Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Prison Regimes: Inside the Crisis

For those who have never lived or worked in a prison, the term ‘regime’ might conjure up thoughts of North Korea or some other tinpot dictatorship. However, in a British prison context it just refers to the daily timetable that regulates pretty much every action or activity for all inmates. 

Prison regimes: behind the razor wire
In UK establishments prison regimes generally come in three varieties: ‘normal’ regime, ‘restricted’ regime and emergency lockdown. The first is when things run according to the published timetable. Cell doors get unlocked at set times; prisoners can go outside for exercise as long as the weather isn’t ‘inclement’ (ie raining or snowing); cons can go to work or attend education classes morning and afternoon; social and legal visits take place as scheduled; medication is dispensed from healthcare and other weekly activities – such as library visits, gym sessions, kit change and religious services – are all run normally. This is the ideal situation. Things get done and most tensions can be managed.

However, as more and more of our prisons sink deeper into the artificially-created crisis caused by swingeing budget cuts that have left some establishments underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded due to a programme of prison closures and the imposition of longer sentences, ‘restricted’ regimes are becoming the new normal. What happens is that the daily timetable is amended to reflect the staffing resources available. 

Emergency lockdown, the most restrictive state, occurs after a suicide or serious disorder on the wing. Cells are only opened individually or in blocks of three or four. Other than meals and the issuing of medications at cell doors everything else is cancelled and cons stay locked behind their doors. 

Activities that are considered optional extras – particularly exercise, association on the wing (social free time), library visits and gym sessions – are usually the first to go whenever staff number are short. Of course, these items still remain on the official timetable, but are subject to enough members of staff being available to supervise them. In practice, cancellations are now so frequent in some nicks that serving prisoners tell me they have come to expect nothing will happen when library visits or gym sessions are scheduled. Cell doors will just remain locked.

Deserted prison wing during bang-up
In these situations, pretty much the only things that are set in stone are the two daily meals, dispensing of medications by healthcare and, usually, social visits from families. It would take a brave – or foolhardy – prison governor to mess around with these too much as the end results can prove to be explosive, not to mention very costly when entire wings have to be rebuilt after destructive mass uprisings.

Every experienced screw or governor is only too well aware that most violent riots in our recent prison history have been sparked off by grievances over food or cancelled visits – especially when this happens without notice at the last minute. I’ve never heard of a riot over the cancellation of education classes or library visits. The general policy seems to be to prioritise feeding the cons and getting them down to the visits hall if humanly possible.

However, regular cancellation of association on the wings can also gradually raise tensions, as can missing repeated gym sessions. Association is when cells are unlocked to allow prisoners to take showers, phone home and chat or play indoor games with their mates. These activities act like a valve on top of a pressure cooker. Screw things down too tightly and eventually even the most compliant and passive con may lose it. Serious trouble can result, particularly when wings are crammed with too many inmates for the reduced numbers of uniformed officers to manage safely. 

Just take a look at the list of grievances produced by the ‘High Down 11’ during a protest by prisoners over poor conditions at HMP High Down, a Cat-B establishment at Banstead in Surrey back in October 2013. Their complaints focused on claims of inadequate “food, exercise, showers or gym”. 

HMP High Down: no mutiny here!
When ordered to return to their cells for bang-up they refused before barricading themselves together into one cell. Charged with prison mutiny all eleven were acquitted by a jury at the end of their trial in November 2014. Having heard the evidence, including the governor’s admissions about the impact of the cuts on his ability to run a normal regime at the prison, the members of the jury clearly reached the conclusion that the men’s protests weren’t unreasonable in the circumstances (see my account of the case here). So much for Chris Grayling’s big idea of cracking down on prison protests.

More and more of our prisons are edging towards the brink of disorder owing to the tensions caused by long-term use of restricted regimes. Warnings over establishments that have inadequate staffing to operate safely have been appearing in recent reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In cell up to 23 hours a day
To give readers an insight into what a restricted regime really means in a closed prison, I asked one of my friends – who is currently serving a lengthy stretch in a short-staffed inner city Cat-B nick – to send me a hand-written copy of the current timetable operating in a prison that recently made it into the top five overcrowded prisons in England and Wales. It arrived in this morning’s post, so I’m sharing the details in order to provide a rare glimpse of what is going on, or not going on, within those walls. 

It is worth noting that recent figures from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) indicate that this particular jail has well over 300 more prisoners than its ‘normal certified accommodation’ figure and at the time the data was issued in December 2014 was just short of its absolute maximum capacity. Anything beyond that could be considered unsafe and potentially dangerous for members of staff and prisoners alike according to official guidelines.

