Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Journey into the Depths of the Night

Readers of this blog often ask me about what my experience of imprisonment means to me as an ex-prisoner. Usually they are facing a prison sentence, sometimes quite long stretches, and are trying to make sense of what is about to happen to them. Or else it could be family members who are anxious over what their loved one might be going through in jail and concerned about how incarceration might change the person they know and care about.

A very dark night
Although it’s relatively easy to describe the basics of prison in a straightforward, factual way, it be can much more difficult to deal with the psychological and emotional impact of confinement. Prison changes everyone. Often for the worse, but sometimes the experience can also provide an opportunity for personal growth and greater self-awareness.

Prison is a voyage of discovery, a journey into the depths of the night, the longest night of the human soul, and maybe it is a wicked thing to say, but it has been a blessing in the heaviest disguise.

I rediscovered these words – written by the English novelist John King – when I was searching through some prison paperwork this morning. I had read his dystopian account of confinement, The Prison House (2004), when I was banged-up in a pretty grim Victorian-era Cat-B prison and this particular sentence really stood out. In fact, it came to mean so much to me that I actually wrote it out on a spare prison envelope and pinned it to my cell notice board next to my bunk. This scrap of paper is one of the survivals from my time inside and I have it on my desk beside me as I’m typing this post.

A blast from the past
Seeing time in prison as a journey appealed to me, as did the idea of using my time inside as a journey of discovery about myself, as well as others. Almost anyone can imagine being deprived of material possessions, decent food and even sympathetic human contact, but really experiencing this for months or even years is entirely another thing. You can never really be sure about the limits of your own endurance until you have explored them.

The view of imprisonment – and human suffering – as a dark night of the soul isn’t new. The 16th century Spanish friar and poet St John of the Cross explored this in his famous poem Dark Night of the Soul. John was no stranger to imprisonment, having been jailed by a faction of his fellow friars who disapproved of his reforming zeal. During the nine months he was imprisoned in the most terrible conditions he was regularly flogged – at least once a week – as well as being nearly starved to death. Those saintly friars really knew a thing or two about dishing out Christian charity. No doubt they would be readers of the Daily Mail nowadays as they seem to have shared similar views on the best way to treat prisoners.

St John of the Cross
Eventually, John managed to break out of his cell, then climbed out of a tiny window and escaped from his torturers. He went on to become one of Spain’s most celebrated poets and religious reformers.

Fortunately, my own time in the slammer didn’t involve physical flogging, but there was a degree of emotional battery, including periods spent in solitary confinement and the realisation of what losing your liberty really means in practice. No longer having any real choices. Not being able to engage directly with family members and friends at will. Obeying orders, no matter how ridiculous or unfair or humiliating they might be. Being told off like a naughty child. Witnessing acts of extreme violence. All of these can have lasting impacts, emotional as well as psychological.

Occasionally, I still get angry about things that occurred in prison, even though I’ve now been out for two years. Not all of these incidents happened to me, but often to those around me. There were acts of gratuitous cruelty, sometimes committed by members of staff, but often between prisoners themselves. Like other closed communities, prison can offer a playground for sadists who enjoy causing pain and hurt to others, so perhaps that should come as no great surprise.

On the other hand, I have also witnessed amazing acts of kindness and selflessness. I’ve written about this phenomenon previously (read here), but it is still worth emphasising again that many prisoners demonstrate a genuine capacity for caring for those around them, especially those who are in distress or suffering from ill-health. Recognising this was also an important part of my own journey through this unfamiliar terrain that I was exploring.

Behind cell doors
Of course, I had my own ‘dark nights’ in my cell. Everyone does. There were nights after the lights had gone out that I genuinely hoped I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Or that if I did, this would all turn out to have been a very long and vivid nightmare.

At times, I was genuinely amazed at how resilient I actually became behind bars. Experiences that I’m sure would have left me crushed or devastated in my previous life could now be endured or even laughed off. I had never really taken Nietzsche’s famous comment “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” seriously before, but it was a common expression amongst prisoners. I doubt that the old German philosopher could have imagined that one of his quotes would become the motto of many prison inmates, but it really has, even if many of those who quote it have no idea of its origins.

I’m sure that testing your own limits is a strong driving force for many explorers and adventurers. Programmes about travelling to distant or inaccessible lands, or else rowing across vast oceans, have become part of the stable diet on television, particularly when some celebrity or other is dragged through the wilderness or the snow. Even US President Barak Obama recently got in on the act (backed up by an enormous retinue of secret service agents and other flunkies who mainly kept out of camera shot).

