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.

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.

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