Prison

Prison

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Serving the Second Sentence

The day a convicted person is sentenced to a term of imprisonment and led in handcuffs from the dock, he or she begins to serve that sentence. But as they make that long walk down to the cells under the court, they aren’t alone. A ‘second sentence’ has been imposed on their families and loved ones back in the community.

Crown Court
While it is true that some prisoners don’t have anyone ‘on the out’, they are in the minority. Most inmates leave behind family of some description: parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, partners, children, grandchildren, siblings… and they will all feel the impact of the prisoner’s absence in their lives. Of course, that will differ from family to family. As Leo Tolstoy so rightly observed: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Imprisonment brings with it a wide range of challenges for those left behind on the outside. There is often an economic crisis, particularly if the person who is in custody was the sole or main breadwinner. That can be even worse if they were the sole carer for someone elderly or disabled.

Then there is the question of housing. I’ve known of specific cases where the imprisonment of one family member has resulted in moves to evict entire families from their homes. Some social housing providers may consider that a criminal conviction is sufficient breach of a tenancy agreement to give notice of termination of a lease. It may not be a common occurrence, but it can happen and increase the stress for both the family and the prisoner – who may feel utterly helpless and guilt-stricken about what is happening to his or her family.

Beyond those practical issues, imprisonment brings with it a whole range of sorrows and stresses. Children are particularly vulnerable when a parent is sent to prison. The absence of the jailed parent, as well as pressures at school or in the neighbourhood if the case has received local, or even national, media coverage can cause enormous stress and anxiety. Yet little or no practical support is available to help kids in these situations.

Visits hall
Visiting the imprisoned family member can involve a range of additional problems. Many prisoners, particularly those serving lengthy sentences or lifers, are likely to be incarcerated many miles away from their families. I know numerous cons who haven’t been able to have visits from loved ones for years. Economic hardship (even if the family is eligible for financial help via the Assisted Prison Visits Scheme), difficulties of travelling with young kids or elderly or disabled family members and problems getting time off work to fit with the highly restrictive visiting times available at certain prisons can all play a role in limiting the contact a prisoner’s family can have with an inmate.

Visits themselves can also be highly stressful for some families, particularly if the con is held in the high security estate. Many prisoners feel ashamed of having their families and friends see them in these conditions… particularly if they are forced to wear grubby, badly fitting prison uniforms or coloured ‘bibs’ to identify them as inmates. Children can find such visits distressing, especially if they are body-searched by prison staff before being admitted to the visits hall.

What should be an opportunity to maintain family ties can sometimes end up as a period of stress, anxiety and depression. Some prisons now recommend that if family members are going to break bad news to an inmate that they notify the prison helpline first, so that staff can monitor the prisoner’s behaviour, especially if they may have a history of self-harm or attempted suicide.

Access to phones
Family emergencies – accidents, serious illnesses, deaths – can all involve additional trauma when a close family member is in prison. Difficulties in contacting them to discuss the situation can prove extremely frustrating and make the crisis worse. Not all establishments are helpful when it comes to making arrangements for prisoners to make compassionate phone calls or giving Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) under escort to visit dying relatives in hospital or to attend funerals. 

When I was working as an Insider I recall sitting for hours with a D-cat prisoner who was close to a mental breakdown because he had been refused ROTL on compassionate grounds to be with his wife in hospital while she was giving birth owing to a difficult medical situation that might have led to her death and the death of their child. He simply couldn’t understand why, since he was trusted to be in an open prison, arrangements couldn’t have been made for him to be there in case the worst happened. At that point, I think he was close to being suicidal and had things gone badly, I fear he wouldn’t have wanted to go on living. Fortunately, both mother and child survived, but the stress for everyone involved must have been horrendous.

Impact on families
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the negative impacts of imprisonment on mental health, but that isn’t only limited to the prisoner. Families can come under immense pressures too.

Whenever I read about someone being sentenced to imprisonment, for whatever crime, I now tend to think about the impact on those left behind on the outside. Behind most prison sentences, there will be a lasting legacy of devastation and misery for an innocent family. 

I’m far from being an idealist and I’ve met many people in prison who I think do deserve to be in there, sometimes for truly horrendous offences. However, I think that it should be remembered that when the judge passes sentence on the person in the dock, he or she is also imposing a second, unspoken sentence on their family and that fact is often forgotten.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

When I first started writing this blog a month ago one of my principal aims was to dispel some of the most common myths about prisons and prisoners. A typical – and completely misguided – opinion that often comes up on readers’ comment threads, even in The Guardian online pages, is that all prison inmates ‘claim to be innocent’. It’s simply not true. 

In fact, the vast majority of inmates pleaded guilty at an early stage in order to benefit from the maximum ‘discount’ on their custodial sentences (usually a one-third reduction). This is standard practice as it reduces court costs and spares victims the trauma in our adversarial system of giving evidence under cross-examination. As such, most convicted prisoners acknowledge that they are guilty as charged.  

Of course, there is also a significant number who steadfastly maintain innocence, come what may. They are adamant that they have been wrongly convicted, either because crucial evidence has been withheld from the defence, or because it’s a case of mistaken identity to start with, or because they have been the victim of a malicious and false allegation, or because they have been framed by the police. Based on my own experience, I would always recommend caution before dismissing such claims out of hand, even if the Prison Service always treats convicted prisoners as guilty on the basis that it has to accept the verdict of the court.

During my time in prison I have known prisoners convicted of very serious crimes who have maintained their innocence despite incredible pressure to ‘confess’ to crimes they claim they never committed, who have then had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal and even won a retrial when compelling new evidence has come to light. They have walked out of the main gate as free men. In many ways the real struggle starts at that point.

In the balance
As most former prisoners who have won an appeal against conviction will confirm, just walking out of a prison doesn’t turn the clock back. Not only have they lost years of their lives, but some have lost their families. Marriages and relationships have broken down under the pressure of long distance incarceration in prisons that can be hundreds of miles from home. Children have grown up hardly knowing their fathers; elderly family members, especially parents and grandparents, may have died. Nothing can ever be the same again.

One of the great ironies of being a convicted prisoner is that those who serve their sentence do receive some – albeit very limited – support on release. A good probation officer, and there are quite a few of them still around, can be a major help in resettling back into the community. There are also various charities around to help with housing, access to benefits and other practical problems that almost every ex-prisoner will face after serving a custodial sentence, even a fairly short one.

