Thursday, 23 October 2014

Why Jonathan Aitken is Wrong

Following the publication of the annual report of HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) this week there has been a commendable level of concern expressed over what Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, has called the “terrible toll” of recent prison suicides (read the full report here). The HMIP findings confirm what the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), Nigel Newcomen, has been flagging up in his own recent reports: our prisons are becoming less safe places.

It is clear that the interlinked issues of deteriorating safety, inadequate staffing, a shortage of mental heath care and poor conditions inside our prisons are now on the agenda and the national media – including The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian – is following each development as it happens. While I don’t think that the prison suicide rate, as such, is going to be a significant issue in the forthcoming general election, it does mean that the repeated denials that there is any crisis in our prisons coming from both Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling and the new Prisons Minister Andrew Selous really cannot be taken seriously by anyone who has considered the objective evidence.

However, just highlighting the crisis and its consequences will not be enough. Urgent solutions need to be found. 

Jonathan Aitken
One of those making such a suggestion is former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken. In case anyone has forgotten, Mr Aitken was convicted of perjury in 1999 and sentenced to an 18-month custodial sentence, of which he served seven months. He later wrote about his time inside in an interesting memoir entitled Porridge and Passion (2006). 

Writing in a letter published this week in The Guardian, Mr Aitken makes the following proposal: 

One practical suggestion that might ease the problem would be to extend the responsibilities of “listeners” in our jails so that they also become “watchers”. Establishments have a group of inmates, trained by the charity Samaritans, to listen to the anxieties of fellow prisoners who might be potential suicides. These listeners, who often work closely with wing officers, are widely credited with preventing some self-inflicted deaths which might otherwise occur. Prison staff, in my experience as a former listener, work hard to minimise suicides. They hold a list of high-risk self-harmers or worse. Those on it are kept under observation by officers using the peepholes in cell doors.

The cut in prison staff numbers by 10,000 over the past three years may mean that some officers reduce the frequency of their observation of high-risk inmates. So it would be a good idea to utilise the services of the existing listeners to support the efforts of prison officers in keeping watch over potentially suicidal inmates in their cells. A policy of giving such extra responsibilities to trusted prisoners would be in accord with the government’s approach of using offenders in the field of rehabilitation. Such a move would need an amendment to the Prison Service Instructions rulebook, but it would surely be a well-supported initiative to help prevent prison suicides.

Listeners' prison poster
At least Mr Aitken does have some practical, first-hand experience of both prison and of the Listeners scheme. This operates in most UK prisons, having been launched back in 1991. According to the Samaritan’s website, there are an estimated 1,200 trained Listeners working across the prison estate at the moment. They provide a 24-hour service to fellow inmates and the aim is to achieve a ratio of around one trained Listener to every 50 or so fellow prisoners.

Although I never worked or trained as a Listener myself – mainly because Insiders (peer mentors) are not supposed to combine such roles in order to maintain a clear demarcation between the giving of practical advice and information by Insiders and the non-directional, listening role of the Listeners team – I have the greatest respect for the invaluable work they do. The scheme can truly offer a life-saving service to people who are in deep distress, some of whom often consider suicide or serious self-harm as their only viable options.

However, Mr Aitken’s well-meaning proposals above are fraught with dangers, not least for those prisoners who have volunteered to train and work as Listeners in our prisons. One of the key issues is accountability. All prisoners are in the custody of HM Prison Service and as the Service’s own mission statement makes clear: 

Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Its duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.    

That responsibility – and the legal duty of care that goes with it – cannot be delegated to fellow prisoners, no matter how well-trained or well-meaning the prisoner concerned may be. Using inmates as “watchers” – as suggested by Mr Aitken in his letter above – is essentially to re-task Listeners to provide suicide watch cover ‘on the cheap’ because the Prison Service simply lacks sufficient staff to do the job. In fact, the Samaritan’s code of conduct for prisons expressly excludes the use by the Prison Service of Listeners as ‘baby-sitters’ for other prisoners, precisely for that very reason.

