Wednesday, 23 December 2015

What I won’t be missing this Christmas

Last year I blogged about Christmases spent in prison, as well as the one I had at home on temporary release (ROTL). This year – which will be my second at home since my release in 2014 – I have been thinking about all the aspects of prison life at this time of year that I really won’t be missing.

Waiting for Christmas
The most obvious thing will be not missing family and friends (and the dog) during the festive season. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, for many prisoners the most severe aspect of their punishment is separation from loved ones, especially their own children and partners. Of course, there will be those who have the opinion that this is deserved and could be avoided by not committing crimes.

To some extent this is true, although it doesn’t necessarily apply to those who are unconvicted and are awaiting trial on remand or to those who are the victims of miscarriages of justice, let alone immigration detainees who haven’t even been accused of any crime other than not having the ‘right’ passport or nationality. Part of my own experience is that prison populations are a curious mixture of people who deserve incarceration and those who probably don’t. In practice, all are treated pretty much the same by the prison authorities.

Reading through my diaries from my time inside, there are plenty of other things I won’t be missing this year. Forced jollity is one of them. Prisoners in general have nothing to be merry about. Imprisonment takes its toll throughout the year, but Christmas is not a happy time for anyone, including staff. No-one really wants to be there (other, perhaps, than a few homeless people who prefer it to being out on the street in December), so it’s even more difficult to have to pretend that you are suddenly engulfed in happiness and merriment for a couple of days each year. A large number of cons simply prefer to bang their own cell doors shut and try to sleep through the empty days until work or education classes start again.

Forced Xmas jollity in prison
Some do make heroic efforts, however. I well recall a very fail man
in his 60s – who actually looked much older – who still managed to wish me and a few others he knew on the wing a “Merry Christmas”. He was in fact dying of agonising and undiagnosed cancer, a condition that hadn’t been identified by what passed as the ‘healthcare’ department at the prison. By the end of January he was dead. That is among my lasting memories of Christmas spent inside.

I also remember how I spent Christmas 2012 trying to persuade a close friend not to commit suicide by hanging himself in the run up to the ‘festive season’. Fortunately, in the end he decided against it and this year he will be spending the holiday with his mother and his brother at their home. He remains profoundly damaged by these experiences, but at least he is still alive even if ‘freedom’ means living in a hostel surrounded by other ex-prisoners with drug or alcohol dependencies and surviving on basic benefits, as it seems no-one wants to employ an ex-con who has no academic or professional qualifications.

Happy Shopper: prison canteen special
I definitely won’t miss the ritual of ordering ‘seasonal offers’ from the prison canteen sheet, including Happy Shopper mince pies that are sold at twice the price in the shops outside or other pricey confectionary that only makes an appearance on the canteen once a year. Nor will I miss receiving my sealed bag of canteen goods on delivery day only to discover that half of the order is marked ‘out of stock’. This is a Christmas shopping experience of sorts, but not as most people would understand it.

Instead, this year I’m thinking about my fellow cons who literally have nothing. No cards, no family support, no income (since prison jobs are scarce in this era of gross overcrowding) and, to be frank, little or no hope for their future. For many of them, Christmas is a time during which everything they don’t have, in prison or in many cases in the outside world, passes across the screen of their rented 14” prison TV sets. The ‘ideal’ happy family gathering around a table loaded with food and drink, giving and receiving presents, spending time relaxing with loved ones - all these things are for others, not them.

Long before many prisoners ended up inside our dysfunctional prison system, they had been marginalised outsiders. Those terrible scenes of deprivation that national charities show on TV every Christmas – hungry, abused kids surviving in misery and squalor – are known all too well to some of my fellow inmates. Don’t forget that we actually have TB cases in some of our more Dickensian prisons. Charles Dickens, that inventor of the ‘traditional’ English Christmas, would probably be rightly outraged.

Watching the world on a cell TV
As one skinny, hollow-eyed lad of 21 – going on 50 – once remarked to me during a Christmas we endured together in a grim red-brick Victorian Cat-B, the only good thing about this time of year when he was a young child was that his brutal, abusive, drug-addicted stepdad was often too drunk to rape him yet again. No, I really won’t be missing hearing stories like that this Christmas.

Living, eating and sleeping in an average-sized family bathroom – with a toilet in one corner – with another man who was a complete stranger before we were locked in together doesn’t figure highly on my own Christmas list these days. Luckily, we did get on so things could have been much worse. Nevertheless, the long hours locked behind our cell door definitely dragged during the holiday period when there was no work (unless you were on the kitchens work party), education, library access or gym time on offer.

The tabloids' version of jail Xmas
And I definitely won’t be missing the prison’s attempt at providing a festive meal at Christmas lunchtime. That thin slice of processed ‘turkey’, undercooked potatoes and overcooked, watery veg really didn’t do much to make the season jolly. It was edible, but a far cry from the vicious lies and smear stories about ‘luxury food for lags’ that have already appeared in some of our tabloid newspapers.

Recently, I received a letter from a friend of mine who is now in one of England’s very worst Cat-B prisons. This is an establishment that receives unfailingly dreadful reports from HM Inspectorate. Living conditions are appalling. Virtually no clean prison clothing available from the stores so inmates stink; no work, no access to the library, no education courses, no gym time, little exercise, 20 minutes to take showers or phone home. His life consists of being locked up in squalor and enforced idleness for 23 hours out of each 24, seven days a week.

I actually felt embarrassed to be sending him a card expressing the wish that he will have a merry Christmas in such conditions, especially when I know full well that he won’t. The only saving grace is that he is due to be released next October, so at least the happy New Year part of the sentiment wasn’t completely facile.

Reality: 'turkey'
I do try to stay in touch with a small group of people I have met in prison. Some have now been released, others are still inside. I have sent off letters and cards to most, in a few cases I have also sent small amounts of money for their prison accounts. Not a lot, but enough to buy a few things from the canteen or get extra phone credit so they can call out (assuming they can get in the long queues for the three or four payphones on each wing).

Not all of those who have been released are doing well. Some are deep in depression and effectively homeless. Nevertheless, we do speak on the phone and at this time of year the conversation invariably turns to those Christmases we spent in prison. Although we are now spread across the country we still offer each other emotional support, particularly when things get difficult. I value those ties and they are an enduring legacy of my own imprisonment.

There is, perhaps, only one thing that I do miss about prison at any time and that is the mutual support that we prisoners gave each other in times of stress and unhappiness. That is how I know that there is goodness, and vulnerability, in pretty much everyone, no matter what crimes they may have committed. If only our prisons could harness that positive energy and encourage change for the better, then we might really be able to achieve a ‘rehabilitation revolution’.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for 2016.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Christmas Starts Earlier Each Year

Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older, but it does seem that every year the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier. I was reminded of this when I saw a typical Christmas headline in the Sunday Express: Up to 100 killers serving life in prison allowed HOME for Christmas. All very festive.

You're early... it's only November
Last December I posted my reflections on the usual tabloid faux-outrage that tends to focus on ‘lags’ being served a Christmas meal (click here). Never mind that the seasonal fare typically consists of a slice of processed meat that bears no resemblance to actual turkey, a few lukewarm spuds and soggy veg. The very idea that prisoners are not mumping their slops while wearing shackles every day of the year seems to send a particular variety of sad sadist into paroxyms of impotent fury.

