Monday, 22 December 2014

Home for Christmas (on ROTL)

My previous seasonal blogs have been mainly about how Christmas impacts on prisoners in closed prisons. However, for some prisoners who are serving their sentences in a Cat-D (open) establishment there is the prospect of being granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) over the Christmas period so that they can spend up to four nights at home with their families.

HMP Ford: going out on ROTL
If getting recategorised to D-cat status – and then actually being transferred to an open prison – is a major milestone for lifers and those prisoners who are serving long sentences, then getting ROTL over Christmas is probably the jail equivalent of winning the lottery. In the months leading up to the festive season, some cons talk about little else than their chances of being out at that time of year.  

Getting approved for overnight ROTL has never been an easy process. It’s highly bureaucratic and involves all kinds of risk assessments, internal reports, support from Probation, approval by the local police in the home area and often a face-to-face interview with a governor grade. Many apply, but few actually get approved. That doesn’t stop anyone who might be eligible from putting in an application in hope.

ROTL news: no ROTLs here!
In theory, ROTL used to be available to prisoners in Cat-B, Cat-C and Cat-D establishments, until recent changes to the rules in August. However, in practice, unescorted leave was always pretty much limited to Cat-Ds. I well remember one inner city Cat-B local prison that had a very large ROTL noticeboard on every wing. However, when you got close to it there was only one small typed notice pinned right in the middle. This read: “HMP ***** does NOT offer ROTL”. 

The existence of this totally pointless noticeboard with its negative message still makes me smile as it is a typical example of prison mentality, even pre-Chris Grayling. Regardless of what a Prison Service Order or Instruction (PSO or PSI) might permit in theory, what actually happens in practice is usually very different and this is a lesson every con needs to learn very quickly.

In a Cat-D, however, being granted ROTL is more than just a theoretical possibility and most cons will bang in a few applications by filling in a ROTL-1 form, although a sizeable number do need help to even complete the paperwork, particularly if their literacy skills aren’t very good. Also, the rules that surround ROTL can be very complex, even for members of staff to understand. 

In the open prison where I spent nearly a year, it was part of what was called a “progressive process” ahead of eventual release. This means that you had to have been at the establishment for at least two months (more recently increased to three) without any disciplinary problems or negative reports before you could be considered for ROTL. 

ROTL-1: application form
Next you had to have had a minimum of three successive town visits for a few hours (Resettlement Day Release – or RDR) before being assessed for home leave on Resettlement Overnight Release (ROR). If you were granted overnight leave, then it usually started with two nights, before being increased to a maximum of four. The frequency also depends on which type of sentence a prisoner is serving. Lifers and those on Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) have much more restricted eligibility. Some cons will probably never be granted it.

Finally, in order to qualify for Christmas ROTL, you needed to have had at least one successful previous home leave, preferably two. Also, you couldn’t have had any overnight leave in at least the previous 28 days. I well recall the amount of careful calculations that we all had to do with printed calendars in order to make sure that we’d ticked all the boxes. A discrepancy of just one day could put an end to all your dreams of spending Christmas at home with your family.

Another key issue was that final decisions tended to be left until very close to the scheduled time of departure. Governors didn’t want to approve ROTL and then have to rescind it because of some security concern or because of a disciplinary complaint against a prisoner. Even if you’d passed the face-to-face interview – and quite intensive grilling – by a governor grade, then you probably wouldn’t get your magic ROTL-5 paper that confirmed whether or not you’d been approved until a few days before the actual date of departure. It’s now become even more complex as other paperwork, up to a ROTL-7, is required and since new, much more restrictive rules for ROTL were issued in August 2014.

But will mum or dad be home?
This means that it can be very difficult for prisoners’ families to make any plans because these could be (and often are) dashed at the last moment by a decision not to approve ROTL. This can be particularly hard on children who are hoping that a parent will finally be coming home for Christmas, sometimes after years of being away, only to be told a few days before that their daddy or mummy won’t be there with them after all. I’ve known a few terribly sad cases where tensions over last minute ROTL refusals can actually be the final straw that breaks up a relationship.

The handing out of the ROTL-5 by wing screws at evening roll-call just before Christmas was particularly nerve-wracking. The question that was on everyone’s lips was: “Did you get it?”

If the magic words “ROTL approved in principle” had been circled on the paper, then the recipient skipped down the main corridor looking as if all his birthdays had come at once. On the other, hand, if “ROTL not approved” was the final answer, then there was deep depression and even tears – especially from some of the younger lads or those cons who had young kids at home. Being honest, the success of others can easily fuel resentment and bitterness at times like these.

The big day for Xmas ROTL
Assuming that your application had been successful and you’d finally received your eagerly awaited ROTL-5 (the ROTL-7 is usually issued on the day of departure), then you still faced a couple of tense days hoping and praying that nothing would go wrong. A fellow con absconding or some other major security alert could also lead to a blanket ban on prisoners walking out of the gate on 23 December.

I’d estimate that at Christmas 2013, only around one in ten prisoners at my Cat-D nick actually got granted ROTL, although around half of the inmate population of several hundred might have applied. Some were judged to be too high risk, especially if their offences had been linked to consumption of alcohol – always considered to be a risky issue around Christmas and New Year. Others failed to qualify for other reasons: a negative report from a wing screw, a veto from security or Probation or even a bureaucratic miscalculation by the Offender Management Unit (OMU) of how many days it had been since the prisoner’s last overnight leave. You also weren’t eligible for ROTL if you only had a month or less before your final release date.

Holdall packed and ready to go
As departure day – 23 December – approached, the atmosphere in the nick was a curious mixture of eager anticipation and misery. Those who were definitely going home were busy packing their holdalls and getting ready to walk out of the gate. However, for those left behind, it was going to be a long and grim few days without much to do other than watch TV. Even the prospect of a decent Christmas lunch (since the prison had its own farm) couldn’t lift the spirits of the lads who would be going nowhere that year.

I was one of the lucky ones. It was my fourth overnight ROTL and I’d made sure that all my previous dates were in order. On previous home leaves I’d always made an effort to be back two hours ahead of the deadline just in case of any travel delays, so I’d never had what is technically known as a ‘ROTL failure’ (arriving back late). And I don’t drink alcohol, having been teetotal for over 20 years, so that wasn’t a concern either.

My poor room-mate (no cells or barred windows in a Cat-D nick) hadn’t been so lucky. He had two young kids at home and they were desperate to see their dad as he had been their principal carer before he ended up in the nick. However, his previous home leave had only ended 27 days earlier and, despite initial indications that he might be granted a special concession by the governor, in the end the system was absolutely inflexible. He was staying behind in the slammer and I really felt for him. He was so crushed that if I could have given him my own ROTL-5, I probably would have done so since I don’t have a young family. However, like MPs’ speeding points, ROTLs just aren’t transferrable. 

Catching a train: a citizen again
So it was me who walked out of the prison gate at around 09.00 am on 23 December along with about 30 other lads. Temporary home leave is always a strange halfway house for any prisoner. You suddenly go from being an inmate in a jail to being a normal human again. You get collected by car or catch a train from the local station and no-one knows that you are a serving con. It is the first real step towards reintegration and for a prisoner who has done a long stretch, ROTL is an essential part of preparing for eventual release back into the community. That’s why I believe recent moves to restrict temporary leave, as a knee-jerk reaction to a small percentage of serious ROTL failures, are so shortsighted.

Being back home for Christmas on ROTL was very odd. Everything was just as it always had been and the decorations were already up, although we’d decided to forego presents that year since the new Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme meant that I wouldn’t be allowed to take back anything whatsoever with me, not even a new pair of socks. Of course, in practice, most people out on overnight leave did take the opportunity to switch their old worn-out underwear with new items and as far as I’m aware no-one in Reception ever really bothered to check. 

For a few wonderful days you get to sleep in your own bed again, on clean sheets that don’t stink of the prison laundry and other men. You eat normal food with your family and there are no roll-checks, searches or curfews. And no prison ID card hanging round your neck like a dog’s name-tag that marks you out as the property of HMPS. You feel almost human once more. 

Your own front door
Of course, like any other type of ROTL, being home for Christmas will always be overshadowed by the fact that you will have to return to prison on 27 December. The night before leaving you pack your holdall, make sure there’s nothing in there that you didn’t bring out of the nick (clean underwear excepted) and the following morning you say your fond goodbyes as you take a last quick glance at the tree and the decorations. Then you pet the dog who can’t believe you’re leaving again so soon. I won’t deny that it is a very hard thing to do. 

Finally you catch the train back to prison where you cease to be a citizen again. You’ll be body-searched, have your holdall turned inside out and then go back to being an inmate with a number and an ID card hanging round your neck once more. 

The key thing is that you do have the self-discipline to return to jail under your own steam and voluntarily submit to your further punishment, whether it’s deserved or not. After Christmas 2013, every single one of us on ROTL at our nick did come back on time. And that’s really what ROTL is all about, particularly at Christmas: testing an inmate’s compliance, self-control and ability to observe the rules. No matter how much Chris Grayling would like to please readers of the Daily Mail, I believe we’d be absolutely daft to abandon such an important tool for rehabilitation and resettlement.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Christmas Day in the Jailhouse (2)

In my previous blog post I shared some general thoughts about the Christmas season and the impact it can have in our prisons. This post focuses more on my own experiences of being incarcerated at this time of year.

Seasonal sales
Even in our overwhelmingly secular society it is sometimes hard to stomach the blatant commercialisation of what remains, in essence, the celebration of a religious festival. At least in our prisons it’s not as in-your-face as it is on the high street, although some establishments do seem to make a bit more of an effort to mark the occasion.