However, for people who have been acquitted at trial after serving months or even years on remand, or for prisoners whose convictions have eventually been quashed by the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, there is practically no support available. It’s a case of “pack your kit and clear off”, usually the same hour the court order for release hits the governor’s desk. At that moment, the ex-prisoner becomes no-one’s problem anymore. He – or she – becomes an awkward embarrassment to the system. Screws can’t look them in the eye; other cons can be either jealous or resentful.

For example, when former postman Victor Nealon was released in December 2013 after his appeal was successful and his conviction quashed – having steadfastly maintained his innocence of a rape that had led to a life sentence and nearly 17 years imprisonment – he was kicked out of the prison gate homeless and with just £46 discharge grant in his pocket. He ended up sleeping rough. Last month, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) decided, in its infinite wisdom, that he isn’t deserving of a single penny in compensation, a decision that his legal team is contesting.
Kicked out of the gate

I’ve often reflected that no-one in their right mind maintains innocence in prison unless they really are a victim of a miscarriage of justice. For prisoners serving a life sentence, an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) or a lengthy determinate sentence with a parole element, a refusal to acknowledge guilt can result in many, many extra years in prison and repeated knock-backs (refusals) by the Parole Board. 

It can result in being refused re-categorisation to a lower security status – B-cat to C-cat, for example – or transfer to an open prison (D-cat). For some prisoners, their refusal to admit guilt can result in an effective whole life tariff – imprisonment until they die – even when that wasn’t the actual sentence of the court. Why the hell would anyone inflict that on themselves?

Funnily enough, even the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has had to recognise that some prisoners who are maintaining innocence are actually innocent! Looking at the current text of Prison Service Order (PSO) 4700 / PSI 36/2010 – sometimes known as the Lifer Manual - it is there in black and white: 

4.14.1   Managing prisoners who maintain their innocence or deny all or part of their offence. General principles

There are many reasons an offender may maintain their innocence or deny all or part of their offence, for example: 

they may not be able to accept what they have done, 
they may be trying to protect others, 
they may not want someone close to them (friend or family) to know the truth, 
they may not see what they did as an offence,
they may refute some or all of the evidence, 
they may actually be innocent – some prisoners have been found not guilty following a re-trial; sometime many years after the original conviction. 

Stefan Kiszko: 16 years
Indeed – as the case of Mr Nealon so eloquently demonstrates. And Stephen Downing (after 27 years in prison)… and Andrew Evans (after 25 years in prison)… and Stefan Kiszko (after 16 years in prison)… and solicitor Sally Clark (after over 3 years), and the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four and the Bridgewater Four… and the dozens of other scandalous miscarriages of justice in the recent history of the British criminal justice system.

Of course, convicted prisoners who maintain innocence are a real headache for the prison system. They are detested by Offender Management Units (OMUs) because they cause problems with sentence planning. Since many offending behaviour courses and programmes require an initial ‘analysis of offence’ as a condition of participation, most prisoners maintaining innocence are ineligible. This puts an effective block on progression, particularly for prisoners who are serving indeterminate sentences (lifers and IPPs), meaning that they are likely to serve many more years in prison, even if they are over the minimum tariff set by the judge.

Really worth your integrity?
Since 1 November 2013, the new Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system via PSI 30/2013 has made it much harder for prisoners who are claiming to be victims of miscarriages of justice to reach or maintain the Enhanced level of privileges. I know a number of inmates who have recently been demoted to Standard level and have had much of the personal property that they have previously purchased – such as DVD players or musical instruments – confiscated. Some are now facing an uphill struggle to even stay on Standard level. 

The alternative is life on the highly punitive Basic regime. This can involve effective solitary confinement for up to 23 hours day, seven days a week – in addition to no personal clothing; no rented TV; hardly any possessions; virtually no access to money to buy telephone credit or stamps; limited opportunities to exercise, to phone family or even take a shower. Enduring that sort of social, mental deprivation and draconian punishment for months – or even years – takes a grim determination to maintain your innocence, or a very strong moral character. Mental deterioration for such prisoners is a real risk.

So the next time you hear or read about a prisoner maintaining innocence, or it’s on the news that someone’s conviction has just been quashed by the Court of Appeal, take a moment to reflect on what that really means. And the high price that the person has probably already paid – and not only in lost years of his or her life – in order to maintain their integrity. Could you do the same? 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Prison Myths: Guitar-String Garrottes

One of the more bizarre justifications for the recent move to ban steel-stringed guitars in UK prisons was the risk that inmates might use the strings to fashion an improvised garrotte. Presumably this would then be used to inflict harm on either other prisoners or members of staff.

Offensive weapon?
You might think that this type of knee-jerk reaction by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) would follow on from just such an incident. Maybe prison security departments across the nation have been inundated with garrottings… landings running with blood and severed heads bouncing down the wings. 

So how many incidents have there been? The actual answer is, of course, zero. No-one has been garrotted with a steel guitar string in a UK prison – or if they have it’s never been documented. The same goes for 'drugs smuggled inside books' which was another big whopper from Team Grayling (made up on the hoof after the event to justify banning the posting in of books and clean underwear to cons).

Let’s get back to basics. If a prisoner is planning to inflict violence, the preferred tools of choice are either a shank (a plastic prison-issue tooth-brush or plastic cutlery handle into which one or more prison-issue razor blades are melted) or a 'jugging' with an in-cell travel kettle filled with boiling water, sugar and sometimes bleach. The contents can be thrown in a victim's face. Very nasty, but also very rare. I only saw one such incident in over two years.

A lethal weapon
Occasionally, a wooden table leg can be detached and used as a club. Also rather unpleasant. However, all these items are easily available on every prison wing (I'm not sure about travel kettles in the high security estate). There's no ban on razor blades, toothbrushes or tables. The guitar steel string story is a typical red herring, made up to justify banning the items from the new National Facilities List introduced in the Prison Service Instruction (PSI 30/2013) on Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP).

The ban on steel strings for guitars (which affected the majority of instruments currently held in possession by cons) had already impacted on musical activities in prisons, although to what extent governors had actually ordered the confiscation of existing guitars isn’t clear. I suspect that there was a great deal of local discretion being used, at least in C-cats (medium security) and D-cats (open prisons).

Not as innocent as it looks
Now, following a high profile campaign led by musician Bill Bragg, with the support of various stars including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, Radiohead’s Ed O'Brien and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the MOJ appears to have seen sense and has agreed to rescind the total ban.

Credit also goes to Kevin Brennan, the Labour MP for Cardiff West, who has pushed the campaign in Parliament and with ministers. You can find his press release on the issue here.

Could it also be an early indication that new part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous has been given the task of trying to improve the negative media coverage the MOJ has been getting under Chris Grayling? It’s probably too early to say, but it is the first sign that a bit of common sense may be creeping back into the political discourse on prisons.

I’m not sure that this sensible concession (which will probably see steel-stringed guitars available only to trusted, risk-assessed prisoners on the Enhanced level of privileges) will exactly have the jailhouses rocking, but it is a positive start. Whether the other absurdities of the revised IEP system will be moderated in the near future remains to be seen. I’m not holding my breath on it.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Running Prisons with Consent

Despite what many readers of the Daily Mail and The Sun may like to believe, most prisons in the UK are run by consent. There is, in effect, an unwritten (and usually unspoken) agreement between wing staff and prisoners that the prison has to be run as smoothly as possible for everyone’s benefit. That’s why things have to be pretty dire before that compact breaks down and there is widespread disorder inside.

Frontline prison staff numbers are at a dangerously low level at the moment. That is why the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is belatedly attempting to re-recruit up to 2,000 trained staff who have recently taken voluntary redundancy at a cost to the taxpayer of £50 million. They are being offered short-term nine-month contracts in a bid to bolster numbers as the UK prison population continues to rise above the historically high figure of 85,600. 

Aside from the obvious mismanagement issues that lie behind the shortage of experienced screws (and the programme of prison closures at a time when the number of cons banged up reaches an all time high), it’s worth looking at the realities inside our prisons today. If we leave aside the high security estate – where escapes would cause massive political embarrassment – and the D-cats (open prisons) the majority of nicks have a very low staff-inmate ratio. Translated into English, that means a lot of cons living and working together with a few screws around on wings to unlock doors and gates as required.

Listeners (Samaritans)
Prisons simply couldn’t run without a significant level of day-to-day cooperation. Inmates do much of the essential daily work: cleaning, painting, laundry, stores, cooking, serving food, checking out library books, caring for elderly and disabled prisoners, acting as unpaid Listeners (Samaritans) or mentors. The list is extensive. Without that cooperation, prisons simply couldn’t operate. 

So that is where the unwritten compact between the authorities and the cons comes in: behave, keep the wheels on the food trolleys rolling and you’ll get a quiet life on the wings with just enough little privileges to make life behind bars bearable. That is the bedrock on which the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system is built. Politicians and bureaucrats tinker with it at their peril, because the risk of violent disorder is never far beneath the surface. 

For reasons of basic self-interest, both sides generally want good order. Prisoners expect wing regimes to run on time as much as managers do – perhaps even more so. Predictability makes for a well-run, efficient nick. It’s usually when things go pear-shaped, often due to lack of front-line staff, that inmates get restive. 

Prison kitchen: work for cons
Disruptions to meal times are almost guaranteed to cause trouble. I well remember the sound of breaking glass from an adjacent wing in a Victorian-era city B-cat when the evening meal was cancelled owing to the ovens breaking down in the main kitchens. Instead of the one hot meal of the day, a package of sandwiches and fruit was substituted. Although there was much grumbling on our wing – which also accommodated a number of Young Prisoners (18-21) on remand – we managed to keep a lid on any trouble. The wing next door had a reputation for being more volatile and, sure enough, as soon as the landing doors were opened, the lads kicked off. One of the strange things about prisons is that one wing or unit can be rioting, while the next wing is completely calm and quiet. Sometimes it can just come down to better relations between the screws and the majority of the inmates on a particular wing.

Screws are right never to trust cons (and remember, I’m writing as an ex-prisoner myself). Prisons are full of people who have poor anger management skills, many of whom have previously made some very bad decisions in their lives. Some have learned self-control inside, particularly as they mature and grow older. Others, sadly, don’t. 

It is a fact that most inmates don’t want to be inside and the job of the staff is to ensure that they stay there. While very few prisoners actually plot to escape these days, it would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen if the doors and gates were left open one day, particularly in a C-cat nick. How many cons would get on their toes and do a runner? It’s difficult to predict, and the chance of ever testing it out would be about as likely as Chris Grayling admitting he’s made a mistake.

Laundry
Back on the wings, some B-cats and most C-cats are dangerously under-staffed and increasingly overcrowded. You can have 160 men on a B-cat wing and two screws on the four landings. It can be even less in a C-cat. That’s why, when things go wrong in a prison, they can really go wrong very quickly. 

In order to function, medium security prisons – B-cats and C-cats – need to be places where there are sufficient staff on the wings to ensure things operate smoothly. Avoid cancelling visits, gym sessions, library time and outdoor exercise – as well as disruption to meals – and almost any prison can keep a lid on discontent, even during the hot summer months. However, the reverse is also true. That is why the current mismanagement of the prison estate is so short-sighted.

Keeping it clean
Cramming two or even three prisoners into a cell originally designed for one is another result of poor planning by politicians (and evidence of a failure of senior management to make a stand). Is it any wonder that tensions are rising along with the summer temperatures?

As I’ve observed elsewhere on this blog, the recent amendments to the IEP system – which can see previously earned privileges removed administratively at the stroke of a pen even when an inmate’s behaviour has been good – are playing with fire. Locked behind their doors, prisoners have plenty of time on their hands to brood on perceived injustices and unfair treatment. This, in turn, fuels resentment and undermines the essential element of consent that is required to keep medium security nicks running smoothly and safely.

Bringing back in a number of experienced staff members on short-term contracts is likely to only be a short-term band-aid fix for the serious structural problems within the Prison Service. However, it remains to be seen whether it will come quickly enough to keep prisons running smoothly over the summer and to head off the threat of further serious ‘disorder’ – what most people would call ‘riots’ – in our crisis-hit prison estate.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Weasel Words (1): Prison 'Disturbances'

The good news is that since September 2012 – when Chris Grayling became Secretary of State for (In)Justice – there haven’t been any prison riots in the UK. That’s not because whole wings of prisoners haven’t refused to obey screws’ orders and gone on rampages, but because these days there is a new code of weasel words in use. Now we have prison ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents’. 

