Prison

Prison

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Q & A with a Frontline Prison Officer

As regular readers of this blog know I do aim to make the posts as informative and balanced as possible. Since its launch in July 2014 the blog has acquired a wide readership ranging from the Chief Inspector of Prisons and politicians to ex-prisoners, as well as quite a few people who are facing the prospect of a custodial sentence.

Prison officers: staff shortages
This particular post is a first for this blog, however, because a serving prison officer has agreed – on condition of anonymity – to give his personal views on working on prison wings, as well as an insight into the impact of current policies, staff shortages and the reasons that morale is so low. He also shares his experiences of the dangers posed by so-called ‘legal highs’ that are smuggled into our prisons.

We conducted the Q & A via e-mails. All we have agreed to reveal is that he is a male officer with over 20 years’ experience and currently works in a male Cat-C establishment.

Q. How would you say the job of being a prison officer has changed over the last few years?

A. ‘More for less’ as that often repeated popular Tory slogan goes!

There is less time for ‘good old’ prison officer duties i.e. face-to-face communications with prisoners and dealing with their ‘issues’. We’ve been pushed out of roles where prison officers were employed, and could utilise when working ‘on the landings’ – for example Offence Focused Groupwork.

On a daily basis I just don’t have the time to attend to individual prisoners’ requests and issues. There appears to be a ‘if it can’t be quantified’ attitude – by ‘management’ – then it is not important.

There is more emphasis now – via ‘management’ – on paper filling and box ticking to make it appear that the jobs are being carried out satisfactorily. For example, my daily duties are now broken down into slots of 15 minutes. At least twice, on a daily basis, my detail shows me as being in two places at the same time.

Q. What impact has the 28 percent cut in staffing had on you and the colleagues you work with?

A. There are less staff to complete all the daily tasks to a satisfactory level and, more importantly, far less time interacting with, and monitoring, prisoners and their behaviours – for example bullying, violence, substance misuse, vulnerabilities, etc.

Less time to talk to prisoners
Also, there is lowered confidence in dealing with anti-social, pro-criminal behaviours due to lack of availability of staff.

Q. How does overcrowding (if that is currently a problem in your own nick) impact on the way you can do your job?

A. I’ll give an example.  A typical wing has 94 single cells. Currently, a typical wing is holding 126 prisoners. That's approximately 32 prisoners sharing cells originally built for one prisoner. This means more demands on staff time and the resources available within the wing/establishment. Also, everyday is a ‘ticking bomb’ due to prisoners fighting for attention, and for the use of limited facilities such as showers, phones, association equipment, etc.

Q. Most of the prison officers I communicate with feel staff morale on the frontline is pretty much rock-bottom at the moment. What’s your own take on this?

A. I would agree with that. However, most of the experienced staff help each other get through the day. There is a distinct feeling that the ‘management’ of the establishment is not that bothered about the frontline staff as long as all the relevant paperwork is signed and dated, for example wing diaries. There is an opinion that the calibre of ‘management’ within the prison service nowadays do not want to engage with officers or prisoners on a daily face-to-face basis - they are more happy to sit behind their computers looking at and making spreadsheets.

In my first couple of years’ service I remember governors being based on wings and the ‘No. 1’ [governing governor] and the ‘Deputy’ making daily rounds of the prison talking to and observing staff and prisoners. I have yet to see the current ‘No. 1’ and ‘Deputy’ do this! This just reinforces officers’, and prisoners’, views that the prison ‘management’ isn’t interested in what is actually going on within the walls of their establishments.

Q. Do you feel that safety – of staff and cons – has been compromised due to Chris Grayling’s ‘reforms’? If so, where do you see the real flashpoint and dangers?

A. Without a doubt, yes!

Staff shortages mean less supervision
There is a distinct lack of staff presence during the ‘line route’ to and from activities which makes it a prime time for prisoners to ‘get even’, carry out assaults, ‘taxing’ [charging protection money] etc.

Activities are regularly being curtailed due to lack of staff due to sickness, emergency escorts etc. Gym is a regular activity that is cancelled due to staff being re-deployed.

Gang activity is on the increase, along with the availability of drugs – particularly the so-called ‘legal highs’. The prison’s security department has been depleted, along with the number of searches that used to take place, together with staff who were available within the establishment on a day-to-day basis.

Q. You’ve commented previously on a lack of support from management. How does this work in practice on the wings and has it got worse in recent years?

A. ‘Management’ is rarely seen on the wings, within the grounds during the working day. It has been regularly commented on by officers that if the building where all these ‘managers’ are located was in London in would not make any difference to the current running of the establishment.

I would say the quality of the ‘managers’ (governors!) has declined over the past ten years. It appears to me these new ‘managers’ are good at balance/spread sheets and looking at computers but they appear very hesitant in dealing with or communicating with officers and prisoners on a personal basis.

Officers have a saying for the type of current ‘management’ and that is ‘management by e-mail’ as this appears to be the preferred method of communicating with staff and means that ‘management’ do not have to leave their offices and see what is being dealt with on a daily basis throughout the prison estate.

On the wing
Q. Can you give us an insight into the way the revised Incentives and Earned Policy (IEP) policy has impacted on your establishment since September 2013?

A. It hasn’t made much of an impact, in my opinion! I see it as just another bureaucratic ‘exercise’ that diverts disciplinary cases from adjudications.  Call me cynical, but these do not show up on monthly statistics!

There was/is very little difference between a ‘standard’ and ‘enhanced’ prisoner and the privileges, etc.

In all honesty I haven’t paid much attention to this policy as, like a lot of officers and prisoners, I do not rate this system much as it’s a poor substitute for the old disciplinary system.

Q. What effect has so-called ‘legal highs’ had on your nick? Are these substances widely available at the moment and, if so, are they making your job more difficult and/or dangerous?

A. This is one of the most frightening things that is worrying frontline officers. You don’t know, on a daily basis, if there is going to be a spate of prisoners using these and what strength they are using. Prisoners become violent, have an increase in strength, lose all awareness of where they are and the physical dangers to their bodies is worrying too.

Ticket to the Mambulance
On one particular day we had 18 known cases that required medical attention i.e. ambulances. Prisoners now refer to these as ‘Mambulances!’

It takes all of the wing officers to deal with just one prisoner who is having one of these ‘attacks’. This leaves the rest of the wing unsupervised, so you can draw your own conclusions as to what else could be happening, or could happen, when we are dealing with the use of these ‘legal highs’.

They appear to be easily available and a popular method of entry into the prison is being thrown over the fence as the chances of staff stopping these ‘drops’ is minimal.

If a prisoner is suspected of using these substances then they are automatically downgraded to the Basic IEP level.

Q. Have you noticed any changes in the type of prisoner you are dealing with or the length of sentences they are serving? Have you seen the prison population ageing during your time in the job?

A. There does appear to be more prisoners over 50 entering the establishment and the younger ones are more violent and willing to resort to violence. I believe this is because of how they have been treated during their ‘rise’ through the Criminal Justice System. In other words, they have been treated with kid gloves and the sanctions that have been applied or are available to punish them are a joke. They often say “And what are you going to do about it?” The answer to this has been not a lot or nothing and this has been imbedded in them

Q. It’s often said that our prisons run on the basis of cooperation between staff and most cons – particularly in view of the numbers of prisoners on a wing in relation to the smaller number of prison officers now employed. What is your take on this? Are cons becoming more difficult to manage or work with?

New regimes: increase tensions
A. Yes, they are more difficult to manage. This, I believe, is due to staff not having time to talk with prisoners, and the same goes for prisoners as the new regimes that were brought in last year do not allow for prisoners and staff to slow down. It’s rush, rush, rush: get them out and get them to work!

Most prisoners would like to go back to being ‘banged up’ during the lunchtime period as this forced them to slow down and relax. Now, because they are out [of cell] it increases tensions and I have noticed a lot more aggression shown between prisoner and prisoner particularly.

Q. Have you ever met any cons in the last 20 years that you genuinely believed might have been wrongly convicted?

A. I don’t know. But, I have met some who I believe should not have been sent to prison. For example one prisoner who ‘stole’ food thrown away by a well known supermarket into a skip. I think he was sent down for three months for this. He is now dead from overdosing after being released.

Q. Do you get any job satisfaction from your work these days? How do you cope with the increased violence and the risks to your personal safety? Have you considered looking for an alternative career because of working conditions getting worse?

A. Sometimes I get satisfaction but it’s very rare as we are too busy to take time on task and requests.

I’m constantly worrying about my own and my colleagues’ safety. I’ve come to realise that I stand clear until enough staff arrive or the prisoners cease fighting each other or I withdraw as quickly as possible. I’m finding it very stressful and not just the violence but the workloads and staff cuts.

I have – and am – seriously considering leaving. This is due to the increase in violence, reductions in officers and how ‘management’ treat us, particularly those at the higher end and, of course, politicians.

Prison UK: Many thanks for sharing all this with us.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Accomplices to the Crime

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the 25-day riot at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways it should be of deep concern that Lord Woolf – who presided over the public inquiry into the reasons behind the explosion of resentment and violence during April 1990 that left two people dead (one an inmate and the other a prison officer) – has called for a new inquiry into the dire state of our prisons. Now chair of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), the former Lord Chief Justice is warning that we have been going backwards and that the situation today is “back where we were at the time of Strangeways”.

Up in smoke: HMP Strangeways 1990
Perhaps predictably, Lord Woolf’s warnings are falling on deaf ears at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) down in Petty France. His lordship’s message is deeply unwelcome in a ministry that appears to have battened-down the hatches as part of a retreat from reality ahead of May’s general election. Just as predictable are the complacent platitudes rolled out by hapless part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous.

If it often sounds like Mr Selous is reading from a prepared script, then he probably is. The prisons portfolio is the current equivalent of a hospital pass in rugby and it seems that not a day goes by without some new scandal or shockingly negative report landing on his desk. The more he tries to pretend that the prison system isn’t in deep crisis, the less convincing he sounds. I doubt he really believes a word of the MOJ press office garbage he is briefed to repeat by rote.

Although every week is ‘disaster week’ for Chris Grayling and his sidekick, last week was especially grim. They must have known that the parliamentary Justice Committee report was going to be a real shocker, but perhaps the routine state of denial that seems to pervade the ministry had anaesthetised them ahead of what for any other government department – other, perhaps, than the Department of Work and Pensions – would have been a devastating indictment documenting institutional failure and inhumanity in equal measure.

Institutional failure from the top
It’s difficult to know where to start with the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State for Justice and his entourage by the Justice Committee which – lest we forget – is charged with holding the politicians who currently run this clown show accountable to Parliament and thus to the people of this country. If I run through just the critical paragraphs it would mean reproducing virtually the entire report verbatim. Other than the title page and the index, of course.