A Listener's cell on a prison wing
Mr Aitken’s suggestion risks blurring the responsibilities and legal duties of the prison staff, while extending a range of responsibilities of a small group of volunteer prisoners for the lives and safety of their peers. In my opinion, any move in that direction would be potentially dangerous at a variety of levels and simply cannot be right.

What would be the legal implications for any prison that used such “watchers”? How would inquest juries view those prisoners and the role that they had been fulfilling in the place of paid, professional prison officers? 

What of the question of legal liability? Could Mr Aitken’s “watchers” even be exposed to potential legal action from deceased prisoners’ distressed families in the event of a suicide? Could they be legally indemnified? No-one knows because, at the moment, serving prisoners are not given such formal roles or responsibilities for the lives of other inmates for very good reasons. 

And what of the psychological impact on these prisoners in the case of a suicide or attempted suicide on their ‘watch’? I’ve written in a previous blog post how I and other cons felt acute guilt over the deaths of fellow prisoners that we’ve known. Given the serious shortage of mental heath care and support across the prison estate, what could the Prison Service offer to distressed ‘watchers’ who have been in close proximity to the dead prisoner, perhaps got to know them and then have feelings of guilt over their deaths? In reality, the answer is probably somewhere between very little or nothing. 

Listeners: available 24/7
And then there could well be a requirement, as there is upon serving prison staff, to attend and give evidence during Coroner’s inquests into deaths in custody. Prisoners who discover cell-mates or other inmates after their deaths are often already made to attend these hearings to give their account of events leading up to the discovery of a body. HM Coroners have the legal power to issue summons to relevant witnesses under common law (Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and Coroners (Inquests) Rules, 2013).

For a prisoner summonsed to appear at an inquest, the whole process can be highly disruptive and demeaning: being repeatedly strip searched, having to be taken in handcuffs in prison transport, sometimes moved between prisons to be closer to where the inquest is taking place, perhaps waiting days or weeks for a transfer back thus cancelling booked family visits. All of this can also disrupt paid prison employment, education courses etc.

Those volunteers would be left high and dry with their own psychological issues and all the resulting stress. No serving prisoner should be expected to take on such a stressful role when they are still in the midst of serving their own sentence in prison. It’s not as if they can go home at the end of the day and unwind with their own loved ones for emotional support. Mr Aitken’s idea, however kindly meant, would be both cruel and inhumane.

Safer custody?
While I am all in favour of urgent measures to reduce the rising suicide rate in our prisons, this should be done through the provision of appropriate numbers of trained frontline wing staff and qualified mental heath professionals. It should not be done by using – and potentially abusing – fellow prisoners in the custody of HM Prison Service to carry out roles that they shouldn’t be doing, even in a volunteer capacity. 

The ‘Safer Custody’ strategy at the heart of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 64/2011 – Management of prisoners at risk of harm to self, to others and from others (Safer Custody) – requires that governors take certain mandatory actions to implement the Assessment and Care in Custody Teamwork (ACCT) process. This includes the identification of prisoners considered to be at risk of suicide or self-harm and the procedures that are to be used in order to manage, monitor and review the measures required to support these individuals.

The ACCT strategy can be labour intensive, requiring commitment of staff resources – particularly for those severely distressed prisoners who need constant watch 24 hours a day – and the current staff shortages in many establishments must inevitably call into question whether these obligations set out in PSI 64/2011 can be adequately delivered in many of our prisons. The evidence highlighted in the latest reports from HMIP and the PPO would indicate that this system is coming under intense strain and is, in some cases, failing to provide the required monitoring and management of suicidal prisoners or those who are in serious distress and have resorted to self-harming as a coping mechanism or as a cry for help. 

However, making use of other prisoners to fill these staffing gaps would be neither legal nor appropriate. What would come next in Mr Grayling’s cut-price prisons being run on the cheap? Giving ‘trusted’ cons a bunch of cell keys so they can unlock the wings? Where does this end? So Mr Aitken, thank you for a well-meaning suggestion, but it is one which must be firmly resisted by the Samaritans, the Prison Officers Association, the Prison Governors Association – and by all prisoners acting as Listeners themselves.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found the post interesting.

