Monday, 20 October 2014

Chris Grayling: Cooking Up a Prison Crisis

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I refer in many posts to the ongoing crisis in our prisons. In my view this is attributable to three key factors: substantial budget reductions, serious overcrowding in many establishments and shortages of frontline staff. This sad state of affairs is, of course, denied by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). They prefer to use the weasel word ‘challenging’ and pretend that all is well in our nicks. 

Now add a dash of moral panic
Whichever way you choose to look at the problem, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny the facts. We have too many people in prison (many of them non-violent offenders or unconvicted people held on remand) and too few staff to manage them. This dangerous combination of factors is creating a highly toxic mix.

I must admit that I rather like my cooking metaphor, so let’s examine how you set about creating a prison crisis using Chris Grayling’s experimental recipe for disaster. Forget Gordon Ramsay’s cooking Behind Bars, this is more a case of Heston Blumenthal’s worst – and potentially most explosive – nightmares, combining various volatile and dangerous elements.  

HMP Shepton Mallet: closed 2013
The first ingredient has to be to have more prisoners than the existing system can reasonably cope with. This can be achieved in various ways, but closing a significant number of public-sector prisons without making any provision for a rising prison population is always a good start. Shutting down a prison is much easier than opening a new one, so once they’re gone, they’re usually gone forever. 

You can also create loads of new populist, knee-jerk criminal offences that carry custodial sentences, but don’t forget to make sure that Legal Aid is almost impossible for many defendants to get. These measures can be relied on to raise the prison population to historically high levels and will significantly aid the overcrowding you need to ensure the success of your prison crisis.

HMP Ford on fire in 2012
Next, make sure that your main ingredients are well stirred-up and highly volatile before you really get going. Raise the temperature by cramming two, three or even four prisoners – often very temperamental or disturbed individuals – into a tiny cell space designed by our Victorian ancestors for just one convict. Then bang up the cell doors for 23 hours per day, cancel activities, work and education because of chronic staff shortages and allow the mixture of resentment and misery to simmer until serious violence or an epidemic of self-harm bubbles to the top. (Warning: there could be explosions of anger and people could be injured or even killed).

If you can also reduce the availability of any form of mental healthcare or treatment for addictions to negligible levels, then this should also help in destabilising a large number of individual cons. Even if they aren’t driven to self-harm or suicide, then they could turn violent against others, including prison staff, thus raising the temperature even further.

The next key ingredient in making your prison crisis is to slash operational budgets and encourage large numbers of experienced staff to take early retirement or redundancy. This may reduce expenditure in one budget line, but don’t forget that provision will need to be made for bussing staff in from other regions and putting them up in hotels at a cost of £500 per week. Mrs Beaton would certainly not have approved this profligate waste of public money, but she’s not the Secretary of State for Justice, is she?

Prison wing after a major riot
Just as reducing is an important part of cooking, if you want to achieve a real prison crisis then reducing your frontline staff is always a vital ingredient in the mix. Personnel cuts have left prisons in England and Wales dangerously under-staffed. According to the latest report prepared by the Howard League for Penal Reform, using the MOJ’s own figures, the number of prison officers at public-sector prisons has been cut by 41 percent in under four years (see here). 

These statistics reveal that there were just 14,170 officer grades at the end of June 2014, compared to more than 24,000 at the end of August 2010. According to the report, a total of 1,375 frontline staff posts went as a result of the closure of 15 public-sector prisons. However, if you are going to make a real humdinger of a prison crisis that will by talked about for years, then these are the sort of reductions that will be essential. Remember, crushing staff morale is absolutely essential in your prison crisis recipe. 

Prisoners on roof during a riot
When you have your overcrowded, highly volatile cons on one side and your demoralised, understaffed screws on the other, the next phase is to mix the two together and stir vigorously. A great way to get cons to kick off is to introduce a revised and politically-motivated Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system that even most prison governors reckon is unfair and undermines respect. Confiscating a con’s personal possessions that they have saved up for over many months or even years is a really great way to ratchet up the tensions.

It always helps if you throw in a good measure of drugs (legal and illegal), improvised weapons and mobile phones. Also, there’s nothing like a generous dash of potent prison-brewed hooch to get a really good riot (sorry, ‘localised disturbance’) going a treat.