Ready for a rumble
The end result is pretty much the same: cells and communal areas trashed, the heavy mob (Tornado Squad) brought in and cons shipped out to other nicks to await prosecution and lengthy extensions to their stay at Her Majesty’s establishments. However, the key issue is never to mention the word ‘riot’. It’s a bit like Basil Fawlty and the Germans… “Don’t mention the riot. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it!” (And in the background there is the sound of breaking glass and smoke billowing out from the roof of the prison in question).

In fact, there have been some quite serious prison ‘disturbances’ on Mr Grayling’s watch. HMP Oakwood (aka ‘Jokewood’), the G4S flagship for private sector prisons near Wolverhampton which opened in 2012 has seen its fair share of problems. However, ‘disturbances’ in January 2014 were played down by the Ministry of Justice, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and, of course, G4S - or should that be G4$? 

In an official statement, a G4S spokeperson stated: “The trouble we experienced was concerted indiscipline by a small group of prisoners confined to one wing; it was not an issue affecting the wider prison.” In contrast, anonymous prison staff refused to toe the official line and described the incident as “a full-scale riot”. I wonder who we should believe.

Oakwood, the UK’s largest private prison, is a C-cat and – in theory – costs £13,200 per con annually, compared with an average of £22,000 for public sector C-cats. Presumably this figure doesn’t include the cost of refurbishing trashed wings or the cost to the criminal justice system of prosecuting the rioters (sorry, ‘disturbers’) or the additional costs of holding them for the rest of their longer sentences in higher security establishments.
Trouble this way

Of course, there have been ‘disturbances’ at other nicks recently. This weekend saw HMP Ranby in Nottingham on the national news because up to 60 inmates were refusing to return to their cells in the afternoon. It seems to have been limited to one wing and media reports suggest that something was set on fire, hence the scenes on the television news of fire fighters arriving at the main gate.

Word on the street (or from other cons and their families) is that the reason things kicked off at Ranby was the cancellation of weekend association and activities owing to staff shortages. This I can believe. 

Ranby received a good kicking from HM Inspectorate of Prisons as recently as this Thursday. Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector, described it as a prison “in crisis”. Four inmates killed themselves there over the past year, but there are no published figures for other acts of self-harm.

Among prisoners, Ranby doesn’t have a great reputation, but it’s definitely not the worst. I’ve not been there myself, but I’ve done time with a lot of lads who have, including one of my recent pad-mates (cell-mates). According to past ‘clients’, the Enhanced wings aren’t too bad, but overall the place is pretty badly run and staff shortages have contributed to rising resentment and tension on the wings. 

Last minute cancellation of visits (especially when families and loved ones have travelled long distances) is almost always guaranteed to result in cons kicking off on the wings. Whether this was the case at Ranby this weekend, I don’t know, but if so then it was an entirely predictable result.

What is more disturbing is the way in which NOMS and its apparatchiks manage to suppress information about what really happens inside prisons. Often, it’s only when prisoners are brought before the courts (as happened after the serious riot at HMP Moorland back in November 2010) that the whole story comes out – often years later. In the case of the Moorland lads, they weren’t sentenced for riot or violent disorder until November 2012 when they received additional prison sentences of up to nine years.

Many commentators – including me – have been predicting trouble inside prisons over the long, hot summer. Current staff shortages mean that more and more inmates will spend long periods of time banged up in shared cells originally designed for single use. Many prisons now don’t have cell windows that open (only small side vents operated with a knob) and the temperatures can soar way above anything that would be legal if health and safety legislation applied to prison accommodation.

These conditions can be managed if cons are allowed access to the gym (burn off all that excess energy and testosterone), exercise on the yards in the fresh air and activities. However, if these are suddenly cancelled without notice due to the current shortage of wing screws, then it can be a recipe for trouble – whether it’s described as a ‘disturbance’ or a ‘riot’.

On the roof at Strangeways
Personally, I really doubt that we’ll see full-scale riots of the sort we saw at in April 1990 when first Strangeways went up in smoke (25 days of rioting and the effective destruction of the nick), followed by varying degrees of trouble at other jails (Bristol, Hull, Cardiff, Dartmoor and many other establishments). However, I do think that the true scale of the crisis facing the UK prison system is being withheld from the British people. 

I can’t rule out the possibility that a major riot – possibly involving loss of life – will break out as prisoners’ grievances about deteriorating conditions go unaddressed by Team Grayling in their determination to be seen to be tough on prisoners while ignoring the dire warnings being given by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. The Inspectorate is there for a reason and when it warns of serious trouble ahead – as it did at Ranby – then the MOJ’s refusal to take these warnings seriously suggests that there is another agenda, and I (and many others) suspect that the real ideological aim is further privatisation of the prison system.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

On Remand - Prison's Nowhere Men

When I come across comments about prisons made by members of the ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ brigade, the usual gripe is that conditions inside are far too cushy and cons should be made to suffer. There are regular calls for the return of hard labour, often with a compulsory dose of flogging and the use of shackles being demanded by 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'. You sometimes wonder what the home-life of these folks is like.

As recommended in Tunbridge Wells
Campaigners for prison reform often meet with the same old refrain: “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!” My usual response is to point out that prisons don’t just hold convicted prisoners. In fact, between 10 and 15 percent are being held on remand awaiting trial – most for months, some for years. That means anything from 8,500 up to about 12,700 of our current prison population have yet to be convicted of a crime. They are innocent until proven guilty.

Moreover, according to a report on remands published in August 2012 by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, during 2010 a total of 17 percent of prisoners who had been held on remand were subsequently acquitted or released without charge, while a further 25 percent were given a non-custodial sentence by the courts. This means that a substantial proportion – over 40 percent – of remand prisoners are likely to be released from court, rather than returned to serve custodial sentences - which raises the question as to why most of them were banged up in the first place.

Remands are the nowhere men (and women) of the UK prison system. They are, in legal terms, as innocent as anyone out on the street. None of them should be in prison as a punishment and, according to the Prison Rules (1999) they should enjoy better conditions and a wider range of rights than are available to convicts. This clear distinction between convicted and unconvicted inmates has been around since at least the Victorian era, however, in practice I’ve found that remands are often treated worse than cons.

One of the strange anomalies of the 33 local prisons that accommodate remands is that notices on the wings still refer to ‘prisoners’, rather than the preferred official term ‘offenders’. This is because remands cannot be called offenders since they haven’t been convicted of any offence by a court of law. They cannot be given sentence plans (because they haven't been found guilty or sentenced), or participate in any offending behaviour work.

In my experience, B-cat local prisons – where most remands tend to be held (unless they are considered very high risk, in which case they are housed in high security establishments) – treat remands as convicts, mainly because the facilities to segregate them from convicted prisoners simply don’t exist. In theory, remands are not supposed to be forced to share cells with prisoners who have been convicted. As Prison Rule 7 (2) makes very clear:

(2) Unconvicted prisoners:

(a) shall be kept out of contact with convicted prisoners as far as the governor considers it can reasonably be done, unless and to the extent that they have consented to share residential accommodation or participate in any activity with convicted prisoners; and

(b) shall under no circumstances be required to share a cell with a convicted prisoner.

Of course, like much prison-speak “under no circumstances” means something completely different once you’re inside a nick. What it really means is “under no circumstances shall anyone tell a prisoner on remand what the actual rules are”. An ignorant con is a good, compliant con.

Most remands have no idea of the law and are kept in the dark over their legal rights. Time and again I’ve seen remands being forced into cell shares with convicted inmates and when this gets pointed out to wing screws, the usual response is “get in the cell or I’ll nick you!”

Special cell for remands?
My own experience is confirmed by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in its 2012 report on remands. I think that this passage is worth quoting in full: 

There is also an unresolved disjuncture between the Prison Rules and Prison Service policy, with the latter permitting remand prisoners to share cells with sentenced prisoners if they have consented, and the former appearing to suggest that remand and sentenced prisoners should under no circumstances be required to share a cell. Although sharing residential accommodation and cells with sentenced prisoners was the norm, few in our groups recalled being asked for their consent. Those in our groups felt that staff were unable to distinguish between remand and sentenced prisoners on the wings, and prisoners in our groups and staff we spoke to had limited or no knowledge of their entitlements.

The main problem seems to be that the prison authorities are incapable (and unwilling) to obey the rules. Since there is no sanction or consequence involved when remand prisoners are denied their legal rights, these abuses will certainly continue with the current over-crowding of prisons. In effect, HMPS appears to be out of control and no-one – including HM Inspectorate of Prisons – seems to be able to do anything about it.

If you’re on remand, you also don’t have to wear prison-issue clothing. You have a legal right to use your own clothes (as long as they are clean and fit for purpose) which can be handed in by family or friends as Prison Rule 23 (1) makes clear:

An unconvicted prisoner may wear clothing of his own if and in so far as it is suitable, tidy and clean, and shall be permitted to arrange for the supply to him from outside prison of sufficient clean clothing.

'Banana suit'
The only legal exception to this rule is if the remand is considered to be serious escape risk (and in practice this means any potential A-cat prisoner). In those cases he can be forced to wear a “banana suit” – a clown’s outfit with alternate yellow and blue (or green) panels. Oh, and he can also be stripped naked every night when he’s in his cell. It’s a real barrel of laughs on the E-list (Escape List).

Again, in practice, most remands have their civilian clothing confiscated in Reception and get put into grubby, stained and ill-fitting prison-issue like any other prisoner. When I was working as an Insider at a B-cat local I once asked a remand who was awaiting trial why he was wearing prison trackies. He genuinely had no idea that he was supposed to have the right to wear his own clothes. I then discovered that he was also sharing a cell with a lad who was doing a 5 (a five-year sentence). When I informed him of what the Prison Rules state, he asked a wing screw who just laughed and said, “Oh, we don’t use those old rules anymore… now, be a good lad and don’t make any trouble.”

Work is another touchy subject in some nicks. Although remands cannot officially be made to perform forced labour (unlike convicted prisoners) – Prison Rule 31 (5) – they are “permitted” to work, should they wish to do so. Of course, this is interpreted by some wing screws as meaning that remands should be compelled to work and punished with Basic regime (solitary confinement) if they refuse. In practice there is no real distinction.

The only benefits that most remands seem to get as standard are additional visits and access to extra personal cash (assuming that they actually have some). And now there are other bizarre disincentives for remands. Under the new Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system introduced by PSI 30/2013 on 1 November 2013 prisoners on remand are included in the new four-tier structure. 

On first reception they are placed on the Entry level for a least two weeks. In theory, as remands they can wear their own clothes during this period, but in practice this usually doesn’t happen. Then they can progress to Standard level, and then three months later, to Enhanced like any convicted prisoner. However, if they are then subsequently convicted at court, they lose all the privileges they had previously earned through good behaviour while on remand and revert back to Entry level again. It’s a bit like playing custodial Snakes and Ladders.

Down the IEP snake to Entry Level
Aside from all the petty rules and vindictive IEP policies that impact on unconvicted prisoners, remands have a range of complex needs and many suffer from high levels of stress and anxiety, fuelled by the uncertainty of their situation. As the HMIP report referred to above observes: 

Remand prisoners are at an increased risk of suicide and self-harm and nearly a quarter (23 percent) in our survey said they had felt depressed or suicidal when they arrived at prison. Over three- quarters of remand prisoners reported a welfare problem on arrival, and a third or more said they had a drug or mental health problem.

Will anything change for the better? I very much doubt it. Prisons are under resourced and the population is continuing to rise. Remands truly are the nowhere men of the nick – and no-one seems to care, least of all the punishment freaks who are currently driving the UK’s penal policy.

Friday, 25 July 2014

A Prison Landing fit for Heroes?

Every prison wing I’ve lived on while serving my sentence has had a small group of ex-armed service personnel – almost all Army, although I’ve also met a couple of ex-Navy lads and a few from the RAF. In recent years there has been a lot of debate over the issue of veterans in the criminal justice system, particularly whether any aspects of their service in the forces has contributed to the criminal offences they’ve been convicted of committing.