  2. As usual, I find it very difficult to disagree with you. Mr Aitkin's suggestions are surely well meaning but completely out of line with reality.

    For the reasons you've given above it would be totally inappropriate to push the burden of suicide prevention onto other inmates. The Listener scheme is a fantastic idea and works very well. Many inmates are unwilling to open up to any prison resource as it could affect their sentence. A confidential chat with a fellow inmate can make all the difference during a time of personal crisis.

    I was amazed during my time inside that there were no fully qualified counsellors to help during such periods of crisis. Fully independent of the prison system to offer words of support as needed. Listeners fill this gap but cannot offer the full services of a fully trained counsellor.

    Conversely, I've know of some inmates who would not call upon the services of a Listener. Trying to maintain the outward impression of being a 'hard man' on the wing it would be severely detrimental to that persona to cry on the shoulder of a Listener - despite fighting some dangerous demons in their head.

    I was never a Listener and never sought their services, thankfully because I didn't need them. I will never forget the suicide of one young man on the wing I was housed on. I didn't know him, never spoke to him - he was just one of the other 160 blokes on the wing. His death did affect me. Maybe I should have spoken to him, got to know him, got to understand his issues - maybe just a couple of kind words. I felt a massive sense of guilt for not helping him. Of course, his issues only became apparent when he hanged himself alone in a cell. It would be totally inappropriate to assign another inmate (Listener) to look over such an individual. Their sense of guilt I can only imagine would be overwhelming.

    All too often suicidal inmates don't participate in the regime of the prison. All too often this leads to their seclusion and removal of privileges. For the most of my sentence I shared my cell with another guy. One in particular had suicidal thoughts, I think it would be almost impossible for him to commit suicide whilst sharing a cell. Indeed on one occasion I alerted staff to him making a noose after bang-up.

    In the case of the lad who did manage to take his own life he had been moved into a cell on his own and most privileges removed. He was checked at around 21:30 in the evening and found hanging at around 05:30 despite staff being aware of his very delicate mental state.

    Listeners do have a very valuable role in the prison system but this cannot replace proper mental health screening and care and simply having enough staff on wings to monitor the individuals state of mind. The recent 30% reduction in staffing and the 69% increase in self-inflicted deaths cannot be ignored even by the most arrogant and incompetent politician.

    1. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your own experiences of prison. I think that the wider impact of a suicide in prison on fellow cons - and to be fair, on some wing officers and other staff - can be seriously underestimated.

      Of course, the main focus needs to be on the deceased person's family, but in many cases those inmates who may have spent a lot of time with the person prior to his or her death, or who even shared a cell with them, are also grieving and - as you've quite rightly highlighted - may feel a sense of 'survivor's guilt'. This also shouldn't be ignored or overlooked.

      I know how I felt when mates in prison killed themselves. Even now, several years on, I still ask myself whether I missed the warning signs or didn't offer enough support.

      I also share your views on the Listeners. I think they offer a vital service to fellow prisoners and give up their own time, day or night, to listen to cons in distress. However, my concern is that this should not be exploited or their roles changed to include working as unpaid, powerless pseudo-staff.

      This is too important a challenge for the Prison Service to delegate frontline duty of care for suicidal inmates to other prisoners, especially in view of the potential trauma and emotional impact that suicides can cause. If the ACCT system is to work, then it needs to be properly resourced and staffed by experienced, trained and accountable prison staff, not by unpaid, volunteer cons.

    2. It's too easy to say that an ex-con former politician has got it wrong but Mr Aitkin's take on the situation is wrong. You cannot allow fellow inmates to prevent suicide. Prison staff will surely be mentally burdened with a death - I remember the penetrating scream of an officer finding a hanged body in the early hours. I don't suspect for one minute that they won't remember that moment for the rest of their lives.