Screw the lid down and wait
Not all of your cons will initially want to get mixed into a prison riot, but you should ensure that even those who aren’t normally badly behaved are softened up by some long periods of bang-up in their cells, added to regular cancelling of activities, exercise, work, library visits and education. For a really big bang, an inventive chef can always cancel prisoners’ family visits without notice on the actual day, leaving their loved ones angry and disappointed. That rarely fails to set off an impressive chain-reaction of anger, resentment and hatred.

Once the vast majority of the cons in the toxic mixture are completely disaffected and rebellious, then you know that you will be well on the way to achieving your prison crisis. Screw down the lid on your pressure cooker environment and sit back until the inevitable explosion occurs and blood has been shed. Then be sure to look astounded, deny that anyone ever warned you, blame everyone but yourself and, above all, make sure that you leave someone else to clean up the mess. 


  1. There seems once again to be a particular 'slant' in this post.

    Let me add a few ingredients that alter your recipe:

    1) "Shutting down a prison is much easier than opening a new one, so once they’re gone, they’re usually gone forever" - in my local area a prison called Downview which was a female prison was closed last year and it's recently been announced that it's being retasked as a male prison (Cat C), is this the only one or are there others?

    2) "According to the latest report prepared by the Howard League for Penal Reform, using the MOJ’s own figures, the number of prison officers at public-sector prisons has been cut by 41 percent in under four years" - I don't know where they got their figures because the Thirteenth Report on England and Wales (2014) by the Prison Service Pay Review Body, whilst agreeing roughly with the 24,000 number given (officer grades 3-5) for 2010 shows 22,374 by the end of 2013 and I doubt very much that over 8,000 officers had left the service in the first 6 months of 2014.

    3) NOMS has for the past 3-4 months been running a massive recruitment drive as seen in local papers, national papers and the NOMS website. Obviously someone somewhere has decided that to deal with the rising prison population more officers are needed.

    4) "blame everyone but yourself " - Let's be honest, the vast majority of people are in prison because of their own poor choices and are only too ready to "blame everyone but themselves" for their situation. I know there's often mitigating circumstances/reasons (poor childhood, abuse, lack of education, etc) but many people have similar circumstances and rise above them, they become something more despite the obstacles, rather than taking another path and blaming the obstacles.

    I know that's going to sound a bit (or very) self-righteous but my point is that everybody, from the Minister down to the Prison Officer is doing the best they can to deal with situations with the tools allowed (be it budgets or rules to be followed) and complaining about some things (or predicting trouble) doesn't solve anything; come up with a better way, don't just criticise the system.

    1. Thanks for your contribution. As you probably know, I always appreciate an alternative view a debate!

      The vast majority of the closed establishments aren't being retasked, unlike The Verne on Portland (immigration centre) or Downview. The aim seems to be to sell most of them off. I know that there is some debate over the future of Wellingborough - which is mothballed, rather than earmarked for disposal - but I think the majority of the recent closures will not be reopening as prisons.

      On the issue of staff numbers, the Howard League has - apparently, since I didn't play any role in writing the report - sourced its figures from the MOJ. I can't vouch for the accuracy, but I do draw attention to their report which seems to be pretty detailed. Interestingly, I've heard the 40 percent figure before from inside the service. Let's see whether the MOJ responds with a correction if the HLPR figures have been misinterpreted.

      On the issue of recruitment, I think it's fair to say that any major public (or private) body that reduced staffing to the point that 'urgent' recruitment is required has been guilty of mismanagement somewhere along the line. The problem of staff shortages was evident back in 2012 and 2013 and the prison population has been rising steadily over that period. It seems that NOMS has now been panicked into trying to plug gaps, following a policy of internal temporary deployments of existing staff, often at a substantial cost.

      Moreover, having encouraged so many experienced prison staff to take redundancy or early retirement, the MoJ spent £50 million on redundancy payments at an average cost of £35,000 per officer. In July the service began re-recruiting over 2,000 these former prison staff on new contracts. That is not a good or defensible use of taxpayers' money by any measure.