Keeping it under your hat
Officially, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) estimate the proportion of veterans in custody to be around 3.5 percent – which would equate to just under 3,000 of the current prison population of 85,000. However, that statistic is often questioned because there's often no screening in place during the reception process to identify ex-service personnel. In my experience, many prisons do ask new arrivals about any armed service (regular or reserve), but some don’t.

Back in 2009 the Howard League for Penal Reform launched its inquiry into Former Armed Service Personnel in Prison. The report was published in 2011 and can be found here. The inquiry findings broadly concurred with the MOJ/MOD figures – about 3.5 percent of the prison population are ex-armed forces. Within those statistics, 77 percent are ex-Army, 15 percent ex-Navy and 8 percent ex-RAF. Moreover, around half of the total are aged over 45 when they come into custody.

The Howard League investigation also revealed various other informative statistics. Around 33 percent of former service personnel are in custody for crimes of violence against the person (murder, manslaughter, GBH, ABH), while 25 percent have been jailed for sexual offences. Also, those suffering from mental health problems had been mainly diagnosed as living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) linked to their service in the armed forces. Moreover, many veterans also had problems with alcohol abuse and illegal drugs.
Self-medicating?

Personally, I think that the numbers – which are estimates – are just too low. Some unofficial estimates put the figure as being closer to 16 percent (currently around 14,000 inmates) if all veterans, including reservists are included. As I note above, some prison reception screws just don’t ask new arrivals about any past military service, so there is simply no reliable data available.

Even if the question is put, some lads just don’t want to admit to having served in the forces. Why? I think that there are various reasons, but a sense of shame comes pretty high up the list. Some prisoners feel that they have shamed themselves, their families – and their former comrades/units. Also, a fair proportion of prison officers are also ex-forces and there is a widespread reluctance to reveal too much about your background to screws.

Other lads don’t talk about their forces' experience because they don’t want to get a reputation on the wings for being a ‘hard man’ – this can bring its own problems. On the other hand prison is full of ‘Walter Mitty’ type fantasists who have all been in the SAS (in their dreams). I’d say that the proportion is similar to the number of wing ‘millionaires’ who all have yachts and villas in the south of France!

I did find that those of us with genuine ex-services background did tend to stick together. In my first nick the reception screws did ask about armed service and I duly gave my details and service number, not knowing any better. I’m not naturally disposed to tell lies, so answering ‘no’ to the question about military experience wouldn’t even have occurred to me back then. My honesty was rewarded in typical prison fashion: I promptly ended up spending a week down the Block (segregation unit) while I was ‘assessed’ to see if I might be dangerous to other inmates.

A landing fit for heroes...
However, once I was moved onto a normal wing location I was greeted by several ex-Army lads who were expecting me. They were the wing reps for Veterans in Custody (VICS) and had been tipped off about my arrival by the reception screw.

To be honest, I couldn’t have asked for a better, more loyal group of mates. They quickly helped me sort out any problems over prison kit, made sure that the original plan of putting me in a cell with a heavy smoker (I’ve never smoked) was prevented after a gentle word in the ear of the duty officer and even subbed me some instant coffee since I’d missed the weekly canteen order because I’d been banged up down in the Block.

Two of these lads were padded up (sharing) together in the same cell and they made me very welcome. Their pad (cell) became known as ‘the corporals’ mess’ and we regularly got together during association periods to chat: “pull up a sandbag, swing the lamp and tell us a war story” was the standing joke between us. I’d be lying if I said that their friendship and support hadn’t played a major role in getting me settled down in the long littleness of daily life inside prison.

In many ways, being in the slammer was a bit like being confined to barracks in the Army, but without much in the way of duties. All we were missing was the uniform (this nick allowed us all to wear our private clothing on the mains wings even during the induction period – something Mr Grayling has now banned). I also found that, generally speaking, ex-forces blokes settled into the routine more easily than civilian prisoners and they accepted much of the discipline – no matter how petty or vindictive – without complaint.

Ex-Army lads tended to know how to look after themselves, as well as others – particularly weaker, more vulnerable prisoners. Most disliked bullying and some tried to provide positive male role models for other, younger lads. They also made efforts to keep their own self-respect and some even ironed creases in their clothing, so they appeared well turned out. Old habits die hard, even inside the nick.


I did find that some screws who were also veterans were more supportive of cons that they knew had served in the forces. I had one 'offender supervisor' (prison probation officer) who was also ex-Army and he fought my corner over my application for re-catergorisation to D-cat (open prison), even though I'd been knocked back (rejected) twice. As the governor remarked at my final hearing, without this officer's support, I would never had got approved for transfer to an open prison. Would he have fought so hard had we not had this background in common? I don't know, but I suspect not.

We also received some extra support from the outside. A local welfare officer who represented the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association (SSAFA) came into the prison monthly to visit each of us individually. I really didn’t have any specific needs, but it was nice to receive a welfare visit on the actual wing (rather than having to go down to the visits hall and get stripped searched twice: once before a visit, the other after).

Our local welfare officer was a former major and he just sat with each of us in turn and chatted about general issues. The real work he did was on behalf of those ex-servicemen who had serious mental health issues or physical disabilities, as well as helping any veterans coming up for release with their plans for resettlement, including housing and employment. For some lads, this was literally a lifeline, as many were facing homelessness on discharge.

PTSD... an unseen injury
My next prison – another B-cat – was entirely different. Shortly after arrival I realised that we had about a dozen ex-forces lads on the wing, but no evidence of any support or organisation. I did notice a large notice board down on the 1s (ground floor) advertising Veterans in Custody, but although I put in regular applications to see the VICs officer (a gym screw), I never even received the courtesy of a response. I even asked the wing manager if I could be the VICS rep on the wing, but never got any answer.

I realised at that point the wing notice board advertising VICS support was basically a fraud… it was for the benefit of visitors, particularly prison inspectors, but there was nothing behind it. A typical prison con of a kind I was to become very familiar with over the years. This particular establishment was accepting resources from the MOD in order to provide services for veterans and then doing the square root of precisely bugger all for those it was intended to assist. My advice to any prison inspectors reading this post, is believe nothing without speaking to the cons first. They will set you straight about what really goes on inside.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

No Place for Old Men?

There is a popular misconception among ‘outsiders’ that British prisons are full of young, aggressive fit blokes: “sturdy beggars” of the kind English laws – such as the draconian Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1495 – have always come down hard on. Picture a typical prisoner and he is likely to be under 30, tattooed, crop-haired and bulging with muscles from pumping iron in the prison gym. 

The years condemn...
While that image was probably always a bit of a myth to start with (heroin addicts and street drinkers tend to be on the skinny side), prisoners today are more likely to be greying round the temples and using walking aids. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has just released a series of statistics that reveal the extent to which England and Wales has an ageing prison population. With the category of ‘older prisoner’ now defined as being aged 60 or over, the total number incarcerated as of 31 March had reached 3,577. That means that the total number of older prisoners has almost doubled over the past ten years and now accounts for around five percent of the 85,000-strong prison population.

What is even more startling is that, of those older prisoners, 102 of them are aged 80 or above, with five men older than 90. In part, the marked rise is being attributed to more prosecutions for so-called ‘ historic’ sex offences. Both Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris are in their mid-80s and while there is unlikely to be much public sympathy for their particular situation, the ageing prison population has been causing serious problems for prison managers for a number of years and the number is continuing to increase year on year. 

However, it isn’t all about a recent influx of sex offenders of pensionable age. Another key issue is the imposition of significantly longer prison sentences. While the UK hasn’t (yet) followed the US route of sending cons down for 100+ year terms, some pretty heavy minimum tariffs have been handed down in recent years. All those serving such sentences can be expect to grow elderly and infirm before they are even eligible to be considered for parole. 

Then there are the ‘legacy cases’ of inmates still serving Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP). While there has been some effort made to progress IPPs through their sentences, there are also quite a few – particularly those maintaining innocence – who are effectively stuck in limbo. Even if they originally received quite short IPP tariffs – sometimes even as low as a matter of months – those inmates who aren’t eligible for Offending Behaviour programmes because they are claiming to be victims of miscarriages of justice, or simply because there are very long waiting lists for key courses, are also getting older. I know some who are already eight or nine years over their minimum IPP tariffs. On top of that, there are around 55 prisoners currently on whole life tariffs – all of whom are likely to grow old and die (or commit suicide) inside jail.

Imprisoned twice over?
Those are the figures, but what is daily life like for older prisoners inside the nick? The answer largely depends on where the individual prisoner is serving his sentence. Those stuck in Victorian B-cat locals definitely have a harder time for a wide range of practical reasons. Older prisons are not designed to be user-friendly, and definitely not for inmates who have serious mobility problems or who are suffering from severe health conditions. There are few, if any, bathing or showering facilities suitable for older prisoners with mobility needs or those who are confined to wheelchairs, let alone ramps or stairlifts to facilitate disabled access.

As an Insider, whose job was to support fellow prisoners on the wings, I had plenty of first-hand experience of the myriad problems facing elderly or infirm inmates. I started to document some of the more shocking cases of mistreatment and neglect I was witnessing. 

Then, in 2013, while I was still in the nick, I provided written evidence to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee via solicitors Leigh Day on HMPS care - or lack of it - for older prisoners. I knew that this might cause me personal problems since the prison system really doesn’t take kindly to cons who cause trouble, but in my view remaining silent would have made me complicit in the mistreatment, so I contributed some factual evidence. The Committee's report on Older Prisoners, published in September makes disturbing reading. 

An uphill battle...
The old Victorian B-cat local prisons are generally the worst. In one elderly prisoners who relied on two sticks or walking frames were assigned cells on the 2s or 3s (first or second floor landings). I witnessed men in their 70s or 80s struggling to manage steep, metal staircases to collect food. This particular prison made absolutely no provision for other prisoners to act as carers or ‘buddies’ – in fact I’ve known fellow prisoners be punished by staff for helping older men with everyday tasks, such as cleaning their cells or carrying food trays.

The layout of the wing in question made no allowances for access to those who had mobility problems. The main wing office was on the 2s (first floor), the stores for weekly kit change were on the 3s (second floor), while education and association rooms were up on the 4s (third floor). Although handing in of dirty kit was done on the ground floor, each prisoner then had to climb two sets of steep stairs to reach the stores. No assistance for older prisoners was permitted. 

The real depths of sadism were plumbed when an elderly inmate walking with two sticks and trying to balance a food tray at lunchtime slipped and fell, sending his tray and food flying across the servery area. The ‘cleaning officer’ – the young screw on duty and a particularly nasty example of his kind – screamed abuse at this pensioner who was in tears as he struggled to get to his feet. “Get a mop and clean up this f____ing mess, you filthy old bastard.” That was the level of his compassion.

Disabled facilities
Another older prisoner had been at the establishment for several months but had been unable to bathe properly as he was confined to a wheelchair. The prison had no appropriate bathing facilities for disabled or elderly inmates, so he struggled to use the sink in his cell. As he also suffered from a degree of incontinence, he absolutely reeked, through no fault of his own. He was also developing pressure sores. Why this prison had even accepted him was a mystery to me, since it clearly couldn’t cope with his specific needs. There is also something pretty obscene about seeing a disabled person chained to a wheelchair on his way to an outside hospital appointment.

Of course, not all prisons are this poorly organised. Another B-cat I was at did make a real effort to support older or infirm men. The administration actually paid volunteer prisoners £6.00 per week extra to work as part-time carers for prisoners with health or mobility needs. Their duties included going to the servery to collect meals for their assigned inmate, helping with kit change, cleaning the cell, helping them get to the fully-fitted disabled bathroom and assisting as required.

The situation was also helped by the fact that this was a relatively modern-design prison: two floors and the upper tier could be accessed by a well-maintained chair lift. There was also an evacuation plan where each older or disabled inmate was assigned a specific career who had been trained to get him out of the building in an emergency. 

Older prisoners also had a fenced garden area with wooden benches and wheelchair-accessible paths that they could use during association periods when the weather was good. Elderly prisoners who were able-bodied were encouraged to maintain the garden. This is an example of good practice within HMPS and in my written submission to the Justice Select Committee I flagged it up to MPs.

Good practice: prison carers
At the D-cat (open prison) I was in until recently, a small unit has been established to accommodate prisoners aged 60 and over. The spur is quieter, there is a fully-fitted disabled wet-room on the corridor and a peaceful garden area next to the chapel where retired or disabled prisoners can sit on benches. Almost everywhere is wheelchair accessible. However, these facilities are the exception. It seems that the rest of the prison sector has some serious catching up to do.