In some way or other, it is a fascinating experience to pass through some testing ordeal and emerge at the other end a stronger, better or wiser person – preferably all three. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a period of imprisonment might have a similar impact? That is an important question at the time when there is an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of prison sentences.

Read in prison
So could time in prison ever be ‘a blessing in the heaviest disguise’ as John King had his narrator state in The Prison House? Well, in some cases, I think it can be, even when it has been reduced to little more than human warehousing.

I remember men who I’ve met in prison who have overcome a lifetime of literacy with the help of volunteer mentors trained by the Shannon Trust and can now read and write for the first time. I’ve spent time with them in prison libraries while they choose books to read for themselves.

Then there are those who have lived dangerous and chaotic lives on the street who have had the time to reflect on their choices, as well as starting to confront some of their inner demons. Others have actively sought mental health support or help with their dependencies. Some embrace therapy to equip them to better manage their anger and lack of self-control. Many are all too aware of the suffering they have inflicted on others, something that can be very difficult for some people to live with.

However, progress towards rehabilitation can be intense and time-consuming which is why short prison sentences are often counter-productive. Confining people with complex personal and psychological needs to tiny shared prison cells for 23 hours a day will very rarely address any of these issues. It is rather like putting a patient in hospital and then confining them to bed all day with no treatment whatsoever or, in too many cases, without even an initial diagnosis.

No substitute for mental healthcare
If a 5-minute conversation during the reception process with a member of the healthcare team is the total extent of most prisoners’ assessments, it is unsurprising that so much mental illness goes unrecognised and untreated in our prisons, while incidents of self-harm and suicide are increasing annually. The simple truth is that the necessary resources just aren’t there to cope in this era of overcrowding and understaffing.

Exploring our prison system isn’t just about confronting one’s own fears and anxieties during the voyage of discovery. It is also about seeing how others behave and how they are treated – or else how they are warehoused and neglected prior to being released back onto the streets. If we really want people to change for the better and to cut rates of reoffending, then sentencing thousands to watch the Jeremy Kyle Show all day on TVs we rent them for 50p a week really isn’t going to make any difference.

Had I never had these experiences myself, I would never have written so much about prisons and imprisonment based upon my own journey into the depths of the longest night. John King was right. For me, it really has been a blessing, even if it was in the heaviest of disguises.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Preparing for Prison

I’ve written previously about various aspects of imprisonment, including practical preparations such as packing your personal possessions (read here) and some elements of prison psychology, but recently I’ve been asked several questions about whether anyone can really prepare mentally for a custodial sentence. I think this is a very important issue, so I thought I should share some of my own reflections with readers.

Be aware of how courts work
A major factor in preparing for the possibility of a sentence of imprisonment is whether you intend to plead guilty or not guilty. If a guilty plea is almost certain to result in a custodial penalty at court, then a degree of mental preparation is essential. If you haven’t been in court for a trial, it might help to attend someone else’s case and just sit in the public gallery to see how things work before you take your own place in the dock. I did that myself and found it an interesting and helpful experience.

While awaiting the hearing and sentencing, there is also time to make other necessary preparations, depending on the anticipated length of the sentence. This can include settling financial and business affairs, storage of possessions if you might lose your accommodation, dealing with childcare (if required), finding homes – temporary or permanent – for pets and asking trusted family members or close friends to deal with personal issues in your absence.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, so it’s difficult to offer an exhaustive list. What is certain is that if all these matters have been sorted out before your sentencing hearing, it can relieve a great deal of stress once you are behind bars.

Except when in prison, of course!
As a prisoner, it can be much more problematic to do everyday tasks, such as simply contacting your own bank. The prison PIN phone system will not permit you to register or call most bank telephone numbers unless you happen to have a specific branch contact, which seems to be rarely issued these days. Forget about telephone banking, because it’s basically impossible to use. Nor is there any chance of accessing online banking services.

The best you can hope for is that you’ll be able to send written instructions to deal with banking issues by post. Of course, this also means that any confidential financial matters are likely to become known to the prison censors if your correspondence is being read.

It is worth being aware that there are also some specific financial activities that prisoners are not permitted to engage in whilst in custody following conviction. These restrictions include:

any transaction to run a business
any stock or share purchase or unauthorised sale
entering into any loan or credit agreements
gambling or the making of payments for other games of chance

So if you have any business activities that are ongoing or other financial commitments, alternative means of managing them will have to be found. In such cases, advice from professionals is likely to be essential. Remember that all your existing insurance policies, including home and car cover, are also likely to be voided by a criminal conviction unless declared.