      The overarching problem with our criminal justice system - not only the prisons sector - is that it has been so politicised for many years that decisions are taken at a political level with little or no planning or evidence-based consideration of the consequences. This was entirely the situation with the revised IEP system which was introduced in the face of strong internal opposition from prison governors. The only reason for this revision was to win a cheap headline in the Daily Mail and The Sun, regardless of the costs or consequences. That must be Chris Grayling's personal responsibility, since he rushed to take full credit for the policy.

      When combining overcrowding in prisons with staff shortages and an internal discipline system that is perceived to be unfair and unworkable, then that is a recipe for unrest.

      I think that blaming prisoners for the various dysfunctions within the MOJ, NOMS and HMPS (especially since cons can't vote when they are in prison) is to miss the main point. Mr Grayling and Mr Spurr (head of NOMS) have been advised and warned by just about everyone in the prison system that these policies have created a serious crisis... HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, the Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association, not to mention the various prison reform charities.

      I broadly agree that prison governors and most rank and file officers are doing their best to cope with the crisis. That's why my criticism is directed where I believe it deserves to go - the political leadership of the MOJ and the operational chiefs of NOMS. Mr Grayling's most serious flaw of judgement is that he refuses to listen to people who have first hand experience of the criminal justice system when he has none himself. That is poor leadership and a sure sign of a politician who is completely out of his depth.

  2. The Howard League for Penal Reform, October 2014 re : HMYOI Cookham Wood

    "it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is now government policy to put children in danger and to create an environment where violence is festering"

    Sadiq Khan MP, October 2014

    "prisons have become dens of violence, where deaths and suicide are happening far too often"

    Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

    re : HMP Altcourse, October 2014

    "The prison was overcrowded and many squalid cells designed for one or two held an additional prisoner. Many prisoners complained of shortages of basic equipment such as cutlery, cups and pillows."

    re : HMYOI Cookham Wood, September 2014

    "At the time of our inspection the institution was operating a restricted regime, largely as a consequence of staff shortages that had led to some deterioration in access to time out of cell."

    re : HMP Swaleside, September 2014

    "Like a number of other prisons in the south east of England, HMP Swaleside was seriously affected by significant staff vacancies. This adversely affected outcomes for prisoners in every area of the prison and there appeared to be no immediate prospect of the problem being resolved. The Prison Service nationally needs to take urgent steps to ensure its recruitment policies and procedures enable it to maintain appropriate staffing levels."

    HMP/YOI Chelmsford, September 2014

    "The range of education opportunities was too narrow and there were too few activity places. Those that existed were not well allocated. At any point in time, half the prisoner population was not doing anything purposeful and about 170 prisoners were not allocated to activity at all."

    Chris Grayling MP, August 2014

    "I'm absolutely clear - there is not a crisis in our prisons"

    Really, Chris?

    1. Thank you for your very relevant survey of the highlight of the current state of our prisons, as well as the Secretary of State's denial of the reality. I'm afraid he belongs to the 'fingers in the ears... la la la' school of crisis management: crisis, without any management.

  3. He's not called Comical Ali for nothing!!

    1. I must admit that I did enjoy writing my blog post with that title!

  4. @FailingGrayling

  5. Brilliant article.

    The RT Honourable Chris Grayling is the most hated justice secretary in my lifetime.

    Conclusively, there is a prison crisis. Yet (at the risk of sounding like a mad Tory backbencher) I don't see this as only a Grayling problem.

    I am on the other side and support men & women on release. Despite glossy brands of rehabilitation in the community, there is little support in our area. Probation ' s remit is to manage offenders in the community and Probation is a client of the court.

    The last fifty years have created the crisis we see today. The Justice System has grown from inside. Cut through a potato and the growth comes from within and spreads outwardly. The suing culture, which began with the beleaguered McDonald's *hot coffee* case and kids began to *divorce their parents* after watching Neighbours at tea - time. Access to money and a sense of entitlement was born.

    Throw in a growing drug dependency problem and the birth of methadone treatment - based programmes was born.

    TV licencing convictions grew as deprivation grew in areas throughout the country and the broken window theory came into play. Michael Howard and his *prison works* mantra grew and *New Labour* years certainly played their part in the sorry mess we see today. The Justice System became a monster and Grayling comes along and smashes it all up. He's broken the cycle and managed to upset the hardy bunch, M ' learned friends. He detonated the bomb and presto, we have the sorry mess today.

