Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Prisoner

Although Britain’s overcrowded prisons are already past bursting point, and the fact that two or three inmates are now being crammed into tiny cells originally designed for one con, the mere presence of large numbers of men confined together doesn’t make it any less of a lonely experience. This is made even worse when prisoners are held in jails that can be hundreds of miles away from their families.

For those not familiar with the way that cons are assigned to specific establishments, the following brief overview may be useful. Strategic decisions about the overall prison population are the responsibility of the Prisoner Management Unit (PMU) at National Offender Management Service (NOMS) headquarters. This unit is responsible for ensuring that local prisons have sufficient capacity to take sentenced prisoners from court – no easy feat these days given the latest round of prison closures and the rising number of people being given prison sentences. 

But is is really working?

The decision on where an individual serving a custodial term will be incarcerated is made by the rather Stalinist-sounding office of Observation, Classification and Allocation (OCA), although movement of high risk prisoners (A-cats) is dealt with by the High Security Prisons Directorate. In practice this means that any prisoners who are not in the high risk category are likely to be assigned to those nicks that have available capacity. Rules for how prisoners are classified are set down in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 40/2011.

Local B-cat
Cons given short sentences at their local court may well find themselves serving their whole stretch at the nearest B-cat local, even if they aren’t considered dangerous or an escape risk and would normally be classified as C-cat or even D-cat (suitable for open conditions) from the outset. I know plenty of C-cat inmates who have ended up serving months in B-cats, and even a few D-cats who’ve found themselves in such a situation.

The issue of just how far an individual inmate is going to be located from his or her family comes pretty near the bottom of the list of OCA priorities, particularly now that the prison population is rising above the all-time high of 85,700. There used up be a general principle that “the aim is to transfer prisoners to a prison that will meet their individual needs as close to home as possible.” However, this is no longer regarded as a relevant consideration. The average prisoner is likely to be sent to an establishment within their security category (or higher) that has a space available, regardless of its distance from his or her home and family. It can be much worse for inmates who need to do specific courses or programmes that are only offered in certain prisons.

So why should this matter at all? Surely cons are in prison as part of their punishment and nicks aren’t hotels… you go where you’re sent and like it, sunshine! Well, it’s important because it risks undermining another vital part of criminal justice strategy to reduce re-offending, something that should be relevant to everyone, particularly victims of crime and taxpayers. 

According to the National Action Plan developed by NOMS in 2004 there are seven recognised ‘pathways’ to reducing re-offending. These are:

Education, Training and Employment
Drugs and Alcohol
Finance, Benefits and Debt
Children and Families
Attitudes, Thinking and Behaviour

For inmates serving prison sentences there is, in theory at least, supposed to be a focus on ‘building and strengthening family ties’. This is often relevant both to those pathways addressing accommodation and families, but also has potentially major impacts across all the others. In many respects, unless the issue of prisoners’ relationships with their families is prioritised it has a tendency to undermine or block progress along all the other pathways.

Importance of family visits
For those inmates who have existing relationships when they are sent to prison, serving a sentence – often even a relatively short one – can put immense pressure on the partner who is left outside. This can increase very substantially where there are children involved and in my experience a majority of cons do have kids, even though they might not always have been the best role models.

It is widely recognised – by NOMS, prison Offender Management Units (OMUs) and probation officers – that having a stable home situation and supportive family ties can be a powerful and effective factor in reducing re-offending for many prisoners. Maintaining these ties is a two-way process. Wives, husbands, partners, children, parents all need to be part of the rehabilitation and resettlement plan. However, if inmates are serving sentences in establishments that are hundreds of miles from their family home, these links can all too easily come under strain and break. Once that happens, the impact on both prisoners and their families can prove catastrophic - in the short-term and beyond.

That’s why regular social visits and periodic family visits – more informal visiting sessions where inmates with younger children can play with their kids under less rigid conditions, usually awarded as a privilege – can play such an important part in keeping relationships going across the bars, walls and razor wire. Special projects - such as Storybook Dads - where prisoners record stories on CDs to be played to their children at home can be a big help, but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact during meetings with family members.

Visits are also a key element in maintaining prison discipline because losing your privileges under the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system can also result in loss of eligibility for regular visits. Very few cons deliberately kick off when they are expecting a visit from family or loved ones.

For those inmates without partners or children, visits by parents, grandparents and friends can also fill an important emotional gap. Just having ‘normal’ conversations with people who love and care unconditionally can play a major role in maintaining or improving prisoners’ mental health. Prison can be a very lonely place indeed, despite the current overcrowding. Indeed, the old saying about being most alone in a crowd is never more true than it is inside the nick.

As I’ve observed in my recent posts on this blog about suicides in prisons, relationship breakdown is one of the significant contributing factors behind both suicides and self-harming. When an important relationship is in trouble in the outside world there are steps that can be taken and the possibility of getting advice and help from family, friends and even counselling organisations. 