Don't ignore dental health before prison
Another hot tip is to ensure that you have had any dental treatment before you are sent down. Prison dental care can be truly shocking, so a good check-up before you go to jail is vital. Sort out any dodgy fillings or other problems, because toothache when you are banged-up in your cell can be utter misery and you can easily wait weeks or even months for an appointment. Some people can also find the sheer humiliation of being taken out of prison for treatment while dressed in prison clothing and handcuffed to an officer a very traumatic experience.

However, preparing for imprisonment if you are pleading not guilty and will be facing a trial can be much more complicated. In reality, no matter how strong you believe your defence to be things can go wrong under the glare of the bright lights in court.

Your fate in the their hands
Witnesses might not say what you expected them to; you might not fare well under cross-examination and there is always the risk that some unexpected piece of prosecution evidence might be served on the day in court (I’ve seen this happen more than once). Your barrister might screw up your case too. Finally, the jury – 12 random men and women – may simply not believe your defence and vote to convict you, even if you are genuinely innocent. Even if two jurors have doubts, the votes of the remaining ten are sufficient for a conviction.

Military training is supposed to prepare troops for the ‘shock and awe’ of capture by the enemy. Nothing can really prepare a first-timer for the shock of imprisonment. From that moment the judge has pronounced sentence and spoken the fateful words: “You can take him (or her) down,” your life has changed forever. Even if it is a short sentence or your legal team launches an immediate appeal, you are still a prisoner.

In the dock in court
If the dock officer has a bit of decency, then you may not actually be handcuffed in the dock before you are led to the door at the rear that leads to the cells beneath the courtroom. Some have stairs, others have lifts, but passing through that door is like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. It is another world where everything has suddenly changed.

Having got to know literally hundreds of people who have had exactly the same experience, I think the overwhelming sense is one of absolute fear of the unknown. Perhaps it gets less traumatic the second time (fortunately that’s not something I can comment on personally) – or third or fourth time, but that first time produces a range of emotions that cannot be erased from the mind.

There’s rarely a week when I haven’t reflected on that day from different perspectives. Watching or reading the news can trigger memories when the story is about someone being sent to prison, a conversation can have a similar effect. There is an indelible trauma of losing your liberty as you walk through that back door on your way to the cells beneath.

Double cuffing a prisoner
Never underestimate that cold click of steel as your wrist is cuffed, chaining you to another human being who now has control over you. Most newly convicted prisoners are so shocked at the experience that they become compliant. I know I did.

Some dock officers will be as humane as they can be within the rules. Once you have been body searched (not a full strip-search at that stage, just a thorough pat down) and have had all your valuables confiscated and inventoried on a property form, you will be locked into a holding cell – a very bleak room indeed – but also offered a cup of tea. Then your solicitor and/or barrister may arrive in the cell block to discuss the situation, particularly whether you are intending to appeal either conviction, sentence or both.

Finally, after what can be a long wait of some hours in the holding cell, you will be handcuffed again – two pairs this time, one set chaining your wrists together and the other linking you to the escort officer – before being led down the corridor to the waiting transport van (‘sweatbox’) where you will be locked into a tiny cubicle with a rock hard seat and a tinted window for your journey of shame to the nearest Cat-B local prison where pretty much everyone will start their sentence, unless already a provisional Cat-A inmate (usually murder, terrorism or serious organised crime).

Sweatbox on the way to a prison
If you are lucky (or not remotely famous/infamous) then the press won’t be waiting in the hope of getting a tabloid ‘snatch pic’ of you shambling in your chains to the van or else through the window of the sweatbox. Some courts have a closed area at the rear of the building where prisoners are shielded from the worst of the public exposure and ridicule, but others don’t.

I was lucky and no press had even bothered to show up on the day, so unimportant am I, but others have not been so lucky and the trauma of the ritualised public shaming can diminish them as human beings. Can you prepare mentally for that? I very much doubt it.

In all probability, you won’t even know which prison you’ll be taken to on that first day. For loved ones who have been in court or waiting back at home, this can be a period of silence and anxiety. You ‘disappear’ into the criminal justice system, only to emerge as a number. It can be a good idea to ask your legal team to let your family know what has happened under the court, but often even they have no idea where you are heading either.

It can be a strange and very melancholy journey in the tiny cubicle. As you leave from the rear of the court you may see streets that earlier that day you were walking as a free citizen, unless you were already held on remand. In my case I looked at the small coffee shop that my solicitor and I had had our coffee each morning before the session in court. We drove past landmarks that I recognised from my past life – in fact just a matter of hours before. W.B. Yeats was spot on when he wrote in his poem Easter 1916 of how people and commonplace things have “all changed, changed utterly.”