    It's so broken and Grayling carries on like the cat that got the cream.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments and contribution to the discussion. I would agree with you that the root causes of many of the current problems pre-dated Mr Grayling. In fact, in a recent blog post I highlighted the role the last Labour government played in cutting resources and staff. Much of the prisons closure policy was also planned while Labour was in office.

      You are also spot on when it comes to the role that previous Conservative governments played in shifting the focus from humane prisons policy with an emphasis on education and rehabilitation to the hardline 'prison works' philosophy. I'm waiting for the inevitable round of legal actions that are in the pipeline dating back to the physical (and sometimes sexual) abuse that was dished out to young people during the 'short sharp shock' era. Medomsley detention centre in County Durham is just the tip of a much larger iceberg of cruelty and abuse.

      Until the discourse changes tack significantly and focuses on the causes of crime (including dependencies, familial and institutional abuses, poverty and people failed by both the education sector and social services), we will stand little chance of reforming the whole penal system. We should be aiming for a new approach so that truly dangerous people are incarcerated in humane and constructive conditions, while non-violent offenders, the aged and infirm, people who are mentally ill and most very young people and women never see the inside of a prison. Until then, I fear that the present crisis will just get worse. As for Mr Grayling and his continued denial of reality, I always remember hearing the following comment: "There's no deception like self-deception."

  6. Alex, it's Tracey, (I couldn't post under my WordPress account)

    I could & have, as you know, write/written so much more on this.

    A different approach is very much needed, absolutely correct. I pick up the pieces of this very broken and damaged system. I've also been landed with a former prisoner who has literally been abandoned by an agency who has major funding. Unravelling the mess is huge and a ruthless individual would have evicted him and for sure, he would have ended up back inside. This is why I remain independent and am solely accountable for my agency. With no funding in place.

    People are dying here. People are traumatised and with no legal aid to support wrong doings we are heading back to 18th century prison conditions.

    When we have people coming out worse than when they went in, it's a big problem.

    Many thanks, Alex.

    1. Thanks for your comments, as always, Tracey. Unless there is a multi-dimensional approach to reducing reoffending, then the well-established 'revolving' door of people coming out of prison, reoffending and then being sent down again will continue indefinitely. Unfortunately, we live in an era of misplaced value judgements about human worth.

      Most sensible people recognise that if a domestic animal is regularly mistreated and abused, it can become dangerously unstable or even start self-harming. Human beings are even more prone to this, yet there is a glib and uninformed view that dismisses taking into account an ex-offender's background, including often horrendous histories of abuse or history of mental health issues. Until we start addressing these serious problems, rehabilitation will remain a word, not an achievable goal.

  7. And how would you recommend dealing with the non-violent criminals that you don't want sent to prison?

    Don't forget, the threat of prison undoubtedly prevents some crimes in the first place.

    1. People commit crimes for a variety of reasons, but in my experience most non-violent crime - shoplifting, casual petty thefts, small-scale drug dealing, even some fraud - has its roots in addictions, poverty and homelessness. I'm very fortunate in that prior to going to prison I'd never been unemployed or homeless, and I'm in neither of those situations after release. However, if I'd ever been in the position of having small kids and no money to feed them, what would I do?

      The appropriate course of action for most non-violent offenders is to determine why they committed their crimes. Had they been 'sanctioned' by the local JobCentre and lost their benefits? Is that why they stole food from a supermarket? Do they have addictions that they need support to manage or to recover from? Was any professional help offered? Has someone committed an offence because they are homeless and don't want to freeze outside in the winter?

      In all of these cases, it would be far cheaper for the taxpayer to address specific needs in the community than to fork out an average of £40,000 a year keeping them in prison where they are very unlikely to get any mental healthcare, where drugs (legal and illegal) are freely available at a price and where they often risk coming out in a far worse situation than they went in. Not only is this inhumane and counter-productive, it virtually guarantees that they will reoffend after release, thus creating fresh victims. It's also lousy social economics (except for shareholders of Serco and G4S, I suppose).

