Friday, 28 August 2015

Reimagining Our Prisons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

City Trader Tom Hayes: Getting a ‘Lump’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Our Prisons: Dirty, Dispiriting and Dehumanising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2015

An Open Letter to Michael Gove

Rt Hon Michael Gove MP
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Dear Mr Gove,

As a former prisoner who writes regularly about prison and its impacts I thought I’d share a few thoughts with you and thousands of readers via my blog. You’ve had a couple of months in your new post as Secretary of State for Justice so perhaps now is the time to start thinking about how the current crisis – and it is a serious crisis – in our prisons can be addressed.

In your recent comments, both during your appearance before the Justice Select Committee and in your address to the Prisoner Learning Alliance, you have spoken encouragingly of the need for change within the prison system. In particular, you expressed the view that prisoners should be seen as “potential assets” rather than as liabilities. You have also emphasised the importance and value of education within our prisons, backing this up with the welcome announcement that restrictions on prisoners receiving books from family and friends are soon to be lifted.

While all of this is very positive – particularly following the nightmare years of your unlamented predecessor Chris Grayling – you undoubtedly have an uphill battle to fight if you really are committed to reforming our prisons. In part this is due to decades of under-investment in both buildings and people – policies that began long before you (or I, for that matter) had any involvement with the criminal justice system. However, there are also conflicting underlying cultures that will need to be addressed if sustainable reform is ever to be achieved.

The first question that I think you will need to reflect upon is what is the actual purpose of imprisonment. It is first and foremost a punishment for offences committed, but one of the declared objectives of the Prison Service is to facilitate reform and rehabilitation. I think you are by now well aware of the fact that the present system is unfit for purpose, as evidenced by the most recent annual report issued by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. 

As things stand, our prisons do not – and indeed cannot – deliver against the Prison Service’s own stated aims beyond providing unsustainably expensive human warehousing from which many individuals emerge back into the community at least as dangerous, disturbed, distressed or disruptive as they were when they were committed to custody by the courts, in some cases even more so. The reality is that, in far too many cases, there has been no attempt at rehabilitation whatsoever. In some cases reoffending is a virtual certainty.

My advice is not to be misled into becoming too focused on physical conditions in prisons. In my time as a prisoner I experienced a range of modern establishments and decrepit Victorian-era piles. Beyond basic safety and hygiene the bricks and mortar are much less relevant than the key issues of overcrowding and understaffing. Even a grim red-brick fortress can provide an effective range of educational opportunities and other purposeful activities if it is appropriately staffed, while a brand new state-of-the-art facility can fail monumentally if prisoners are confined to overcrowded cells for 22 or 23 hours each day. This is essentially a question of resources and budget and given that your department is planning further cuts, then reducing the current historically high prison population is probably the most effective means of balancing the books.

Another key issue that demands your urgent attention is low morale among prison staff. Believe me, this is at rock bottom, no matter what others may tell you. A vital question is whether the Prison Service is really recruiting the right sort of people with a high degree of commitment and professionalism – as well as an essential sense of humanity? Once recruited, are they being properly trained? 

I have encountered wing officers who have put their own lives at risk to save prisoners and have shown genuine concern and kindness, but I have also witnessed terrible acts of cruelty and inhumanity, particularly towards elderly, vulnerable prisoners or those living with serious mental illnesses. One of the places that those who have sadistic tendencies should never be permitted to work is prisons. 

An internal culture marked by brutality and contempt can be infectious and a handful of abusive staff members can undermine any efforts at rehabilitation. Too many prisoners come from violent, abusive or neglectful family backgrounds and, at times, the experience of incarceration merely reinforces their distorted views of society. Too many inmates are being bullied and assaulted whilst in the care of the Prison Service – including being subjected to sexual abuse – by fellow prisoners and this also needs to be tackled as a priority.

How many trainee prison officers have ever spoken to an ex-prisoner or had the opportunity to ask them questions? As a practical suggestion, why not involve some articulate former inmates in training sessions, particularly those who have gone on to achieve success after their release? Let new officers meet them and benefit from their wisdom and experience, as well as having personal prejudices concerning prisoners challenged.

Retaining the best officers and prison managers also requires significant investment, as well as offering opportunities for career development. Anyone who is going to spend a significant proportion of their own professional lives locked up behind high walls and barred gates (even if they do have a set of keys) also deserves to be treated as a professional, rather than as demoralised ‘turnkeys’ prowling the landings, spreading misery and contempt in their wake.

Based on my own experience, I can assure you that a little respect goes a long way in prison and too many officers demand respect without behaving in a professional, respectful manner toward those in their care. Surely prison staff should serve as role models capable of defusing tensions and conflicts. Sadly, a substantial minority aren’t. 

