Prison

Prison

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Sentenced to Silence

I’ve often reflected that literacy can – sometimes literally – provide a lifeline to prisoners. For many inmates their experience of imprisonment is primarily about exclusion and isolation. Separated from family and friends, and increasingly from other inmates due to the rise in 23-hour a day ‘bang up’ in their cells as one consequence of overcrowding and staff shortages in many prisons, the ability to read and write can maintain channels of communication with the outside world that otherwise might be closed.

Communication skills matter
One of the less appreciated aspects of the current crisis engulfing our overcrowded prisons is that serving prisoners are less able to get paid work inside their jail or access to education courses which also pays a small weekly wage of around £8. Those who have no financial support from family or friends outside often have to survive on what is termed ‘bang up pay’ of £2.50 a week and either £1 or 50p of that gets deducted at source to pay for the rented in-cell TV (depending on whether it’s a single or double cell).

The age of austerity has left many prisoners unable to afford to buy credit for wing payphones – the preferred mode of keeping in touch with families and loved ones for many cons, particularly those who struggle with reading and writing. This, in turn, can place immense strain on relationships, particularly with partners and children. In between prison visits, contact with the outside world can depend on the ability to read and write letters.

Learning to write as an adult
However, it is also clear that this option isn’t open to many prisoners who face challenges with reading and writing. Some official estimates indicate that around 48 percent of inmates have literacy skills at or below Level 1 (what would normally be expected of an 11-year old child), with as many of 75 percent having some problems with writing, ranging from poor spelling right through to functional illiteracy. This isn’t really surprising given that around half of all adult prisoners were excluded from school during their childhood and this early alienation from the classroom can continue to have a long-lasting impact throughout adult life.

Outside prison, many people without basic literacy skills have come to rely on mobile phones to keep in touch. However, inside prisons these are contraband items and smuggling or possession can now incur severe penalties, including longer sentences. This coping mechanism can be transferred to using prison payphone, but only if money is available in the prisoner’s account to purchase credits in multiples of £1. No credit? No phone calls.

No cash on account? No phone call!
So how do prisoners with little or no cash manage to keep in touch with family and friends, other then by occasional visits? All prisoners are entitled to a free ‘weekly letter’ with an envelope and a sheet of writing paper provided. This is sent out by 2nd class post. In some establishments the number of free letters allowed is determined by the individual prisoner’s status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, with some jails awarding three per week to those cons on Enhanced – the highest level within the scheme.

This is fine for those prisoners who can read and write. However, those without these key skills can find themselves with the means to communicate at least weekly, but with no easy way in which to make use of the statutory provision of free letters. The default solution is to find another con willing to assist. However, for those who are already isolated in their cells or who are living with mental health problems or other conditions – such as partial sight – unpaid support can be in short supply.

In theory, at least, all new receptions to every prison are supposed to participate in induction, a process that can last from a couple of days to a week or more. During this phase, not only are they given information about the prison daily regime and advice on a wide range of issues, but they are also supposed to be tested on their literacy and numeracy skills in order to identify those who may be eligible for basic courses in the education department.

Education class
Having worked in several prison education departments as a peer mentor, I would identify flaws in this approach at various levels. Many prisoners living with functional literacy are deeply ashamed of what could be considered a lifelong disability. Outside they may have relied on family or close friends to help them with day-to-day tasks. Others have developed different coping mechanisms to conceal an inability to read or write. Men whose education has been severely disrupted when they were young boys can sometimes be very resourceful when it comes to evading a need to be literate.

This is a particular problem for members of the Travelling community whose numbers are rising inside UK prisons. Most Travellers I’ve met in jail struggle with reading and writing often because of disrupted education during their childhood.

Inside prison, however, they can be confronted with situations that require a degree of literacy or face exclusion. Very few prisoners are now considered for a prison job unless they have achieved at least Level 1 in literacy and numeracy. Older cons who have been in the system for some time can suddenly find themselves sacked from existing work assignments (or ‘not required for labour’, as it is termed in prison) simply because they lack the required education certificates. For those who struggle at Entry Level 1, this can be an uphill battle, even if the motivation to make progress is there.