So here is the current daily regime at this one establishment:

Monday – Thursday

08.00 – 08.30 Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or medication
08.30 Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
10.00 – 11.00 Showers and phone for non-workers
11.40 Return from labour or education
11.45 – 12.15 Lunch (usually controlled unlock – landing by landing)
12.15 Bang-up in cell
13.40 Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
16.40 Return from labour or education – evening medications
16.50 Evening meal
18.00 Locked up for the night (other than workers below)
18.30 – 19.05 Association for alternate landings for showers and phone (workers only)


08.00 – 08.30 Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or medication
08.30 – 11.40 Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
10.00 – 11.00 Showers and phone for non-workers (Muslim worship)
11.40 Return from labour or education  
11.45 – 12.15 Lunch (usually controlled unlock – landing by landing)
12.15 – 14.00 Bang-up in cell
14.00 – 15.00 Kit change (landings 1 & 3, otherwise bang-up in cell)
15.00 – 16.00 Kit change (landings 2 & 4, otherwise bang-up in cell)
16.40 – 18.15 Evening meal (controlled unlock by landing)
18.15 Locked up for the night
18.30 – 19.05 Wing cleaners unlocked to do evening duties
Saturday & Sunday

09.00 Morning medication issued
10.00 – 11.00 Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or chapel (Sundays)
11.00 Bang-up in cell
11.45 – 12.15 Hot lunch
12.15 – 14.00 Bang-up in cell
14.00 – 15.00 Association for landings 1 & 2 for showers, phone, gym
14.30 – 15.30 Library (1st and 3rd Saturday of each month)
15.00 – 16.00 Association for landings 3 & 4 for showers, phone, gym 
16.00 – 16.30 Bang-up in cell and and roll check
16.30 – 17.00 Evening meal (controlled unlock by landing)
17.00 Locked up for the night

However, my correspondent also notes the following: “We have four staff on constant watch at the moment which has meant no gym this week and controlled unlock for meals on Fridays – your cell is unlocked, you go and collect your food and are immediately locked up again. We lost all exercise on Friday and on Saturday it was just 20 minutes because of staff shortages. Recently evening association has been cancelled a fair few times meaning that you come back from work and can’t even take a shower or phone your family.”

Exercise: walking round the yard
The ‘constant watch’ he refers to above is basically 24 hour a day intensive monitoring of prisoners who are deemed to be at high risk of suicide or serious acts of self-harm. This means that at present, on one wing alone, there are three shifts of four uniformed officers supervising four prisoners. Each constant watch cell will have a uniformed officer sitting outside a barred door observing the inmate at every moment of every day and night.

Since the prison is so vastly overcrowded he informs me that there are very few work placements or spaces on education courses available. What there is tends to go to prisoners who are serving long sentences of several years or over, so most prisoners who are on remand or serving shorter stretches tend to spend all day locked in their cells except for 30 minutes of exercise – if it takes place – and collecting their meals. Prisoners can go for days without the opportunity to even take a quick shower or to join the long queue to phone their families.  

Quite clearly, based on this ‘restricted’ regime, this prison is providing little or nothing by way of rehabilitation. This is costly human warehousing at its lowest level and the taxpayer – me, and probably you – is paying an average of £40,000 a year per prisoner for this public service that is failing to reform or rehabilitate. I’m reliably informed that drugs are easily available across this establishment and that violence is a constant risk and concern for many inmates. 

I’m not sure about you, but I’m absolutely convinced that I’m not getting value for money here. Now, what are we going to do about it?


  1. Change is needed quick u treat people like animals then they act like animals

  2. I spoke today to a criminologist who is conducting a study for Holloway about helping to reduce reoffending. it is the third interview in the study: the first whilst still incarcerated, the second three months after release and the third one a year after release. Amongst other things we talked a lot about what a prison system that actually works should look like and it is so far removed from the regime described above it's not funny. The powers that be constantly wonder why reoffending rates are so high - it will never change unless there is a radical rethink of what prison is for. The staff shortages that have been inflicted on the system are ludicrous and do nothing to help save money in the long run or to deal with the reoffending rate because the end costs of locking people up 23 hours a day for months at a time will be far more extensive in the long run given that virtually everyone in prison will be released eventually.

    But as I've said before the system will never change until people who have actually been the service users are actually integrated into the policy making then we might finally get a penal system fit for purpose.

    1. Thanks for your contribution and for sharing your own experiences. Tackling reoffending is important, but it often seems to have become divorced from the core purpose of imprisonment. Since most prisons no longer seem to have the staff or other resources to address key issues such as rehabilitation, a prison sentence now seems to be much more about pointless warehousing of people and ignoring their many problems, rather than focusing on reform and encouraging prisoners to plan for their release. And you are quite right that this is fundamentally an issue of political policy failure.