      Front line staff, mental health and simple counselling will save lives. I know that many despise those in prison but deaths of inmates is absolutely despicable and those causing them should be held to account.

    3. Thanks for your comments. As I point out in the post above, there is a danger that prisoners will get used increasingly to provide cover for some activities and roles that properly belong to staff.

      A similar, if less obvious, process can also occur with the role of Insiders and I've blogged on this subject as well: Prison Insiders: Screws without Keys?

      If prisons are to fulfil the functions that Parliament has set down, then the Prison Service (and mental health care provision) must be properly funded and resourced. The recent rise in the suicide rate needs to be investigated as a matter of urgency and preventative measures taken to manage and support prisoners perceived to be at risk of suicide. Anything less is a failure of a legal duty of care.

    4. Having a position of "watcher" may also inadvertently create a two-tier system of prisoner whereby one group of prisoners may hold slightly more privileges and status than another group and be officially sanctioned as such. Within the confines of prison, this could create greater tension and greater violence

    5. Thanks for your comments. Ironically, prison life is all about privileges and this is formally structured within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system in operation in every prison in England and Wales (I'm not sure how Scotland or Northern Ireland organise their prison systems).

      There are already vast inequalities of privileges between prisoners: how much money they can spend each week, whether they can wear their own clothing or have to wear prison kit, when they can access the gym and association, as well as how many hours each day they can expect to be locked up in their cells (up to 23 hours a day in the worst case scenarios). Obviously these inequalities do cause tensions between cons, hence the insulting nickname 'screw-boys' for those who are seen to be getting more privileges.

      Beyond the IEP system, there are in-built privileges and/or inequalities depending on which prison job an inmate has. Orderlies ('red bands') who are trusted can have much greater freedom than ordinary rank and file cons, as well as opportunities to get to know members of staff personally in a way that can improve their chances of recategorisation to a lower security status, a move to an open prison or parole (if they are on a parole sentence), as well as lots of little everyday perks of working in the offices, stores or kitchens (cups of real coffee, biscuits and snacks, discarded newspapers brought in by staff)... all of these reinforce the divide between the haves and the have nots.

    6. There's also vast inequalities out here as well.

    7. Thanks for your comments. I fully agree with that. It could be argued that inequality of opportunity (particular in our education system) and economic deprivation is at least part of the root cause of a fair amount of criminal behaviour among some young people and adults.

      However, in a 'pressure-cooker' environment like a prison, it's amazing how much tension can be generated between prisoners by seemingly inconsequential little issues such as an extra couple of quid in weekly pay or an extra gym session a week. Perhaps that's one side-effect of effectively infantilising adults who are in prison by removing almost all choices and self-determination: they revert to child-like (and childish) behaviours in which jealously fuels resentment and can lead to bullying or violence.

  3. Working towards D-cat

    Hello Alex,

    I have a questions about re-categorisation of prisoners.

    1) With only 9 D-cat prisons left in the UK, do you think a mistake has been made by prison policy makers in reducing the number of people who can be eligible for D-cat status

    2) Did you find the D-cat status useful in providing any courses for potential re-offenders prior to their release dates?

    3) What can prisoners do help with their aims of trying to achieve a D-cat status? Enroll in certain courses, write letters to the governor etc?

    4) Is it worth enlisting the services of a specialist prison law solicitor rather than a general criminal lawyer to assist with any appeals etc.

    Anything else you have to comment about D-cats , I would like to hear (might even inspire your next blog post)



    1. Hi Tommy. Thanks for your questions. The issue of Cat-D (open) prisons is a very complex one which I've posted on a few times before. If you have a look at my post Open Prisons and ROTL I think that may give you a bit more information:

      To be very honest, my own view is that the real benefits of Cat-D prisons are for lifers and indeterminate sentenced prisoners who MUST evidence reduced risk in order to be recommended for release by the Parole Board after their minimum tariff has been served. Open conditions can also benefit inmates who have served many years inside on longer fixed term sentences, say once they've been in for more than four years (so anyone who has been given a total sentence of eight years or above). That's usually the point that a degree of serious institutionalisation can be assumed.