    2. But this would surely should mean that those same people (who according to you are commuting crime through no fault of their own) shouldn't be jailed if their crime turns violent, maybe a drug addict harms someone whilst mugging them, a car thief 'accidentally knocks down a pedestrian, a shoplifter bites a security guard whilst trying to escape.

      Where would you draw the line?

      What about fraudsters or drug dealers, no violence involved, where's the deterrent with no possibility of prison?

      I'm sorry to sound so Tory but your ideas aren't really solutions, they're liberal soundbites that are not dissimilar to some of the viewpoints that have got our justice system in the poor position it's in today.

      A son of a friend was in small minor trouble continuously from the age of 15, magistrates kept giving him 'one more chance' for shoplifting, robbery, all minor stuff that the magistrates & social workers said he'd grow out of, he got (and ignored) community service, until finally, having mistakenly 'learnt' and that he could do what he wanted, he graduated to a bigger crime and at the age of 19 was sentenced to 7 years inside.

    3. The story of the lad you describe above is a very common escalation. I've met many (even shared prison cells with) lads with similar histories.

      Magistrates actually did him (and society) a massive favour by not sending him to a YOI for his early petty offences. These are incredibly violent institutions and are very disruptive to a young persons life and education.

      This lads problems will start in a couple of years when he is released from prison. Prisons can't give the rehabilitation needed. It's a nice idea to think that him being sent to prison is the end of the problem. A few years of being banged up 23 hours a day, no access to proper education, little exercise and poor food are not going to magically make him a perfect law abiding citizen.

      Prisons are only effective at removing a person from society for whatever period the judge decides. Society will not be menaced by such a person but only until they are released having received no rehabilitation and having networked with other criminals.

      I don't have all the answers to the very complex issues raised. Prison certainly isn't the catch-all solution to crime and should be spared only for those who pose a serious threat to others if allowed to be free in society.

    4. So you don't think, as I & his parents thought, that a short sharp shock (say a week) inside a YOI wouldn't have potentially been more effective than him being taught that there were no consequences for his criminal activity?

    5. Thanks for your comments. I don't really see myself as a liberal, more of a Utilitarian who has seen the way in which the prison system fails at various levels, especially in terms of rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. Even though pretty much all the evidence points to these failures to deliver, as a society we remain obsessed with imprisonment as a tool of revenge, rather than justice.

      You can see this regularly when the tabloid media gets worked up into a feeding frenzy when anyone who is convicted of almost any offence these days doesn't get banged-up! I suspect that there is a rather unattractive element of sadism in our national character, similar to the regular demands from the far right that we reintroduce hanging and flogging.

      I think the actual test for whether a person should be considered for imprisonment is whether they present a real danger to others or whether they are likely to reoffend. A disgraced accountant who has been stuck off and heavily fined is probably not going to become an armed robber or work in his or her former profession, so why spend an average of £40,000 a year locking them up. Better, surely that they should get some form of work and start paying back their victims? I'm also in favour of restorative justice, where possible, including - in appropriate cases - a chance for the victim to look the offender in the eyes and tell them at first-hand what the impact on their lives has been. Believe me, that can be a powerful wake-up call for some people, and a big help to many victims.

      I've posted on the issue of drug-related crime on this blog before. Like a number of senior police officers and judges, I support total decriminalisation of possession for personal use and the sale of controlled drugs on prescription via licensed chemists. The social benefits - including crime reduction - would far outweigh all other risks. That would practically destroy the illicit drugs trade overnight. No wonder the bosses of the cartels fear decriminalisation more than anything else!

      In answer to your point about your friends' son. No, I don't think that imprisonment will do him any good in all likelihood. Young men are often looking for male role models and he will find them in profusion in a YOI or a prison: drug dealers and smugglers, armed robbers, bullies, sexual predators. The sad thing is that prisons aren't called the 'universities of crime' for nothing. He may well 'graduate' haven't learned all sorts of deeply undesirable new things.

      In fact, at an average cost of £40,000 per year to the taxpayer, we'd actually save money by sending him to a public school or a university and paying all his fees etc. Wouldn't it have been better to spend a fraction of that on rehabilitation BEFORE his offending behaviour escalated? I've seen for myself what happens to younger lads who are given community penalties - virtually nothing of positive value. A lot of this is due to shortage of resources in the Probation Service.