This year, however, the Express has latched onto the issue of a small number of prisoners – all already in open conditions – being granted the privilege of release on temporary licence (ROTL) over the Christmas holiday. In particular, the article focuses on “murderers, rapists and repeat violent offenders” being allowed back into the community before they have been granted parole or reached the end of their custodial sentences.

No tabloid twaddle of this sort would be complete without at least one swivel-eyed loon from the extreme right of the political spectrum being wheeled out to provide a few choice quotes. This year it fell to Tory MP Philip Davies to spout the venom. Of course, coming from a man aptly described as a ‘babbling brook of bullshit’ who can bore for Britain, his argument was facile to say the least. What is of far greater concern is that the MP for Shipley is a member of the Common’s Justice Committee which oversees the work of our criminal justice system.

According to the Sunday Express, Mr Davies “unearthed” the ROTL figures. This makes it sound like he has been digging deep to uncover some dark secrets in the basement of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). In reality, of course, these statistics are widely available since they are actually published by his own government. Surely a serving member of the Justice Committee should be expected to understand part of his or her own brief. 

Moreover, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has published an investigation into serious failure of ROTL in the recent past. This document (here), along with a very well-researched briefing paper on ROTL published in February this year by the Prison Reform Trust (here), provides fact-based information on the importance of temporary licence as part of the rehabilitation and resettlement process for prisoners ahead of release. 

Bundle of laughs: Philip Davies
Mr Davies is almost certainly aware of these two publications – or at least he should be, bearing in mind he sits on the Justice Committee. When offered the chance to comment for the Express article he had an opportunity to say something informative and constructive about the value of temporary licence for rehabilitation, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose – presumably to get his name in the tabloids – to promote a scare story among readers who probably have little or no knowledge of how the ROTL system actually works. 

While it is true that there has been a tiny number of serious ROTL failures since 2012, it is important to put those into context. Based on the PRT’s analysis, between October 2013 and September 2014 there was a total of 485,634 temporary licences granted. Of these, the failure rate was less than 0.06 percent. Of this minute proportion, only 6.1 percent of licence breaches actually involved an arrestable offence – the equivalent of five arrests per 100,000 ROTLs issued.

Most ROTL ‘failures’ actually involve a prisoner reporting back late. In some cases this can be a matter of minutes as a result of delays on public transport, traffic problems or vehicle breakdowns. In such cases, the vast majority of prisoners out on licence phone ahead to let the gate staff know their situation. Risk to the general public: zero. A small number of prisoners also fail to return from ROTL because they are being bullied or assaulted by fellow cons, often as a result of getting into debt. However, overall the number of these cases is statistically small.

Overseeing the justice system
If any other government activity actually achieved a success rate of around 99.94 percent, you can bet that it would be headline news. Contrast that result with almost any other statistical outcome across the public sector and it will be right up there at the top. Instead, the MOJ tends to prefer to keep such positive successes pretty low key, at least until something goes badly wrong.

One of the more disingenuous comments attributed to Mr Davies in the Sunday Express article is “… I cannot understand why those who carried out the crime should be able to spend time with their families.” 

If this really represents Mr Davies’ honest opinion then it suggests that he knows absolutely nothing about the MoJ’s own published strategy for rehabilitation – nor the process through which the Parole Board makes its decisions to release on licence those prisoners who are serving indeterminate sentences – either lifers or those still on the old indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPP). I find that rather disturbing, given that he is a member of the Justice Committee.

Almost all lifers and IPPs who are scheduled to have a hearing before the Parole Board will be expected to be able to demonstrate manageable risk prior to being granted release on a parole licence. A major part of that process is being transferred to open conditions (Cat-D) and, after a period of assessment that now includes psychological reports, the granting of ROTL. Initially the prisoner is escorted on a visit to the local town by a prison officer wearing civilian clothing, then they might be permitted to access ROTL on their own or to meet up with their family members for a few hours (Resettlement Day Release).

Eventually – after a series of successful ROTLs – and interviews with staff, including appearing before the prison’s ROTL Board, a period of home leave (Resettlement Overnight Release) might be granted closely supervised by probation. In the vast majority of cases, lifers and IPPs are required to stay at night in a designated hostel close to their eventual area of release and all are subject to alcohol and drug testing. A report from the hostel manager forms part of the process.

The idea being promoted by Mr Davies in the Sunday Express seems to be that prisons just kick lifers and other prisoners deemed to be high risk out of the gate and let them go home to celebrate Christmas with their families. The reality is very different – ROTL is much more carefully assessed and controlled than the article would have us believe. In fact, last year just 93 lifers (which I assume includes IPPs) were granted Christmas ROTL. It is worth remembering that there are nearly 86,000 prisoners currently in the custody of HM Prison Service.

HMP Blantyre House
Inadvertently, the Express article also revealed that the open prison that had the highest number of lifers released for the holiday period was HMP Blantyre House – since temporarily closed – which managed just 13. In addition, of the total 1,347 prisoners who were allowed Christmas ROTL in 2014, less than 300 were actually inside for violent crimes. The largest single category of crime represented was drug offences (550), with burglars and robbers coming in at 202. Just nine of those granted ROTL had a history of sexual offending.

What is particularly worrying is that, despite his privileged position on the Justice Committee, Mr Davies seems to have little understanding of the vital role that maintaining family ties by prisoners plays in rehabilitation and successful resettlement upon release. This is well understood by both the MOJ and the Prison Service. Particularly for lifers – many of whom have already served 20 or more years in custody – the process of preparing for eventual release must be carefully planned and assessed throughout in order to reduce risk to the public. An opportunity to spend time with family members in a ‘normal’ environment can play a vital role in that preparation.

Andrew Selous MP
Ironically, it was left to Mr Davies’ senior colleague, the hapless Andrew Selous, as minister responsible for prisons, to defend the ROTL system and its importance to rehabilitation. I’m sure he was very grateful for the gratuitous scaremongering contained in the Express article. After all, there’s nothing like being stabbed in the back by one of your own MPs, especially one who seems to know so little about the subject in question.

In recent years – partly as a response to three particularly serious incidents where prisoners committed serious offences while on ROTL – the whole process has been tightened up even further following a review launched by the MOJ in 2013. The current Prison Service Instruction (PSI 13/2015), issued in March 2015, has substantially raised the bar for prisoners hoping to be granted temporary leave, particularly those deemed to be serious or high-risk offenders (now subject to what is called Restricted ROTL).  

Moreover, any prisoner who has a prior history of escape, absconding or a serious breach of ROTL licence can only be considered for transfer to open conditions or further ROTL in “exceptional circumstances”. The MOJ’s intention is to use electronic location monitoring for all others who are granted temporary release (although to date it seems that the necessary equipment to tag them has yet to be procured). Access to overnight ROTL (ROR) is now limited in most cases to the final nine months of a sentence and then only after exhaustive reports and risk assessments.

Even a cursory review of the latest PSI reveals that the granting of ROTL – especially overnight release – is not likely to be widespread. As the PSI itself observes, the numbers of temporary licences issued is likely to be much lower. I very much doubt that many lifers will be spending time with their families this Christmas. Perhaps the overall figure will end up being half of last year’s total or even less.