Restoring a much higher degree of local autonomy to prison governors as you have suggested recently will be a very welcome reform. Individual senior managers are often best placed to achieve positive change, particularly if the restrictive shackles of bureaucracy can be loosened. Appoint reformers with ideas, rather than faceless civil servants. A degree of risk-taking can be healthy even in a high security environment. My advice is to give governors back the real power to make decisions, recognising that they – like any senior manager in the public service – must also be accountable and take responsibility.

In respect of rehabilitation, I agree that education can and should play a vital role. However, there is also a dangerous tendency towards coercion in prisons that undermines what can be achieved in the classroom or workshop. It’s worth remembering that many prisoners who live with literacy problems have previously failed in school and, as adults, may be fearful and resentful of being coerced back into formal classroom settings. 

Having worked as a peer mentor in prison education departments, my advice is to adopt policies that encourage positive participation and achievement, whether that be academic or vocational. For some prisoners, work assignments in prison – whether as cleaners, wing painters, kitchen staff or in the stores – may be the first regular ‘employment’ they have ever experienced. This presents an opportunity to mirror the job market on the outside and develop relevant skills.

Why not encourage governors to introduce proper recruitment procedures for work assignments that could include help to prepare a written CV and an application? Perhaps a formal interview could take place. Don’t simply let the current culture of ‘jobs for the lads’ – those prisoners who are either over-friendly with or else subservient to officers – continue unchallenged. Why isn’t every new reception to prison asked from the very beginning what they feel they can contribute to the life of the establishment?

Another suggestion is to ensure that education is valued and recognised. Some prisons used to award small cash bonuses to prisoners who gained qualifications and vocational certificates. Why not reintroduce this system across the prison estate? It would represent a relatively modest investment in education as part of the rehabilitation process? Moreover, prisons could consider holding special family visits during which certificates earned could be presented by a governor… or even a government minister.

Every prison has a contingent of well-educated inmates, many of whom will be first time offenders. Why not make better use of their skills and experience by expanding the existing peer mentoring systems across the prison estate? Encourage prison labour boards to match prisoners’ qualifications with mentoring roles, rather than squander such resources. 

Further expansion of the voluntary Toe by Toe adult literacy scheme to encourage individual prisoners to improve their skills should be regarded as a key priority, particularly since it is so cost effective for the taxpayer as it relies on volunteer peer mentors trained and equipped through the Shannon Trust. Not only does this system deliver impressive results, but it also contributes to the sense of achievement of those who offer mentoring while serving their sentences.

Moreover, when prisoners have taken the initiative to enrol in distance learning courses – particularly as these are now funded by the individual or via an education loan – why not count these inmates as being in full-time education and give them study periods paid at the usual rate for classroom attendance, rather than marginalising such activities that can play a major role in reducing reoffending and improving the chance of successful resettlement upon release? 

Another suggestion is to give governing governors more control over education in their respective establishments. This may require reviewing the current Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) arrangements, but I believe that you recognise prison education is much more than ticking boxes and payment by backsides on classroom seats. 

Too many prison education providers recruit cut-price tutors who have failed in classrooms outside – through inexperience, laziness or incompetence – and within a prison setting mediocrity and failure has been tolerated and permitted to thrive for too long. Many more prisoners will respond positively to an inspirational teacher than a bored individual who is sitting at the back reading a newspaper for most of the session. The present arrangements do little to encourage or reward good teaching.

There is also concern that rehabilitation interventions that actually demonstrate positive results in reducing reoffending – such as the Sycamore Tree victim awareness programme – are facing funding cuts by your ministry. Will you undertake to review such decisions personally?

Finally, please don’t allow the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to continue excluding researchers, prison reformers, journalists and fellow politicians from our prisons. The current effective information lockdown, where establishments in England and Wales often appear less accessible than those in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, does our country a serious disservice. Encouraging a greater spirit of openness, as well as wider public awareness of the reality of our prison system, can only assist in your mission if you are genuinely committed to achieving positive change.

I hope that the above reflections might be of interest to you, particularly since they are based on personal experience within our prisons. I would not have written such an open letter as this to Mr Grayling. It would have been attempting to have a dialogue with a concrete wall. However, you have expressed yourself and your ideas with unusual openness and have provoked much interest and debate within the media and among the public. 

You have the chance to tackle the crisis in our prisons and to bring to an end the current culture of failure, waste and hopelessness. Please don’t allow your own enthusiasm for reform to end in disappointment and disillusionment like Ken Clarke’s much-vaunted ‘rehabilitation revolution’ did. I genuinely wish you every success.

Yours sincerely,

Alex Cavendish
Prison UK: an Insider's View

Monday, 13 July 2015

Prisoners and Books: Back to the Future?

During the past few months of recuperation I’ve had plenty of time to think about prison issues. In some ways being seriously ill is not entirely dissimilar to being in jail. There are many things that you’d like to do and places you’d like to visit, but you can’t. At best you just have to wait.