      In fact, short sentences are the worst of all. Most prisoners serving a few weeks or months are just an inconvenience to the system. Bang them up, ignore them and then kick them out of the gate. They honestly receive zero in the way of support or rehabilitation. Sad, but true.

  8. Whilst I completely agree with your statement: "I support total decriminalisation of possession for personal use and the sale of controlled drugs on prescription via licensed chemists. The social benefits - including crime reduction - would far outweigh all other risks. That would practically destroy the illicit drugs trade overnight." I have to say that having known the boy in question, if he'd had a week inside where he'd learned he wasn't the hardest, cleverest git around and that life inside prison was a damn sight worse than outside it could well have 'scared him straight'.

    As for the disgraced accountant, who stole simply because he wanted a higher lifestyle, you don't accept the fact that he'd have been more likely to commit the crime in the first place if he knew even if he got caught he'd do no jail time?

    I'm not a criminal and I've always wondered at the mindset of an armed robber who'll risk 10-15 years imprisonment for a few thousand pounds grabbed from a post office, cash delivery van or similar when many frauds are more profitable, harder to convict on and attract sentences significantly less.

    1. Thanks for your response. The problem with YOIs is that they tend to either make youths much worse - some are even proud of their 'hard man' credentials - or if they are vulnerable or timid, they can end up severely brutalised or, sadly, even dead. Some lads like the boasting rights of having been inside... they see it as being much more macho than having to paint some pensioners' fences for a few weeks or picking litter. Having met literally dozens of former YOI lads in adult jails, I've yet to meet one that a spell inside really helped... as the fact that they had 'graduated' on to an adult jail showed only too clearly.

      Although prison can act as a deterrent in the sense that the government uses it to scare the professional and working classes, it only works because they have something to lose... home, job, social respect etc. For those who have nothing to lose, where is the deterrent value?

      Also, I really doubt that any wannabe criminal is really deterred by prison. They just don't want to be caught! And, generally speaking, it's the less clever ones who get banged up in the first place. The fraudsters and embezzlers that I've met in prison are either very clever businessmen who came up with a great money making scheme that went wrong, or else are hopeless duds who got caught as soon as the annual audit range alarm bells.

      Most embezzlers don't start out as criminals - at least in their own minds. They see taking money as an emergency stop-gap measure with the intention of repaying it as soon as they can. Of course, most don't and it escalates from there. A small proportion of fraudsters start out bent from the beginning, most give into the temptation when things start going pear-shaped.

      In contrast, armed robbery is essentially a lazy way for less talented people to make quick money. I have met a couple of well-educated 'blaggers', but they are the exception and their actual robberies didn't fit the classic pattern of the bank job with a sawn-off shotgun. Most armed robbers are actually guilty of stupid knife crime in the street or a corner shop, often to pay debts related to their addictions. Which brings me back to the benefits of decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use!

    2. Thanks for your response, with regards to YOI your experience is obviously more valid than my supposition although I do feel more should have been done to prevent my friends sons descent in to a life of crime by the courts.

      So, if I understand your position correctly, you believe that only violent criminals should be incarcerated? Is that for a specific period of time related to the crime or depending upon speed of apparent rehabilitation?

    3. Thanks for your comment and questions. I am a great believer in early interventions. It doesn't always work, but the outcomes - both for society and the individual - can be much more positive. Had appropriate resources been available when your friends' son started going off the rails, perhaps including some form of regular mentoring, then the outcome could have been different.

      Of course, some people will continue to offend anyway. I recently mentioned the case of the son of a serving prison officer whose father I know and like (he was a good support for me while I was in prison). The lad recently received a 13-year prison sentence for armed robbery motivated by desperation over gambling debts. You can imagine the impact on his dad. However, it does go to show that even people from prison service families can go off the rails.

      As far as imprisonment is concerned, I would try - as far as possible - to identify alternatives unless a person is either dangerous to others, or has refused to accept help and support following a previous conviction that didn't result in a custodial sentence. I would prefer to see most crimes against property dealt with though non-custodial means, unless there has been a very substantial loss incurred. For example, sending someone to prison for pinching an item of low value when it costs the taxpayer hundreds of pounds per day to imprison someone is plain madness, in my humble opinion!

