Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Our Prisons: Dirty, Dispiriting and Dehumanising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2015

An Open Letter to Michael Gove

Rt Hon Michael Gove MP
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Dear Mr Gove,

As a former prisoner who writes regularly about prison and its impacts I thought I’d share a few thoughts with you and thousands of readers via my blog. You’ve had a couple of months in your new post as Secretary of State for Justice so perhaps now is the time to start thinking about how the current crisis – and it is a serious crisis – in our prisons can be addressed.

In your recent comments, both during your appearance before the Justice Select Committee and in your address to the Prisoner Learning Alliance, you have spoken encouragingly of the need for change within the prison system. In particular, you expressed the view that prisoners should be seen as “potential assets” rather than as liabilities. You have also emphasised the importance and value of education within our prisons, backing this up with the welcome announcement that restrictions on prisoners receiving books from family and friends are soon to be lifted.

While all of this is very positive – particularly following the nightmare years of your unlamented predecessor Chris Grayling – you undoubtedly have an uphill battle to fight if you really are committed to reforming our prisons. In part this is due to decades of under-investment in both buildings and people – policies that began long before you (or I, for that matter) had any involvement with the criminal justice system. However, there are also conflicting underlying cultures that will need to be addressed if sustainable reform is ever to be achieved.

The first question that I think you will need to reflect upon is what is the actual purpose of imprisonment. It is first and foremost a punishment for offences committed, but one of the declared objectives of the Prison Service is to facilitate reform and rehabilitation. I think you are by now well aware of the fact that the present system is unfit for purpose, as evidenced by the most recent annual report issued by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. 

As things stand, our prisons do not – and indeed cannot – deliver against the Prison Service’s own stated aims beyond providing unsustainably expensive human warehousing from which many individuals emerge back into the community at least as dangerous, disturbed, distressed or disruptive as they were when they were committed to custody by the courts, in some cases even more so. The reality is that, in far too many cases, there has been no attempt at rehabilitation whatsoever. In some cases reoffending is a virtual certainty.

My advice is not to be misled into becoming too focused on physical conditions in prisons. In my time as a prisoner I experienced a range of modern establishments and decrepit Victorian-era piles. Beyond basic safety and hygiene the bricks and mortar are much less relevant than the key issues of overcrowding and understaffing. Even a grim red-brick fortress can provide an effective range of educational opportunities and other purposeful activities if it is appropriately staffed, while a brand new state-of-the-art facility can fail monumentally if prisoners are confined to overcrowded cells for 22 or 23 hours each day. This is essentially a question of resources and budget and given that your department is planning further cuts, then reducing the current historically high prison population is probably the most effective means of balancing the books.

Another key issue that demands your urgent attention is low morale among prison staff. Believe me, this is at rock bottom, no matter what others may tell you. A vital question is whether the Prison Service is really recruiting the right sort of people with a high degree of commitment and professionalism – as well as an essential sense of humanity? Once recruited, are they being properly trained? 

I have encountered wing officers who have put their own lives at risk to save prisoners and have shown genuine concern and kindness, but I have also witnessed terrible acts of cruelty and inhumanity, particularly towards elderly, vulnerable prisoners or those living with serious mental illnesses. One of the places that those who have sadistic tendencies should never be permitted to work is prisons. 

An internal culture marked by brutality and contempt can be infectious and a handful of abusive staff members can undermine any efforts at rehabilitation. Too many prisoners come from violent, abusive or neglectful family backgrounds and, at times, the experience of incarceration merely reinforces their distorted views of society. Too many inmates are being bullied and assaulted whilst in the care of the Prison Service – including being subjected to sexual abuse – by fellow prisoners and this also needs to be tackled as a priority.

How many trainee prison officers have ever spoken to an ex-prisoner or had the opportunity to ask them questions? As a practical suggestion, why not involve some articulate former inmates in training sessions, particularly those who have gone on to achieve success after their release? Let new officers meet them and benefit from their wisdom and experience, as well as having personal prejudices concerning prisoners challenged.

Retaining the best officers and prison managers also requires significant investment, as well as offering opportunities for career development. Anyone who is going to spend a significant proportion of their own professional lives locked up behind high walls and barred gates (even if they do have a set of keys) also deserves to be treated as a professional, rather than as demoralised ‘turnkeys’ prowling the landings, spreading misery and contempt in their wake.

Based on my own experience, I can assure you that a little respect goes a long way in prison and too many officers demand respect without behaving in a professional, respectful manner toward those in their care. Surely prison staff should serve as role models capable of defusing tensions and conflicts. Sadly, a substantial minority aren’t. 

Restoring a much higher degree of local autonomy to prison governors as you have suggested recently will be a very welcome reform. Individual senior managers are often best placed to achieve positive change, particularly if the restrictive shackles of bureaucracy can be loosened. Appoint reformers with ideas, rather than faceless civil servants. A degree of risk-taking can be healthy even in a high security environment. My advice is to give governors back the real power to make decisions, recognising that they – like any senior manager in the public service – must also be accountable and take responsibility.