    This is a start towards rehabilitating young offenders.

    1. I'm not too sure how I feel about this scheme. Of course it's good to reward good behaviour so in that sense it's a great idea.

      I was very well behaved at their ages but would love to have the opportunity to have a bit of free karting. Maybe a bit of bad behaviour would have got me that.

      I was lucky to have good parents - strict, but not too strict - to point me in the right direction. I didn't need a police led initiative to lead me in the right direction. Maybe parenting courses would be a better use of Police resources.

    2. Thanks for both the link above and the comments. My view is that most interventions come too little and too late to steer younger offenders away from criminal activity. In some cases there is a definite lack of positive parenting (and often a lack of responsible parents in their lives), but the problem also embraces how schools, social services and the youth justice system address these issues. Without adequate resources, it will be very difficult to improve the current situation, although one positive aspect is that the number of young people in custody seems to be continuing to fall.

  4. "what are we going to do about it?" May 7th should hopefully make a change. I don't want to get party political about who should replace the imbeciles running our criminal justice system but surely a good shake up is so much better then what we have now - whatever political colour they are.

    In general our public services do on the whole meet our needs - we pay our taxes, kids get educated, bins get collected, our health is looked after etc. maybe not a perfect world but not too bad. Compare that to our 'justice' system things look much worse. In no way do I advocate that prisons should be luxury holiday camps, they shouldn't be squalid hovels either. Anybody who has any first hand experience as either staff or residents would know the real state of our prison estate - a disgrace. Not only the physical conditions, also the emotional torture imposed on inmates and the total lack of rehabilitation.

    It's absolutely ridiculous in this day and age that a government incarceration scheme of (a significantly mentally ill) inmates is doing absolutely nothing to protect the general public from further offences. Rehabilitation and healthcare is the key to preventing further offences. Putting a convicted criminal with serious issues in a cell for 23 hours a day at a massive cost to the public purse is not helping society.

    Whitehall penny pinchers need to see how their own government has brought criminal justice to it's knees. Get rid of the chaps at the top, acknowledge a there is a real crisis and start to fix the mess.

    1. Thanks for your comments. While we may see some change in terms of political parties in government, I'm not at all convinced that this will translate into a root and branch reappraisal of criminal justice system policies - or additional resources where they are needed. It's worth remembering that many of the negative policies concerning the Prison Service and the massive increase in the use of custodial penalties for non-violent civil matters (ie ASBO and their ilk) were New Labour's big ideas that failed, but were embraced enthusiastically and extended further by the Coalition.

      Also, it was David Blunkett as Home Secretary who launched the catastrophic Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) - abandoned in 2012, yet still clogging up our prisons with inmates who are often many years over their minimum tariffs. That has proved to be the root cause of much of the "mental torture" that has been suffered by a sizeable number of cons since 2005. And also Labour who initiated the programme of prison closures that has left many of the remaining jails dangerously overcrowded.

      I agree, of course, that Mr Grayling and his tub-thumpers in the Daily Mail have made a bad situation much worse, but it would still be unfair to blame the Coalition entirely for the current crisis. No political party that has been in government in the last 35 years has really challenged the national obsession with imprisonment even when the system continues to fail to deliver against its own stated objectives.

  5. Grayling's lost another judicial review as noted in this quote from a Guardian article:

    "Mr Grayling’s period of office has been notable only for his attempts to restrict judicial review and human rights; his failure to protect the judiciary against criticism from his colleagues; and the reduction in legal aid to a bare minimum provision. Yesterday, Mr Grayling lost yet another judicial review claim, this one overturning the regulations which authorise legal aid for judicial review cases only after permission has been granted to bring the proceedings.

    Now for his finale before the general election Mr Grayling is undermining basic access to justice in the courts, by seeking to make money from small businesses which simply want to enforce their contractual rights and from victims of personal injury seeking to obtain compensation from the wrongdoers. That is not a legal heritage of which anyone could be proud.

    If you wrap yourself in Magna Carta, as Mr Grayling sought to do last week at the Global Law Summit, you are inevitably and rightly going to invite scorn and ridicule if you then throw cold water over an important part of our legal heritage."

    Says it all really

    1. Thanks for sharing this link to the article. Of course, all very true. It is rank hypocrisy to proclaim public allegiance to the rule of law and access to justice while undermining the first through unlawful decisions, while seeking to restrict the second to only those who have the resources to pay astronomical legal costs for professional representation. Yet here we are.