      Even with those who are sent to prison, I would definitely prefer to see a maximum sentence handed down, which could then be reduced substantially in cases where the person has demonstrated a commitment to reform and is making efforts to improve their skills, education levels etc. This would incentivise rehabilitation in a meaningful way. In fact, in the old prison system, prior to I think 1986, it was possible to earn a 2/3 reduction in most prison sentences that weren't life terms. For me, such a system would make perfect sense.

    4. I just came across a video about "The Norden" which is one of Norways 'luxury' prisons and thought it may be of interest to you, especially when you consider that:

      "The regime is expensive – approximately 3,000 kroner (£320) a night, compared with around 2,000 (£213) at the more basic, older Norwegian institutions, such as the Oslo prison where inmates are often locked up for 23 out of 24 hours, but it is cheaper than Ila, where the guard count is higher and the cost 4,000 kroner (£426) a night. A year in Halden costs the state around £116,000, while the average cost of a place in the UK is £45,000." (source ) which means that even Norways older prisons with 23 hour lock up still cost around £58,000 a year, significantly more than UK prisons and let's not forget that Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, not only not having no deficit but actually having around £500 billion in savings.

    5. Thanks for the contribution. Of course one of the unknowns in the above quotation is staff salaries in Norway which doubtless account for a fair proportion of the total cost.

      I think the average annual cost of incarcerating an adult prisoner in the UK is currently around £40,000. According to recent Ministry of Justice figures (October 2013), it costs an average of £26,000 per year for a prisoner in open conditions, compared to £33,600 in a Cat-B, £30,600 in a Cat-C and over £60,000 in a Cat-A (dispersal prison).

      That wouldn't be insupportable if prisons actually had the resources to deliver on the Prison Services' own declared objectives, including rehabilitation. However, when overcrowding and staff shortages mean that our prisons have become human warehousing, then as taxpayers we're really not getting value for money.

  9. Not really related to the blog above but have a few more questions. I am getting sentenced next week -

    How does it work about getting transferred to another prison. I am in court in London but don't live there and would prefer to be closer to home for visits and that. How long would it be before they would consider this and would I get a say in where I got sent?

    In a Cat B prison how much time would you normally get outside in the yard? Do you get to play footie or any other sports?

    If you are there for an offence that is 'racially aggravated' is this an extra problem with other prisoners?

    Just got so much from this blog over the past few weeks and feel I know so much more than I did. I don't know if this sounds weird but this has been hanging over me so long that in some ways I am happy that it is all happening now and can look to the future instead of just worrying about prison alyhough am more relaxed about it now.


    1. Thanks for your questions, Paul. I hope things work out OK for your next week. Just keep calm and don't sweat things too much. Once I'd settled in and got to know the system I was personally amazed just how safe I felt inside the nick and how decent many fellow cons (and screws) can be.

      To answer your specific questions. If you are sentenced in London, then there is a very high probability that you'll end up in one of the London Cat-Bs. Which one may depend on the Crown Court you're appearing in and where they have vacancies. Much will then depend on your sentence and the categorisation process. This can take a month or more to come through from the office for Observation, Classification and Allocation (OCA). Everyone (other than A-cats) starts as a B-cat, but if your sentence is relatively short (ie under four years) then you should get your C-cat without any problem - it's just a question of waiting. Once that has come through from OCA you should get a paper informing you of your status. Then you will be liable to be transferred to a Cat-C establishment. However, which one is likely to depend on spaces being available and, perhaps, the availability of any specific courses that the Offender Management Unit (OMU) includes in your sentence plan (ie CALMS - anger management, for example).

      I would recommend discussing the issue of which prison is nearest your home area with your personal officer (assuming you do get assigned one) and your offender manager (outside probation), as well as your offender supervisor (inside probation). Before sentencing, I'd suggest you check the map of UK prisons online and see for yourself which ones are most convenient for your family to travel to see you. If you at least have some prison names ready, that might help. In theory, they are supposed to consider such issues; in practice with overcrowding being what it is, the options might be limited!

      In most closed prisons you are supposed to get access to the yard for an hour a day unless it's bad weather. Again, in practice it can depend on staff availability to supervise. Also you may have to make choices between gym, exercise and library visits.

