Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Our Prisons: Dirty, Dispiriting and Dehumanising

Anyone who has ever been inside a UK prison – at least on the actual wings and landings where prisoners live – will be familiar with the raw, rank smell of captive humanity. You can’t cover it up by sloshing heavily diluted disinfectant over the lino floors or giving the railings yet another coat of green paint. The stench is always there and newly released prisoners often speak about “washing off the stink of prison” as soon as they possibly can.

Looking for new ideas?
Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Justice, seems to have finally acknowledged the urgent need for change in our prison system, although whether that will turn out to be merely a calculated pretext for more privatisation of penal institutions and outsourcing of services remains to be seen. However, he could do worse than make some unannounced visits to the worst of our failing establishments: Pentonville, Winchester, Holme House and Lincoln for a start. 

Once he has walked through the wings and smelt the stink emanating from a couple of these choice nicks, he might be motivated to starting sorting out the very real problems that have been inherited from his unlamented predecessor ‘Calamity’ Chris Grayling. I’m more than happy to provide him with some practical pointers.

Back in September 2013 all new male prisoners (including those previously held on remand and subsequently convicted) have been put into prison uniform – although in reality there is little ‘uniform’ about some of the filthy, tatty rags provided to new cons as they pass through reception and thereby cease to be human beings. This is the state of existence now known as ‘Entry Level’ within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. It is supposed to last for a minimum of two weeks, but can be much longer.

Prison 'uniform'
Perhaps it is intended to be part of the psychological ‘shock and awe’ of capture, although I suspect that the stripping of male prisoners and redressing them in ill-fitting, stained jogging bottoms and tops, t-shirts and underwear is more to do with chronic shortages of just about everything in the average prison stores. When Mr Grayling’s ill-thought out plans to ‘get tough’ on male prisoners (female inmates are exempt from compulsory wearing of prison kit) was launched, it seemed that no-one actually bothered to check whether thousands of men could be clothed by the Cat-B reception prisons or if prison governors had sufficient budget to procure stocks. By and large they didn’t – and still don’t.

At the same time, Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 also delivered a double-whammy since prisoners could no longer ask families or friends to send in new underwear or other clothing. Some prisons do allow for a single ‘reception parcel’ of basic clothing for issue as soon as the prisoner has completed his time on Entry Level and been promoted to Standard (although a fair number of prisons still won’t allow the use of civilian clothing until inmates have reached Enhanced, the top tier of privileges).

The alternative is to purchase civilian clothes – that make a prisoner feel half-human – from one of the approved catalogues available from the wing office. Some of these offer such gems as designer t-shirts (£25+) and trainers (staring at around  £40). Absolutely ideal for inmates who earn – if they are lucky enough to find a prison job or education course – around  £8-12 per week. Most of the cons purchasing such luxuries have private cash being sent in to their prison account weekly or monthly by their families, whereas the vast majority are stuck with whatever the prison happens to have in the stores or, more likely, doesn’t have. 

Victorian-era prison cell: built for one, houses two
I recently received a letter from a friend of mine who is serving a long stretch in a notorious Victorian-era inner city Cat-B jail while he waits for his appeal against conviction to be heard – something that could take a couple more years at this rate since he’s had trouble finding a decent solicitor willing to take his case for the peanuts Legal Aid pays these days. He tries to stay upbeat, although I can sense the rising desperation in his letters.

This particular prison – which regularly gets shockingly critical reports whenever HM Inspectorate of Prisons visits – seems to be plumbing the depths at various levels. However, it’s only when you get this sort of inside information from someone you know and trust that you start to understand just how grim and grubby everyday life can be inside our prisons these days. It has definitely got worse over the last two years.

I’ll share some of the highlights of his daily existence at the moment. For the past year, the maximum number of prison boxer shorts and socks that can be exchanged at his prison each week is three pairs (occasionally two). Three years ago we used to be issued five or six pairs per week.

Now add the usual stains...
Now these intimate garments are almost always well stained and soiled, despite having supposedly been laundered before being exchanged on a Friday afternoon. Size is potluck. At least oversize boxers can be secured with a piece of shoelace or a knot… smaller sizes can be – understandably – agony to wear for bigger men. 

This means that at least one pair of underwear must be worn for three days (or handwashed in the cell sink and left to dry over the heating pipe, assuming that is still working). Drying clothing in the cell is officially against the rules, but most screws seem to turn a blind eye. However, that is why the atmosphere is often so humid and unhealthy.

According to his letter, he’s only been issued with one laundered towel a week (it used to be two or three). These aren’t large, of course… about the same size as a standard hand towel in your bathroom at home.

Prison gym kit (compulsory wear in this particular prison’s gymnasium) now doesn’t get changed for five weeks. Since some cons also sleep in these light blue vests or wear them as underwear when it gets cold, the stench of stale sweat is easy to imagine.

Same dirty sheets for weeks
When it comes to cell bedding the situation is much worse. Sometimes sheets can’t be changed for weeks – he writes that the worst so far has been three months with no changes. 

A surprising number of adult prisoners, especially those who are taking heavy medication, including those who are given a daily ‘chemical cosh’ because they are living with mental illnesses, wet their beds regularly due to deep sleep or nightmares. Again, just imagine the smell of ammonia wafting across the landings each morning. My correspondent hasn’t even managed to change his single pillowcase for the past four months since the stores are constantly out of stock.

It doesn’t get much better when it comes to obtaining cleaning supplies and basic toiletries. It’s now impossible to get any kind of sanitising tablets for the in-cell toilets, so these breed germs and stinks, especially when two or three adult men share a Victorian cell originally designed for one. It’s a similar story when it comes to getting cleaning cloths or scouring pads. 

A real prison toilet
It’s probably only a matter of time before one or more of our overcrowded prisons is hit by an epidemic of dysentery or worse, especially in the hot summer weather. Of course, the knockout blow is that there are times when no toilet paper is available to be issued.

Prisoner communications are also being hit by shortages, particularly for the poorest inmates who rely on the free weekly sheet of lined paper and an envelope. According to the Prison Rules these are supposed to be issued weekly, however my friend informs me that they recently went for over a month with none available. 

For inmates who have no external financial support from family of friends and no work, these free 2nd class letters are a lifeline to enable them to maintain ties with the outside world. Prior to September 2013 most prisons permitted prisoners to receive either writing materials and stamps from family or friends, or at least stamped addressed envelopes. Of course, Mr Grayling put a stop to that even though it is widely recognised that family support does play a vital role in resettlement and reducing reoffending after release.

So is all this deprivation really necessary? Unless you are a sad, sadistic punishment freak of the sort that gets a grubby thrill out of the gratuitous suffering of others, then the short answer is no. 

In the past the Prison Service saved taxpayers’ money by permitting many essential items – such as underwear and writing materials – to be posted in to prisoners by family members or friends. Many prisons also permitted occasional parcels of clothing and towels as long as maximum limits on most items were respected. This meant that many inmates actually consumed less of the available budget. In effect, prisoners and their families were subsidising the overall cost of their imprisonment.

Moreover, it was also recognised that allowing well-behaved inmates to wear their own clothing had a genuinely positive impact on key issues such as self-esteem. In the more progressive regimes, prison uniform was pretty much restricted to those inmates undergoing punishment or on the Basic regime because of a pattern of poor behaviour. Since Mr Grayling’s ‘reforms’ as one prisoner remarked to me recently: “We are all now on Basic”. Hardly a positive mindset conducive to reform.

'Calamity Chris'
So what can be done to sort out the mess left by ‘Calamity’ Chris? Scrapping the revised IEP system would be a good start. Prior to 2013 it had been tried and tested for years before Mr Grayling and his ideologically-motivated minions caused havoc with it – to the horror of many prison governors and experienced officers. The former system essentially rewarded good behaviour while penalising misconduct, while the current one just seems to be dedicated to punishing everyone just for the sake of it.

The former IEP scheme also gave individual prison governors a reasonable degree of local autonomy over what they permitted in the prisons under their charge. This was effectively removed when PSI 30/2013 was implemented.