That is why Mr Davies’ lending credence to the Sunday Express prison scare story is so reprehensible. If he were merely some ignorant junior backbencher with no special responsibility for overseeing our justice system, including prisons and probation, his personal opinions on prison policy – however inaccurate and misguided – would count for little. However, unfortunately he is a serving member of the Justice Committee and should know much better than to offer aid and comfort to tabloids intent on misleading the general public. All in all a very poor show indeed. Ho, ho, ho. An early Merry Christmas Mr Davies!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sharing a Cell with a Murderer

As far back as I can recall I have been opposed to the idea of the death penalty. Because it is utterly irreversible, miscarriages of justice – of which there are surprising numbers – in capital cases leave no real remedy, especially for the surviving family of an innocent person who has been executed. That is why the death penalty is, by its very nature, a terrifying weapon that can be used or abused by the state.

The shadow of the gallows
Britain has a long and inglorious record when it comes to miscarriages of justice. It can take years, sometimes decades, for wrongful convictions to be quashed.

In most cases, thanks to new rules introduced by the last Labour government and made worse by the Coalition, victims of miscarriages of justice now receive absolutely nothing by way of compensation for their years in prison, regardless of them having lost jobs, savings, homes, families and any realistic prospect of finding work again, let alone the ongoing impact of poor mental and physical health. It has been calculated that a prison sentence can age a prisoner up to ten years quicker than people outside, so it’s not just the stolen years of imprisonment that cause loss and suffering.

It is also true that the most difficult cases often involve very strong public opinions because of entirely understandable revulsion over the worst crimes. I well recall the popular demands for the public hanging of Stefan Kiszko back in 1976 (even though Britain had abandoned public executions after 1868). The sexually-motivated murder of little Lesley Moleseed reignited calls for the restoration of capital punishment in Britain.

Stefan Kiszko
Of course, we now know that Mr Kiszko had been framed by detectives who deliberately concealed the vital forensic evidence that proved his innocence of a terrible crime. He served 16 years in prison – being beaten and bullied – before an administrative error led to the disclosure of the hidden forensic report from the stored case files. He was eventually freed in 1992 after his conviction was quashed. Driven close to madness by his experiences, he remained in a psychiatric hospital for months.

Sadly he died in 1993 aged just 41 and had never even received the full compensation settlement he had been awarded because of his ordeal. Nowadays, it seems unlikely that he would even received a penny piece, especially since at the time of his release from prison no alternative perpetrator had been identified.

What made this case even more terrible was that the real killer, Ronald Castree, was allowed to remain free and unpunished for many years and went on to commit further sexual offences until he was caught in 2006 in connection with an entirely separate offence. Had the original investigation and forensic evidence been dealt with properly in 1975, he might have been identified 30 years earlier.

Above all, had Stefan Kiszko been executed – as many demanded at the time of his conviction – the state would have judicially murdered an innocent man, with police connivance. Of course, once a wrongly convicted person is dead, it is comparatively rare for there to be any continuing investigation of a case, so real killers can slip through the net.

Not really the good old days
Perhaps it is because of this and other terrible miscarriages of justice that public opinion in the UK appears to be turning against the idea of capital punishment. Back in March the British Social Attitudes Report revealed that under half – 48 percent of those who responded to the survey – were in favour of the death penalty. In 1983 when the survey began that figure was 75 percent, even though capital punishment had been suspended by Parliament in 1965 and was finally abolished in 1998 with the passing of the Human Rights Act.

During my own stay in prison I met a number of fellow inmates who, had capital punishment still been on the statute books at the time of their trials, would have almost certainly gone to the gallows. In different prisons I shared cells with two individuals who had both committed murder and so I had the first-hand experience of talking to them about their crimes, as well as their perceptions of the impact that these heinous offences had had upon the families of their victims. It was a highly informative, if involuntary, education.

Behind a cell door with a murderer
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both expressed regret and guilt for what they had done. In both cases the victim was a family member and this meant that they were all too aware of the consequences of their actions.

One had been cut off entirely by every other member of his family; the other was still being supported, but never returned from a visit by his relatives without breaking down in tears in our cell once the door had been slammed shut. As he once remarked to me “I’ve killed my entire family, myself included.” This man longed for death, but refrained from attempting suicide solely because he didn’t want to inflict yet another bereavement on his elderly parents.

To some extent, murderers in our prisons do form a separate caste. Other prisoners are acutely aware of their crimes. It’s hard to sit behind a locked cell door drinking tea without glancing at the hands of a man who you know has committed murder. Taking the life of another human being is still recognised as an enormity, even among those convicted for other serious offences such as robbery, drug trafficking or committing grievous assaults.

Manson: not your average murderer
It may seem counterintuitive, but I actually came to prefer sharing a cell with lifers. Generally speaking they tend to be much calmer and quieter than those prisoners who are serving shorter terms and have a fixed release date. In my experience they also seem to have much greater respect for personal space and other inmates’ property.

I also came to recognise the truth that there is always a human being – even if a very damaged, and sometimes dangerous, one – behind the label of being a ‘murderer’. And, of course, very few actually look as demented or demonic as Charlie Manson did in his mugshots taken in the 1960s. The vast majority of lifers in for murder do appear very ordinary and unremarkable people.

In one prison I worked for nearly a year with a mass murderer who is very unlikely ever to be released. Many years ago he was part of a gang who massacred an entire family in their own home and his crimes remain notorious. He had entered a guilty plea at trial and would almost certainly have been sentenced to die prior to the suspension of capital punishment. Yet after all these years he was still alive, a relic of an earlier era: ageing, suffering from increasing infirmity and utterly crushed by remorse and regret for his actions when he was barely out of his teens.

I've since seen a black and white police photograph of him taken at the time of his arrest decades ago. Then he looked every inch the cocky, violent young thug. Now he is a shrunken, frail, silver-haired old man who is exquisitely polite and well read in ancient history. Looking at him today, with a cup of tea in his hand and spectacles balanced on his nose, it is difficult to associate him with his heinous acts committed as a young man. He resembles a bookish retired civil servant. Having been repeatedly turned down for parole, almost certainly because of the notoriety of his crimes, he is resigned to dying in prison and admits that he actually looks forward to it.

Hands of a killer?
Although I have always been opposed to capital punishment myself, I must admit that it has crossed my mind since meeting so many of these now elderly inmates who have no realistic hope of release (indeed, some are now so institutionalised that the very idea of life outside the prison walls terrifies them after 30 or more years in custody) that a quick death shortly after trial and a dismissed appeal might have been a more humane option than being condemned to rotting away slowly in a concrete box. As prisoners age and become weaker or more infirm, then they can also become prey for younger, more aggressive inmates who view the elderly cons as ripe targets for exploitation and bullying.

If anyone reading this believes that a life sentence – especially a ‘whole life tariff’ – is somehow a soft option, I would suggest that it is actually a much more terrifying and harsh punishment than a quick death at the end of a rope or a lethal injection. If you really want someone who has committed terrible crimes to suffer for years – even many decades – consumed with guilt and remorse, then a life sentence can be immeasurably more effective as a form of punishment. I’ve seen it in action for myself. It is absolutely terrifying.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Communicate to Rehabilitate (Guest Contribution)

The latest in a series of guest posts on this blog has been provided by Claire from the PrisonPhone team. In it she highlights the practical problems of staying in touch that face prisoners and their families and friends despite the widely acknowledged importance of maintaining family ties in rehabilitation and reducing the risks of reoffending upon release.