I’ll confine myself to just a few of the most pointed observations. If we start at paragraph 75 – as good a place as any – we find: “All available indicators, including those recorded by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and NOMS itself, are pointing towards a rapid deterioration in standards of safety and levels of performance over the last year or so.”

In other words, the prison system is in a real mess. However, this is really just stating the obvious for anyone who knows anything about our prisons. What it does mean is that Mr Grayling, Mr Selous and Mike Spurr of NOMS (the ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ of my earlier post) really didn’t manage to pull the wool over the eyes of the Justice Committee members when they gave evidence last December. It was a lamentable performance then and this report is the well-deserved riposte from the MPs who had to sit through Messrs Grayling & co trying to wing it.

"Arrogant and disrespectful? Me?"
Most of the specific issues raised by the Justice Committee have been covered in much greater detail on this blog since July 2014 and in many other places. However, one paragraph does merit careful attention:

“Most concerning to us is that since 2012 there has been a 38 percent rise in self-inflicted deaths, a 9 percent rise in self-harm, a 7 percent rise in assaults, and 100 percent rise in incidents of concerted indiscipline. Complaints to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and other sources have risen. There are fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, including diminished access to education, training, libraries, religious leaders, and offending behaviour courses.”

So, just about everything do to with our prison system has got much worse since Mr Grayling came into office in 2012. That’s a pretty shocking record by any standards.

The Justice Committee report also summarized the evidence that had been given by witnesses. Of particular concern was the impact of staff shortages and serious overcrowding on how prisons operate on a day to day basis: “Angela Levin of the Wormwood Scrubs IMB [Independent Monitoring Board] believed that increases in suicide, a “huge increase” in self-harm and a 50 percent increase in violence were due to the length of time prisoners were spending in their cells and the lack of capacity of staff to monitor them. For example, at Wormwood Scrubs more prisoners were now sharing cells, including three to a cell in some cases.”

HMP Wormwood Scrubs
The report also highlighted the marked fall in the number of prison staff: “Between 31 March 2010 and 30 June 2014 the number of full-time equivalent staff in public sector prisons fell by 28 percent, a reduction of 12,530 staff.” Moreover, it also pointed out that “staff turnover in public sector prisons has doubled since 2010/11”.

In other words, prison staff are bailing out at a significantly higher rate than before. This is perhaps unsurprising given that prisons have become a much less safe environment in which to work.

By this point in the report the Justice Committee is really getting into its stride. However, it saves up the real kicker until paragraph 102 in which it is observed that: “In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.”

Lord Woolf: warning
Basically, every single policy that ‘Calamity Chris’ has pushed through since 2012 has damaged the prison system to the point that safety – of both staff and inmates – has now been severely compromised. Quite an achievement over a 27-month period. No wonder Lord Woolf is warning that our prisons are going backwards towards the point when Strangeways went up in smoke.

Just in case anyone really thought that Mr Grayling might be saving the taxpayer money, the Committee shone the spotlight on the eye-watering cost of NOMS’ shocking incompetence in respect of managing the number of prison staff required to keep the system running. Chronic staff shortages mean that serving frontline staff are having to be bussed around the country – so-called ‘detached duty’ – at a whopping cost of £63.5 million over a 13-month period. This amounts to £2,500 per officer per month.

However, when it comes to the full cost implications of this mess – including subsistence allowances, travel and accommodation costs, the MOJ simply failed to produce the figures. Apparently no-one down in Petty France really thought that the MPs who sit on the Justice Committee would be interested in such minor details. After all, surely it’s the bigger ideological picture that really matters.

HMP Isis: short of half its staff
Each new paragraph of the report seems to expose some new horror or fiasco such as HMP Isis being short of almost half its officers due to 26 unfilled vacancies and another 27 members of staff off work for various reasons.

As the Justice Committee observed: “We believe that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards over the last year is that a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes.”

Moreover, the report correctly points out that: “Having fewer prison officers can tip the power balance, leading to less safety and more intimidation and violence on wings. Interim measures such as restricted regimes and the national detached duty scheme have been adopted as a necessary means of minimising the risks of operating with insufficient staff, but these measures themselves have an adverse impact on the ability of the prison system to achieve rehabilitation and reduce reoffending.”

In other words, the taxpayer is essentially being ripped off by the MOJ. Not that that seems to worry Mr Grayling a fig, since the report notes: “The Ministry’s inability to provide us with fully worked out costings of its reforms is a recurring issue for us.”

It appears that no-one down in Petty France really knows – or seems to care – how much the current prisons crisis is actually costing us. Certainly, to the evident frustration of members of the Justice Committee, if anyone does know they aren’t saying.

Terrible crimes down in Arkansas
The title of this blog post is borrowed from the book of the same name written by US prison reformer – and one-time warden of Arkansas state prisons – Tom Murton. I first read this hard-hitting exposé of the murder, torture and corruption that Dr Murton uncovered when he was appointed as warden in 1967 back in the early 1980s when I was still a student. The book made a significant impression on me and this is probably one of the reasons I was interested in penal reform long before I spent time in British prisons myself.

One of the reasons that the Arkansas prison scandal was permitted to happen was the failure of the state to properly fund its own prison system. With too few staff to actually run these sprawling farming establishments, wardens before Dr Murton were forced to rely on inmate ‘trustees’ – who were armed and empowered to dish out whippings and other forms of torture, including electrocuting their fellow inmates’ genitals if the fancy took them. Some prisoners were murdered and buried in anonymous plots out in the fields with no questions asked.

Rape and other forms of sexual exploitation were commonplace, as was corruption at every level from the warden down to the prisoners’ barracks. Everything had a price. Massive financial kickbacks were paid and ordinary inmates were used as slave labour by neighbouring farms and businesses.

