Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Prison Regimes: Where the Cracks are Showing

Each prison in the UK runs on a timetable – usually called ‘the regime’ – and this determines what is supposed to be happening at any time of day. It includes the times that prisoners are locked in their cells or unlocked, the times of roll-checks and the schedules for work, education and association (recreation). It also sets down the specific times for family visits, exercise, gym access, library visits and so on.

Empty landing: cons banged-up
Broadly speaking, on weekdays prisoners are unlocked in the morning to go to work or education, return to the wing for lunch, get banged up for an hour or so while staff have their meal, then get unlocked again for afternoon work or classes. This is usually known as the ‘core day’. Then there is another period of bang-up before the late afternoon meal, which can be followed by association, exercise, gym or library visits, although all of these appear to be endangered species at the moment. The most likely alternative is yet more time locked in the cell.

Those prisoners who are unemployed, retired (over 65) or sick or disabled can often find themselves locked up for most of the day, every day. Some nicks do open cell doors for elderly cons to play quiet board games or cards in a recreation area, or just to chat and read newspapers, but this requires sufficient wing staff being on duty and so it is usually the first thing to be cancelled when there are insufficient screws available.

Most closed jails don’t have work or education on a Friday afternoon, so there can be various other activities timetabled, such as weekly kit change (when prison-issue clothing and bedding can be exchanged). There can also be association on the wing for a couple of hours followed by the evening meal and then early bang-up – often until Saturday lunchtime.

Your world for 23 hours a day
Weekends are generally times when all prisoners remain locked in their cells for much longer periods. Different jails have their own weekend regimes, but some only allow cons out of their pads (cells) for a couple of hours, or even just to collect meals, have a quick shower and maybe get in a 10 minute call home from the wing payphones. Religious services in the prison chapel or prayer room also tend to take place between Friday afternoons (Muslims) and Sundays (most Christian denominations).

When prisons are in crisis, whether that is caused by shortages of frontline staff or overcrowding, the regime is usually the first casualty. In the worst case scenario, wings are effectively ‘locked down’. This may involve a few prisoners at a time being unlocked to collect meals from the servery before being locked up again for the rest of the day. Everything else is cancelled, including work and education. This is the emergency regime that is often imposed following a ‘disturbance’ (what riots are called these days), or when other wings or units are protesting with cons refusing to return to their cells. 

One of the ways that you can tell whether the UK’s prison system really is in crisis is by examining how many prisons actually manage to provide sufficient work, education and other activities to get most prisoners out of their cells for the recommended ten hours each day. The best source of information is probably the Prisoner Survey conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) with the finding reflected in the Inspectorate’s annual reports. 

So how has the situation changed on Chris Grayling’s watch? If we look at the HMIP report for 2012-2013, these problems seem to have been getting worse. You can find the whole report here.

The HMIP observes that across the UK prison estate:

Activity outcomes were poor and falling. 
Too many prisoners spent too long locked in their cells, and evening association was increasingly curtailed. 
There were too few activity places, and low take-up of what was available, often disrupted by poor attendance and punctuality, prison routines and other activities.

Behind the door
When we look at the statistics for time spent out of cell, the HMIP found: “Too many prisoners were locked up for too long every day, and their time out of cell had reduced. Only 17 percent of prisoners surveyed in category C training prisons and 15 percent in category B training prisons said they spent 10 hours out of cell on a weekday.” 

Now it needs to be borne in mind that the prisons in question are supposed to be training establishments. They are tasked with providing education, productive work and vocational training to improve prisoners’ chances of rehabilitation and resettlement back into the community. If they aren’t doing that because of staff shortages, then they are – by definition – failing to deliver on their own aims and objectives and, by extension, failing the taxpayer.  

When it comes to B-cat local prisons, as we might expect, the figures are even worse. According to the HMIP annual report only 9 percent of inmates spent the recommended 10 hours out of cell, while 22 percent were banged up for between 22 and 23 hours each day during weekdays. 

In part, this is because B-cat locals tend to have a very transitory population consisting of new receptions arriving from court, unconvicted prisoners held on remand ahead of their trials, prisoners serving short sentences who won’t even have time to be re-categorised to C-cat or D-cat, or ex-prisoners who have been recalled to custody for breaching their licence conditions and who will be awaiting reviews or Parole Board hearings to determine whether they should be re-released. For most of these prisoners, there will be very limited chances of getting a job in the nick or of enrolling on an education course. That’s why they are likely to spend most of the core day locked behind their doors, even if they genuinely want to work or improve their literacy and vocational skills.