It’s Good (and Vital) to Talk

Phone access can be a problem
Rehabilitation has always been a hot topic when it comes to the prison system. Even the most Dickensian politician is unlikely to make a total stand against rehabilitation, though admittedly, some MPs seem to sway precariously close to the notion that prison should merely be used as an instrument of punishment.

However, in the quest to identify whether or not we need rehabilitation in our prison systems, we often forget to consider what rehabilitation actually is. How is it implemented in prisons? What does it actually consist of, in practical terms? And, the big question that we struggle to find the answer to – why is communication with loved ones not really recognised as a key aspect of the rehabilitation process?

Re-educating, Re-evaluating, Recognising?

Aids rehab
Many official prison documents outline rehabilitative measures – such as education, courses, opportunities to engage in meaningful work and counselling sessions. Indeed, there’s been a lot of focus recently on the value of education – and providing inmates with a goal to work towards has undeniable value.

However, family support is very seldom recognised as an aspect of rehabilitation, which is something that never ceases to surprise us. When we talk to inmates (both past and present), the importance of staying in contact with loved ones often comes up in conversation.

Most prisoners agree that they feel better supported after chatting to family and friends, and more focused on making a positive return to society upon their release. So, in light of this, why is communication with family so undervalued in the prison system?

The Current Situation – Distancing Families

The current situation for prisoners is fairly dire. It’s common practice for inmates to be moved from prison to prison on a regular basis, often with no notice, and in many cases this means being located a considerable distance from family and friends.

When this occurs, phone communication becomes especially important. However, in some prisons opportunities for phone conversations are incredibly limited. Many phones are situated within prison wings and are only available for use at certain times of the day. Often, due to staff shortages or alarms on the wings, phone calls are banned which means the inmate is unable to contact their family on that particular occasion. This is a fairly regular occurrence.

Family ties work both ways
The usual time limit on each call is between 10 and 15 minutes. This isn’t so bad if the inmate is calling a landline. In fact, this should only cost around £1.00 - £2.00, which doesn’t take up too much of an inmate’s meagre weekly allowance. However, as we all know, sometimes getting in touch with people on a landline is difficult. Unless they know the exact time you’ll be calling, it’s possible they’ll be out, at work, picking up the children or doing one of many other tasks that take them out of the house.

A call to a mobile phone is a far more reliable option, but is currently impractical for most prisoners, due to financial constraints. In the current prison phone system, a mere eight minute call to a mobile phone can cost over £3.00, while a longer call is likely to use up a substantial portion of the prisoner’s weekly spending allowance which is also needed to purchase toiletries and other necessities.

Greater Distance, Greater Isolation

Communicating can cut tension
Without the necessary communication with family and friends, prisoners quickly begin to feel isolated, unsupported and out of touch with the world outside. This is precisely where the problem lies. Once an inmate starts to feel distanced from their family, their hometown, their society – that’s when they start to struggle to rehabilitate successfully. The thought of returning to ‘normal’ life becomes harder to imagine, because they are regularly being denied the right to maintain contact with that normal life – and it starts to become an abstract concept.

In light of this, it is unsurprising that so many prisoners report feeling isolated, depressed and, in some instances, suicidal. After all, what do most of us do when we’re feeling down, or struggling with life? We talk to those around us, and we seek comfort. In prison, finding the right person to talk to is a lot more complicated. We believe, if the government wants to improve rehabilitation and reduce rates of reoffending, it’s important to address this key issue.

Government Priorities?

A recent government document ‘Reoffending and Rehabilitation’ discusses rehabilitation in depth, identifying methods such as ‘payment by results’ (rewarding inmates for good behaviour), providing ‘meaningful and productive work’, and helping inmates to resettle in the community after their sentence is served (which is certainly a start!).

However, at no point is the issue of family support mentioned. Although we could find government documents outlining support for families and friends of inmates, nowhere could we find evidence of any document relating to the prisoners themselves – and the importance of family support whilst they’re in prison.

PrisonPhone offers a way for prisoners to enjoy cheaper tariffs when calling mobiles. The system is secure, reliable and in no way affects the current prison pay phone security. To find out more about the plans Prison Phone offer please visit the Prison Phone price plans page online (here).


Monday, 19 October 2015

Behind the Silver Screen: British Prison Films

Ask people to name famous prison films and the betting is that most of them will feature the US prison system in all its grim aspects. Titles that sprung immediately to mind include The Shawshank Redemption (1995); Escape from Alcatraz (1979) or Cool Hand Luke (1967). I’ve quoted examples of incidents from all these films in various posts on this blog, along with a whole one dedicated to the lessons of Brubaker (1980) when it comes to prison councils. It’s clear that the prison movie genre is heavily dominated by the US industry.

Not just about prison rape
Ask the same folk about British prison films and the list seems to be much shorter. Most people of a certain age seem to recall the borstal drama Scum (1979) mainly because of the infamous rape in the greenhouse episode, but more recently we have had Starred Up (2014) starring Jack O’Connell as a violent and troubled young offender. Beyond that, some might recall Porridge the movie from 1979, although the television comedy series starring Ronnie Barker is much better known.

In fact, British prison themes have been used fairly frequently; it’s just that their Hollywood counterparts seem to hog the limelight of popular consciousness. That is a shame because there is so little knowledge of our prison system among the general public, or at least those who have no personal or family experience of imprisonment.

And dad's gone prison gay
Beyond the regular diet of salacious gossip leaking out into the tabloids about former celebrities inside the nick or particularly notorious prisoners, there are occasional worthy documentaries produced when intrepid film makers have ventured behind bars and into the dark side. These do offer genuine insights into life inside, but don’t attract the mass audiences that the great classic prison movies have achieved.

Personally, I do blame both Scum and The Shawshank Redemption for fuelling male fears of gang rape that terrify so many first-timers as they head from court towards the prison gates locked in the tiny cubicles of GEOAmey transport vehicles. Even Starred Up required the obligatory enforced public nudity followed by a violent scrap in the showers, topped off by O’Connell’s character realising that his own dad has gone 'prison gay’. Is it any wonder that many first-timers are scared shitless as they stagger double handcuffed down the sweatbox steps towards Reception?

Less brutal than Scum
In a different way Borstal Boy (2000), based on the autobiographical book by Irish ex-con Brendan Behan and staring Shawn Hatosy and Danny Dyer, provides a very dated and often inaccurate picture of the life of young offenders back in the early 1940s. Although there is some reference to brutality between the youths, the main focus seems to be more on the unfolding sexual tension between the two main characters. Watching this film would probably not be a particularly good preparation for life in our dysfunctional and violent present day Young Offenders Institutions.

Of course, there are other British prison movies available. Bronson (2008), starring Tom Hardy, focuses on the human freak show presented by the rather pitiful character of Charlie Bronson (now renamed Salvador), widely billed as “the most violent prisoner in Britain” by the tabloids. Although utterly unrepresentative of life behind bars, the film does perhaps shine a light on the terrible impact of years of solitary confinement on an individual who evidently suffers from serious mental illness, as well as the Prison Service’s inability to manage unstable or dangerous inmates with any real degree of humanity.