The reason that Dr Murton used the title for his book was that these abuses – up to and including rape, torture and murder – were only possible with the collaboration of the state (sometimes active, at other times passive). Politicians, bureaucrats and local businesses had all played roles in encouraging the establishment of a prison system built on criminality and corruption. They were all “accomplices to the crime”, even though few of them were ever brought to justice.

Because he refused to cover up the terrible abuses he discovered Dr Murton was eventually dismissed and driven out of the US penal system. He ended up as a university academic and duck farmer, dying of cancer in 1990.

Dr Tom Murton: wouldn't cover up
I believe that many of the abuses that are taking place daily in our prisons – including widespread drug use, as well as a marked increase in sexual exploitation, bullying, self-harm, suicide and violence – are the direct results of frontline staff shortages, inadequate resourcing and serious overcrowding. At what point will this become a form of corporate negligence? And, if so, who – if anyone – will be held to account?

We may not have reached anything like the depths of depravity in our prisons that Dr Murton discovered when he took on the role of warden in Arkansas, but I fear that we are well on the way, particularly in respect of the casual manner in which Mr Grayling dismisses suicides of prisoners as a statistical “blip” and blocks independent research into prison rape and sexual assaults. He sounds more like the chair of the Arkansas Prison Board dismissing the deaths of inmates as a matter of no importance than a UK Justice Secretary. From such attitudes are monsters made.

We would do well to heed Lord Woolf’s warnings, as well as consider carefully the latest findings of the Justice Committee. Our prisons are heading for disaster and it gives no confidence when Mr Selous claims that: “Our modernisation programme has created an estate fit for purpose, and saved the taxpayer millions of pounds.” But what is that purpose? And why will no-one at the MOJ reveal the full costs – and what is the price of the rising loss of human life?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Can Prison Councils Ever Work?

I’ve been interested in the issue of prison councils for years – long before I ended up inside the slammer myself. The reason is that, as a kid, I watched the famous US prison movie Brubaker staring Robert Redford and it made quite an impression on me. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that I’ve always been keen on prison reform.

Brubaker: prison reformer
For those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the plot beyond observing that it is – loosely – based on the true story of a reforming warden of a notorious state prison in Arkansas in the late 1960s. One of the first things that his fictional counterpart did, after discouraging the torture, whipping, rape and murder of the inmates in his charge by the brutal trustees of course, was to create a prison council. 

A minor subplot in the movie is taken up by the electioneering among the cons who decided to stand for election to the new council. Whether this really reflected what actually happened in Arkansas, I’m not sure. 

I have read the memoirs of the real warden upon whom the character of Brubaker was based – Dr Thomas Murton – however, I honestly can’t recall that part of the historical story. In any case, it’s the fictional version that I’m interested in for this post.

In the movie, the actual inmate council meeting wasn’t a great success. To start with the new warden left the recently elected members to their own devices and the discussion soon degenerated into a near punch-up. Eventually, when things had calmed down, there was aimless debate about everything – and nothing. It seemed that the sceptical trustees had been proven right.

I’ve always been a little sceptical of ‘councils’ myself – whether of the school variety or those in prisons. I’ve also served on more than enough university committees to realise that the size of any group is often inversely proportional to the amount of actual output: the larger the body, the less that seems to get done. If you doubt that, take a look at the enormous UN General Assembly. It’s an object lesson in talking without really achieving much. Hence the existence of the much smaller Security Council which is where the real power lies.

Prisoners meetings... often a lot of talking and little action
In the case of prison councils I am even more doubtful of their practicality. Most prisons that I served in simply didn’t bother with them. No-one in the senior management really had the time to spare and the vast majority of cons regarded the very idea as laughable. Just standing for ‘election’ could have made a prisoner a target for abuse. After all, only ‘screw-boys’ and grasses volunteer for such roles, not ‘staunch’ cons.

A couple of jails did have ‘wing reps’, but these were appointed positions, rather than elected ones. These roles involved turning up for occasional meetings during which issues such as food and leaking showers would be raised – time and again – without anything ever really happening. Notes would be made, minutes photocopied and no actual action taken. It was all a complete waste of time. However, because there hadn’t been any elections beforehand, there was no pretence that this was a democratic process.

Funnily enough, most reps meetings took place shortly before a visit by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Call me cynical, but I suspect that these shows of inmate participation were designed to tick boxes with the visiting inspectors rather than improve conditions.

Only one prison in which I served actually attempted to run an advisory council. I was a member for about six months. Meetings were very infrequent. Occasionally a governor grade turned up, but more often than not it would be a bored custodial manager who sat in the chair. There were all the trappings of a democratic body: agendas, minutes, voting by show of hands. However, as with the reps’ meetings in other establishments, little or nothing really ever came of all the talking.

First-time voter?
Inevitably, the cons who got elected (or more usually selected by the management) tended to be the more articulate ones – white-collar fraudsters or bent professionals of various types. Most also liked to hear the sound of their own voices, so prison council meetings tended to be both long and tedious.

By the end of most sessions I’d lost the will to live and I wasn’t alone. And above all, deep down we knew that there just weren’t sufficient resources – budget or staff – to institute any much-needed changes or improvements. 

To give you just one simple example, a particular shower block was completely without any shower curtains for the entire year I was at this establishment. Other wings had them, but ours didn’t. The problem could have been sorted out by someone ordering four of the cheapest ones in the Argos catalogue – probably less than 30 quid the lot. However, because there was neither the money available, nor the political will to do anything about it, this item appeared on the council agenda at every meeting. 