Ahead of my first Christmas in the nick I really didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I hadn’t given the subject much thought. Of course, I’d read some of the tabloid drivel about ‘luxury treats’ being laid on for cons, but never really believed it. Just as well, I suppose, because the reality was very different and I hate to be disappointed. 

The first sign that we were heading into the festive season was the appearance on one of the foyers outside the wing offices of an artificial Christmas tree. This nod in the direction of ‘normality’ – complete with a plastic star, fairy lights and a bit of tinsel – made for a bizarre contrast between the austere institutional décor, barred windows and polished lino floor. There it stood in glorious isolation for about a week or so. 

Seasonal cheer?
The tree must have been put in place and decorated by wing screws or chaplaincy staff while we were all banged-up, since it appeared suddenly, without any fanfare. Just after New Year it silently disappeared again. 

I had mixed feelings about the whole idea. On one hand the Christmas tree was a sign that the establishment was making an effort; yet on the other it served as an unhappy reminder of what was going on in the world outside. I think those cons who were affected most negatively were the lads who had young children at home. Every glance at the decorations must have reminded them of what they would be missing this year – and possibly for many more years to come.  

As far as individual cells were concerned, no-one would have thought of doing anything special, other than sticking up a few cards from family and friends on the pinboards above the bunks using prison toothpaste as an adhesive (both sticky tape and Blu-tack are contraband items in jail). Even this practice could be divisive in a shared pad (cell), since one con might have a big stack of cards, while his pad-mate might have received none. There are a fair number of prisoners who have lost touch with family and friends, so rubbing their faces in their own isolation isn’t a very kind or diplomatic thing to do.

Not exactly how the canteen works
Something that does change slightly ahead of Christmas is the availability of ‘special offers’ on the DHL canteen sheet. Even in the slammer, the commercial aspect of the festive season can’t always be ignored. The extra items – usually listed on a printed flyer about a month beforehand – included Christmas cards, mince pies, different types of confectionary and tangerines. Of course, in order to purchase any of these treats a prisoner needs to have sufficient funds in his or her spends account. This is one of those times of the year that those cons who get regular financial support from their families have a significant advantage over those who don’t. Even prison wings are deeply divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

For two Christmases running I pooled the credit in my spends account with a good mate and we sat for an hour a couple of weeks before Christmas Day coordinating our canteen purchases. This meant that we could share what little we were able to buy between us during the evenings when we were banged-up in our cell. 

Instantly recognisable to any con
At the same time – and this might amaze some readers – a fair number of prisoners actually buy small gifts for each other from the Christmas canteen sheet. It might only be a 50p bar of Euro Shopper chocolate or a disposable cigarette lighter, but in the slammer that can represent a fairly sizeable percentage of a weekly prison wage. Officially, the practice is prohibited under the Prison Rules, but it still goes on. 

At Christmas 2012, one of my mates was on the punitive Basic regime because he was finding it very difficult to cope with life inside. He was facing a pretty bleak time of it because his girlfriend had died a year earlier and he was still grieving. Like many cons he smoked heavily and found he had about £1.50 in his spends account. It promised to be a long holiday period banged up alone with no ‘burn’ (tobacco) to calm his nerves and no chance of buying any from the canteen.

Unknown to him, three of us clubbed together and bought an ounce of cheap rolling tobacco and some roll-up papers from the canteen sheet. During afternoon association on Christmas Eve the three of us sidled up to his locked cell door while no wing screws were around – he was being held on his own on the top landing – and quietly opened the flap over the spyhole. There he was, sitting on his bunk, head in his hands – a picture of dejection and utter misery.

Better than gold, frankincense or myrrh 
Like the three wise men bringing gifts, we closed the flap, knocked on the cell door and said “Santa’s here!” Then we slid the packet of tobacco and papers under his door. 

I won’t repeat what he said word for word as it contained a lot of joyful expletives, but it was about as close to “I love you, guys!” as any con will ever say to another. If we’d been caught in the act by a screw we’d probably have all been given a warning or even a nicking (put on a charge) for trafficking contraband to a lad on Basic regime, but I’d do it again in an instant. 

One year I was given a small maroon cloth for cleaning the lenses of my reading glasses by a fellow con. I still have it here on my desk as I’m typing this and I use it everyday. The most practical presents – and the ones that can mean the most – don’t have to be expensive. In fact, this one was a freebie from the local optician who visited the prison, but it still meant a lot.

Typical Christmas lunch in prison
Looking back in my prison diary for 2012 I can see that my Christmas lunch that year consisted of two half slices of processed ‘turkey roll’, roast potatoes, under-cooked sprouts, watery mixed veg and gravy. There was also what passed as Christmas pudding with a spoonful of custard. We were then handed the evening meal in a plastic bag and this included a Mars Bar, a can of fizzy pop and a slice of fruit cake, in addition to the usual stale bread sandwich made with bright yellow margarine. It was edible, but definitely not some kind of luxurious spread that the Daily Mail would like its readers to believe prisoners will be getting over the holiday season.