In respect of rehabilitation, I agree that education can and should play a vital role. However, there is also a dangerous tendency towards coercion in prisons that undermines what can be achieved in the classroom or workshop. It’s worth remembering that many prisoners who live with literacy problems have previously failed in school and, as adults, may be fearful and resentful of being coerced back into formal classroom settings. 

Having worked as a peer mentor in prison education departments, my advice is to adopt policies that encourage positive participation and achievement, whether that be academic or vocational. For some prisoners, work assignments in prison – whether as cleaners, wing painters, kitchen staff or in the stores – may be the first regular ‘employment’ they have ever experienced. This presents an opportunity to mirror the job market on the outside and develop relevant skills.

Why not encourage governors to introduce proper recruitment procedures for work assignments that could include help to prepare a written CV and an application? Perhaps a formal interview could take place. Don’t simply let the current culture of ‘jobs for the lads’ – those prisoners who are either over-friendly with or else subservient to officers – continue unchallenged. Why isn’t every new reception to prison asked from the very beginning what they feel they can contribute to the life of the establishment?

Another suggestion is to ensure that education is valued and recognised. Some prisons used to award small cash bonuses to prisoners who gained qualifications and vocational certificates. Why not reintroduce this system across the prison estate? It would represent a relatively modest investment in education as part of the rehabilitation process? Moreover, prisons could consider holding special family visits during which certificates earned could be presented by a governor… or even a government minister.

Every prison has a contingent of well-educated inmates, many of whom will be first time offenders. Why not make better use of their skills and experience by expanding the existing peer mentoring systems across the prison estate? Encourage prison labour boards to match prisoners’ qualifications with mentoring roles, rather than squander such resources. 

Further expansion of the voluntary Toe by Toe adult literacy scheme to encourage individual prisoners to improve their skills should be regarded as a key priority, particularly since it is so cost effective for the taxpayer as it relies on volunteer peer mentors trained and equipped through the Shannon Trust. Not only does this system deliver impressive results, but it also contributes to the sense of achievement of those who offer mentoring while serving their sentences.

Moreover, when prisoners have taken the initiative to enrol in distance learning courses – particularly as these are now funded by the individual or via an education loan – why not count these inmates as being in full-time education and give them study periods paid at the usual rate for classroom attendance, rather than marginalising such activities that can play a major role in reducing reoffending and improving the chance of successful resettlement upon release? 

Another suggestion is to give governing governors more control over education in their respective establishments. This may require reviewing the current Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) arrangements, but I believe that you recognise prison education is much more than ticking boxes and payment by backsides on classroom seats. 

Too many prison education providers recruit cut-price tutors who have failed in classrooms outside – through inexperience, laziness or incompetence – and within a prison setting mediocrity and failure has been tolerated and permitted to thrive for too long. Many more prisoners will respond positively to an inspirational teacher than a bored individual who is sitting at the back reading a newspaper for most of the session. The present arrangements do little to encourage or reward good teaching.

There is also concern that rehabilitation interventions that actually demonstrate positive results in reducing reoffending – such as the Sycamore Tree victim awareness programme – are facing funding cuts by your ministry. Will you undertake to review such decisions personally?

Finally, please don’t allow the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to continue excluding researchers, prison reformers, journalists and fellow politicians from our prisons. The current effective information lockdown, where establishments in England and Wales often appear less accessible than those in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, does our country a serious disservice. Encouraging a greater spirit of openness, as well as wider public awareness of the reality of our prison system, can only assist in your mission if you are genuinely committed to achieving positive change.

I hope that the above reflections might be of interest to you, particularly since they are based on personal experience within our prisons. I would not have written such an open letter as this to Mr Grayling. It would have been attempting to have a dialogue with a concrete wall. However, you have expressed yourself and your ideas with unusual openness and have provoked much interest and debate within the media and among the public. 

You have the chance to tackle the crisis in our prisons and to bring to an end the current culture of failure, waste and hopelessness. Please don’t allow your own enthusiasm for reform to end in disappointment and disillusionment like Ken Clarke’s much-vaunted ‘rehabilitation revolution’ did. I genuinely wish you every success.

Yours sincerely,

Alex Cavendish
Prison UK: an Insider's View

Monday, 13 July 2015

Prisoners and Books: Back to the Future?

During the past few months of recuperation I’ve had plenty of time to think about prison issues. In some ways being seriously ill is not entirely dissimilar to being in jail. There are many things that you’d like to do and places you’d like to visit, but you can’t. At best you just have to wait.