Of course, it’s not just about suitable facilities. Older and disabled prisoners often have a raft of complex needs, including healthcare requirements that are a challenge for prisons to meet, particularly given scarce resources and slashed budgets. Prisoners with life-threatening medical conditions can wait months for specialist appointments at local hospitals, sometimes dying before they can access appropriate treatment. For some prisoners, a custodial sentence can prove to be a death sentence by default.

Then there are other issues to take into consideration. Older prisoners can be more prone to being bullied or ‘groomed’ by other inmates. Those on regular prescription medication, particularly pain-killers, can find that they are intimidated into handing over their tablets to younger prisoners as a form of ‘taxing’ (extortion). They can be bullied into ordering canteen goods to pay for ‘protection’ offered by wing heavies. I don't want to give the impression that all younger prisoners are predators; they are not and I know of some amazing acts of kindness and altruism by young lads towards men old enough to be their grandfathers or even great-grandfathers, but the risk of exploitation is definitely a problem, particularly when there are fewer staff about on wings.

Prison can be a particularly severe punishment for old men, especially when the Ministry of Justice appears to lack any coherent strategy to deal with the continuing rise in the numbers of older prisoners. As the Prison Reform Trust recently highlighted, elderly inmates often present as being 10 years older than their actual age owing to the accelerating effect of imprisonment on ageing. Perhaps the appropriate question is whether many of these older prisoners, particularly those who are in poor health, should actually be in prison at all, especially where the risk of re-offending has been assessed as being low- to medium. Is there really no alternative in the 21st century?

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Sexual Assaults in Prison


I’ve been hesitating since I started this blog three weeks ago over whether to revisit the subject of sexual assaults in prison and the way that such attacks are often dealt with by prison management. I got involved in an online debate on this issue in the comment pages of The Guardian online back in early May and although I had an incredible amount of support (over 360 reader recommends), I also came in for a bit of a verbal – and emotional – battering from a fellow ex-prisoner who berated me for even raising this sensitive matter.

After much thought, I have decided that I should confront this issue head on. I owe it to other prisoners who are survivors of such assaults (and the official inaction that usually follows), as well as to myself. I’ve now also had a chance to consider some of the negative comments I received and I’ve tried to incorporate my responses in the paragraphs in italics below the main post.

***

I was released from prison a few months ago. I was a victim of sexual assaults, both as a child and then as an adult male prisoner. I was fortunate that the assault in prison was relatively minor. However, when the incident was reported to security, the whole issue was quietly kicked into the long grass. No action was taken against my attacker and I had to endure living in the same houseblock with him for another two months until he finally robbed and assaulted another prisoner and was then transferred to a more secure establishment.

Because of my own experiences, I provided peer support to a number of adult males who have been sexually assaulted or even raped in prison. I was keen to provide factual evidence to the Howard League Commission on Sex in Prison, as the research project had been flagged up in Inside Time, the monthly newspaper for prisoners and their families.


However, when I contacted one of the Howard League's lead researchers shortly after I had been released, I was informed that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) had banned the research team from interviewing any serving prisoner, or - even more worrying - any former prisoner who was still on licence or parole. At this point I realised that there appeared to be a much more sinister agenda being pursued.

In my opinion, rape and sexual assaults are a regular feature of prison life, particularly for prisoners who are younger, vulnerable (including those with mental health problems) or gay (either openly so, or perceived as such). At one B-cat prison every single Young Prisoner (18-21) on my wing admitted to me in private that he had been sexually assaulted since coming into custody. 

At the same prison another young and vulnerable prisoner, who had been raped, subsequently committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell. The reaction of the prison authorities in practically every case was to ignore the evidence, or worse, punish the victim for causing trouble by making complaints.

I have now come to the conclusion that sexual crimes, when committed in against prisoners in custody, are either not considered serious enough to investigate or, perhaps, are even regarded as an intrinsic part of the punishment being meted out. There's no doubt that rape breaks the spirit of any young or troublesome prisoner.

One of the main problems prisoners face is that the Prison Service controls who they can contact, including the police. Also, there are close links between prison staff and the local police via each prison's Police Liaison Officer. This person has the influence to prevent any awkward complaints reaching the police force in the area where the prison is based.

The default setting is to deny that reports of sexual assault have ever been made. Paperwork disappears, no-one takes notes, nothing is ever remembered. And if a prisoner makes too much fuss, well then you put them in solitary confinement down the Block (segregation unit) and just forget about them. 

And who would make a legal challenge? Many prisoners have mental health problems or are illiterate, and now there's virtually no chance of any Legal Aid to get a solicitor to take a prison law case on.

Perhaps the worst reaction to encounter is when other people deny that what you have lived through and survived ever happened. Hopefully, the issue of sex in prison (both coercive and consensual) will eventually get properly researched and the prevention of exploitation, particularly of the young and vulnerable, will be given a much higher priority in prison policy.

Against this background, it's not difficult to understand why Mr Grayling is reported to have done everything in his power to block the Howard League Commission from speaking to prisoners or ex-prisoners. The sheer horror of what can go on behind prison walls would raise very serious questions about the whole prison system and the officials who manage it. Better then to gag us all.

*** 

When I initially posted the comments above in The Guardian online comment section, another ex-prisoner responded that he had been unaware of any sexual assaults when he was in inside. He also criticised me for discussing the issue at all as he feared it would encourage those outside prison to regard all prisoners as either sexual predators or victims of sexual assaults.

As we exchanged posts online, he revealed that despite his earlier claim to never have been aware any sexual assaults during his stretch inside, he had in fact himself been ‘groped’ sexually in a wing washroom. He appeared to make light of this incident.

However, what particularly disturbed me when re-reading his posts was a reference he made to the concept of "tough guys and their boys" being a known phenomenon inside prisons. He also made an attempt to defend such relationships as sometimes being positive. Were those "boys" younger, more vulnerable prisoners who were being used (and abused) by other prisoners who had power and influence? I don't know, but I suspect that what he was describing was just sexual exploitation by another name. 

Some of the perpetrators of sexual assaults inside prison are exactly those "tough guys" who take what they want, but won't hesitate to dish out a ‘serving’ (prison slang for violence) to anyone who dares to question their own sexuality. It's all about domination and control. 

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.