Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Revolving Door

I’m not sure who actually coined the phrase ‘revolving door’ in relation to prisons, but it’s been used by plenty of commentators, including the current Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick, often to describe the pattern of prisoners who have served short sentences returning back again and again. Imprisonment, release, imprisonment and so on.

Revolving doors... here we go again
B-cat locals are bursting to the seams with such inmates, fresh from their latest court appearance. You can tell them instantly from nervous first-timers. They know the routine, the wing layout and, more often than not, most of the staff. Some are so well-known that they became local nick legends. Wing screws know their names (or nicknames) and will chat to them on landings, often with a degree of warmth reserved for long-standing acquaintances.

As one B-cat I became accustomed to seeing the same old faces again and again. As they came up from Reception the news would go round the wing like wildfire: “So and so is back in again!” We’d all shake our heads.

I got to know one young lad - homeless, drugs and alcohol dependent - and characterised as a ‘prolific offender’. By 2010 he’d amassed over 115 convictions for pretty theft. Inside the nick, where he at least had a warm bed, he’d spend his entire free time working the wings, borrowing burn (rolling tobacco), trading items of food. He was a born survivor. He had to be. I won’t go into his background, beyond observing that the depths of abuse he’d endured as a young child should shame this nation. After his latest release I heard that he was living in a shed. He was back in court again this week.

The Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) own statistics (most recently issued in July 2013) make dismal reading. Figures for reoffending within one year among prisoners serving short custodial sentences of less than 12 months are around 62 percent. Compare that to the results from community sentences where reoffending is 6 percent lower.  Certainly the MOJ’s own figures indicate that locking someone up for a few months and then kicking them out into the street with a discharge grant of £46.00 (for prisoners over 25, £37.00 for younger inmates) and a travel warrant really isn’t working to reduce re-offending.

So why do these men, young and old, repeatedly make their way back through the revolving door into custody? Can any intervention break this seemingly endless cycle of petty offending and short jail sentences?

The issues are very complex and, certainly in the UK justice system, there is insufficient focus on addressing the root causes of offending and re-offending despite each prison having an Offender Management Unit (OMU) that is supposed to work with each inmate. Until very recently, the vast majority of short-termers – in for the proverbial “shit and a shave” sentence of a couple of months, a few weeks or even days – were rarely interviewed by an ‘offender supervisor’ from the OMU, let alone subject to any type of sentence planning or referral for professional support.

Perhaps inevitably, one of the main reasons for this is a lack of resources, although the current lack of clear public policy objectives on prisons among coalition partners in the government hardly helps. OMUs are generally under-staffed and over-burdened with administration.

I can only imagine what has happened to the average caseload since the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Osborn, Booth & Reilly in October 2013. This judgment has led to predictions that the Parole Board – which makes recommendations concerning the re-categorisation or release of lifers, IPPs and release on licence of some determinate sentenced prisoners – will now have to deal with an annual increase in oral hearings from 4,500 to 14,000. There are already delays in listing cases, so against this background I really think it is unlikely that OMUs will have the resources to deal with the needs of prisoners serving short sentences.  

It's all about resources
So can anything be done about the ‘revolving door’ syndrome? Having worked with other inmates in prisons, I would identify three main contributory factors behind most offending: addiction (drugs, alcohol, some sexual behaviours); very poor education (including around 40 percent of prisoners in the UK who have serious literacy problems) and the impact this has on employability, and poor relationship skills (often as a direct consequence of childhood abuse - emotional and physical - as well as sexual). A significant number of prisoners also live with mental health problems - some diagnosed, but many not.

While most UK prisons have provision for a limited amount of drug/alcohol work with prisoners, the easy availability of substances inside prisons tends to undermine its effectiveness. Generally speaking, prison is not a conducive place for addiction management and recovery. Some nicks have established ‘drug-free’ wings or units where residence is based on voluntary testing and the signing of compacts, but that just goes to show how easily available illicit substances must be across the rest of the jail!

Mental health provision in prison - as I've observed previously in comments on this blog - is often effectively non-existent. In some establishments, inmates only seem to be able to get a mental health service referral if they actually self-harm or attempt suicide first. This is, again, a resource-based crisis that isn't being managed.

Moreover, when it comes to providing support for prisoners who are living with the impact of various types of trauma - including a significant number of ex-armed service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of their past active service deployments and adults who have suffered horrific abuse throughout their childhoods - there is next to nothing available in most prisons.

The 'revolving door' syndrome that results in re-offending and recalls to prison due to breach of licence is very often linked to an ongoing failure to address the under-lying causes of much offending behaviour, particularly when it is related to the abuse of drugs and alcohol, or to the replication of abusive behaviours learned in childhood. Not addressing these issues while prisoners are in custody is an entirely false economy and will prove far more costly to the taxpayer given that the average annual cost of incarcerating each prisoner is £40,000. This is a very basic equation that most vocal 'punishment freaks' of the Daily Mail-reading variety - including Chris Grayling and his team - simply seem unable to grasp.


  1. Cops & Robbers, C4 review:

    “Don’t rob off my own, don’t burgle ’ouses, don’t rob old women and I don’t rob off me mates.” It’s not quite the code of the Woosters, but Jason (“Stokesy”) Stokes is by his own lights an upstanding sort of cove. Or to be strictly verbatim, “I’m a f-----’ good lad really.” When he was a boy he wanted to be an armed robber, but in the end stuck to pettier crime. He calls himself a one-man crime wave. Even his mother says he’s a scumbag. First arrested at 11, he is now 27. In between, he’s spent a lot of time in jail.

    (Jason claims to have four homes:
    1. Home
    2. Police Station
    3. Dudley Court
    4. Winson Green Prison)

    1. Thanks for your comments. I didn't see the programme, but from your description above and below I felt that I've lived through it many times in prison! I could name, perhaps 30 or 40 lads in almost identical situations. Sadly there's little or nothing left in the prison system to encourage their reform and rehabilitation.

      His mother's comments also sound familiar. I think people often overlook the terrible of impact of crime on cons' own families, particularly if they aren't involved. You see respectable, hard-working parents crying outside courtrooms and outside prison visits halls wondering where it all went so wrong with their kids.

  2. I watched the show, the con wanted to find a job and improve himself. Unfortunately he couldnt say "no" to his mates when they went shoplifting around the area.

    1. Thanks for your comment. That's just one of the wonderful and wacky features of our criminal justice system. Most prisoners are released back into the same home environment where they committed their offences and where all their 'mates' and associates are often located. The rest writes itself. I'd offer a voluntary relocation option to try to reduce this happening. However, no Probation supervisor really wants to take on someone else's problems from out of area unless the ex-con has to be moved somewhere else in order to protect their victim(s).

  3. The female con in the show had a heroin problem and shoplifted to pay for it. She had commited over 40 crimes and had spent years in prison. The show ended with her on a methodone sript before she stole again.

    1. And whenever she is sent to prison, she'll just get put straight onto the inside methadone programme and be ignored until she's released back in the community still with her habit. Far better to decriminalise drugs so she could go down to the chemist and get it on prescription. If she's on benefits, let her have it free... it would cost society so much less in the long run, including the average of £40,000 per year to keep a prisoner in jail.

  4. Yes, she was on a methadone prescription (script) and was on benefits.