An additional disincentive for remedial study is the fact that many prison governors are bound by imposed targets that lead them to force prisoners back into the classroom as a matter of policy. For some adults, a return to formal education in a class setting can be either deeply humiliating, genuinely frightening – or a combination of both. At times, this compulsion can create what we termed ‘refuseniks’ – prisoners who prefer to face disciplinary action and the prospect of punishment, rather than participate against their will in literacy and numeracy sessions.

Serving a double sentence?
An alternative tactic adopted by others is to attend the classes – in order to get marked as present and then receive their pay – and then either feign illness, or else become highly disruptive in the classroom in a bid to get sent back to their cells. Of course, this inevitably disrupts the learning environment and makes it much more difficult for others who want to embrace the opportunity to improve their skills to make progress.

This can also be frustrating and very demoralising for education department staff who have no control over the prison’s policy of compelling some inmates to attend education classes. I have seen several members of the teaching staff in tears, or even taking sick leave, as a direct consequence of the daily battleground in which they are forced to work.

I have often reflected that a much better, and probably more effective, approach would be to assign literate prisoners as peer mentors to work with individuals who have become ‘classroom-phobic’, often as a result of traumatic experiences during childhood or adolescence. Working in a one-to-one environment can mitigate the worst stresses of returning to the classroom and it can also reduce the perceived stigma of having to ‘go back to school’ – which is how many cons regard compulsory participation in education.

Toe by Toe uses peer mentors to support reading
Such strategies can also be more cost-effective in an era of budgetary constraints, but probably need to be much more intensive than the existing Toe by Toe voluntary adult literacy scheme, as this only offers a 20-minute session up to five times a week and depends on other prisoners volunteering. It also requires regular association time and this is being severely reduced across the prison estate.

At the same, it shouldn’t be overlooked that a great many prisoners do participate in literacy and numeracy classes because they recognise that improving their own skills does offer real benefits, both inside prison as a condition of finding paid work, and as an important element of their future prospects upon release. In these circumstances it can be very rewarding to work with fellow prisoners who are eager to learn.

Reading can be a pleasure in prison
Back on the wings it has been great to see prisoners who couldn’t read or write when they arrived for induction starting to put pen to paper for their family and friends. I’ve seen a man in his 60s triumph over a lifetime of illiteracy through his determination to use his free weekly letters to maintain contact with his wife and family. For him, the first five tentative lines on a sheet of prison paper proved to be a major breakthrough. Now he’s a regular correspondent and enjoys reading books. He attributes the fact that his wife is still supporting him throughout a long sentence as a direct result of being to maintain communication with her through letters.

However, it also has to be recognised that there are many other prisoners, across the whole age range, who remain cut off from their families, both by a lack of money to use the wing payphones and by their inability to communicate in writing. Unless they are lucky enough to find other prisoners willing to help them out by reading and writing letters for them, then they really can be serving what amounts to a double sentence – in silence and isolation.

30 comments:

  1. Great stuff - thanks. What is next - a blog about last night's Radio 4 programme and his repeated use of the word UNACCEPTABLE - could make an interesting read -

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04xp4x3

    I am too angry and lazy to write anything coherent but have strung together some of his remarks in the House of Commons yesterday.

    https://storify.com/Andrew_S_Hatton/what-the-andrew-selous-mp-probation-minister-said

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    1. Oh good grief the man talked a load of bloody rubbish didn't he? Talk about meaningless soundbites and platitudes.

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    2. Thanks for both your comments... what a train-crash that was! Incidentally, I'm due to be interviewed on tomorrow evening's (15 January) main C4 News about the current prison crisis. I'm going to tell it like it is!

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    3. Will it be another phone interview like Newsnight?

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  2. Prison education puzzled me considerably. Given the rising number of white collar criminals its ridiculous that prisons only offer levels 1 & 2 qualifications of any kind now they stopped funding for level 3 course.

    If someone arrives in prison for a long sentence functionally illiterate & learns to read & write they can only ever get to a level 2 standard of education. Granted there is the possibility of long distance learning through the open university if a) you can get funding & b) you get the required support from the prison BUT there's a huge gap between doing a level 2 qualification & doing a degree & students need to be able to study from that level 2 to a degree level if they want to do so. What happens to a well educated white collar criminal who may not be able to go back to their old profession & needs to retrain? They are hardly going to be able to get another job with just a level 2 qualification or even several of them. If they have a degree they won't be able to get funding to do another one. So they are effectively cut off from retraining.

    If prisons truly want to turn people's lives around & give people the ability to earn a decent living & go straight, prison education needs to be radically reformed. For a start make it the highest paying form of "work" in the prison so that it shows that HMPS values education & wants to encourage people to attend rather than the lowest as it so often is. If you have no money coming in from family or friends you have to go for the highest paid employment inside you can get just so you can manage. This generally rules out education.

    Furthermore, every prison I have been in has demonstrated a total lack of joined up thinking in terms of course offerings. So if you want to learn to be a graphic designer then you start with basic computer courses, work up to specialist programmes, do so self employment & book keeping courses etc so that when you leave you are in a reasonable position to be able to follow your chosen profession without having to go off to college to get qualifications that a) fill in the massive gaps in your knowledge & skills base due to the crap level of education in prisons & b) that would actually allow you to start working.

    I know a lot of the tutors I spoke to were as equally frustrated. They couldn't offer the courses they knew there was a need for because of these ridiculous prison education programmes (OLASS 3 & 4) which were stupidly prescriptive & which failed to actually meet needs or allow flexibility.

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    1. Apparently I wrote too much as it told me the post was too long so here's the next bit . . .

      I had several conversations with one of the computer tutors at Downview as I was one of the very few who had ever done any level 3 qualifications. The level 3 courses were the only courses in the entire time I was in prison that actually got you to use your brain rather than follow a really simplistic exercise book & so you actually learned something useful. We also discussed how easy it would be to set up an in house graphic design company that bid for jobs on the outside to design websites & print materials for local community organisations, charities, small businesses etc. The prisoners would get real world experience, learn to work with clients, learn to work to a brief, build up a portfolio, get references; the businesses would get high quality work done for a cheap price & the prison would make money. Win/win all round. It would cost very little to set up as the prison already had all the equipment, they'd just need a bit more software, the tutor would be able to manage it in the classroom. Security wouldn't be an issue as the tutor would be the only one with access to the internet to, for example, make a website for a client go live. The tutor thought it was a great idea as it was such a win/win idea for everyone. The Education Manager immediately said no. Not because it was a bad idea or financially unviable or would create lots of extra work etc but simply because he could say no so he did. This was a massively missed opportunity to develop a programme that would provide real skills, work experience etc & raise money for the prison. But this is prison education in a nutshell.

      Wasn't the first missed opportunity I saw whilst I was inside where real training & qualifications & experience could be gained putting someone in a real position to get a job or set up their own business when they got out. They could hit the ground running so to speak. Maybe though it was just the female estate which seems to think women are only capable of a) cooking or b) cleaning or c) putzing round a garden as there are literally no other real training opportunities available in the female estate & what there is available is limited to level 2 again in these narrow fields.

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    2. Thanks so much for your very relevant contribution and for sharing your own experiences of prison education. I fully agree with all your observations. In my view, education (including vocational courses like catering or cleaning technology) should be the first choice - and the best paid option in any prison. Instead it's always the poor relation and the first activity to get cancelled when there are staff shortages or general alarms (other than library visits which often get cancelled more regularly than they actually occur!).

      The sad fact is that the rapid decline in prison education under this government - despite education being seen as one of the 'pathways' to reducing reoffending in NOMS' own policy - is almost entirely due to massive budget cuts and changes to the way in which education contracts are awarded. When I first went into prison, there was a number of Level 3 courses available (I did one) and plenty of vocational qualifications on offer, especially in Cat-C training prisons and Cat-Ds. Many of these courses have now been scrapped by education providers working under the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) contracts.

      I was speaking recently to a friend on recall in a private sector Cat-B jail and he informs me that the entire education department at his prison has been reduced to literacy and numeracy, plus Levels 1 and 2 IT. Nothing vocational left whatsoever. It is short-sighted nonsense that actually undermines any pretence of supporting rehabilitation or sustainable resettlement.

      Moreover, any prisoner wanting to study above Level 2 now has to pay for any qualification themselves, or else find a grant from a charity or take out a student loan! Yet there is no guarantee that mid-course they won't be transferred to another jail and then not permitted to continue their studies. Hardly anyone I know would be willing to take those risks, let alone commit all the effort, time and money to starting a degree course.