No-one to turn to when it's over
Inside the nick, you’re pretty much on your own. You can’t make an appointment with the local Relate team (Marriage Guidance Council, as was) or just pop round to a mate’s for a cry on their shoulder. The perceived need to keep up the ‘hard man’ protective shield inhibits many cons from sharing their personal problems and family crises with others. Many lads would rather have their teeth pulled out without anaesthetic than confide in a wing screw or a member of the prison psychology team.

When I was working as an Insider (a peer support mentor) in prison, I did spend a significant amount of time with fellow prisoners just listening to their accounts of their family problems. I’ve had more ‘bad lads’ than I care to remember crying in my pad (cell) because their wife or girlfriend – and occasionally boyfriend – had just dumped them. Loss of contact with children because of relationship break-ups and the ex refusing to bring the kids for visits can also hit inmates very hard. Like an echo in an empty space, the pain of separation in prison seems to be magnified and can often prove overwhelming.  

It may not be widely known but in D-cats (open prisons) relationship breakdown is one of the top motives for absconding (you can’t legally ‘escape’ from an open prison because there aren’t any locked cells, walls or barred gates. You just walk out). Because this temptation can prove too much for some inmates, if prison staff discover that a prisoner has relationship problems, particularly break-ups or divorce, then that can be a reason to transfer them back to closed conditions in order to remove the risk that they may get on their toes and do a runner.

Not much privacy to talk
Trying to maintain any long distance relationship is likely to prove a struggle in the world outside even in these days of social media, Skype and smart phones. Imagine trying to keep the flame alive when the only options are joining the noisy queue of 30 lads waiting for the wing payphones during association or writing a weekly prison letter, particularly if your literacy skills aren’t great. In my time I’ve also written many a very intimate letter for fellow cons who can’t manage it for themselves. My occasional efforts at love poems were much admired!

If as a nation we are serious about the goals of rehabilitation, reducing re-offending and achieving successful resettlement of ex-prisoners back into the community to live useful and productive lives, then the current disconnect between prison allocations on the basis of operational availability of places and the seven pathway strategy contained in the NOMS National Action Plan on reducing re-offending needs to be bridged. Sadly, I don’t see any evidence that that will happen on Mr Grayling’s watch because I genuinely believe that the worst – and least qualified – Secretary of State we’ve ever had really doesn’t give a flying f__k about reducing re-offending. Sad, but true.


  1. My daughter loved Storybook Dad's, but I thought it was a kinda, "Here's your Dad's voice, but you can't see him."
    Don't get me wrong, it's a great project and lots of children have widely benefited from the service, but one night after my daughter listened to the story, she just broke down and cried saying she "wants her Daddy to come home."
    We couldn't visit often because of the money situation, so we made do with letters and phone calls. Phone calls were limited because of my partner's money situation inside, so the calls were quick and to the point. If an event had happened, I had to write to him about it because there wasn't enough 'time' to tell him all about it on the phone.
    I didn't enjoy the prison visits one bit because the environment was rowdy with children running all over the place, but children will be children and I understood that. But there was nothing whatsoever 'personal' about our prison visits.
    The whole visit from start to finish for me was soul destroying. The journey took approx an hour and half and when I arrived at the prison, it was always a frosty reception which isn't pleasant especially when you have to deal with an agitated bored youngster. I am so glad the experience is over but I do feel for the children of prisoners more than anyone on this journey.

    1. I've experienced prison visits from both sides. As a visitor and as being visited.

      Visiting a prison puts you into a very alien environment - almost airport style security checks only without any sense of customer service. Long queues in unpleasant surroundings and being herded in groups like cattle through a seemingly endless number of locked doors and gates. The whole process is painfully slow and takes forever from arrival at the prison to finally meeting your loved one. For me, the whole 6 hour ordeal was always worth it just to see my partner for an hour.

      When I was inside visits were the highlight of my week. I was one of a very few extremely lucky guys to get a weekly visit. Maybe 10 - 20 guys out of around 160 on the wing got visits. We really were the lucky few. Many simply didn't have anybody to care enough about them to visit, some guys family couldn't afford to, some couldn't travel the distance, some guys just didn't want to see their loved ones in the surroundings they found themselves in or indeed the shabby clothes they would be wearing.

      My visits were a lifeline to me. A conversation about the real world - nothing prison, courts, the pool table or the crap food. I spent around a year inside with one guy who received just one visit during that time. On our walk back to the wing afterwards he told me that for just one hour it felt like he wasn't in prison. I think that says it all!

  2. Thanks for sharing with us the reality of prison as it impacts on families - and especially on kids. Families and prisoners' children are often among the 'forgotten' and innocent victims of crime and punishment. I'm also glad to hear that your partner is out of jail now.

  3. Prison blog written by a lifer from Illinois USA: