate that I’ve never been banged up in a YOI myself. However, I have worked closely with many young men who have and their descriptions of what goes on inside these institutions is truly disturbing, as are the latest reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Bullying, violence and extortion (known as ‘taxing’) are rife and in many cases the young men have to fight to keep what few possessions they have, including food and clothing. Those who refuse to fight back, or can’t defend themselves, face a daily hell of exploitation and victimisation. 

If anyone imagines that the teenager who murdered Mrs Maguire is in for an easy ride, they should think again. His path through our prison system will probably be much harder – and more dangerous – than for someone who had committed this heinous offence as an adult, particularly once he reaches the age of 18 and is transferred into a mainstream YOI, probably Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire or Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.

Scene from the film Scum (1977)
Personally, I have yet to meet any young man who has ‘graduated’ from a YOI to an adult prison who has taken anything positive from the experience, particularly in terms of rehabilitation. I’ve seen them arrive on adult wings angry, embittered and programmed to fight anyone for anything. 

Most are well on the way to being institutionalised for life (even if they aren’t serving life sentences) and many are unable to build meaningful personal relationships. In some cases, their levels of sexual frustration and violent fantasies are truly terrifying. Think Roy Minton’s cult borstal film Scum and you are getting nowhere near what goes on inside the heads of some of these young cons. They are – literally – ticking timebombs waiting to go off, causing more mayhem and misery, and perhaps even murder, in their wake.

Of course, a fair number were very dangerous to start with. Some have endured short lives of horrific abuse – physical, emotional, sexual – within local authority institutions or dysfunctional families. Others, however, come from seemingly well-balanced homes with loving parents, as the killer of Mrs Maguire appears to have. Why he turned from being a troubled teenager into a calculating killer is something that may take years to unravel, or it may never become clear, particularly if his apparent lack of remorse undermines any therapeutic work that may be attempted while he is held in a specialist YOI unit.

A single cell
However, even if progress is made during the first two years of his sentence, I’d be willing to bet cash money that all of that will be undone with a vengeance once he reaches the mainstream YOI units for young adults. Unless there are major changes to the way these crisis-ridden institutions are run in the near future, then he’ll have to learn to fight to survive. 

By the time he reaches an adult nick, any pretence of rehabilitation will be gone. He’ll be an adult lifer and probably full of hatred, suspicion and bitterness. With our prisons awash with drugs of all kinds, he may well have developed a serious habit by the time he reaches adulthood. Fights with other youths and adult cons during his sentence will also count against him in his record. That’s why he may never be able to convince the Parole Board to release him even 30 or 40 years on.

There is another complication in this case. Mr Justice Coulson’s decision to ‘name and shame’ this child by lifting his anonymity, granted until the age of 18 under section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act (1933), was a deeply foolish move, which I understand was opposed by the authorities who are now responsible for his care and education. The application was made by various media organisations, including – shamefully – The Guardian, a newspaper that usually takes a much more responsible line when it comes to justice issues. The fact that social media, and The Sun, had already circulated his name, is no excuse for this decision by a judge who seems far more interested in dancing to the media’s tune.

By releasing this youth’s name and photograph to the media, Mr Justice Coulson has effectively declared it to be ‘open season’ on him and his family. It has guaranteed his notoriety and made him vulnerable to attacks and assaults inside our prisons. One only has to recall the impact that a similarly misguided decision had on the two young children who murdered little Jamie Bulger in 1993. This made any attempt to manage their rehabilitation and resettlement much more difficult, as well as ultimately costing the taxpayer an inordinate amount of money to give them new identities once they had been released as adults.

YOI corridor
In fact, in this case the boy’s defence barrister, Richard Wright QC, argued that lifting his anonymity at this stage would be “wholly contrary” to the child’s welfare. Moreover, the adverse publicity “would impede his management and treatment” while in custody, where he is already on 24-hour constant suicide watch. Sadly, in his infinite wisdom, Mr Justice Coulson took a contrary view and we’ll no doubt endure a never-ending media circus with bent screws and other cons selling tittle-tattle to the tabloids over the coming decades.

I honestly don’t pretend to know whether this lad can ever really be rehabilitated. Are we the same people now as we were when we were 15 or 16? Of course not. Age often brings experience and maturity. 

However, what I am pretty certain about is that whatever good work and progress could have been made during the next two years in the special unit will now be much more difficult owing to the decision to ‘name and shame’ him in the media. Moreover, if he follows the well-worn path from YOI to adult prison in the footsteps of the dozens of other young lads I’ve met coming in from Swinfen Hall, Aylesbury or Glen Parva, then his chances of meaningful rehabilitation will be somewhere between slim and none. Sorry to be so negative, but at least I’m being honest about a prison system that seems to thrive on consistent failure.