      I'm not convinced of the benefits for short-termers, especially ex-professionals and white-collar criminals who basically get an easier ride because their offences have generally been non-violent. Open prisons are full of fraudsters, bent accountants, dodgy solicitors and first time cons who have caused serious motoring accidents. None of these folk are remotely institutionalised when they arrive, often having only served a few months of 'real' prison time in a Cat-B local where they went straight from court. Sometimes I must admit their sense of entitlement is quite shocking to other cons who have served years inside.

      As far as I can tell (only having been in one Cat-D myself) most open prisons don't offer offending behaviour courses. There is an expectation that if all the identified courses or programmes haven't been done the prisoners won't be recategorised to Cat-D in the first place. All open prisons do seem to have an education department and most offer a range of vocational qualifications as well (bricklaying, painting & decorating, catering etc), so I suppose these are resettlement courses. There can also be more focused resettlement activities available including help with writing CVs, advice on job interviews, budgeting, how to open and run a bank account etc, as well as how to register for work and benefits at the local JobCentre Plus.

    2. (Part two!)

      After the individual prisoner's category has been determined, based on length and type of sentence, as well as risk factors, recategorisation is a process which works according to a timetable. The relevant Prison Service Instruction is PSI 40/2011 - Categorisation and Recategorisation Of Adult Male Prisoners. This will give you all the review periods. These reviews are triggered automatically and written notification is sent out by the Offender Management Unit (OMU) at the prison.

      On a fixed term sentence what will be essential in order to get D-cat status when your case is reviewed is to have followed your sentence plan and to have completed any offending behaviour courses on it; to have achieved Enhanced status and not had any proven adjudications, as well as having had a prison job or education courses. It can also help if you have been active as a volunteer (Toe by Toe literacy mentor, Listener, Insider, wing rep etc). A strong recommendation from your personal officer and support from both your probation officers (in the prison and in the community) will also be pretty much essential, so if you do develop a good relationship with them, that will help you at your review.

      Useful tip: when I was inside, I wrote to my Offender Manager (outside probation) every three months or so updating her on what I'd been doing workwise and as a volunteer. I also asked for any advice I felt I needed etc. Building a positive relationship of this kind can make a big difference when it comes to recategorisation and having a successful period on licence after you are released!

      Essentially, prisoners should not be held in a higher category establishment than necessary, but in reality much depends on spaces. I've known C-cats (and even D-cats) being held in Cat-B locals for many months or even years, so that is also an issue to bear in mind.

      On the issue of appeals, I assume you mean for prison matters (re-cat etc) not a criminal appeal against conviction or sentence? To be honest, I dealt with my own re-cat processes throughout, so unless there is a specific problem, you should be OK. On the other hand there are loads of decent prison law solicitors, including Carringtons, Jordans, Chivers, Duncan Lewis etc. Try to find one with an office near the prison as this can be more effective for legal visits etc.

      Have a look at the other open prison blog posts I've done, as well. Hope that long answer is helpful!

    3. Is not part of your reply rather strange given previous articles & replies with reference to the ex-professionals & white collar criminals?

      These people will only be (probably) in Cat D if their crime was non-violent and whilst you state here they've probably only done a couple of months 'real prison in a Cat B' your normal stance is only the violent, dangerous offenders should be locked up.

    4. Thanks for your comments. You are right in that I don't believe a custodial sentence is often the most appropriate penalty for non-violent offenders who are assessed as posing a low risk to the public and/or of committing further offences. However, given that our current system is configured that way, we need to look critically at how increasingly scarce resources are used, particularly places in Cat-D (open) establishments.

      Our prison system is currently over-burdened with lifers and Indeterminate Sentence (IPP) prisoners, some of whom are years over tariff. Since the only real way in which these people can demonstrate manageable risk in the community ahead of going before the Parole Board is evidence-based reports, almost all of them will need to spend time being 'tested' in open conditions, usually around 18 months up to two years (supposedly the usual maximum time that is spent in a Cat-D under the guidelines).