No curtains
Each time it was agreed that something needed to be done. The residential manager would nod and make a note. Then we all went away and no shower curtains ever materialised. I challenge anyone to maintain a level of enthusiasm for such pointless discussions. Being in prison is quite tedious and stressful enough without having endless meetings about non-existent shower curtains, dodgy laundry machines, missing bog-brushes or chronic shortages of jail soap and toothpaste.

Frontline staff also tend to resent such meetings when they involve prisoners. Morale is rock-bottom and there is a general perception that managers just aren’t listening to their concerns. A forum where cons get to meet with senior managers, including governors, is never going to popular with screws even at the best of times. In the current atmosphere prison councils will be resented all the more.

Prisons in the UK are all about powerlessness by design. Prisoners are not expected to be making decisions about anything beyond their weekly meal choices and canteen purchases. At a time when many prisons are forced to run restricted regimes and are so short of staff that library visits, education sessions, exercise and gym are regularly cancelled, is it really likely that prison councils could ever actually function as intended?

Staff shortages mean cancelled activities
Of course, in an ideal world, such consultative bodies could provide prisoners with a rare opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to take responsibility; to discuss issues of concern at an adult level; to alert the prison management to serious problems or grievances before they erupt into disorder or violence – even to come up with innovative solutions to everyday glitches within specific establishments. Wing elections could also introduce cons to the concept of listening to candidates, asking questions and casting votes – possibly for the first time in their lives. 

The problem with grass-roots democracy is that it involves time and effort. It requires staff engagement and – if it is to maintain the confidence of both representatives and those they represent – the ability to deliver on issues of genuine importance. Given our current prison crisis, my own view is that where such councils or similar representative bodies do exist they are no more than window-dressing for the benefit of HM Inspectorate of Prison or official visitors. It’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the RMS Titanic after the iceberg has been hit: a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time. Sad, but true.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

My Top Ten Prison Books

A regular reader of this blog asked recently if I could recommend a few books about the reality of prison life. He is facing the possible prospect of his first jail sentence in the not too distant future and wants to do a bit of reading to prepare himself for what he can expect to experience behind bars. 

My personal Top Ten prison books
In response to this request, I started to put together my top ten recommendations, together with a few words about why I think each book merits being included in the list. I should stress that this is my own personal selection and I may well have missed others that blog readers might want to recommend.

With one exception, I’ve focused on books and memoirs about British prisons, principally because I wanted my choices to be directly relevant to our prison system and that’s why excellent books about the US experience have been omitted, such as Shaun Attwood’s triology which includes the bestselling Hard Time, a must-read memoir of US prison life that I first read in between loading washing machines while working in a Cat-B prison laundry. For the same reason I’ve also omitted another of my own favourites, Siberian Education (2011) by Nicolai Lilin. 

Anyway, here goes:

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962)

For me, this Russian classic will always be the top of the list when it comes to describing the bleak mental and emotional landscape of Soviet labour camps during the Stalinist era. However, that’s not why it’s particularly relevant to life in a modern British prison. Solzhenitsyn’s gift is being able to capture in a very slim volume all the major ‘types’ that you can encounter in prison: the decent con, the grass, the screw-boy, the religious fanatic, the thief, the scrounger, the loser, the naïve lad and the wise old lag. They are all here and it doesn’t much matter that this all happened in Russia. 

I first read this book when I was still at school and interested in Russian literature. However, it was only when I started re-reading it as a prisoner banged-up behind bars that I realised how little I had understood it when I was a kid. If you are facing a stretch, read it – or better still, save it until you’ve been inside for a few months. Then you’ll understand everything.


2. In It by Jonathan Robinson (2014)

I recently reviewed this book for the new monthly prison newspaper Jail Mail (see here). If you really want to read for yourself about the mind-numbing boredom and sheer waste of opportunity that characterises our current prison system, then this recent book is a very good place to start. 

Although he was only serving a few months inside for theft, helicopter pilot Jonathan Robinson’s daily diary still manages to take you on a journey into the bizarre, weird and mundane aspects of prison life, particularly relevant if you are a first-timer facing a short stretch. Since he served his time back in 2012, a few things have changed – notably the imposition of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 which introduced all sorts of ideologically-motivated nastiness, such as the ill-fated ban on posting in books to prisoners – but otherwise it is spot on, especially when it comes to dissecting the convoluted prison bureaucracy and exposing how any real efforts at achieving rehabilitation seem to have just dropped off the Prison Service’s agenda.

Likely to be doing some time in a Cat-D (open) prison or just fancy a timely antidote to the lies about jails being ‘holiday camps’ served up regularly in the Daily Mail? Then this is probably the best account of what really goes on inside at the moment. 

The follow up volume – On It – documents the author’s battles with politicians, the Ministry of Justice and other authorities to get key issues of rehabilitation, particularly literacy and education, back onto the agenda. His mission continues and in December 2014 he gave evidence before the House of Commons’ Select Committee hearings on Prisons: planning and policies (see here).   


3. Porridge and Passion by Jonathan Aitken (2005)

When he was a Tory politician former MP and cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken was widely reckoned to be an arrogant shit. His spectacular fall from grace after he took on The Guardian in an ill-judged libel action and his subsequent imprisonment for perjury in 1999 was much enjoyed by many who felt that he got his deserved comeuppance.

However, even some of his critics were forced to admit that his own account of his prison experiences during the seven months he spent inside out of the 18-month sentence he received was a compelling and humane insider’s view of imprisonment in HMP Belmarsh (Cat-A) and HMP Standford Hill (Cat-D). This is perhaps one of those prison books that shows there can be some redemptive value in serving a sentence that has been justly imposed, quite aside from the religious sentiment that comes from the author’s discovery of evangelical Christianity.

Although some of what he describes in his book is now out of date, it is still a compelling read for anyone who might be facing jail time. Since his release, Mr Aitken has studied theology and remains active in prison reform as a regular speaker and commentator on imprisonment and rehabilitation. 


4. The Pain of Confinement: Prison Diaries by Jimmy Boyle (1985)

Jimmy Boyle’s prison memoirs – A Sense of Freedom (1977) and his Prison Diaries – describe a very different experience of incarceration to most of the accounts penned by fallen politicians or celebrities who have ended up inside. Jeffrey Archer he isn’t.

The sheer brutality and degradation through which Jimmy Boyle lived in various Scottish prisons is the stuff of real nightmares, ranging from brutal violence (much of it his own) to spending long periods being kept stark naked in a special ‘cage’ within a cell and being moved between jails frequently as no governor wanted to have to deal with him. His anger and hatred almost literally drips from every page, at least in the early years of his sentence.

Fortunately, most cons these days don’t get quite that sort of treatment (although some pretty awful things can still happen to those who opt to assault members of staff) but this remains a compelling account that doesn’t spare the reader any sordid detail of life in high security nicks and segregation units back in the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s. These are the kind of books to read when you are already in prison as they make you realise that no matter how bad things may seem, they could always be a whole lot worse. Despite his violent past, Jimmy Boyle is one of the best examples of successful rehabilitation through education and is now a well-known author and sculptor.


5. The Little Book of Prison by Frankie Owens (2012)

This is a very interesting little guide to going to prison for the first time. It is written with the first-timer in mind and contains loads of very useful little tips about getting through a short sentence. While most prison memoirs or diaries tend to skip over crucial practical issues – such as cell etiquette, induction, drugs and – yes, even the vexed question of masturbation in the nick – Frankie Owens deals with it in a frank and forthright way. Although a couple of things are now a bit out of date due to more recent changes in the rules, his book remains an invaluable guide.

He also gives good advice on dealing with the various wackos and weirdos you encounter on every wing and has a very sensible section entitled ‘Getting on with your bird’ (serving your sentence). I can see why this little pocket-sized handbook, which is so very readable, won a Koestler Platinum Award. It deserved to win.

I only read this book when I found it by complete chance in a prison library at my first Cat-C nick – which was a bit late to be honest as I’d already done plenty of jail time. I really wish that I’d had a copy before I got sent down because it would have been a great preparation for my own time in the slammer. Every solicitor and barrister could do worse than recommend it to any literate client they think might be facing a spell behind bars.


6. Screwed: The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer by Ronnie Thompson (2008)

I’ve included this book in my list because I found it a fascinating read, even if I only came across it months after I’d been released. ‘Ronnie Thompson’ is the pseudonym used by a former screw who became an author after he left HM Prison Service. To read Screwed is to see prison life from the other side of the door – how uniformed members of staff view cons, their colleagues and senior management. I read it cover to cover while sitting on two trains during a seven-hour journey.

To be honest, this book doesn’t make happy reading. Like too many frontline prison officers, Mr Thompson really didn’t like his job, or most of the cons he encountered, or many of his own colleagues. It was probably for the best when he finally handed in his keys. However, he can write and what he has written is both very readable and accurate.

His book does catalogue many of the institutional flaws and shortcomings that are endemic within our dysfunctional prison system – including exposing examples of bent screws stabbing their own colleagues (metaphorically) in the back. The author also penned Banged-Up (2010) which deals with imprisonment from a con’s point of view and Knifer (2011), a very bleak account of young offenders.


7. Parkhurst Tales: Behind the Locked Gates of Britain’s Toughest Jails by Norman Parker (1995)

I first read Parkhurst Tales while I was still a prisoner myself. I came across the paperback edition on the shelves of the true crime section of a Cat-B prison library and plunged in. Norman Parker served over 24 years inside, including a life sentence for murder. His books are both readable and entertaining and I read this one over a single weekend of bang-up. It is one of those rare books you really can’t put down, particularly if you have time on your hands. 

If you only read it for his description the infamous ‘shit-bomb’ incident in a wing office it’s still well worth it. I laughed out loud for quite some time while lying on by prison bunk and I’m still smiling at the memory as I write this.

In recommending this book, I feel that I should add that it documents life in Parkhurst in the ‘bad old days’. Many similar characters still populate our prison wings, but the sense of solidarity between cons – and the truly visceral hatred that existed between most prisoners and screws – appears to have dissipated over time. If you really want to know how to spark off a prison riot or mount an escape attempt, then this is the book for you. Norman Parker embarked on an Open University degree course while he was still a serving prisoner and later earned a Master’s degree in criminology. It just shows what access to education can achieve.


8. The Loose Screw: The Shocking Truth About Our Prison System by Jim Dawkins (2008)

This is another prison memoir written from the viewpoint of an ex-screw. Like Screwed by Ronnie Thompson it deals with the author’s own experiences as an Army veteran who entered the Prison Service and was shocked by what he discovered while working in several London jails. 

Instead of being encouraged to develop good working relations with inmates in pursuit of reform and rehabilitation, Jim Dawkins quickly became disillusioned by the many flaws he found in the system, including the bullying and victimisation of prisoners by some of his colleagues. After seven years in the job he resigned and wrote this book in order to highlight his views on why and how prisons fail to deliver against their own stated objectives. 

Although a few of the issues covered are now a bit dated, most of the serious problems he describes have actually got much worse as our prisons have become more dangerous due to overcrowding and understaffing. A grim read with moments of humour, but worth taking the time whether you are facing a prison sentence or just care about prison reform. It is a pity we don’t seem to hear anything from the author about the current prison crisis. Perhaps he’s just moved on.


9. Prison Diaries (1-3) by Jeffrey Archer (2002-2004)

I truly agonised before including Lord Archer in my top ten prison reads, but in the end I weakened, so here he is. His three volumes of prison diaries – despite being one of the longest love letters in English literature (Jeffrey Archer’s profound love for Jeffrey Archer) as well as a lengthy whinge about the ‘injustice’ of having been sent down in 2001 for four years for perjury – have still become bestsellers. The man can write.

I had read volume one of his diaries – Hell: Belmarsh (2002) – years before I ended up inside for a similar stretch myself, but I only tackled volumes two and three while serving my sentence. I think that it isn’t an exaggeration to observe that his books can be found in every prison library across the land. I also met a couple of screws, now governor grades, who actually knew the great man himself while he was a con. They are not among his fans. I say no more.

One of the joys of finding well-thumbed copies of these books on the shelf is to see what successive generations of cons have scrawled in the margins – little of it complimentary. However, even though Lord Archer’s spell in the slammer bears all the hallmarks of the privileged ‘accidental’ inmate whose experience behind bars has little in common with that of the average con, these books are still compelling reading. Go on. Give them a go – and enjoy the guilty pleasure.    


10. A Good Man Inside by Will Phillips (2014)

This is a relatively new prison diary written by another untypical white collar prisoner who found himself getting banged-up. Will Phillips is a singer-songwriter and chef whose personal life imploded following depression and misuse of alcohol. In 2010 he ended up getting ‘four sheets’ (years), of which he actually served 300 days inside.

There are some striking parallels between his diary and that of Jonathan Robinson (see above). However, the similarity is limited. Mr Robinson freely acknowledges that he deserved to go to prison for the theft of £80,000 from his then employer; in contrast Mr Phillips believes that he was hard done by and shouldn’t have been sent down at all. That sense of injustice manifests itself across the book. Having said that, it is still readable and many of his observations and criticisms of our prison system remain as valid in 2015 as they were in 2010, although based on my own experiences as a con until 2014 I’d say that things have deteriorated a lot further. 

This is a very slim diary and to be honest it sort of peters out in the middle – whole periods just disappear unmarked – until the diarist regains his interest right at the end of his sentence just prior to his release. I say that less by way of criticism (you should see my own unpublished volumes of prison diaries) and more to highlight just how difficult it is to chronicle long days of nothingness and crushing boredom. It’s worth reading A Good Man Inside if only to get some sense of what prisoners really go through pretty much every day.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Prison Regimes: Inside the Crisis

For those who have never lived or worked in a prison, the term ‘regime’ might conjure up thoughts of North Korea or some other tinpot dictatorship. However, in a British prison context it just refers to the daily timetable that regulates pretty much every action or activity for all inmates. 

Prison regimes: behind the razor wire
In UK establishments prison regimes generally come in three varieties: ‘normal’ regime, ‘restricted’ regime and emergency lockdown. The first is when things run according to the published timetable. Cell doors get unlocked at set times; prisoners can go outside for exercise as long as the weather isn’t ‘inclement’ (ie raining or snowing); cons can go to work or attend education classes morning and afternoon; social and legal visits take place as scheduled; medication is dispensed from healthcare and other weekly activities – such as library visits, gym sessions, kit change and religious services – are all run normally. This is the ideal situation. Things get done and most tensions can be managed.

However, as more and more of our prisons sink deeper into the artificially-created crisis caused by swingeing budget cuts that have left some establishments underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded due to a programme of prison closures and the imposition of longer sentences, ‘restricted’ regimes are becoming the new normal. What happens is that the daily timetable is amended to reflect the staffing resources available. 

Emergency lockdown, the most restrictive state, occurs after a suicide or serious disorder on the wing. Cells are only opened individually or in blocks of three or four. Other than meals and the issuing of medications at cell doors everything else is cancelled and cons stay locked behind their doors. 

Activities that are considered optional extras – particularly exercise, association on the wing (social free time), library visits and gym sessions – are usually the first to go whenever staff number are short. Of course, these items still remain on the official timetable, but are subject to enough members of staff being available to supervise them. In practice, cancellations are now so frequent in some nicks that serving prisoners tell me they have come to expect nothing will happen when library visits or gym sessions are scheduled. Cell doors will just remain locked.

Deserted prison wing during bang-up
In these situations, pretty much the only things that are set in stone are the two daily meals, dispensing of medications by healthcare and, usually, social visits from families. It would take a brave – or foolhardy – prison governor to mess around with these too much as the end results can prove to be explosive, not to mention very costly when entire wings have to be rebuilt after destructive mass uprisings.

Every experienced screw or governor is only too well aware that most violent riots in our recent prison history have been sparked off by grievances over food or cancelled visits – especially when this happens without notice at the last minute. I’ve never heard of a riot over the cancellation of education classes or library visits. The general policy seems to be to prioritise feeding the cons and getting them down to the visits hall if humanly possible.