You will see people on the streets passing by, perhaps glancing at the prison van with curiosity or hostility as they imagine what kind of monsters and wrong ‘uns are confined within. They are free, but you are not. This is really where the true ‘otherness’ of being a prisoner starts.

Waiting outside the prison gate
When you arrive at your destination prison you may still have time – occasionally hours – to wait before you are re-handcuffed and escorted into Reception to be ‘processed’. This involves being formally identified, photographed, strip-searched, re-clothed in prison kit, interviewed and assessed by staff. You’ll be asked a lot of questions, but told very little about your fate.

I’ve dealt in an earlier post with the subjects of prison strip-searches in Reception (read here) and having your personal possessions sorted into two heaps: those permitted and those forbidden. The former – often a very small number – will be placed into a large transparent bag with HMPS on the side and you will be allowed to take them with you to your cell. The remainder will go into sealed black property boxes until either they can be handed out to visitors or stored. You probably won’t see these items again until the day you are released or if you eventually make it to an open jail.

Different prisons operate differently. Some have ‘first night’ centres where new arrivals are accommodated and watched closely lest they succumb to despair and attempt suicide. Others have ‘induction wings’ where you might spend anything from a few days to weeks, depending on the availability of cells on normal wings or house-blocks.

The moment before the door slams
Forget the holding cell under the court and the journey locked in the tiny sweatbox cubicle. It will be the moment that you are in your first cell when the heavy metal door is slammed shut for the first time and you realise that there is no handle on the inside that you really come to understand that you are now a prisoner.

Everyone is supposed to go through induction, which can last a week or so. This is where staff or other inmates – often peer mentors called Insiders or Buddies – will try to explain as much of the complex and arcane processes and procedures of prison life as they can. They should advise you of your privileges (not many on the new Entry Level) and how you can progress to Standard and then Enhanced within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. If you’d like to read more it’s all here in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013.

You’ll be assessed for mental health (often no more than a few quick questions, such as “Are you feeling suicidal?”) and tested for education skills. Don’t expect a degree – or even a PhD – to prevent you being assigned to a very basic level of literacy class if they need to get classroom numbers up, especially just before an inspection or visit from Ofsted. Still, my advice is take whatever education or work is offered.

Got a cleaning certificate already?
Often ‘free-world’ qualifications will be ignored in favour of dog-eared prison certificates. This can be how repeat offenders manage to get all the best jail jobs. “I’ve got my Industrial Cleaner’s Level 2 from Wandsworth.” Go to the top of the list for a cushy wing cleaner’s post. Ask anyone who has been inside. They’ll tell you the same. It’s just one of the many ways that recidivism is routinely rewarded in our nicks.

You’ll also have to learn a seemingly enormous list of prison rules and petty regulations. Even a relatively minor slip-up can cost you dearly and there’s often very little leeway given. In my first week at a Cat-C prison I once took a wrong turn along an internal walkway and ended up on a wing that appeared identical to my own, but which wasn’t mine. I politely asked a passing wing officer for directions and was shouted at, made to feel about 7-years old and told I was “bloody lucky not to be down the Block on a charge for attempting to escape.” Thank you too, Guv. Have a nice day.

"Want a brew in your pot?"
Then there is the prison slang that gets used everyday. A typical conversation between two seasoned old cons would probably be pretty unintelligible to most outsiders. Many everyday objects, from china tea mugs to rolling tobacco, have different names in convict jargon. This can also vary from prison to prison. I’ve blogged about this here. It’s worth learning the slang just to be able to understand what others are talking about.

I’ve also written about sharing a prison cell with a complete stranger (read here). In fact, unless you are a lifer or starting out in a Cat-A prison (high security estate), the chances are you will have to ‘two-up’ – share – with some random fellow con. Officially it is policy to segregate smokers from non-smokers but this doesn’t always happen, especially in this era of chronic overcrowding.

Two'd up: sharing a cell
If you are lucky, you’ll eventually get the chance to move in with someone you get on with tolerably well. If you are very fortunate, you might share with a pad-mate you actually like. That happened to me five times during my sentence – I consider myself very lucky – and I’m still friends with several of these lads. We have shared history, so to speak.

So is there any way to really prepare for all of this? It’s a bit like trying to plan for an expedition to an unknown and very strange land. You can try to imagine it and the people or dangers you might encounter, but to be honest there isn’t much you can do to prepare mentally to cope with the fear, anxiety, sense of daily humiliation and loneliness you are likely to experience as a prisoner. Prisons are also very noisy establishments, so if you are a particularly light sleeper or can’t nod off when someone else is snoring loudly above or below your bunk, then I’d recommend investing in a pair of foam earplugs.