Mr Gove has already shown that he is willing to be more flexible and pragmatic than his benighted predecessor by ditching the incomprehensible restrictions on prisoners’  access to books sent in by friends and family. It would be an even better start to his period in office if he has the courage to scrap PSI 30/2013 completely and turn the clock back. By abolishing the pointless and demeaning Entry level and by getting as many male prisoners as possible back into their own clothing, shoes and bedding Mr Gove would be able to reduce unnecessary expenditure on procuring items that play no real part in rehabilitation. 

Newly arrived prisoners are often particularly vulnerable, especially if in custody for the first time. Stripping them (literally) of their clothing and identity before forcing them into what are often dirty, worn and ill-fitting garments really isn’t a good start, especially at time when too many are feeling suicidal or tempted to self-harm.

While Mr Gove is at it, he might also review the Enhanced level of the IEP scheme to make it really worth gaining – and keeping. Having already raised the idea of ‘earned early release’ he might consider adding some real incentives to the IEP system so that in the future it could offer an effective means of rewarding prisoners’ hard work, educational attainment and volunteering activities. Now that really would be a radical reform.


  1. Working in a Cat B in London I have to say that fortunately where I am we don't have the issue with the laundry; kit change being once a week and there is very rarely an issue with amounts of available kit (apart from jeans which should be worn during visits as there seems to be only massive 46" or tiny 22" sizes frequently available) be it clothing or bedding.

    With regards to the Entry level, personally I'm in 2 minds about this as I do agree about it being a difficult time for people BUT it is also part of the "you're in prison now, you will have to follow instructions here that you don't particularly agree with or like as you have lost some of the privileges of free will" mentality that induction includes.

    Obviously as a former inmate (and receiving communications from other inmates) you look at things from a certain perspective whilst staff look at it from another. I can't tell you the number of times I've had prisoners complaining about the food (I regularly taste it and it's on par with many frozen meals or better that people on the 'out' pay for), run out of toilet roll (had plenty of time to get some, simply forgot due to their packed schedule), the amount of time it takes their medications to get sorted (between the prison and their surgery on the 'out', run out of 'burn' because they can't budget correctly, etc, etc....

    The fact of the matter is that most (not all) prisoners are in prison (on remand or convicted) because of their actions, both past and recent. It is very few people (for relatively minor crimes) who go straight to prison, they will usually have a string of fines, suspended or community sentences before a judge locks them up and then after that they tend to get locked up repeatedly.

    As such, complaining about food, clothing not to your choice, forgetting to collect more toilet paper, running out of burn, no exercise because of rain, etc etc makes me wonder if it's so damn horrible then why do so many of them keep coming back?

    I know you'll say many don't have a choice but the vast majority do have a choice, they could work in retail or the food industry with little requirements for education but they choose stealing, drug dealing or mugging (for example) and even if they're doing it to support a drug habit they made the choice originally to do drugs.

    "Personal responsibility" is a concept that sadly most prisoners don't understand or choose to ignore.

    1. the vast majority do have a choice, they could work in retail or the food industry with little requirements for education.

      I disagree. It's extremely hard to get any job with a criminal record which is a big factor in repeat offenders. Most jobs now, even retail and cleaning, want experience and qualifications. Even McD's won't take ex cons when they've a long line of prospective employees for every job.

    2. Thanks for your comments and observations. It's always good to have input from staff as it adds a different perspective.

      In my own experience every prison is different. Some have stores that are well managed, others seem to be much more chaotic and badly run. I remember one particular open prison that was perpetually short on almost everything - from net laundry bags to boxer shorts and mop heads. The real reason was that the store manager genuinely had no idea how to operate the computerised internal ordering system because she didn't know that you first had to log stock out in order to place new orders. Once a helpful con who was in for fraud explained the basics, she was able to do the job and our stores suddenly started to have new towels and other essentials to hand out!

      Where I do disagree with you is over the issue of Entry level and its impact. This was introduced by Mr Grayling and his sidekicks solely for the purposes of short-term political posturing. It earned him a brief plaudit from the Daily Mail and then everyone moved on, regardless of the actual legacy in our prisons - including the totally unnecessary cost for the taxpayer.

      Moreover, if this works in stamping the prison's authority on new arrivals, why not go the whole hog and replicate the old, punitive measures that used to be the practice in some US prisons? Shaving heads in reception, hosing down with freezing water, delousing and then marching prisoners on to the wing stark naked etc.