      Like most of the rest of our prison system, education is in deep crisis. Morale among the decent and professional education staffers is low, while the present arrangements encourage lazy, useless time-servers who sit at the back of classrooms twiddling their thumbs, reading the paper or even - and I've seen it - picking the fluff out of their navels! Shocking.

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  3. I've been reading Frances Crook's latest blog post and it struck me that an awful lot of what you've said on this blog about the state of the prison system and what Frances Crook was saying about Feltham YOI are just different sides of the same coin in a lot of ways.

    We all know that there is a lot wrong with every aspect of the system. the Inspectorate knows what is wrong with the system. Everyone apart from Andrew Selous and Chris Grayling apparently recognise what is wrong with the system but what I'm not seeing is a lot of joined up thinking and solutions to solve the problems. Granted we need to identify the problems but then we need to move on and come up with the solutions.

    For example the inspectorate identify issues and problems but instead of coming up with solutions leave that to the very people who either caused the problem in the first place or are so indifferent to the issue that they have no interest in addressing and resolving the issue. This is not exactly going to sort things out.

    We need more than hand wringing and lots of people saying gosh isn't it awful. We need concrete solutions before things go from bad to worse. We need all the organisations and charities to get together - Howard League, Prison Reform Trust, Prisoners Education Trust and so on to get together and devise workable ways on a large and small scale. These organisations need to hire and work with ex prisoners to really identify the issues and ways to address them because I see little evidence that any of them do. Simply publishing reports which is what a lot of these organisations eeem to do really isn't going to change things.for the better.

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    1. Thanks for your very relevant contribution to the debate. I have had a similar discussion with HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, and I made the same points about the current system of reports that highlight the problems and shortfalls, but which are then largely ignored by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Mr Hardwick did make the good point that the Inspectorate inspects and recommends, but does not (and he maintains should not) make executive or operational decisions. That is properly a matter for the Ministry of Justice and NOMS.

      My own suggestion has been that the Inspectorate should - like HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and similar bodies - have the power to withhold certificates of efficiency from failing prisons. This would effectively force the MOJ and NOMS to place the establishment into 'special measures' - if necessary removing the governing governor and senior managers and parachuting in a special team equipped to turn things around as quickly as possible. In cases where senior management has been identified as the root cause of many problems, then expecting the same governors and senior managers to clear up their own mess isn't really viable or effective. I believe that this is one of the main reasons that so many Inspectorate reports include lists of previous recommendations that have simply been ignored or kicked into the long grass.

      Much as I value the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust, the value of what they do is to inform the general public about prisons, as well as campaigning for reform and improved performance (for example for rehabilitation, education and duty of care). This necessitates them being 'outside' the actual system, although I do fully agree that more ex-prisoners should be encouraged to work in this sector, both on campaigns and in mentoring roles for other prisoners who are leaving custody.

      In the end, penal policy is almost entirely political and it is at this level that decisions are being taken that have plunged the Prison Service into deep crisis. Staffing levels, overcrowding and slashed budgets have made our prisons much less safe - both for staff and inmates - as well as having effectively ended any real work towards rehabilitation which, in my own view, should be the main focus of any prison. This is because without rehabilitation and reform, the aim of reducing reoffending and protection the public cannot be met. Instead, prison simply becomes very expensive warehousing in which the duty of care for the vulnerable, elderly, young and those who live with mental illnesses is not being delivered.

      I have mentioned before on this blog that it would be instructive for a major penal reform organisation to actually take over an existing failing prison and turn it around on a not-for-profit basis. This would probably work best at a Cat-C establishment. The focus would be on achieving genuine reform and rehabilitation and the measurable outputs would be lower rates for reoffending and higher rates for sustainable resettlement back into the community.

      Would it work? I really don't know, although what I DO know is that the present system isn't delivering despite costing taxpayers (of whom I'm one) an annual average of around £40,000 per prison place. I believe that taxpayers want (and deserve) better value for money and they are certainly not getting it at the moment.

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  4. dunno if you've seen this: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/jan/14/the-us-prison-system-is-broken-so-why-is-the-uk-imitating-it-video i'm looking forward to his book, scary tho it seems content-wise.

    ~martina

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    1. Thanks for the link, Martina. Yep, I've seen the video and commented in the section underneath.