There are some aspects of prison life I don’t believe anyone can prepare for. Watching a fellow con being beaten until they bleed or having boiling water and sugar thrown in their face (‘jugging’) or discovering a cell-mate hanging lifeless from the end of your shared bunks, those events – which are mercifully rare – can’t be anticipated. They are traumatic and you just have to deal with them as best you can. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many inmates – and a fair few prison staff - suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even if it hasn’t always been diagnosed.

A real prison WC in a cell
On the other hand, if a custodial sentence really is on the cards, then I suppose you could rehearse by sleeping on a rock hard mattress in your bathroom, next to the toilet for a few nights. That’s probably the nearest you’ll get to an authentic preparation for life in an English prison cell.

For me, one of the most important aspects of getting ready for imprisonment is to ensure that you have a strong support network on the outside. If you have close family and friends talk to them about your forthcoming sentence. Don’t let them find out from the local paper (or even the evening news on TV). Ask a loved one to let the people you want to hear from know your prison number and address as soon as you can send it out or give it over the phone. Make sure that you have a small address book with all the names, addresses and phone numbers of anyone and everyone you are likely to want to write to, including your bank.

It never hurts to do some reading up about prison in advance and there are various books available, as well as informative websites and a few blogs. However, there can be no real substitute for living the reality of prison on a day-to-day basis. Avoid most TV prison dramas and films. They almost always show a sensationalised version that will bear little or no relation to reality, which is mainly about surviving the grinding boredom.

Finally, my advice is to try to stay as calm as possible. Prison can be a real test of character and you will have to rely on your own mental and emotional resources. However, if you are sensible, keep your head low and steer clear of drugs, debt, stealing from other cons and ‘grassing’ (informing on fellow prisoners), you are unlikely to be the target of any violence. Above all, stay in contact with family and friends if at all possible. Their support can prove vital in helping to maintain your sanity and emotional well-being while you are behind bars. Never take that for granted.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Prison: a Compensation Culture?

It seems that you can always rely on those ‘terrible tabloid twins’ – The Sun and the Daily Mail – to tell their readers half a story. This weekend their latest prison-related smear campaign focused on prisoners putting in compensation claims for civil losses, such as missing or damaged items of property, or for personal injuries suffered while in custody.

Valuable property bag
Of course, neither rag bothered probing too deeply behind the latest Ministry of Justice (MOJ) figures which revealed that during the course of 2015 it had paid out a total of £9.3 million in connection with prisoners’ claims. At the same time, it is worth noting that similar claims by members of prison staff cost the taxpayer a grand total of £19.5 million, mostly for personal injuries. The total bill came to £28.8 million, a fair old whack when you think about it.

Perhaps predictably, the focus was on stirring up righteous indignation among the blue rinse hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade over a few very high profile cases. These included claims made by Kevan Thakar (a regular hate figure for the tabloids) and Michael Adebolajo, one of the two murderers of Lee Rigby. Equally predictable was the reaction by the usual Tory politicians who scrambled over one another to express their sense of outrage.

Apparently on the defensive, the MOJ – via junior minister Dominic Raab – announced that it has instructed a London-based specialist law firm, BLM, to analyse compensation claims made against HMPS. BLM specialises in defending personal injury claims. It also states that it has ‘broken through the £100 million barrier’ – presumably turnover – in its practice that focuses mainly on risk and general insurance cases. According to Chambers Legal Directory, BLM offers ‘fantastic advice on cases that are costly, complex and reputationally difficult.’

Hmm. I bet such blue chip legal services don’t come cheap, but there’s no denying that the MOJ does have a pretty grim ‘reputational’ problem. Whether throwing more money at it will make a difference remains to be seen.

A 'reputational' problem?
What these two newspapers’ stories barely touched upon is the real reason prisoners’ claims appear to be so expensive to deal with: the fact that it is government policy to ‘robustly defend’ pretty much all compensation claims made within the prison sector, including it would appear, those made by prison staff injured in the course of their duties. That policy will no doubt do wonders for staff morale in the service, which is already close to rock bottom.