      Gym access has been restricted both by the new Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system and the shortage of staff, so you may not get it weekly. Some gym sessions can involve footie, but there might be squash, weights etc. It will depend on the timetable.

      My advice on the issue of the specifics of your offence would be to keep it neutral with other cons. Some may want to know "what you're in for" and being evasive isn't a good idea because there is always a suspicion that someone could be in for something 'naughty' - ie a sex offence or hurting a kid. Plenty of cons in for really bad things do try to 'pass' on mains wings, so it's better not to appear shifty about it otherwise you might get a delegation of lads coming to your pad to demand to see your 'deps' (court papers, especially your certificate of conviction). If you're in for GBH or ABH, then my advice is say so if asked, but don't mention to the racial aspect of it.

      I'm really glad to hear that you have found this blog helpful. That's why I launched it in the first place! I really don't reckon that you'll find the nick too bad. You might make a few good mates and learn a lot about our prison system at the same time. Just steer clear of drugs and debt.

      You can always let us know how you got on once you're out! Best of luck, mate.

    2. Good luck, Paul! My fingers are firmly crossed for you. I wish you all the very best.

  10. Paul, first and foremost I wish you the best of luck with your hearing next week. I hope you get the best outcome you're looking for.

    I'm sure Alex can answer your questions far more eloquently than I can but I'll try to help as best as I can from my own experiences.

    NOMS policy is to try to have you in a suitable prison near to your family to aid visits. Sadly this doesn't happen, you will be taken to the local B-Cat upon sentencing and processed from there. How long you spend there will depend on many factors - the length of your sentence, your perceived risk, your security categorisation etc etc. I spent the whole of my 16 month sentence in a B-Cat local despite being a C-Cat inmate from day one. Luck does play a part in where you end up but you can be sure that you will have no direct influence on where they put you.

    In a B-Cat you'll get around 1 hour a day out in the yard assuming weather or "operational issues" force this to be cancelled. The yard will be a tarmacked area surrounded by 20 foot fencing in which you and your fellow cons will walk around in circles. Any football or sporting activities will by arranged by the gym which you may get an hour a week access to if you're lucky.

    Prison is a very strange environment and I found that cons were pretty much accepting of anything. Indeed, any inmate with racial issues was not demonised but allowed not to share a cell with a member of another race. I guess there's a sense that anybody could be anything inside and it's easier to accept somebody for who they are and how they treat you rather than what they've done in the past.

    My case lasted several years with endless police interviews, court hearings, meetings with legal team etc etc. To be honest, when the cell door first closed behind me on the first night I felt a massive sense of relief that it was all over.

    1. Thanks for your comments and advice for Paul. I think your answers are spot on. It is indeed possible for someone serving a shorter sentence to end up in their initial Cat-B until release.

      The only thing I'd add on the cell sharing issue is that there is a rule that anyone who is judged unsuitable for cell-sharing on the basis of explicit racism cannot attain Enhanced status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, so Paul might not want to draw attention to this issue from his conviction on the wing. I well recall a lad in my second Cat-B who had an EDL tattoo on his arm but really wasn't racist in any way that I could see and I think he did share cells with people from other ethnicities, although he did have to wear a bandage on his arm to cover that tattoo - mainly for his own safety!

      I'd also agree about that first night inside, even tho' I ended up banged-up down the Block (segregation unit). I'd been on bail for 14 months, so when my trial ended with me being sent down, the stress had been enormous. Even in the Block - where it was pretty quiet - I must admit that I really did have my first good night's sleep in weeks.

    2. Getting the info and advice is a great help. Have spoken to my solicitor alright and he has told me only a few things but it is great to hear from people who have been through it themselves.

      I don't consider myself racist at all but what happened was more drunken than anything else and that's the way it ended up. I was more worried about what others might think. I know I can stand up for myself if I need too but don't want to get into any more trouble if I can avoid it. I will definitely stay away from drugs and debt.

      Thanks for all the goood wishes - appreciate them


    3. Best of luck with it all, Paul. I'm sure you'll be fine. Just approach going to prison as a new experience that only around 2 percent of the population will ever have! Maybe try and keep a daily diary... I really found that helped me put things into perspective at the end of each day. I look forward to reading your comments on this blog when you are on the out again.