Mr Gove: undoing the damage?
For my return to blogging – although on a less regular basis than before, at least for now – I thought I’d comment on the welcome decision by Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Justice, to lift the ludicrous restrictions placed on prisoners’ access to books by his benighted (and utterly unlamented) predecessor ‘Calamity’ Chris Grayling. Instead of limiting each prisoner to a maximum of 12 books, there has been a return to the old tried and tested regulation that merely set overall volumetric limits on the total amount of personal property a prisoner can hold ‘in possession’ at any one time. In theory this is limited to what can fit into two standard prison property boxes (excluding a guitar or medical equipment), although some establishments seem to be more flexible than others. 

When I was inside I certainly had far more books than the arbitrary limit of 12 (plus a religious book and a dictionary) imposed by Mr Grayling from 1 November 2013. I had taken a pile of paperbacks with me in my holdall when I was sent down and I added quite a few extra that were then sent in from home by my family at my request. All this was before Mr Grayling’s campaign to make serving a prison sentence even more difficult and pointless than it already is.

Not your average prison cell...
Fortunately, I’d moved to a Cat-D (open) prison months before the new rules began to be imposed. Had I still been in closed conditions, the likelihood is that I’d either have had a number of my own books confiscated or else ended up getting ‘nicked’ (put on a disciplinary charge) and punished. If I’d reached my limit of 12, then presumably I would have been banned permanently from borrowing any books from the prison library. 

Luckily for me, this particular Cat-D prison was so short of staff that they couldn’t even control the flow of drugs (legal and illegal) or other contraband into the establishment, therefore counting the books on the shelf in my room  - no cells in open nicks – really wasn’t going to happen. To be honest, I suspect that most of the uniformed staff hadn’t even read the new regulations in any detail and those who had couldn’t have cared less about how many books were around. They had much bigger fish to fry.

Of course, it is true that there was a clause in the rules that allowed individual prisoners to make a specific application to the governor for permission to have more than 12 books in possession (and remember that total included any volumes borrowed from the prison library). However, the bureaucracy involved could be daunting and often extremely slow. Over-stretched prison staff generally don’t have time to deal with written applications of this sort at the best of times.

What these regulations meant in practice was that inmates who were trying to complete distance learning courses, especially Open University qualifications, had extra hurdles to jump. Imagine trying to revise for exams when access to the core textbooks was either severely limited or else denied. At least this sort of mean pettifogging nonsense should soon be coming to an end.

The voice of reason
It is also equally welcome that the ban on family and friends posting in books from home is also set to end. Since the High Court ruled back in December that it was unlawful to prohibit prisoners from receiving books, in part because of the severe limitations of prison libraries and widespread issues of access due to staff shortages, Mr Grayling’s blanket ban had been relaxed, although not before a considerable whack of taxpayers’ cash had been wasted on legal fees whilst fighting the case. 

Since February the purchase of titles by families and friends from four official suppliers – Blackwells, Foyles, Waterstones and WH Smith – for direct delivery to prisoners has been permitted, although some prisons have been very slow to implement the new regulations and a few seem not to have bothered trying. I have previously blogged on this issue in more detail here.

Soon families, friends and external organisations (such as charities and distance learning providers) will once again be permitted to send in books direct, subject to the usual security checks such as X-rays, sniffer dogs and inspection by the censor’s office. All very sensible, really. 

Go find the book!
The new rules will come into effect from 1 September. Presumably this delay is to allow for the drafting and circulation of an amendment to Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 on Incentives and Earned Privileges in order to establish a framework for the incoming arrangements. As far as books are concerned at least, this fatally flawed PSI – ‘Calamity’ Chris’ dysfunctional brainchild – will be consigned to the dustbin of history; an inconvenient footnote in what has proved to be a disastrous and unnecessary policy – and more importantly – one that helped mobilise a popular campaign about prisoners’ access to books.

In one respect at least, Mr Grayling has done us all an unintended favour. By introducing such severe restrictions on prisoners and their access to books he managed to spark off a widespread national (and international) debate on education and literacy within the prisons in his charge. Far more people are now aware of the day-to-day restrictions prisoners face, many of which have little or nothing to do with either security or rehabilitation.

Mr Gove is clearly a skilful politician. He has sensed the way the wind of public opinion is blowing on this issue and has unceremoniously ditched a key element of his predecessor’s deeply toxic legacy. Overnight, he has been able to present himself as an enlightened reformer who is attempting to undo some of the damage done to the Prison Service since 2012.

Silk purse... or sow's ear of a politician?
What is also worth noting is that he has achieved this in a way that clearly shows all the huffing and puffing about books sent through the post presenting a dire threat to security (and even more so the spread of ‘subversive’ ideas) from the spokeswonks down at the Ministry of Justice during the Grayling era was no more than dishonest propaganda designed after the fact to defend an indefensible, ideologically-motivated and downright nasty policy (see my blog post on this here). But then we all knew that anyway, of course.

Whether this will really mark the beginning of a new dawn in UK penal policy remains to be seen. Can Mr Gove really reform our failing and dysfunctional prison system and refocus away from mere retribution towards rehabilitation? We shall see.