When analysed carefully, it is clear that the majority of financial claims made by prisoners fall into one of three categories:

Unlawful detention (when there has been a miscalculation of sentence or some other administrative cock-up)
Personal injury (usually slips, trips and falls on the wings or around the kitchens or other workplaces, although it can includes claims of assault by other prisoners or prison staff)
Lost, stolen or damaged personal property

Small property claims are by far the largest single reason that prisoners take action against HMPS. These rarely concern theft of property held ‘in possession’ in the individual prisoner’s cell since it is made clear by Reception that any personal items an inmate chooses to have in his or her possession is at the person’s own risk. If a fellow con – or ‘pad-thief’ – makes off with your CDs, clothing or tobacco, then putting in a claim against the prison authorities won’t get far unless a member of staff has actually unlocked the cell and allowed other prisoners unauthorised access. I am aware of cases of this sort, but good luck with proving it.

Lost in translation
By and large property claims are made when the property was either held in storage (‘stored prop’), when sent to the prison laundry or while in transit between prisons during a transfer. Prisons are notorious for losing or damaging bags and boxes of personal property, a problem that is complicated by the fact that transport has been contracted out to private sector providers that are also very unkeen to take the rap when things go wrong.

Often, when property has been mislaid in transit, neither the sending prison nor the destination establishment will be willing to accept any liability. What ensures is then a protracted game of institutional ping-pong as paperwork and complaints amble around the system. Unravelling who signed for what and when can be as complex as trying to chase up lost luggage from budget airlines and can take months or even years. Only the most tenacious really stay the course.

Other types of property claims – including some of the claims highlighted by The Sun and The Mail – involve allegations that vindictive members of staff may have done deliberate damage to a specific prisoner’s property in order to take revenge or to provoke the individual making the allegation. While incidents of this kind are probably not that common – think of all the extra paperwork it can generate – I know for a fact that such acts of vandalism do occur as I’ve witnessed it happening and have then been asked to help fellow inmates navigate their way through the complex and time-consuming complaints procedure at not inconsiderable risk to my own well-being.

In one Cat-B prison I well remember seeing two wing officers clearing out the cell of a particularly unpopular young prisoner who was by then locked up down in the Block (segregation unit) for ‘kicking off’. Always challenging in his behaviour, he had lost his temper and assaulted two members of staff – for which he had been charged and was being held in solitary confinement ahead of a disciplinary hearing. While he was absent, his cell was emptied and his possessions packed up in order to make room for another con.

Shared prison cell
Wing officers take responsibility for this and are supposed to complete what is known as a cell clearance certificate. When it is a shared cell and only one prisoner is moving, then in theory the other inmate is supposed to be in attendance in order to identify which items of property belong to whom. Given staff shortages, however, on occasion this doesn’t happen and property mix-ups can occur. The absent prisoner then returns from work or education to discover half his prop has disappeared.

This particular cell clearance seemed to consist of smashing anything breakable, including his stereo system, which was deliberately dropped over the railings from the 2s (first floor) and hit the polished lino floor with a loud bang. His family photos were torn off the notice board, books had covers ripped off and his china mug and plate were smashed. I stood at the door of my cell, as did dozens of others, watching and listening to this wrecking in progress. I suppose it was intended as an object lesson for the rest of us.

What was happening was clearly an act of revenge by two members of staff who disliked this lad intensely. What I found particularly disappointing was that one of the officers was actually a generally friendly and decent bloke that I got on with pretty well. He was ex-Army, heavily tattooed and always had a joke or a quip to lighten the mood on the wing. I liked the guy. That day, however, he really let himself and the service down. We never saw him in quite the same light again and I think he realised it.

The prisoner on the receiving end wasn’t my favourite person either, but the wanton and deliberate destruction of what were probably this young lad’s entire worldly goods was nothing short of criminal. When you have very little to start with, every loss can hurt, especially treasured items like family photos, letters from loved ones and pictures your kids have drawn for you.

First step in the prison complaints system: Comp 1
Understandably, this incident produced a complaint and a damages claim with a very long list of missing, broken or smashed items. He eventually won his case and received compensation from HMPS, but it proved to be a long and time-consuming process, as well as costly for the taxpayer since the MOJ contested the claim, preferring to assert that he had smashed up his own property, even though everyone on the wing knew he had been down the Block at the time.

Since inmates have limited options for redress and the internal complaints procedure often fails to address allegations of victimisation by staff, prisoners – even the most violent – are still regarded as being vulnerable persons as a consequence of their freedom of action and movement being severely constrained. Destruction or loss of their personal possessions can be seen by a minority of uniformed officers as a form of ‘unofficial punishment’ that can be dished out. That is one very important reason that appropriate avenues for complaint and, if required, action to secure an investigation followed by compensation, are needed.