The rest of the day was spent either queuing for the wing payphones, playing Scrabble or watching television before early bang-up at around 4.30 pm. Once they had phoned home, quite a few cons opted to bang their own cell doors shut early, mainly because they really had no appetite for any forced Christmas ‘cheer’. Many, particularly the young lads, were missing their families desperately and couldn’t wait for the holiday period to be over so they could get back to work or education to take their minds off their loneliness.

To be fair, the members of staff who were on duty during the day were among the best that HMPS employs. Most of them were ex-armed forces and understood only too well what it means to be away from home over the Christmas period. I’d actually been out in the Balkans at the same time as one of the wing screws, although we’d served in different units. We even had a couple of mutual acquaintances in common, a fact we kept between ourselves.

A simple handshake at Christmas...
On Christmas morning one of the duty screws opened us up and asked how we were doing. Later, he stood by the office and shook the hand of every single prisoner as they went by and wished each one of us a happy Christmas. That might not sound much, but when a screw shakes a con by the hand in prison, it is a significant event. You suddenly start to feel human again.

Building these personal contacts helps to maintain the sometimes uneasy truce between the screws and most of the cons that enables our prisons to operate with a degree of consent and understanding from both sides. Without it, most closed nicks would quickly become very dangerous and unmanageable places for everyone, staff and inmates alike. Unfortunately, current staff shortages, restrictive regimes, new and petty rules imposed by the Ministry of Justice and long periods of bang-up are fast undermining the tacit, unwritten agreement that keeps the majority of our prisons running smoothly, at least most of the time. 

The Christmas holiday can be a very unhappy and tense period in any prison. This year could be much worse than usual and I can only hope that the sentiment of peace on earth and goodwill to all extends onto our prison wings, despite the criminal mismanagement of the system by politicians who really don’t have the first idea about how prisons really operate or the complex dynamics that keep the lid on these potentially explosive pressure-cooker environments.

My next blog post will be on my first Christmas back home on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) while I was still a serving prisoner.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Christmas Day in the Jailhouse (1)

Almost without fail every year in the run up to Christmas one or other of the tabloid newspapers will run a feature slagging off the Prison Service for giving cons a special meal on Christmas Day. I suppose that it’s become as traditional as Father Christmas, turkey and mince pies and the Queen’s Speech. Well, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without giving the lags a good kicking, would it?

The Daily Mail's idea of a con's Xmas
Apparently, this is also a well-established custom in the US where the right-wing media likes to have a pop at prisoners having special food for Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, I suppose that in austerity Britain these stories do play to a particular audience, mainly comprising the fully paid-up members of the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade. I am rather surprised Nigel Farage hasn’t jumped on this bandwagon yet, though not doubt he would, had the thought crossed his mind.

In the past, we have also had media outrage at the very idea of cons being given any type of entertainment over the festive season, whether that be in the form of carol concerts, competitions, quizzes or sporting activities in the gym. Personally, the idea of a con being awarded a bar of cheap chocolate or some Lynx shower gel for winning the wing pool tournament on Christmas Day doesn’t really get me riled – and I’ve been a taxpayer pretty much my whole adult life, other than when I was in the slammer myself.

Having been in prison myself for a couple of Christmases, I’ve come to realise that anything the prison management lays on in the way of special meals or entertainment is actually a diversionary tactic to distract cons’ attention in a bid to try to reduce the amount of suicide and self-harm that goes on around this time of year – something that no experienced wing officer or governor ever underestimates. In fact, Christmas – like birthdays or family anniversaries – can serve as a trigger that may send men and women (and some young people) who are living on the edge, over it – sometimes with tragic consequences.

Christmas inside: another year
The problem with major occasions in the calendar – like Christmas – is that they also mark the passing of yet another year. For some prisoners, particularly those serving life or other indeterminate sentences, it’s a stark reminder of how many years in confinement they have served with no end in sight. 

I recall one lifer telling me that last Christmas was his 27th in prison. He’s still inside, so this year will be his 28th. He’s been in jail since he was 20. Another will be marking his 33rd Christmas as a con. 

I’m making no apologies or excuses for either of them. Their offences – which they’ve both admitted – were horrendous, but if anyone has doubts about the effect of a life sentence, physical and mental, then slowly ageing in a concrete box for several decades or longer with no realistic prospect of release probably fits the crime much better than quick capital punishment ever could. Slow retribution that grinds a human being down is so much more effective. Some might argue it’s also less humane than a speedy end, although personally I’ve been opposed to the death penalty myself for many years.    

Experienced wing screws know that Christmas can be very tense time of year. For some cons serving shorter sentences or just starting out on much longer stretches, it could be the first they’ve ever spent away from their family and friends. The stark contrast between being at home with your family (even if it might be a fairly dysfunctional one) and being locked up with hundreds of strangers can cause breakdowns or trigger deep bouts of depression around this time of year.

A time for grief, loneliness and regret
For others it can bring back bitter or sweet memories of Christmases past, perhaps with loved ones who’ve since died while they have been in prison. I know from having supported fellow cons at Christmas time that this is when the death of a partner, a parent or especially a child can come back like an overwhelming tsunami of grief and despair. Memory can, quite literally, be a killer in prison.

I’m going to deal in more detail in my next blog post with the Christmas routine in those prisons I’ve spent time in, but one of the overwhelming emotions among many prisoners during the long holiday period is sheer boredom. Other than a few key workers (kitchens and cleaners, mainly), the vast majority of cons typically spend the period over Christmas and the New Year on a restricted, lockdown regime, often depending on the security category of the establishment. 

Even before the current staffing crisis really started to impact significantly on the running of normal regimes in our prisons, the festive season was a time when the shop was being minded by a skeleton team. In a typical quiet Cat-C nick this probably meant having a duty governor grade in, a couple of senior officers and maybe two screws on each wing or houseblock, plus security spread pretty thinly. The library, education department and gym would all be closed. 

"I got caught breaking in!"
In a Cat-D (open) prison, the numbers of staff on duty might be half that, mainly because until last year there was an established practice of trying to get as many cons as were eligible under the rules out of the gate for Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) so they could spend four nights at home with their families (23-27 December). The prospect of getting Christmas ROTL was so strong that no-one who had a realistic chance of going home wanted to screw up in the months leading up to the moment that he or she received the magic ROTL-5 form signed by the governor that authorised them to go. 

Any negative entry in a prisoner’s record or a disciplinary charge could easily derail the whole application, so ROTL could be a very effective tool for control and behavioural modification, even for a con who was otherwise a jack the lad or a complete numpty. However, since Chris Grayling tightened up the rules for ROTL following some very high profile incidents when prisoners committed further offences while on temporary leave, I doubt that there will be as many D-cat inmates out and about this Christmas.

At least in an open nick there’s no bang-up as such, just a unit or wing curfew. To be honest, you could probably run most Cat-Ds with a skeleton crew of a few experienced screws, a gate officer, a kitchen manager and a half-dozen ‘red-bands’ (inmate trustees). The real impact of the current chronic staff shortages will be felt most acutely in the closed prisons, especially the Cat-Cs where the cons to screw ratio has now got very silly. Transferring staff to plug gaps in other establishments – so-called ‘detached duty’ – over the coming holiday period is going to make matters even worse.

Closed over the holiday period
My prediction is that some very restricted regimes will be run across most of the closed prisons between Wednesday of next week until at least after New Year. Staffing ratios at Cat-A establishments are always higher for obvious security reasons, so perhaps the day-to-day running of the high security dispersal nicks won’t be affected too badly (although it would be great to hear from any staff who may know otherwise), but I am willing to bet that a fair number of Cat-B and Cat-C establishments will be on effective lockdown over Christmas. 

Staff shortages also mean that it’s not going to be easy to monitor prisoners who are already on the ACCT (Assessment and Care in Custody Teamwork) system owing to them being at risk of self-harm or suicide. Some prisons may resort to moving these high risk inmates to higher security establishments – usually from a Cat-C to a Cat-B – where they might find themselves placed in Care and Separation Units (ie down the Block). I actually know a couple of specific cases where this practice was used between Christmas 2012 and New Year 2013, causing massive disruption for the individual concerned, including cancelled family visits.

And of course, if there is a suicide or serious incident of self-harm on a prison wing during the Christmas period, then that is likely to result in a lockdown while the person concerned is being dealt with, their cell cordoned off, reports written and the mess cleaned up. Meanwhile, all the other cons will be locked behind their doors, many seething with resentment.

Legal and illegal highs: easy to get
Given the current easy availability of drugs, both legal and illegal, on most prison wings, I imagine that there will be an upsurge in consumption, particularly among younger cons who will try to smoke or swallow almost anything in a bid to beat the long days of boredom during the holiday season bang-up. This will fuel debt, bullying and possibly violence, although some screws may well turn a blind eye to anything that will leave prisoners sleeping soundly on their bunks, rather than kicking off or pressing their cell call bells incessantly. On the other hand, there may be quite a few overdose cases to sort out or perhaps even a con choking on his or her own vomit after smoking Black Mamba, Spice or some other synthetic high. 

Not a substitute for phoning home
If there are sufficient wing staff available and no intelligence of any trouble brewing, then there could be perhaps a couple of hours of association during which time prisoners will be able to join the long payphone queues in order to call home at their own expensive or else take a shower or have a quick game of pool or table-tennis. Otherwise, cells will be opened for meals and then it will be bang-up again. I’m guessing that most wing managers will want to get everyone behind their doors by about 4.00 pm so the day shift staff can get off home to their own families. 

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but I suspect that there will be a lot of frustrated and disgruntled cons over the next week or so and no amount of ‘goodie bags’ containing a stale sandwich, a can of pop, a Mars Bar and a slice of fruitcake is going to compensate for not having had an opportunity to phone loved ones on Christmas Day because there aren’t enough ‘kangas’ (officers) to open the doors and to oversee association. That’s where there could be trouble ahead… 

More on Christmas in prison in my next blog post. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Andrew Selous: Not Waving but Drowning

For blog readers who didn’t see it, last night’s interview on the BBC’s Newsnight programme with our part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous was a political train crash. It was morbidly fascinating to watch him sink deeper and deeper into the hole that his boss, Chris Grayling, has been busy excavating. Ever the cunning PR wonk, ‘Calamity’ Chris sensibly decided to give Newsnight a miss and tidy his sock drawer, leaving poor hapless Andrew to face the music on national TV where he seemed more like a bewildered rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

Pretty grim viewing for the MOJ
Challenged over the ongoing crisis across the prison estate – chronic staff shortages, rising levels of violence, self-harm and suicide – Mr Selous tripped at every step. Although he was able to spout the figures for the ongoing – and desperate – recruitment drive for new prison officer grades, when asked why the staffing crisis had occurred in the first place, he couldn’t give a straight answer, presumably because honesty would have meant passing the nasty parcel of blame right back to his boss, Mr Grayling.

Even a political heavyweight with much more experience than Mr Selous would have found this interview pretty daunting. The preceding package had included some rather strident critics lining up to have their say, including Frances Crook from the Howard League for Penal Reform, Peter McParlin chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA) and – myself (the token ex-con). I suppose that between the three of us we have a good few years of first-hand experience of the prison system from our very different perspectives, while poor old Mr Selous has only been in his current post since July – and it showed.

Frances Crook: warnings
Confronted with some pretty uncomfortable figures about the number of prison staff being bussed around the country at taxpayers’ expense in a last ditch effort to plug serious staffing gaps in prisons, he really didn’t have much of an answer about how this fiasco had been permitted to happen in the first place. The real answer, that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) slashed numbers of frontline staff to reduce the prisons budget without really thinking through the operational consequences, would have been political suicide for any junior minister, so Mr Selous simply tried to deflect the critics by claiming that the continuing rise in prison numbers couldn’t have been foreseen. Really?

The current prison population in England and Wales – 85,755 as of 12 December – is roughly twice the size it was 20 years ago. Each successive government in the meantime has contributed to this rise by introducing harsher sentencing policies, longer sentences (including the disastrous Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP)) and increasing the number of new criminal offences and civil orders, many of which now carry potential custodial terms. Add into the mix around 10,000 foreign national prisoners, plus around 10,000 unconvicted prisoners being held on remand (around 75 percent of whom, even if convicted, won’t receive a custodial sentence when they eventually come up in court) and you have the makings of a constantly rising prison population. What part of that could not have been foreseen?

As Mr Grayling did, during his own recent shifty performance in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Justice, Mr Selous tried – and failed – to put the blame for the unchecked rise in prisoner numbers on to the late Jimmy Savile and the recent increase in reported ‘historic’ sexual offences. This was received with the journalistic distain it richly deserved, just as the same claim cut no ice with the Justice Committee members either. It’s a red herring and just about everyone knows it, so why Mr Selous felt he had to try it on yet again is anyone’s guess. Sheer desperation?

Mr Selous: out of his depth
The reality is that the MOJ has screwed up pretty monumentally. Older, more expensive-to-maintain prisons have been closed without sufficient new capacity being available. According to the Ministry’s own figures back in March, 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. A little more number crunching and it seems that we have around 10,000 prisoners too many for our current prison establishments to accommodate them “decently”.

Although Mr Grayling has repeatedly claimed that the prison system can cope with anyone given a custodial sentence by a court, the Prison Service has its own internal categories: “certified normal accommodation” and “operational capacity”. According to the MOJ, the former “represents the good, decent standard of accommodation that the Service aspires to provide all prisoners”, while operational capacity means: “the total number of prisoners that an establishment can hold without serious risk to good order, security and the proper running of the planned regime”.

In short supply at the moment
However, with the current total number of prisoners in England and Wales already thousands above the certified levels and now creeping up towards the operational capacity, it is clear that somewhere along the line someone made a pretty spectacular miscalculation. Add to that a substantial reduction in the number of frontline prison staff and you have all the ingredients for an operational meltdown.

The Howard League has calculated – using the MOJ’s own data – that there has been a 41 percent reduction in the total number of operational grade staff since 2010 when there were around 24,000 to 2014 when there are 14,170. It is true that this figure is hotly disputed by the MOJ which claims there are now 27 percent fewer officers than in 2010, but either way, the prison population has increased, the number of certified places is down (due to prison closures) and there are fewer wing staff around – as evidenced by the need to move officers around on what is euphemistically called ‘detached duty’.

This practice, in itself, can have serious implications for security in our prisons. Staff bussed in temporarily from hundreds of miles away won’t know inmates as individuals. There can be no relationship of trust developed and warning signs that trouble may be brewing can be missed. It is, at best, a haphazard – and expensive – way of trying to apply a band-aid solution for what amounts to a very serious mismanagement of a key public service. As usual, the taxpayer will be footing the bill for all of this.

During his interview on Newsnight, Mr Selous really did seem to be completely out of his depth when challenged over the reasons that the current crisis is ongoing. There is still a very unconvincing sense of denial surrounding the marked rise in suicide and self-harm in our prisons, as well as a failure to explain why violent incidents – particularly assaults on staff – are up. Mr Selous’ feeble suggestion that we are now jailing “more violent people” was, frankly, a desperate effort to try to divorce these issues that need to be addressed urgently from the escalating crisis inside prisons that has it roots in poor decision-making by politicians. 

Ministers and officials simply can’t bring themselves to admit that our jails are much less safe and decent places at the moment because of serious mismanagement of the Prison Service by the MOJ’s political leadership. They can’t credibly claim that they weren’t warned. Both the Prison Governors’ Association and the POA – as well as HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman – have given warning after warning that our prisons are heading for disaster. Juries, it seems, aren’t eager to convict prisoners protesting against deteriorating conditions, including 23-hour bang-up in tiny, overcrowded cells.

Strangeways: the first to riot in 1990
The stage is set for more violence, further suicides and self-harm and, potentially, more serious disturbances and even riots. We may not yet be close to the kind of uprising that occurred across the prison estate back in 1990 when HMP Strangeways went up in smoke over 25 days of violent protest, followed by a number of other prisons across the UK, but many of the same warning signs are present today. Staff morale is close to rock-bottom and with too few frontline officers to effectively control wings – especially in Cat-B and C establishments – if things do kick off, the situation could easily slide out of control, perhaps even more quickly than it did nearly 25 years ago.

If there are prison riots, then Mr Selous – an Old Etonian who seems to have spent much of his career either in the family electronics business or as an insurance underwriter – really won’t be the man capable of sorting it all out. If his performance on Newsnight is anything to go by he’ll be drowning, not waving, when the MOJ Titanic finally hits the iceberg.   

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things to do in Segregation

For those who haven’t spent any time inside as a guest of Her Majesty, the segregation unit – otherwise known as ‘the Block’ – is a kind of prison within a prison. Prisoners refer to being ‘down the Block’, although it’s also called ‘the Seg’.

It’s a separate unit inside a prison where cons get sent for extra punishment over and beyond the usual, although a few prisoners do get sent there for their own protection – often if they’ve run up substantial drug debts or are suspected of ‘grassing’ (informing) on other cons. Usually, however, prisoners get sent to Seg as a result of being found guilty of a disciplinary offence, for which they might get 14 days or 28 days in solitary.

Typical seg cell down the Block
Life down the Block can be pretty austere. No rented TV, no personal possessions to speak of. You get to wear dirty old prison kit (usually the oldest, most stained specimens available) and you get a coarse prison towel. Unless it’s actually a ‘strip-cell’ in which case you are kept naked, but with an anti-suicide blanket you can wrap round yourself. 

The bed is either a solid concrete slab with a very thin mattress on it (if you don’t have back pain when you arrive down the Block, you will have by the time you leave), or in the older type of Seg it can be a metal-framed single bunk bolted to the floor. In fact, pretty much everything in the segregation unit is fixed to the wall or the floor in order to prevent irate cons from either throwing anything at staff or trying to barricade themselves in.

Metal bed in Seg
Windows can’t usually be opened, but are fixed units with a small grill to one side that can be opened for fresh air using a knob. However, some of these window mechanisms aren’t working – so either the cold air blows through in winter, or it’s jammed shut in the heat of the summer. Either way, the environment can be pretty grim. After all, what’s the point of having a prison within a prison if it isn’t made even nastier than a normal jail cell?

Although Block cells vary in design, most have some form of table fixed to the floor and wall, a similarly fixed bench to sit on, a stainless steel sink and WC and… that’s about it, folks. Apparently they used to make you roll up the mattress during the day and leave it outside the door to discourage cons from lying on their beds. This practice seems to have stopped (or at least it didn’t happen to me when I was in the Seg).

In theory, you are supposed to be able to request the loan of a radio. However, I’ve never, ever been in a prison where such an item is available. Perhaps those cons who already own one can ask to have it with them. I never had one, so just went without. 

Plastic mug
During my stay in the Block I was allowed the following personal possessions: a cheap wrist watch (mainly because I think the Seg screws forgot to confiscate it), my reading glasses with plastic lenses, one paperback book and a toothbrush (prison issue). I also had the usual plastic prison-issue mug, plate and bowl, plus plastic knife, fork and spoon. Add in a towel, some toothpaste and half a bar of prison soap and that was the lot. Absolutely nothing else other than bedding.

Meals were served on the floor. Literally. You had to stand back from the door as soon as a screw opened it. Then place your empty utensils on the floor by the door. They were then collected by a fellow con who had the enviable job of ‘Seg orderly’ while the two officers on duty watched you like a hawk. Next a tray with food (no choices down the Block other than like it or lump it) and two slices of dry bread was placed in the same place, along with a plastic flask containing hot water – enough to make three mugs of prison tea. When ordered to do so, you stepped forward, bent over and picked these things up, then stepped back. The door was slammed, locked and bolted. 

During the course of the day, three people would invariably come and look in your cell. One was a medic, another was from the chaplaincy team and the third was a governor grade. Occasionally the senior officer responsible for the Block would also check up on you. That was the extent of the human contact permitted.

View from the Block yard
Exercise consisted of being allowed to walk on your own around an entirely enclosed concrete yard with high walls on all four sides topped with rolls of razor wire and what I later discovered were anti-helicopter nets, just in case any of us were sufficiently well-connected to have associates willing to fly over and rescue us, James Bond-style. Every move was monitored by two screws and by CCTV cameras mounted on high poles around the yard.

So what else is there to do in the Seg unit? Well, I was lucky because I was permitted to have a paperback book – actually the Collected Short Stories of US writer John Cheever – so I kept myself going by reading. I deliberately rationed myself to a set number of short stories each day, just in case I ran out. If I had, then there would have been no chance of getting a visit to the prison library to borrow a different book.

John Cheever: short stories
Another activity was to pace out the cell in each direction. My cell was around 8 feet by 10 feet, so I paced it out a couple of hundred times each day. I also did some rudimentary exercises (sit-ups, press-ups etc).    

What struck me most about being down the Block was the almost total lack of human interaction. Prison staff would simply ask “Any complaints?”, although the chaplains usually managed at least to enquire how we were doing. We weren’t allowed to speak to the Seg orderly and although we could hear that there were other prisoners held in the Block, we never actually saw them. Sometimes you did hear cons screaming or shouting, but the screws quickly put a stop to any disturbances. At least it was usually pretty quiet down the Block.

I’m very fortunate that I don’t get claustrophobic. For any con who is, a normal cell must be torture, but a Seg cell must be their very worst nightmare. While I was down there I often heard the alarm sounding because one of my unseen fellow residents had managed to smuggle in a razor blade and cut his wrists, arms or neck. For this reason, razors are forbidden in Block cells. Instead they are issued each morning as you are locked in the shower cubicle and are then collected by the member of staff who also stands and watches as you wash. Self-harm or suicide is always a constant problem in the Seg unit. 

I was lucky in that I only did a week in the Block when I first went into prison. However, I visited most of the Seg units in the prisons I was held in while working as an Insider (peer mentor) or when acting as a ‘McKenzie Friend’ (a lay legal advisor to prisoners facing governor’s adjudications). In the latter cases I used to spend most of a day locked in a Block cell together with my ‘client’ – the con on a disciplinary charge. At least then I had someone to talk to which was a considerable improvement on being in solitary confinement.

It’s well documented that extended periods of isolation have a negative impact on mental and physical health. Some prisoners in UK prisons experience solitary confinement for months or even years resulting in the inevitable deterioration of their minds. 

HMP Bronzefield: criticised by HM Inspectorate
One of the most notorious cases in England was at HMP Bronzefield, a women’s prison in Surrey. HM Inspectorate of Prisons discovered that a female prisoner had spent over five years in the Seg. As Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick observed in his report: “We were dismayed that the woman who had already been in the segregation unit for three years in 2010 was still there in 2013. Her cell was unkempt and squalid and she seldom left it.” He went on to state that “her prolonged location on the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment − and we use these words advisedly.” 

A few other prisoners have spent 20 years or more in similar conditions down the Block. All pretty shocking in 21st century Britain, especially when the British government is so quick to criticise human rights violations elsewhere in the world. Perhaps we should sort out our own backyard first.

I’m not sure how I would have been able to cope if I had served my entire sentence down the Block. Although I’m pretty strong-minded and haven’t lived with any form of mental illness, I’m certain that extended solitary confinement would have impacted on my personality, perhaps even led me to consider self-harm or suicide. 

However, for those prisoners who are already vulnerable, or suffering from mental health problems, or have addictions, a stint down the Block could prove to be a life or death situation, especially when healthcare resources and staffing are at critical levels in many prisons. In such cases, perhaps the best we can hope for is that they actually survive the experience. Sadly, some don’t.