However, regular cancellation of association on the wings can also gradually raise tensions, as can missing repeated gym sessions. Association is when cells are unlocked to allow prisoners to take showers, phone home and chat or play indoor games with their mates. These activities act like a valve on top of a pressure cooker. Screw things down too tightly and eventually even the most compliant and passive con may lose it. Serious trouble can result, particularly when wings are crammed with too many inmates for the reduced numbers of uniformed officers to manage safely. 

Just take a look at the list of grievances produced by the ‘High Down 11’ during a protest by prisoners over poor conditions at HMP High Down, a Cat-B establishment at Banstead in Surrey back in October 2013. Their complaints focused on claims of inadequate “food, exercise, showers or gym”. 

HMP High Down: no mutiny here!
When ordered to return to their cells for bang-up they refused before barricading themselves together into one cell. Charged with prison mutiny all eleven were acquitted by a jury at the end of their trial in November 2014. Having heard the evidence, including the governor’s admissions about the impact of the cuts on his ability to run a normal regime at the prison, the members of the jury clearly reached the conclusion that the men’s protests weren’t unreasonable in the circumstances (see my account of the case here). So much for Chris Grayling’s big idea of cracking down on prison protests.

More and more of our prisons are edging towards the brink of disorder owing to the tensions caused by long-term use of restricted regimes. Warnings over establishments that have inadequate staffing to operate safely have been appearing in recent reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In cell up to 23 hours a day
To give readers an insight into what a restricted regime really means in a closed prison, I asked one of my friends – who is currently serving a lengthy stretch in a short-staffed inner city Cat-B nick – to send me a hand-written copy of the current timetable operating in a prison that recently made it into the top five overcrowded prisons in England and Wales. It arrived in this morning’s post, so I’m sharing the details in order to provide a rare glimpse of what is going on, or not going on, within those walls. 

It is worth noting that recent figures from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) indicate that this particular jail has well over 300 more prisoners than its ‘normal certified accommodation’ figure and at the time the data was issued in December 2014 was just short of its absolute maximum capacity. Anything beyond that could be considered unsafe and potentially dangerous for members of staff and prisoners alike according to official guidelines.

So here is the current daily regime at this one establishment:

Monday – Thursday

08.00 – 08.30 Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or medication
08.30 Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
10.00 – 11.00 Showers and phone for non-workers
11.40 Return from labour or education
11.45 – 12.15 Lunch (usually controlled unlock – landing by landing)
12.15 Bang-up in cell
13.40 Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
16.40 Return from labour or education – evening medications
16.50 Evening meal
18.00 Locked up for the night (other than workers below)
18.30 – 19.05 Association for alternate landings for showers and phone (workers only)

Friday

08.00 – 08.30 Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or medication
08.30 – 11.40 Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
10.00 – 11.00 Showers and phone for non-workers (Muslim worship)
11.40 Return from labour or education  
11.45 – 12.15 Lunch (usually controlled unlock – landing by landing)
12.15 – 14.00 Bang-up in cell
14.00 – 15.00 Kit change (landings 1 & 3, otherwise bang-up in cell)
15.00 – 16.00 Kit change (landings 2 & 4, otherwise bang-up in cell)
16.40 – 18.15 Evening meal (controlled unlock by landing)
18.15 Locked up for the night
18.30 – 19.05 Wing cleaners unlocked to do evening duties
Saturday & Sunday

09.00 Morning medication issued
10.00 – 11.00 Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or chapel (Sundays)
11.00 Bang-up in cell
11.45 – 12.15 Hot lunch
12.15 – 14.00 Bang-up in cell
14.00 – 15.00 Association for landings 1 & 2 for showers, phone, gym
14.30 – 15.30 Library (1st and 3rd Saturday of each month)
15.00 – 16.00 Association for landings 3 & 4 for showers, phone, gym 
16.00 – 16.30 Bang-up in cell and and roll check
16.30 – 17.00 Evening meal (controlled unlock by landing)
17.00 Locked up for the night

However, my correspondent also notes the following: “We have four staff on constant watch at the moment which has meant no gym this week and controlled unlock for meals on Fridays – your cell is unlocked, you go and collect your food and are immediately locked up again. We lost all exercise on Friday and on Saturday it was just 20 minutes because of staff shortages. Recently evening association has been cancelled a fair few times meaning that you come back from work and can’t even take a shower or phone your family.”

Exercise: walking round the yard
The ‘constant watch’ he refers to above is basically 24 hour a day intensive monitoring of prisoners who are deemed to be at high risk of suicide or serious acts of self-harm. This means that at present, on one wing alone, there are three shifts of four uniformed officers supervising four prisoners. Each constant watch cell will have a uniformed officer sitting outside a barred door observing the inmate at every moment of every day and night.

Since the prison is so vastly overcrowded he informs me that there are very few work placements or spaces on education courses available. What there is tends to go to prisoners who are serving long sentences of several years or over, so most prisoners who are on remand or serving shorter stretches tend to spend all day locked in their cells except for 30 minutes of exercise – if it takes place – and collecting their meals. Prisoners can go for days without the opportunity to even take a quick shower or to join the long queue to phone their families.  

Quite clearly, based on this ‘restricted’ regime, this prison is providing little or nothing by way of rehabilitation. This is costly human warehousing at its lowest level and the taxpayer – me, and probably you – is paying an average of £40,000 a year per prisoner for this public service that is failing to reform or rehabilitate. I’m reliably informed that drugs are easily available across this establishment and that violence is a constant risk and concern for many inmates. 

I’m not sure about you, but I’m absolutely convinced that I’m not getting value for money here. Now, what are we going to do about it?