      However, because we are also filling scarce Cat-D places with short-timers who often really have no need for any phased rehabilitation or resettlement work (a few months in the slammer generally doesn't lead to any form of institutionalisation), our closed prisons are log-jammed with other prisoners who are sometimes years beyond their minimum tariffs. This is simply not, in my opinion, a defensible use of resources at the moment, as well as contributing little or nothing to better public protection.

      I would prefer to see much greater use of appropriate sentencing by the courts (particularly of people who are considered to pose a low risk, of those with mental health conditions and of the elderly and/or seriously ill). I would argue that many of these people shouldn't be sent to prison in the first place, thus freeing up much needed spaces in the open estate for prisoners serving parole sentences or for those fixed-termers who have been inside for a number of years and would genuinely benefit from a phased reintroduction back into society through Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) and voluntary work in the local community in the final year or so of their sentences. Perhaps I just didn't express this very well in my answer above!

  4. I read cons can be released directly from Cat B and Cat C prisons without filtering through to Cat D, is that correct?

    1. Thanks for your question. Yes, that is actually the normal pattern for most prisoners on fixed term ('determinate') sentences. In fact, a few do get released from Cat-A establishments.

      Many cons never make it to Cat-D status, so they will be released from whichever jail they are in at the time their custodial term expires. This is particularly the case with people who are serving short sentence in their local Cat-B having gone there straight from court. If they are only in for a few weeks or months, then they often won't be transferred prior to discharge.

      Prisoners in this position often get little or no advice or support before they are released and just get kicked out of the main gate with £46 release grant (and a travel warrant if they need to use the train to get back home). Sometimes it is possible to request a transfer to another nick for what is called 'local release' nearer the home area, but this depends on having spaces available.

  5. Why aren't vulnerable cons tranferred to a prison hospital until they feel better? What is the suicide rate in prison hospitals?

    1. Thanks for your questions. Essentially, the answer is resources (or a lack of them). Cat-B local prisons are often full of men with very serious mental health problems awaiting assessment and possible sectioning under the Mental Health Act. The problem is that, as with mental health in the community, there is a shortage of hospital spaces, so some can be waiting in prison for months or longer before a suitable vacancy can be found.

      Most prisons in the UK no longer have hospital wings, although a few are developing palliative care units for very elderly or terminally-ill inmates. This means that prisoners requiring urgent medical treatment in a hospital have to be taken there and escorted by prison officers to whom they will usually remained chained throughout the treatment, even as an in-patient. This is very costly for prisons to fund, so it tends to be used only in the most serious cases.

      The alternative in prisons is to have those inmates who have been identified as presenting a high risk of suicide on what is called 'constant watch'. This usually involves a prison officer sitting at the door of a cell, in shifts, for 24 hours a day. This drains staff resources very quickly, so most governors avoid authorising it if they possibly can.

      The other problem is that if a prisoner is absolutely determined to commit suicide, then telling staff or other cons usually isn't how they behave. They may seem normal or even more cheerful, because in their own mind their problems are about to be 'resolved' by their impending death. In these cases, it is much more difficult - perhaps almost impossible - to spot the warning signs.

  6. basically they need more staff. that's what it comes down to. and proper care for people who are mentally ill and actually getting them to see mental health professionals instead of being 'looked after' by ppl who don't have the first clue about mental health. since what happened, sadly, at styal some changes were made for women... even though it was slow to happen. sounds like the men's system needs a rehaul too.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Laura. In essence, that's the fact of the matter: staff shortages, both on the wings and in mental health. Beyond the simple fact of needing an appropriate number of officers, there is also an urgent requirement for prison staff who are experienced in these areas and understand the ACCT system, in order to make it work. Of course, it may not be possible to prevent every suicide in prison, any more than it is in the community outside, but much more could be done to avert these tragedies if there were sufficient staff to monitor high risk inmates.


    1. Thanks for the link. I did catch most of the documentary last night. Pretty horrific in parts, too.