In case any reader feels that I’m exaggerating, it’s worth noting that back in February 2014, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Nigel Newcomen published an extensive report entitled Prisoner Property Complaints (read here). The PPO handles complaints from prisoners who have already exhausted the internal prison complaints procedures without having their claims resolved and this document includes examples of specific problems and the lessons that should be learned.

The Ombudsman observes:

The most common subject of complaint is lost or damaged property. These complaints also have the highest uphold rates (where we find against the authorities and in favour of the complainant) and this suggests that prisons are not managing prisoners’ property well.

He also correctly points out that since most prisoners have little personal property, loss or damage can have a much more profound impact on their everyday lives and sense of well-being:

Most property complaints concern small value items, but these can still mean a lot to prisoners with little. Unfortunately, too many of the issues involved could and should have been dealt with more quickly and efficiently by the prisons concerned.

The PPO report includes a telling paragraph that should be highlighted, as it points the finger of blame for protracted and costly property disputes firmly at the way in which some prison managers simply refuse to take any responsibility for these problems:

Instead, despite perfectly sound national policies and instructions, which set out  clear procedures and responsibilities, prisons too often refuse to accept their responsibilities when property has been lost or damaged.

In fact, most lost or damaged property claims are of low value, most well under £100, as the PPO analysis contained in the report reveals. Very few prisoners have particularly costly items in their possession. This means that what should be minor – and usually inexpensive losses to remedy – can snowball out of control until they reach the civil courts, generating expense as they roll.

Small claims... still cost money
That the MOJ chooses to defend such actions at the taxpayers’ expense is, in my view, an inappropriate use of public money. As a result of these cases being taken to court, the actual costs and legal fees incurred can be many times greater than the original sum claimed by the prisoner, a fact that The Sun and The Daily Mail conveniently omit to mention.

It would seem far more sensible if governors were encouraged to offer settlements of small property claims, say under a few hundred pounds. These procedures already exist within Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 12/2011 – Prisoners Property.

If the items in question can be confirmed as genuinely lost or damaged while in the care of the prison, then a swift offer to pay small sums in compensation could save the public purse many thousands of pounds each year. If Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice, is genuinely serious about devolving more local powers back to the governing governors of each prison, then a focus on resolving these minor disputes efficiently before a claim escalates and incurs legal costs would be a good place to start.

It is perhaps worth noting that many prisoners do not claim when their property has been lost or damaged. Some have become so disillusioned with the internal complaints procedures that they just don’t bother. Others, particularly those who lack basic literacy skills, can feel that they are unable to cope with a complaints system that is almost entirely based on written applications and filling in forms. When dealing with a prison population that includes a significant number of people who are functionally illiterate, this is a fundamental weakness in the whole process.

Prisoners and staff can get injured
Personal injury claims can be much more complex in cases where a prisoner or a member of staff has been injured on HMPS property. Inmates are required to undertake work if it is available and some jobs do expose individuals to the risk of serious injury. Potentially dangerous workplaces include the kitchens, workshops, industrial laundries, gyms, stores and even when cleaning wings. Some establishments still have farms and gardens where tools and heavy machinery are in regular use.

In the course of their work, prisoners may have to handle toxic substances, use industrial equipment – such as steam presses, sewing and cutting machines – and prison kitchens are also full of hazards. Agricultural mishaps can cause severe injuries. At times, health and safety training can be very basic and, on occasion, serious accidents can and do occur. Prisoners can be left badly injured or even permanently disabled as a direct consequence of compulsory labour in our prisons.

Potential dangers can also be found outside the workplace. There can be further hazards on the wings: high metal staircases, dangerous showers, slippery polished lino floors, blood spills, top bunks without safety rails, broken cell furniture and unsafe electrical fixtures. Poor maintenance due to budget cuts can prove costly in other ways.

As with any system of compensation claims, some prisoners (or even members of staff) may – on occasion – fake or exaggerate pain and extent of injuries, but then so do plenty of ostensibly ‘law abiding’ folk outside in the community. The issue of whiplash in driving accidents is a notorious case in point. However, no-one is seriously proposing that victims of workplace accidents across the UK or those injured on the roads should suddenly lose any entitlement to appropriate compensation.

Easy to criticise - unless it's you
As is often the case, I find that many people are very ready to criticise the so-called compensation culture until they, or a close family member, have been seriously injured through no fault of their own. Life-changing injuries can end careers, cause decades of pain, ruin lives or even require a lifetime of specialist care.

I have seen some horrendous workplace accidents in prisons. I remember well the case of a very hardworking, responsible inmate who was assigned to a jail laundry. A large industrial washer that had been poorly maintained leaked chemicals onto the floor at a point where the lighting was very dim, so the hazard couldn’t easily be spotted. He lost his footing, fell heavily and did catastrophic damage to his knee.