Bronson: voyeuristic?
I can’t help feeling that the Bronson film effectively reduces a very damaged and disturbed man into a kind of circus sideshow. It has more in common with 18th century gentry paying visits to watch the inmates of Bedlam perform and howl in their chains and misery. Actually rather voyeuristic, and quite sick in its own way, even if it is based on Mr Salvador’s own writings about his tortured life in isolation cells.

There are much worthier – and more insightful – UK prison films out there. Two that don’t often seem to figure in anyone’s top ten are The Escapist (2008) which stars Brian Cox as lifer Frank Perry who is planning to escape in order to rescue his drug addicted daughter. I won’t spoil it by revealing the plot for the benefit of those who haven’t yet seen the film, but it does highlight the widespread prevalence of gambling in the nick on anything and everything – something that seems to be rarely touched upon in most British prison movies.

John Simm in Everyday
One of my personal recommendations is the more recent film Everyday (2012) produced by Michael Winterbottom and starring John Simm as a convicted drug smuggler serving a lengthy prison sentence. The power of this movie is that it was filmed using real time-lapse sessions over a five-year period, so the actual characters – including the inmate’s family – genuinely age as the film progresses. It not only provides a graphic portrayal of time going by forever, but also focuses on the daily struggles facing the wife and children of a serving prisoner, including the battle to get to visits when you have to rely on public transport. I think this is something that is all too often overlooked.

I didn’t get to see Everyday when it was broadcast by Channel 4 because I was banged up inside myself when it premiered. In some ways I’m glad I waited until I had been released before watching it. Although it lacks the brutal violence and high drama of Bronson, Scum or Starred Up, I commend the film for its gritty portrayal of wasted life and lost time which almost all prisoners experience during their period in custody. In many ways it does give a more authentic impression than most similar productions.

On hunger strike in prison
There are also a few overtly political films – with British prisons as the backdrop – such as In the Name of the Father (1993) and Hunger (2008). Both address different aspects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the Name of the Father focuses on the terrible miscarriage of justice that was behind the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon. In contrast, Hunger deals with the political hunger strikes by members of the Provisional IRA and death of Bobby Sands and others in the Maze Prison in 1981.

Although I must confess to a certain guilty pleasure in watching prison films, despite having experienced incarceration at first hand myself, I do find there is a temptation to try to spot inaccuracies and improbabilities in the portrayal of life inside. While some aspects of Starred Up seemed authentic, there were also a few implausible situations, presumably introduced to develop the dramatic tension. I often wonder whether any of these productions could be improved by having an ex-con on the team as a reality consultant.

The very fact that British prison films continue to be released every couple of years does indicate that there is still a popular appetite for jail-themed movies and television dramas. Most soaps now seem to include an obligatory prison sub-plot in which a key character gets banged-up for a few episodes.

However, what is almost always lacking is a realistic insight into the sheer boredom, humiliation, fear and grubby drudgery of real life in prison for the thousands of men, women and children who live through it day after day, year after year. Vast, overcrowded human warehouses where rehabilitation is non-existent, but substance abuse, debt, self-harm, neglect and even suicide are all part of the picture. Now that really would be a challenging artistic project to sell.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Brave One (Guest Contribution)

This is the first in a planned series of guest posts from those contributors who have personal experience of different aspects of our criminal justice system. Jonathan Robinson is the author of two books about his own prison experiences - In It and On It - and he is an active campaigner for prison reform. He highlights the urgent need for a focus on education, literacy and vocational training in our prisons as central elements in rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.

Jonathan Robinson
When in prison (as a customer) I was always amazed by the good manners exhibited by most fellow inmates towards members of the fairer sex. Recently on a prison visit with the (proper) author Martina Cole, as a number of us journeyed outside pathways within the establishment, we passed a group of inmates traversing in the opposite direction – and very jolly they were too. Lots of elegant “welcome Miss” and “thank you for coming” demeanour flew around the acoustics. Frankly, the manners displayed were unquestionably better than the pristine occupants of Westminster during the fundamentals of Prime Minister’s Questions.

I stopped and chatted to one of the friendly mob. He grinned a pure swashbuckling Colgate smile – and having no idea that he was conversing with an ex-prisoner – remarked that I was a “brave one” in that I actually engaged in conversation with a (shudder) “serving prisoner”.

A brave one? I think not. I just like chatting with inmates – especially those who want to engage – get their teeth into rehabilitation; capitalise the time they are serving with productivity. The partial quota within that division is larger than you can possibly imagine.

Bravery is something that I wish (in spades) upon our new Justice Minister, Michael Gove. For in order to significantly sort out our dismal prison system he’s going to have to rip-up a lot of the existing stuff (not) going on – which inevitably is going to essentially significantly cheese someone off, some salutary organisation – or some tabloid paper – you know, the ones that invariably refer to prisoners as ‘lags’.

Michael Gove: reformer?
Fact of the matter is though – England and Wales’ daunting current re-offending rate is blighted bottom of the statisticians’ E.U. league and hefty reform is needed now to address this. Mr Gove has incomparably made more than all the right noises insofar as acknowledging all is not well – as is – dans Porridge land and that he intends to fix it.

I have – for an awful long time now – been assuredly banging on to politicians, routinely mumbling dissatisfaction about the lack of purposeful activity in ensconced clink, making a complete nuisance of myself with a barrage of whys and wherefores... The same politicians who all to a man emphatically invariably see the recalcitrant prison issue as “an election loser” – the request to reverse that notion and make our fundamentally awry lamentable prison system something we can all be proud of – and Mr Gove’s initial toe in the water has been widespread welcomed by the rejuvenated prison reform mafia. The community who drone-on about fixing our primitive prisons of late has a potent spring in its step with the refreshing rhetoric coming from Mr Gove’s direction. Long may those atmospherics continue.

Be of no doubt however, that Mr Gove is going to need to be really brave in his reforms – for whatever he does – inevitable criticism is going to head his way. I hope he bites the perilous bullet – rides the storm – and stirs up a wayward disastrous system that for far too long has been asleep at the wheel, falling long short of its brief to rehabilitate its houseguests.

If he manages to hold-out – and insists on change – no matter who whinges; then that’s bravery...

(The author of this guest post, Jonathan Robinson, is a former prisoner turned author. His website and more information about his books and prison reform campaigning work can be found here).

Friday, 2 October 2015

Prison Reflections: the End of Summer

Now that we are into autumn, I have been reflecting on the impact of the seasons on life inside our prisons. I went into jail in the winter months and experienced a few springs and a couple of summers in closed conditions, as well as one glorious spring and a summer in a Cat-D (open prison).  

Summer sun... can be hot in prison
Of course, our personal responses to particular times of the year – or anniversaries or public holidays – are often determined by our past experiences and memories. Sad or tragic occasions can be recalled even more sharply than happy times. That’s why the Christmas season, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (read here), can be a period of deep mourning tinged with regret and a sense of loss for many inmates.

I can only guess at what the passage of the seasons means for those serving sentences far, far longer than my own. I’ve known men who have been inside for over 30 Christmases – and that also means they've lived through a similar number of seasonal cycles. That’s why the sheer enormity of a true life sentence is hard to comprehend to anyone who hasn’t lived through one – myself included. And in many cases that’s also true for victims of horrific crimes and their family members, as well as for the loved ones of those who are serving time inside. 

