Saturday, 9 August 2014

A Voice From Out of The Depths

I’ve written previously on this blog about the routine mistreatment and neglect of young prisoners, as well as the denial of legal rights to inmates who are being held on remand. Looking through my prison paperwork this weekend I discovered a copy of a letter that, as an Insider, I had helped one young remand prisoner write to the governor of a particular B-Cat prison in 2012. 

YPs held on wings in adult prisons
I thought that readers of this blog might be interested to read this letter for themselves as it provides an insight into the reality of conditions for vulnerable young men inside adult jails. I think his mounting sense of hopelessness and despair is evident. He was increasingly tearful as he told me what he wanted to put in his letter.

I’ve removed anything that could identify either the prisoner or the specific establishment, but otherwise this letter is exactly as the lad, who also had mild learning difficulties, dictated it to me. The notes in square brackets [....] have been added by me in order to explain prison abbreviations used in the letter for readers not familiar with these terms.

Dear Mr Governor,

I am an unconvicted YP [Young Prisoner] aged 20. I’ve been at HMP ___________ for six months, since I was 19. I’m writing to you about the treatment I’ve received from officers.

It started in Reception. I have never been in prison before, so I was very scared and nervous. I asked the officer if there were many fights. He told me that I would “certainly get a good kicking” on my first night. I can identify the officer who terrified me about getting a “good kicking”, although I don’t know his name.

Also in Reception I wasn’t allowed to keep my own clothes, even though I am on remand. I was so ashamed to be made to strip in front of these officers. They kept me half naked without any trousers or underpants for a really long time. I think they did it to make fun of me. I really wanted to cry.

No-one helped or supported me on ______ wing, so I just stayed in my cell all the time for weeks. I was too frightened to go out and to associate or talk to anyone. This was because no one helped me. I didn’t even meet a personal officer.

I found out that because I am a remand prisoner I shouldn’t have to share with a convicted prisoner. But Mr ______ told me he would put me in a punishment cell unless I agreed to share a cell with a convicted YP.

I really want to continue my education while I am in prison. But I have been forced to work. Mr ______ [the same wing officer] threatened me with a red IEP [Incentives and Earned Privileges] warning if I didn’t work. I am now being made to work in the laundry, but I would like to continue my education because I was at college before my arrest.

Because I haven’t been given any support my time on remand has been very difficult. I have been forced to share a cell with two convicted prisoners who have treated me really badly.

When I asked for a Listener [a Samaritans-trained prisoner] so I can talk to someone about my problems I have been told I can’t have one because the officers said I was a YP and can’t be locked in a cell with an adult prisoner. This has happened on several occasions. I sometimes feel so desperate I just want to die.

I want you to know that there is no help for YPs at this prison. We are treated worse than adults and get bullied by some officers. Please help us Mr Governor. Thank you.

He never even received a reply.

At the moment, Lord (Toby) Harris is leading an independent review into self‐inflicted deaths of 18‐24 year olds in National Offender Management Service (NOMS) custody. The deadline for submissions has been extended until 18 August. I believe that he and his team should examine the extent to which mistreatment of the kind described above by this vulnerable young man may contribute to suicide and acts of self-harm in prisons.  

T2A submission 
Various organisations and individuals have already submitted evidence, including T2A (Transition to Adulthood) which highlights the following grim statistics: "From 2012 to July 2014, there have been 46 self-inflicted deaths of young adults aged 18-24. There have been nine so far this year (another is awaiting classification). In the past 10 years, more than 160 children and young people under the age of 24 have died in prison."

If any readers have personal accounts of their own experiences, or of incidents involving others known to them who have died in custody aged 18 to 24, then I would recommend that they contact Lord Harris’ review team with their written contributions. The e-mail address is:

Such abuses - and the tragic consequences - will doubtless continue unless what really takes place inside prisons and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) is made public. Many of these establishments are failing in their legal duty of care and this needs to be put on the political agenda. Even then, I’m not confident that anything will change for the better, but at least we need to start to break the culture of silence that leaves some of our most vulnerable young adults feeling so desperate that they see suicide or self-harm as their only viable options. 


  1. Well said - thanks for recording it - I hope you have sent it to your MP and also Lord Harris.

    I last worked in a young offender institution, so long ago, it was called a Borstal!

    1. Thanks, Andrew. I'm preparing a very detailed submission for the Harris Review now that the deadline has ben extended to 18 August. Although the ToRs under which the review was set up don't allow for reinvestigation of specific suicides there are some examples of truly shocking malpractice in certain prisons that do merit being flagged up.

      Sadly, the case of the lad whose letter appears above didn't end well. I can't be more specific because of confidentiality and out of respect for his family, but what happened to him at that particular adult B-cat certainly didn't help.

  2. Is there a reason why you wouldn't want to 'name and shame' particular prisons or governors, even while respecting the confidentiality of individual prisoners? Would it actually be breaking any laws to simply relate your experiences?

    It's difficult to avoid becoming angry reading an article like this one and it would be nice to shine the light a little more publicly where it's needed.

    Your blog has been hugely educational - thank you.

    1. Hi and thanks for your comments. It's really good to learn that the blog is proving to be interesting and informative.

      When I first started blogging at the beginning of July, my main aim was to provide some much needed balance to the current debate over prisons, prisoners and probation. I'd noticed that although the national media is full of prison stories, very few prisoners (serving or recently released) are contributing or trying to give the other side of the story in order to correct distortions and misrepresentations.

      I also felt that it was important not to simply perpetuate the 'cons v screws' school of prison writing (which is sometimes a bit too evident in Inside Time or Converse, the two monthly newspapers aimed at prisoners). As a result, I decided not to name and shame individual prisons (unless commenting specifically on reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, where the whole report is already in the public domain). One reason for this is that I wanted to avoid simply criticising the four prisons I served my sentence in (or the other two I visited in transit) because that could just seem like personal animosity on my part. For that reason, I decided to focus on observations drawn from my own experience, and on information provided to me by others, but without being overly specific about the prison concerned. I do generally state the security category, as this is often relevant to the points being made.

      The other reason I'm careful about naming specific establishments is that I am still getting information from serving prisoners and I really don't want to put them at any risk, or to publish anything that might lead them to face increased monitoring of their mail and phone calls. As you can imagine, some prison governors are very touchy about many of the issues I'm raising and I don't want to provoke unnecessary trouble (remember, I'm also still on a parole licence myself!)

      What I have done, however, is ensure that the Prisons Inspectorate is made aware of my specific concerns regarding named prisons. I am also submitting a formal written contribution on the issue of suicides of young adult prisoners (18-24) to Lord Harris' official review, so hopefully some lessons may be learned.