      There is no real evidence that dehumanising and humiliating people has ever achieved any positive penological result. It simply provides a twisted thrill for the sad punishment freaks who read the Daily Mail and revel in the misfortunes of others. The same sort of 'law abiding' folk who would doubtless cry their eyes out for days if they ended up inside for causing death by dangerous driving or getting into a mess with their VAT returns!

      I do, however, agree with you about issues of personal choice. The key objective should be to identify why some people offend (or reoffend) and then support those who are willing to try to change. Otherwise, all that is really achieved is very expensive human warehousing. At the moment it seems that one size fits alls - partly, at least, as a consequence of staff shortages and lack of resources.

  2. I read to half way through it is so depressing.

    I do not know what more compassionate folk can do - there is no point in even writing to my MP she is a member of the Government who believes in capital punishment even acknowledging some innocent people would be killed by the state as a consequence.

    But she is the one the folk where I live want to represent them.

    Ultimately, what happens in prisons is determined by the person appointed to oversee them by the Prime Minister. He or she is answerable only to Members of Parliament - Commons and Lords. The last one who tried to introduce slight improvements was sacked as the next general election came in sight - I anticipate the same will happen with Gove.

    I am sorry for this counsel of despair

    1. Thanks for your comments, Andrew. I agree that the current situation is grim and pretty depressing. Fortunately, neither you nor I are in prison, so we can merely document and publicise what is really going on behind high walls and locked gates.

      It never fails to amaze me how many politicians (or ex-politicians) have a Damascus Road conversion to the cause of prison reform after they have had a taste for themselves... Lord Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Denis MacShane and others. Sadly, by the time the reality has hit them between the eyes they are out of power and basically busted flushes within the political sphere.

    2. Hi Alex, I have been passed your details by the very helpful gentleman below. My brother has been in prison for 6mths and has still not had his sentence plan complete, he has been informed by probation inside the prison that their is a back log and will be done in due course?? This is having a detrimental affect on his health & wellbeing aswell as his rehabilitation. He is a cat C inmate within a cat B prison and has a job as a PID - a prison information officer. He asked his wing manger about his sentence plan and received an app from his po confirming there is a back log and will be done in due course. However, other new inmates have had their plans complete. I have spoken to his outside probation officer who says there is nothing she can do as she does not have a say with what goes on inside prisons. I have also heard that if he complains, then life could be made difficult for him! I am thinking of writing to the local mp.

      Is there anything you can help or suggest, it would be very much appreciated.

    3. Six months and a sentence plan not completed? This is nothing new. When I was at Downview OMU was at least 18 months behind on producing sentence plans when the inspectorate came calling and were roundly criticised for these failings. Downview was then shut as a female prison just a few weeks later by Grayling so the backlog never did get done. But this is what happens when you put a drunk in charge of the OMU and hire OS's who spend more time trying to blackmail IPP's coming up for parole to pay them large sums of money for favourable recommendations than they do actually doing their jobs! Unfortunately OMU's will be as short staffed as any other dept in the prison as they usually use regular officers who get pulled out of OMU to do wing duty or hospital escorts etc.. Your brother's progress should not be held up by the lack of a sentence plan. Hell I know so many people who went through an entire sentence without one and it didn't have any effect on them whilst inside. I didn't get mine done until prison no 3 which was almost two years into the sentence and that was before the staff shortages. People on shorter sentences could get theirs done before your brother simply because they are leaving prison earlier than he is and legally one has to be done before release (I forget the relevant PSI number). Or it could just be that OMU staff simply put new cases on top of the in basket and instead of taking cases from the bottom they simply take what's on top (apparently the DWP also works in this way). He really shouldn't stress about it. If he's worried about OB courses he should be able to sign up to what is available at his prison even if he doesn't have a sentence plan - it shows willing to address offending which they like and gets stuff that will probably end up on his sentence plan over and done with. You can usually figure out which OB courses you will be expected to do by talking to your personal officer, using your noddle and talking to other prisoners in for similar things.