Annual cycles of memory may take us one year further away from trauma yet the pain rarely abates, although it may dull with the passing years. Loss – of life, of loved ones, of youth, of opportunity, of future – is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the most serious crimes.

I don’t have a personal favourite when it comes to the seasons. I enjoy the springtime as much as I enjoy the autumn. My own memories of summers, in particular, are happy. As pretty much everyone observes in middle age, the summers of our youth always seemed so much longer, as if they could last forever. Now the few really hot days of the English year usually disappear in the blink of an eye and we are back to autumn, with winter just waiting around the corner. 

Time: waits for no man
How true are the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song Time: “Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.” I remember first listening to those words when I was at school aged about 11 – and true to form – over 40 years have just gone by as if in an instant. I didn’t understand the real meaning then, although now I think that I do.

Inside closed prisons it can be difficult to keep track of the seasons, particularly if you are unlucky enough to be jobless and experience 22 or 23 hours per day of bang-up in your cell. Although I always tried to take full advantage of whatever opportunities I had to use the exercise yards and get some fresh air, I also noticed that many fellow inmates in closed jails rarely left their cells. I could name quite a few who I’d never seen on a yard over all the time I’d known them. 

Occasionally, the yard was almost empty even when 30 minutes of exercise was on offer (and not cancelled owing to staff shortages or security alerts). A few of us would agree between ourselves beforehand to go down and trudge together round the asphalt enclosure surrounded by the high mesh fence topped with coils of razor wire. In a few nicks there was a view of a lawn or even a small garden, although the worst were modern design prisons built around courtyards overlooked by cell windows. You were totally enclosed on all four sides, with only the sky above. Oscar Wilde accurately dubbed it “that little tent of blue, which prisoners call the sky” in his Ballad of Reading Gaol.

On the exercise yard
Summer can be a mixed blessing in closed establishments. True, more prisoners do venture out into the sun, especially during weekend exercise periods when you might be allowed outside for an hour. In the scorching heat of my first summer in a Cat-B we’d sit on the hot ground around the perimeter fence and chat with friends and acquaintances. Some lads even took off their t-shirts and tried to get a tan, although in theory this was prohibited. Severe sunburn, like illicit tattooing, is regarded as a form of self-inflicted injury.

The downside of a hot season is that some cells can become baking ovens, particularly when the new type of security window has been fitted. These don’t open at all, being closed units with a tiny side vent that can be opened or closed using a knob. When the mechanism is broken, the air inside – especially when it is a shared cell – can become unbearably hot. Keep a dog in such conditions and the RSPCA would be round breaking windows and handing out court summonses for animal cruelty.

In these humid conditions, when even breathing normally can be an effort, some of us were reduced to living in our underwear when we were locked down. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that tempers rise with the temperature and, in some cases, violence can flare up between inmates or towards members of staff. Such situation can be made much worse when a pad-mate is on methadone or some other medication, let alone taking illicit substances, such as so-called ‘legal highs’ such as Black Mamba or Spice which continue to plague our prison wings. 

Cell windows that open... luxury
In one Cat-B it was a joy to be in one of the upper tier cells during the summer. This particular establishment was a grim Victorian pile, but did have one massive bonus: proper windows that really opened wide on each side. Plus there was a welcome view over the prison wall to fields and trees in the distance (if you overlooked the car park of the industrial estate next door). Those windows pretty much saved my pad-mate and me during one hot summer as we’d press our faces to the open frame and drink in the cooler air.

Of course, the winter months could also be pretty awful, particularly if the in-cell heating failed, as it sometimes did, and the pipes went stone cold. Strict limits on quantities of bedding, particularly blankets meant that cold cells were more like meat freezers. We’d huddle in our bunks wearing several layers of outer clothing.

Walking round the landings
Occasional flurries of snow meant that exercise was usually cancelled due to what was termed ‘inclement weather’. This is prison-speak for screws not wanting to be standing round in the cold or rain and is often the justification for not providing any fresh air or outdoor exercise. On days like these, if we were lucky, cells might be left unlocked for 30 minutes so we could wander round the landings instead, although when staff number were down we’d be locked back behind our doors again.

We certainly reconnected with the seasons at the open prison where I spent the last year of my time inside. Having arrived in late spring I was amazed at the amount of time we could spend outdoors at an establishment with not even a fence to keep us in, let alone a wall topped with razor wire. That year we had a particularly hot May and I volunteered to work on assembling a consignment of supermarket stock trolleys for a commercial contract the establishment had won. I spent five glorious days out in the sun working with a small group of fellow cons, including one lad I knew from a previous jail we’d been in together (which is, truth to tell, how I wangled such a cushy – and pretty well-paid – temporary job). 

There was no staff supervision whatsoever in that area and we just sorted it all out ourselves. It was almost like not being inside at all. Out in the warm spring air, in the sun, down by the prison vehicle sheds. Only a complete fool would have been tempted to abscond. 

A man looked out through prison bars...
That was the prelude to a memorable summer. We were free to spend free time walking round inside the ‘bounds’ of the jail, including the large sports field near the residential units. At weekends and after work we were free to lie on the grass, chatting or snoozing. We were even allowed to sunbathe (in moderation) and buy suntan lotion. 

When I walked on the field it was the first time I’d stepped on grass for a couple of years. In so far as prison life can ever be enjoyable, I suppose that was one of the high points.

Having now spent two summers out of prison since my unexpected release, I’ve certainly come to value the freedom and the fresh air much more highly than I did prior to being sent down. Whenever I look out of the windows at the sea or potter around our garden, I have a heightened sense of enjoyment and appreciation.

However, I’m still mindful of good friends I’ve left behind who are still inside, some facing many more years before they will get a chance to leave the confines of closed prisons. Sadly, some may never make it. I hope that they have at least a few happy memories of bright spring days, brilliant hot summers, mellow autumns or crisp winter days, when they were young and still free, to sustain them as we head towards the end of yet another year.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Branded: the Mark of Cain

For those who haven’t any personal experience of our criminal justice system it might be imagined that the day an ex-prisoner walks out of the jail gate they are free. In fact, as almost every former con will confirm, that is the moment that the real consequences of imprisonment start to kick in – and these are many and varied.

Prison gates
Most newly released prisoners face a period under Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) or National Probation Service supervision ranging from a matter of weeks or months right up to the rest of their lives, depending on the length and type of sentence. The usual determinate sentence is now a 50/50 custodial term, meaning that half of the total will be served in prison, followed by the same period on licence in the community. 

While the licence is in force, the ex-prisoner is liable to recall to custody at any time if the risk of reoffending is perceived to have risen or if he or she has failed to keep to the terms of their licence conditions (or have committed a new criminal offence). Lifers released on life licence face the risk of recall until their deaths. There is a range of variations, including extended sentences, but the idea that a released prisoner is therefore ‘free’ is in many cases a myth. 

Whilst on licence you will be told where you can live, where and when you are permitted to travel, with whom you can associate and what work you may be allowed to do. Although there are so-called ‘standard conditions’ that apply to everyone released on licence, some ex-prisoners have a vast range of extra conditions that can require them to report frequently to their supervising officer, as well as severely circumscribing their movements and activities. These conditions are linked to specific risks and most are imposed to protect the public or reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

However, even once an individual’s licence period has expired, the impacts of imprisonment can continue throughout his or her life, often in ways that are unseen. We still speak of a person being ‘branded a criminal’ – usually in the context of an innocent person having been falsely accused of committing an offence. Historically, branding (or tattooing) was used in many penal situations to provide a permanent mark of a person’s criminal past.