Mr Gove: undoing the damage?
For my return to blogging – although on a less regular basis than before, at least for now – I thought I’d comment on the welcome decision by Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Justice, to lift the ludicrous restrictions placed on prisoners’ access to books by his benighted (and utterly unlamented) predecessor ‘Calamity’ Chris Grayling. Instead of limiting each prisoner to a maximum of 12 books, there has been a return to the old tried and tested regulation that merely set overall volumetric limits on the total amount of personal property a prisoner can hold ‘in possession’ at any one time. In theory this is limited to what can fit into two standard prison property boxes (excluding a guitar or medical equipment), although some establishments seem to be more flexible than others. 

When I was inside I certainly had far more books than the arbitrary limit of 12 (plus a religious book and a dictionary) imposed by Mr Grayling from 1 November 2013. I had taken a pile of paperbacks with me in my holdall when I was sent down and I added quite a few extra that were then sent in from home by my family at my request. All this was before Mr Grayling’s campaign to make serving a prison sentence even more difficult and pointless than it already is.

Not your average prison cell...
Fortunately, I’d moved to a Cat-D (open) prison months before the new rules began to be imposed. Had I still been in closed conditions, the likelihood is that I’d either have had a number of my own books confiscated or else ended up getting ‘nicked’ (put on a disciplinary charge) and punished. If I’d reached my limit of 12, then presumably I would have been banned permanently from borrowing any books from the prison library. 

Luckily for me, this particular Cat-D prison was so short of staff that they couldn’t even control the flow of drugs (legal and illegal) or other contraband into the establishment, therefore counting the books on the shelf in my room  - no cells in open nicks – really wasn’t going to happen. To be honest, I suspect that most of the uniformed staff hadn’t even read the new regulations in any detail and those who had couldn’t have cared less about how many books were around. They had much bigger fish to fry.

Of course, it is true that there was a clause in the rules that allowed individual prisoners to make a specific application to the governor for permission to have more than 12 books in possession (and remember that total included any volumes borrowed from the prison library). However, the bureaucracy involved could be daunting and often extremely slow. Over-stretched prison staff generally don’t have time to deal with written applications of this sort at the best of times.

What these regulations meant in practice was that inmates who were trying to complete distance learning courses, especially Open University qualifications, had extra hurdles to jump. Imagine trying to revise for exams when access to the core textbooks was either severely limited or else denied. At least this sort of mean pettifogging nonsense should soon be coming to an end.

The voice of reason
It is also equally welcome that the ban on family and friends posting in books from home is also set to end. Since the High Court ruled back in December that it was unlawful to prohibit prisoners from receiving books, in part because of the severe limitations of prison libraries and widespread issues of access due to staff shortages, Mr Grayling’s blanket ban had been relaxed, although not before a considerable whack of taxpayers’ cash had been wasted on legal fees whilst fighting the case. 

Since February the purchase of titles by families and friends from four official suppliers – Blackwells, Foyles, Waterstones and WH Smith – for direct delivery to prisoners has been permitted, although some prisons have been very slow to implement the new regulations and a few seem not to have bothered trying. I have previously blogged on this issue in more detail here.

Soon families, friends and external organisations (such as charities and distance learning providers) will once again be permitted to send in books direct, subject to the usual security checks such as X-rays, sniffer dogs and inspection by the censor’s office. All very sensible, really. 

Go find the book!
The new rules will come into effect from 1 September. Presumably this delay is to allow for the drafting and circulation of an amendment to Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 on Incentives and Earned Privileges in order to establish a framework for the incoming arrangements. As far as books are concerned at least, this fatally flawed PSI – ‘Calamity’ Chris’ dysfunctional brainchild – will be consigned to the dustbin of history; an inconvenient footnote in what has proved to be a disastrous and unnecessary policy – and more importantly – one that helped mobilise a popular campaign about prisoners’ access to books.

In one respect at least, Mr Grayling has done us all an unintended favour. By introducing such severe restrictions on prisoners and their access to books he managed to spark off a widespread national (and international) debate on education and literacy within the prisons in his charge. Far more people are now aware of the day-to-day restrictions prisoners face, many of which have little or nothing to do with either security or rehabilitation.

Mr Gove is clearly a skilful politician. He has sensed the way the wind of public opinion is blowing on this issue and has unceremoniously ditched a key element of his predecessor’s deeply toxic legacy. Overnight, he has been able to present himself as an enlightened reformer who is attempting to undo some of the damage done to the Prison Service since 2012.

Silk purse... or sow's ear of a politician?
What is also worth noting is that he has achieved this in a way that clearly shows all the huffing and puffing about books sent through the post presenting a dire threat to security (and even more so the spread of ‘subversive’ ideas) from the spokeswonks down at the Ministry of Justice during the Grayling era was no more than dishonest propaganda designed after the fact to defend an indefensible, ideologically-motivated and downright nasty policy (see my blog post on this here). But then we all knew that anyway, of course.

Whether this will really mark the beginning of a new dawn in UK penal policy remains to be seen. Can Mr Gove really reform our failing and dysfunctional prison system and refocus away from mere retribution towards rehabilitation? We shall see.