    4. Hi, thank you for your reply

    5. My brother has been inside 6 months and not got his sentence plan. However, his personal officer lets him know which courses are recommended for him and he gets on and does them. Some are pointless and very basic but he just keeps his head down, never complains and gets on with it. He shows willing to attend courses and uses common sense. This all helps his prison portfolio. This also keeps his moral up and he is always looking for ways to move forward and achieve something, no matter if it seems a waste of time.

    6. Thanks to everyone for the posts above. Sorry about the delay in my responding. For what it is worth, here are my thoughts.

      I'm not at all surprised over the delay. This really isn't anything out of the ordinary. If there are staff shortages in the prison's offender management unit (OMU) - and I'd be amazed if there't aren't - then it would have been much more of a surprise if the sentence planning exercise had been done during the first six months!

      Sentence planning for a majority of prisoners (mainly those serving short determinate sentences of under four years) is pretty pointless, particularly since it can take the best part of a year to get one agreed, especially now external probation staff rarely visit prisons anymore because of costs and workloads. In many cases the basic plan tends to be along the lines of "remain Enhanced, continue working or education and be of good behaviour".

      If there is a need to complete any offending behaviour courses, then at least a sentence plan should identify these and this can have an impact on progression, particularly to open conditions (since most Cat-Ds don't offer much in the way of courses these days). If your brother is already a C-cat, then I imagine he'll be transferred to that category of prison as and when vacancies become available. Cat-Cs will take prisoners without a sentence plan, it's only Cat-Ds that generally refuse to accept them in these circumstances. I've known inmates without a sentence plan being turned away from reception at open conditions and sent back to closed prisons until the plan has been prepared.

      Generally, I do agree with the last post. Compliance does tend to be 'rewarded', so taking any courses that are available as they come up can rarely be a bad thing. Working or doing an education course is also highly recommended, as this can strengthen the case for recategorisation to D-cat in due course.

  3. I have just referenced this Blog elsewhere - I hope the woman posts here and possibly can be directed to the various ways forward - my ideas maybe out of date: -

    1. Thanks for that, Andrew. Much appreciated. Alex

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. My partner was inside up till sept last year and he had 8 pairs of boxers and socks issued which was then washed one a week on the wing with his other clothes, only shirts and jeans and bedding were exchanged one for one

    1. Thanks for your contribution. Each prison tends to be different and some are much better than others! He's obviously at an establishment with a better-run stores. I was never issued with more than five sets of prison underwear (although I did my best never to use those, preferring my own kit!) Most of the prisons I've been in strictly prohibited the washing of prison-issue on the wings. If such items were found in the net washing bags with personal clothing, they were supposed to be confiscated.

  6. "Family Visitation Providers" Providing private and group transportation services to incarcerated love ones throughout the state of Florida. We are diligently working to bring you more routes and the best rates to help you stay connected to your incarcerated loved ones. We need your help! Please help us by spreading the word to other families! All prison trips requested will be added to our monthly schedule. Any questions or concerns please email
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  7. Very useful information from first hands.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm pleased to read that you found the blog helpful.

  8. No,thank you for defending disadvantaged people.It doesn't matter that in this case you are defending prisoners what matters is that they are people whose basic human rights are being abused by authorities.In a society where the Royal family has the birth right to the crown you all aren't equal by definition and nobody is going to defend your basic human rights.As you know the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

  9. "Family Visitation Providers" Providing private and group transportation services to incarcerated love ones throughout the state of Florida. We are diligently working to bring you more routes and the best rates to help you stay connected to your incarcerated loved ones. We need your help! Please help us by spreading the word to other families! All prison trips requested will be added to our monthly schedule. Any questions or concerns please email
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  10. Hi response to Alex Cavendish reply 24th August 15:42, my brother does work in the prison and one has one of the most trustworty and responsible jobs on there and has had to clear security to so, he works in reception, had done samaritans course along with other courses is on call to other inmates going through a hard time, goes to meetings, there isnt much more he can do apart from run the place. His offending supervisor is just a bully and he has been told that by 'involving his family'hasnt helped the situation! We are just concerned for him, he has now been told he needs to do a course ETS but it is not run where he is. he has had not formal review, no documented evidence given to him, its a joke! Any helpful advice would be appreciated