A Tsarist-era prisoner
Tsarist Russia was particularly punitive and prior to 1846 a convict sentenced to hard labour would be – literally – branded with the initials VOR (‘thief’), with the V and R burned into the cheeks, while the O was placed on the forehead. This form of physical mutilation ensured that, like the Biblical ‘mark of Cain’, the person would be instantly recognisable to the rest of society as a condemned criminal until their dying day.

In 1846, the new Russian criminal code replaced the initials VOR with KAT (from the Russian term ‘Katorzhnik’ signifying a criminal condemned to hard labour). This punishment continued to be applied until 1863. The branded criminal was thus made into a permanent outcast from normal society, even if eventually released from custody.

Physical branding and tattooing, which were once also used in the English penal system, as well as the armed forces, gradually fell out of use, although like judicial ear-cropping and tongue-boring with red-hot irons they enjoyed considerable popularity during the 17th century. In the UK prison tattoos are now exclusively applied by prisoners to each other’s bodies, usually in return for payment, even if this is a violation of the rules. Russian prison tattoos are now so complex that there is even a three-volume encyclopaedia documenting the designs and their specific meanings within criminal society.

Anyone familiar with Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables (either the novel published in 1862 or the more recent musical or films) will be aware that the whole story is based on the idea of an ex-convict – Jean Valjean – trying to put his criminal past behind him after 19 years of hard labour in the galleys for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and then repeatedly trying to escape. He disappears and manages reinvent himself as a successful and respected businessman. Even though he eventually becomes town mayor under his assumed identity, Valjean remains the target of a relentless pursuit by Javert, a former prison officer who has become a local police inspector. 

Javert is absolutely convinced that no former convict is capable of reform or redemption. Anyone who has done time will no doubt recognise a certain type of prison officer in Hugo’s description of Javert. Every prison wing probably harbours at least one.

Jean Valjean: prisoner branded for life
By breaking his parole licence and destroying his documents shortly after his release from prison, Valjean is liable to be returned to penal servitude for the rest of his life. No matter how he has changed and regardless of the good he has done in his adopted home town, the ex-convict remains vulnerable to his secret being exposed. He bears the indelible mark of Cain, even if the physical brand isn’t visible.

These days, poor old Valjean wouldn’t stand a chance of reinventing himself, especially if on a long licence. Criminal records checks, DNA samples, fingerprints, facial recognition technology and his police mugshot would all conspire to ensure that he would be back in the slammer within hours or perhaps a few days. There is no escape. Indeed, forcible micro-chipping of convicts has occasionally been proposed by politicians chasing the law and order vote, as well as discussed enthusiastically in the tabloid media. Never say never.

Today, a released ex-prisoner will continue to experience the consequences of imprisonment. Any criminal record, even for relatively minor offences, can still have a profound impact on employability, access to rented accommodation, insurance and many financial services. However, having served a prison sentence, no matter how short, raises the stakes to a new level. Most custodial terms are an effective and permanent bar from many professions or occupations.

Although there is provision for the rehabilitation of some offenders after a specified crime-free period which varies depending on the original sentence, no-one over 18 who has been sentenced to over four years in prison can ever be legally free of their criminal record. As things stand, they are deemed to be ‘non-rehabilitatable’, even if they manage to live a completely blameless and law-abiding life.

Checking a CV for inconsistencies
Gaps in a CV need to be explained. There are requirements for disclosure of criminal records to potential employers, as well as some insurers who will increase premiums in many cases. Failure to disclose can in itself constitute deception or fraud. Although certain employers will consider ex-prisoners, opportunities are usually limited even for those who have decent qualifications and vocational skills. Many ex-cons leave jail facing the grim prospect of spending the rest of their lives on state benefits.

Finding affordable accommodation can be a major barrier to resettlement upon release from jail. Individuals who are labelled ‘high risk’ will often be placed in approved accommodation (hostels or managed bedsits), but the majority of prisoners aren’t in that category, so those who don’t have family or friends willing to put them up, at least until they get back on their feet, can end up on the streets or on park benches.

Suitable bed for an ex-con?
Add in the problems of untreated addictions and dependencies, as well as a high level of ex-prisoners struggling with mental health conditions, and the barriers can appear to be all but insurmountable. Based upon my own observations of fellow prisoners, those of us fortunate enough to have none of these challenges, as well as a family home to return to are very definitely in the minority.

I’ve written repeatedly on this blog about the issue of rehabilitation in our prisons – or more accurately, the absence of resources and any serious focus on trying to prepare inmates for release. As things stand the prison system is all too often providing costly human warehousing prior to opening the gates for those who are being discharged back on to our streets. 

Not the only prison baggage
Of course, institutionalisation is more likely for those men and women who have served longer sentences, but it can affect anyone who has been inside. I regularly advise people who are experiencing problems with a family member who has recently been released, but is finding it hard to cope on the outside. 

Adjusting to freedom – even when limited by licence conditions – and having to deal with responsibilities and everyday issues can prove an uphill task for many ex-cons. The struggles and heartaches that their families and friends often have to face are rarely acknowledged, but are very real nonetheless.

It’s sad to have to admit it, but I’m actually more surprised when I hear about someone I know from my years inside remaining crime free in the weeks and months following their release, than I am when I’m told that so-and-so has been recalled to prison or else sent down for some new offence.

We ex-prisoners are all still branded in various ways. We may no longer have our faces or bodies burned or marked with tattoos signifying our fallen state, but in many different ways we are now a class apart, most of us for the rest of our lives, whether guilty or innocent, reformed or unrepentant.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Reimagining Our Prisons

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about how British prisons could be reformed in ways that might actually do more good than harm to prisoners, to staff, to victims of crime and to our communities in general. At present, ‘prison reform’ – at least as far as successive governments seem to be concerned – is actually a weaselly code for further cutting of costs regardless of the harms that result. Reimagining the prison is something entirely different, although reducing costs could still be one of the positive outcomes. 

Prisons: do we need them?
The first question is whether I believe that prisons are necessary for public safety. My quick response is yes, I do. In common with most people who have served a prison sentence, I can think of a small number of individuals that I have got to know personally inside who I believe are so dangerous to others that their presence in any community – no matter how closely supervised – will be a ticking time bomb, liable to explode at any moment. 

Their anti-social attitudes and distorted thinking, even when suppressed or concealed during offending behaviour courses, virtually guarantees that they will reoffend, creating misery for new victims as they go. So yes, I believe that we do need our prisons to contain the most dangerous individuals in order to reduce the risk that more innocent people will get seriously harmed or even killed. In some cases, this includes members of a prisoner’s own family or neighbours.

However, the number of very dangerous men – and they are predominantly male – in our prisons is comparatively small. In fact, the select and notorious group of lifers who are considered so dangerous that they are serving what are known as ‘whole life tariffs’ (ie they will almost certainly die in prison with no foreseeable prospect of release) is limited to around 60 out of a current prison population, as of the time of writing, of just over 86,000, leaving some 85,940-odd who can expect to be released at some stage, assuming that they don’t die of either natural causes while in custody or because they are themselves the victims of violence whilst inside. 