However, having a prison job or participating in education are no guarantees that cons will actually get significantly more time out of their cells. As the Inspectorate observes: “Prisoners engaged in working, training or education generally had the most time unlocked, with approximately nine hours on a weekday. But there were exceptions to this – at Lewes and Lincoln, unlock time was less than six hours, even for a fully employed prisoner.” 

HMP Lewes: in crisis?
Interestingly, HMP Lewes has been in the news just this week because of the resignation of its long-serving Governor, Nigel Foote, and dire warnings of the risks of riots being leaked to the media by both serving staff and prisoners. Lewes is one of the establishments that is so short of frontline officers that it is reported to be having to ‘shut down’ whole wings up to three times a week, meaning that those prisoners would be locked up in their cells pretty much all day, with all activities cancelled. In addition, according to information provided by a serving con, medical appointments are also being cancelled without notice, a sure sign of a prison that is in serious trouble.

Gym or library? Or neither?
HMP Lincoln – another pretty dire B-cat local establishment that regularly gets a good kicking from the Inspectorate – is reported to be so short of wing screws that it has started only allowing one landing out of four any evening association at all during the week. This means that out of around 180 cons per wing, around 45 get recreation time, while the other 135 remained banged-up all evening, presumably unable to take a shower after work or phone their families. Library visits have also been cut back to just two per month and clash with the weekly gym period.

I’ve noticed that Lincoln is actually advertising for new staff on a banner attached to its front railings. It would be interesting to know why this situation has been allowed to get so desperate. Perhaps the Governor, Peter Wright, who I gather may be a reader of this blog, could enlighten us as to the current position by posting a comment underneath.

Of course, the ongoing crisis in British prison regimes is not a new problem. Nevertheless, a 30 percent reduction in prison staff between 2010 and 2013 has made what was already a bad situation even worse. Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform revealed that there were just 19,325 officer grades working in prisons in September 2013, down from 27,650 in September 2010.

However, that can’t be the only factor. If we look back to 2010 the HMIP Prisoner Survey revealed that between 82 percent and 92 percent of prisoners who participated in the survey across 31 prisons did not get to spend at least ten hours out of their cells during weekdays and that was back in the days when there were more screws on the wings. 

En-suite facilities in every cell
Based on my own experience in prisons, I have come to the conclusion that a fair number of the problems in our failing nicks are down to poor management of staff resources and illogical timetabling. This view seems to be shared by the HMIP as in its 2012-2013 report it points out that prisons were often failing to make use of those work and education places that were provided: “… there was a widespread and unacceptable failure to fill the places available. Half of all prisons failed to use their available places effectively, leaving prisoners unnecessarily without work or training.” That’s a pretty stinging criticism, as well as revealing a shocking waste of publicly-funded resources.

Blame is placed by the HMIP on poor management and planning of regimes: “In addition, prisoners’ chances of making the most of learning opportunities and the working day were frequently undermined by prison routines – particularly in local prisons where a variety of assessments, detoxification and legal processes required prisoners to have many appointments away from their activity place, and also where the number of remand prisoners led to disruption. However, much of this disruption was avoidable and a result of insufficient management attention and poor timetabling.”

Cruel and unusual punishment?
So what do cons get up to if they are only unlocked for an hour or so per day? Most will just lie on their bunks watching daytime TV, reading (assuming they can actually get access to the library to borrow books) or writing letters home. In a shared pad, as long as you get on with your pad-mate, you can chat or play cards. Some will no doubt be taking drugs (both illegal and so-called legal highs) to help ease the boredom and to pass the time.

Of course, if you are a prisoner on the high punitive Basic regime, there will be no TV and probably no cell-mate, so you will just sleep or stare at the walls or use a prison razor-blade to slash your own flesh in a desperate attempt to manage your depression. Perhaps it is unsurprising that rates of self-harm, mental illness and suicide are rocketing across the closed prisons, with the Basic regime a prime culprit, especially now that it is much easier to put prisoners into what amounts to solitary confinement, often for very long periods of time: months or even years.  

The evidence of our failing prison system is there for all to see, yet Mr Grayling – ‘the Comical Ali of the Ministry of Justice’ – refuses to acknowledge there is a crisis and continues to turn a blind eye: “Riots, I see no riots!” However, unlike Horatio Nelson, Rear Admiral Grayling is a lousy strategist and a worse tactician whose flagship private nick, HMP Oakwood, is fatally holed below the waterline and going down, to be closely followed by the MOJ Titanic unless it changes course radically. Happy days! 


  1. I've noticed a fair bit of recruitment appears to be going on at the moment (& last few months) so maybe the powers that be have realised they need more prison officers.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The problem will be Ministry benchmarking and how many frontline staff they will be allowed to recruit. Also, what is needed are experienced officers who know how to run wings and defuse tensions. Inexperienced staff could prove more of a liability in the present situation.