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  5. Hi, Alex

    Great blog post. Toe by Toe (Shannon Trust Reading Scheme) does fantastic work.And last year 9000 prisoners took the Six Book Challenge http://readingagency.org.uk/adults/quick-guides/six-book-challenge/

    Lots of great feedback from prisoners: 'It was the first time I've ever completed a book from start to finish. In the past I haven't been that motivated to finish. This gave me the motivation to finish 6 books and I've never read 6 books in my life.' prisoner at HMP Brixon. DO tell them exactly what is going on in prisons at the moment!!
    David

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    1. Hi David, thanks for your kind comment. I'm glad you are finding the blog interesting. I fully agree with your assessment of the Shannon Trust's voluntary adult literacy scheme. I was a Toe by Toe mentor in four prisons and coordinator in a fifth and it was great to see willing individuals making real progress. What a contrast to the compulsory literacy classes that were made a misery because of the way in which prisoners were forced to attend under threat of punishment.

      With the Six Book Challenge, I was so pleased to see some of the lads I'd mentored complete it and get their certificate. It was always interesting to read their own comments on the books they'd read. At the Cat-D, the excellent civilian librarian also organised a noticeboard in the library on which readers who had finished books borrowed from the library could pin up their written feedback for others to read. This was a great initiative and I came across a couple of new novels I'd probably not have read had I not seen the comments on the board!

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  6. Which books did you read?

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    1. Thanks for your question. I actually wrote a blog post about this back in July, not long after I launched the blog. You might find it of interest: http://prisonuk.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/books-to-read-in-prison.html

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    2. I was referring to the six book challenge.

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    3. Ah, I see! Sadly I wasn't participating.

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    4. Charles Salvador wrote a letter to Inside Time recently, what did you think of it?

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    5. I believe in Karma...i reckon the ranty letter played a small part in his failed wedding plans...

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  7. I pray tonight you get heard and some political awareness because otherwise no change will occur. And I've said it before u can't treat humans like animals cos strangeways will occur again. I read s battrams repeat comments but he is right. Y won't politicians Listen and do something positive. Vas. P's good luck tonight

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  8. Ive set my sky box record the 7pm c4 news....be good to put a face to the blog! This blog could go mental if u pull this off mate...imagine the traffic hits after 7pm..good luck!!!

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  9. I assume it didnt happen then!

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  10. I didn't see u on it Alex. What happened. Vas

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  11. Just a quick update... The C4 News feature on the prison crisis is now scheduled for broadcast on Monday at 7 pm.

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    1. And another quick update on the update... the C4 News feature on the prison crisis is now scheduled for broadcast on the 7 pm programme on Tuesday 20 January. Watch this space for any changes to that!

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    2. Just looking on 4od Didn't see debate listed tnite.

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    3. The producer has told me today that the prisons package will now go out on either Wednesday or Thursday this week on the C4 News at 7pm. If I have definite confirmation I'll Tweet it.

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  12. I'm sad to hear that prisons have stopped level courses. I had two very different experiences of prison education systems. In one, I was made to do level one literacy and numeracy, despite the initial test showing higher levels of skills. This went as far as taking official tests that were sent to outside agencies for marking, which would presumably cost money. At this establishment, prisoners who wanted to do IT had to do pottery as part of the package, and vice versa. The reasoning behind this is beyond me, it meant that I took up a place in a popular class, squashing clay into misshapen lumps that resisted my half hearted attempts to make something recognisable, while aspiring artists sat in front of Word and Excel, asking the same questions about functions or formatting and not caring about the answers. The other experience was entirely the opposite. Initial testing determined whether or not literacy and numeracy were part of the curriculum. There was a reasonable range of subjects including languages, bookkeeping and electronics, as well as a class where post level three IT students were allowed to explore areas of computing of their choice. There was arts and crafts, voluntary in this case, and most importantly for me, music, which I am now studying at university, having re-awakened my interest here. This isn't pampering prisoners, as the right wing press would have it. It's giving them a chance to find a new direction.

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  13. Thanks so much for going into more detail about releases. My partner and I just moved to the country and one of his family members is in one of the more open prisons. We were trying to figure out how it is going to work with him getting out and what that will be like. I appreciate you explaining it.

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR's Bail Bonds

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