The only way out for 60 prisoners
Of these prisoners, 11,785 or so are currently on remand (of whom around 70 percent will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted by a jury or, even if convicted, will not be given a custodial sentence and will be released immediately from court). Thousands of others are serving short sentences – ranging from a few days to less than 12 months – during which they will never have any opportunity to address the reasons for their offending behaviour or access to any kind of meaningful support for various addictions or dependencies (drugs, alcohol, gambling). Such sentences can only be seen as being purely punitive, since there is not even the pretence of any rehabilitation on offer.

In the media, and on this blog, I’ve often described imprisonment in Britain as having been reduced to costly human warehousing. It often doesn’t even reduce crime significantly since various criminal activities seem to continue across the prison estate, particularly drug dealing, by means of illicit mobile phones, corrupt members of staff and networks of associates inside and out. Much as this ‘hidden offending’ continues to plague local communities, even when the driving force is behind bars yet still making money.

Coming out worse than they went in?
Worse still, individuals living with mental health problems and drug habits often seem to emerge back onto the street in an even worse state than when they were sent down. A significant number are discharged with heavy addictions that they didn’t have before they came into jail. If prisons were hospitals, the measurable outcomes would be far worse than even the most dysfunctional NHS trust on record. In these respects, imprisonment often causes harm, rather than reduces it.

So how can we start to reimagine our prisons? In my opinion the first challenge is to break our national dependency on – and obsession with – imprisonment as a response to crime (or most antisocial behaviour, for that matter). A surprising number of those detained on short sentences are actually irritating pests or nuisances, rather than violent offenders posing any real danger to the public. Jailing most people convicted of financial crime (especially theft and fraud) is particularly pointless, since imprisonment usually deprives the offender of any opportunity to recompense their victims.

Another particularly important question is why are we routinely holding thousands of unconvicted citizens on remand, particularly when the majority won’t even receive a custodial sentence assuming that they are eventually convicted in court? In some cases teenagers of 18 or 19 with no previous criminal record are being held on remand on Cat-B prison wings (and even in shared cells) with convicted, sometimes very dangerous adults. This is a recipe for disaster, including exploitation, bullying and even sexual abuse. Moreover, exposing impressionable young people to an environment where hardened criminality is rife is hardly likely to improve their life choices or reduce the risk of reoffending.

Remanding Young Prisoners (18-21) in adult prisons
By adopting a radical new approach to the issue of remand, where the automatic presumption should be in favour of post-charging bail (with appropriate monitoring and conditions as deemed necessary) as in the USA, this would mean that the onus would be on the prosecution to justify remand to secure accommodation – such as a bail hostel – in each case rather than sending those not yet convicted to prison, particularly those who have indicated that they will plead not guilty. Only in the most serious cases where there is a genuine risk of flight, intimidation of witnesses or other violence should the custodial threshold be met. 

Even then, I would propose the use of special remand units where convicted and unconvicted prisoners are not held together. In reality, this is already enshrined in law, however most prison authorities simply choose to ignore the provisions of the Prison Act (1952) and have been known to threaten or punish remand prisoners who dare to complain.

Next I believe we should address the issue of short sentences that are purely punitive, rather than containing any element of rehabilitation. My own view is that any custodial sentence of less than a year is absolutely pointless. Sending someone down for a few days or weeks is a complete and utter waste of scarce resources. It also vastly increases the risk of homelessness on release. A positive move would be to abolish all such short custodial sentences in favour of more supportive community-based penalties, which most research (including the Ministry of Justice’s own data) indicates are likely to be more effective in actually reducing low-level reoffending.

Prisons cannot cope with the elderly
Reducing our historically high prison population should also be a key priority. Is prison really an appropriate place for the very elderly, the terminally ill, females (most of whom are not violent), the profoundly disabled or those living with serious mental health problems? In many cases I would argue not and repeated reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons reinforce the view that the Prison Service is not equipped or funded to address such complex needs. Moreover, the rigours of imprisonment can affect these groups disproportionally, so perhaps more radical solutions are required. 

Some countries do not allow for the imprisonment of the elderly at all (usually those over 75), so why not learn from effective solutions that other jurisdictions have already identified? An interim solution might be to designate specific units or wings for prisoners who have specific needs where the focus is less on security and punitive regimes, and more on care and rehabilitation. Perhaps a pilot project involving secure residential accommodation for the elderly where they could both access their pensions and contribute to their own living costs might be worth exploring as an alternative to jail.

I believe that imprisonment needs to be regarded primarily as a necessary measure designed to contain those individuals who are assessed as being so dangerous that they cannot safely live back in the community until their behaviour and attitudes have been sufficiently modified, whether through education, therapy or vocational training. These targets need to be realistic and achievable, based on the offences committed, as well as the length and type of sentence.

David - now Lord - Blunkett
The absence of this structured approach was one of the many fatal flaws in the now discredited Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), introduced by the then Labour Home Secretary David (now Lord) Blunkett in April 2005 and abolished by Parliament as an abject failure in 2012. A significant number of prisoners were handed IPPs with short tariffs for relatively minor repeat offences. 

Some who were given minimum tariffs of a few months or a couple of years in the early days of the sentencing regime are still languishing inside today, often because the main evidence of reduced risk required to satisfy the Parole Board is successful completion of offending behaviour courses that simply haven’t been available owing to shortages of resources. As the High Court ruled back in 2007, this is unlawful. In reality, it amounts to arbitrary detention that now achieves nothing beyond destroying those individuals – and their families – who are caught up in the nightmare.

I am convinced that if we really want to reimagine our prison system, then an urgent solution needs to be found to address the IPP problem, since these inmates account for around 4,600 (as of March 2015) of the current prison population. Managing them and their cases also places considerable strain on understaffed prison offender management units. Those interested in reading more about this issue can find a recent House of Commons briefing paper published in August 2015 here.

Solving the IPP question would both address a failed policy that even its architect, Lord Blunkett, has since admitted is “unjust”, as well as allow for a significant reduction in the ‘lifer’ population. This, in turn, could free up resources to improve the management and monitoring of those who would be released on licence back in the community.

Can HMPS be made fit for purpose?
I am convinced that if we take the approach of reducing the prison population very substantially – perhaps by identifying specific groups that do not really merit or require confinement, as well as actively seeking more effective alternatives – the Prison Service could be made fit for purpose, even in an era of austerity. The current overcrowding crisis could be addressed, while existing staff resources could be better deployed to refocus on offender management, rehabilitation, education and the tackling of security breaches. The reasons for low staff morale also need to be addressed.

Recently, Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, has made encouraging noises about prison reform. He has highlighted the need to put education at the centre of rehabilitation, as well as raising the issue of earned early release. 

Specific proposals have yet to be unveiled. However, while our prison population remains historically high at over 86,000, the scope for genuine reform is going to be severely limited, due to a toxic combination of overcrowding, understaffing and lack of resources. Unless the prisons budget is going to be substantially increased – which seems highly unlikely at a time when spending is being cut – then the only viable way out of the current crisis is likely to be a substantial reduction in the prison population. Hopefully Mr Gove will arrive at a similar conclusion.