      No doubt that is why the MOJ is trying to contract ex-screws who have recently taken early retirement or redundancy. However, I gather from insiders that the take up thus far has been very disappointing.

  2. So what happens on weekends

    1. Thanks for your question. In many B and C-cat prisons weekends are the most boring time because the amount of time out of cell is usually so limited. At one B-cat we had about two hours out of cell on Saturdays and Sundays. The other 22 hours we were just locked in the cell watching TV or reading. If you wanted to go to the chapel, that was one hour gone.

      D-cats (open prisons) don't have bang-up, so over the weekends you are pretty free to do what you like from about 8.00 am until midnight, as long as you stay within the prison grounds during daylight hours and are back on your unit or wing after dark. You could go to the chapel, visit the library, run around the sports field, use the CV equipment in the gym etc. Some cons have to work over weekends (kitchens mainly), so they get time off during the week.

    2. When the army took over prisons for a wasn't a matter of prisoners not "squeaking"...the army treated prisoners humanely....and were better respected by the cons'. john b.macphee

    3. Thanks for your interesting observation, John. It's good to get an alternative view on this issue!

  3. I read the army supervised cons during the Prison Officer strikes of the 70s and 80s. Obviously the cons were on best behaviour and didn't make a squeak!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that times have changed a lot since then, although prison staff sometimes work to rule and this results in more bang up in the closed prisons.

      The Army has also changed a lot. Since a few serving soldiers have been prosecuted for actions in war zones such as Afghanistan, I think squaddies would be very reluctant to get involved in prisons these days. If they did get deployed, I think they could face all kinds of risks of legal action if anything did kick off inside.

    2. Please correct me if I'm wrong but I believe prison officers are no longer allowed to go on strike.

      As an inmate I would be absolutely terrified if the Army were brought in during a strike.

      Not because I would expect them to be particularly harsh, they would be inept at the job and cause many issues on the wing. Having soldiers on the wing would result in almost 24 hour lock-down, inmates only being allowed out to collect meals - maybe they would even be delivered to their door to avoid conflict.

      As Alex has mentioned previously screws come in all shapes and sizes and with wildly varying attitudes and abilities. It's the humorous and humane screws that actually get to know you a little bit that keep a lid on any trouble.

      If that were lost in a normal situation then there would be trouble amongst the inmates. Lock-down with Army screws would just build massive tensions and the proverbial would really hit the fan eventually.

      Thankfully I never experienced soldiers on the wings (even the police won't go on them) I dread to think what would happen.

      I wouldn't wish it upon anybody who's inside but so see soldiers on wings under the current 'leadership' would be a perfect indictment of how grim prisons have become. I'd love to see that happen, with Grayling still smiling to the cameras and denying that there's any crisis.

    3. Thanks for your comment and observations. My understanding is that are restrictions on strikes by prison officers. However, the most recent strike (for five hours) took place in May 2012 over government plans to raise the PO retirement age to 68 - I remember that myself, so clearly strikes do still happen, even if of short duration.

      There is an interesting comment above from John MacPhee about this issue. His view is that the soldiers brought in to provide emergency cover actually behaved well and were respected, so I suppose there are two sides to every story.

      However, I do think that if there were to be a long lockdown, then tensions would rise, regardless of whether those running the wings were screws or soldiers. This risk obviously rises given that prison are so overcrowded at the moment such as Swansea (+186 percent capacity) and Lincoln (+174 percent).

  4. Norway is solving its overcrowded detainee centres/prisons problem by renting prison space in Holland.

    1. Today, there was an advert in the Metro for around 1600 new Prison Officers.

  5. Risley prison is also notorious for this and their lucky to get 2 hours a day without work even though it's meant to be a training prison and for vulnerable persons they let the be locked up all day and night even after haveing years of bad inspections nothing seems to have been done

  6. Is this site still up and running?? nothing more since June 2015? Because the situation is even worse
    a year on... although I can only speak re HMP Cardiff.
    Permanenntly in lock down, one hour a day out of cells. lack of staff...

    Whole Penal System is such rubbish and medieval words fail me.

    1. Hi, thanks for your comments. Not sure what the reference to June 2015 is about. Three blog posts in August 2016 alone (including two guest posts).

      Pretty much every prison is in crisis at the moment and you are right that the situation is getting worse by the day. The main problem seems to be that toxic combination of overcrowding, understaffing and underfunding. Prison reform doesn't win votes for any major political party as few people really care about prisoners unless they, or a loved one, get sent down and experience the horrors at first-hand. Sad, but true. All we can do is try to spread the word.