It took hours to get him to hospital, mainly because of the usual security delays in getting escort officers arranged, during which time he was given no pain relief. He eventually required two sessions of surgery and has been left with a permanent limp, as well as constant pain. He was a keen amateur footballer, but active participation in sports of this kind is now not an option. His life truly has been changed forever.

Trips, slips, falls...
Another key reason that personal injury claims are important in a prison environment is that this is often the only way a proper investigation into how an accident occurred will be carried out. Statements need to be taken from both supervising staff and other witnesses, working practices are audited, risks reassessed and, in theory at least, lessons learned so similar incidents can be avoided in future.

Without this legal process, even serious incidents are more likely to be passed over with little more than a note scribbled in the workshop or kitchen accident book. Prisons are often very adept at internal cover-ups and the civil legal process can be the only way in which prisoners can seek an acknowledgement that serious mistakes were made, along with appropriate redress. These are basic human rights and protections. They are not forfeited when a person walks through the door into prison Reception.

If the government is proposing to curtail these legal safeguards, as Mr Raab seems to be suggesting in his recent comments, then I believe that all those of us who care about prison reform should be seriously concerned. Any measures that would curtail or remove a prisoner’s legal right to seek redress – whether over lost or damaged property or following personal injury – would send a clear and unmistakable message that people held in prison are second-class citizens who are denied essential safeguards and protections of the law that everyone else takes for granted. One only has to look at the recent scandal concerning events at the Medway Secure Training Centre run by G4S to understand why people in custody – whether children or adults – do need appropriate protection from abuse and mistreatment.

I fear that action by the MOJ to curb prisoners’ legal rights could encourage a culture of bullying and victimisation of unpopular prisoners by some staff, as well as potentially lead to cover ups of serious health and safety lapses, especially when these have led to serious or even catastrophic personal injuries. How many people have been sent to prison fit and healthy, but have emerged injured or even permanently disabled? These are questions that are rarely asked by the media.

One of the regular mantras prisoners hear during their imprisonment is of the need to accept responsibility and to be accountable for their actions. Any forthcoming government proposals that aim to limit or exclude prisoners from taking civil action for damages would be an abdication of both responsibility and accountability by the MOJ and HMPS. What kind of message would that send?

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Gove as Reformer: Hope Abandoned?

One of the very first lessons any prisoner needs to learn is that imprisonment is all about managing disappointments. High hopes can be very dangerous in the slammer, especially when they are so often dashed. For those who have poor coping strategies this constant battle between optimism and disappointment can lead to depression, self-harm and even suicide.

Reformer or just good PR?
I share this knowledge based on bitter personal experience, so I suppose that like so many prisoners or ex-cons we should have known better than to expect any real progress when it comes to prison reform under Michael Gove. Although I was cautiously optimistic – in common with several of my fellow former prisoners – I have started to realise that we were dazzled by fool’s gold from an otherwise dismal pit of despair: the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

It is very nearly ten months since Mr Gove took up his current government post as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. Having made quite a fist of his mission at Education, to be honest there were no great expectations that he would do anything positive. The general view seemed to be that at least he couldn’t be any worse than Chris Grayling, so that, in itself, was progress of a sort.

Others warned that given the new Secretary of State’s past enthusiasm for academy schools we might be in for an expansion of private sector involvement in prisons. On the other hand, proponents of education for prisoners suggested that at least there might be some modest improvement in the standard and scope of a service that has been cut back so severely that it now often offers little more than very basic literacy and numeracy, plus a few low-level vocational courses.

Books are back in
Then Mr Gove managed to surprise us all. He set about reversing some of his predecessor’s most divisive policies. Following a highly embarrassing defeat for the Ministry of Justice in the High Court in July 2015, Grayling’s controversial ban on prisoners being able to receive books was already under fire, but to his credit Gove not only widened prisoners’ access to books (by scrapping the entirely arbitrary 12 book limit), he then also scrapped the rule that prevented families and friends from sending books and audio books to prisoners directly. In reality, he simply ditched one minor element of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013.

Having fought hard on this issue and mobilised public support, it was entirely understandable that many leading prison reform campaigners came to regard Mr Gove as a ‘good thing’ and a potential reformer in his own right. In reality, all he was doing was behaving in a more reasonable manner, as most other Justice Secretaries before him had done, Mr Grayling excepted. By this sleight of hand, he managed to present himself as a much more enlightened individual than his loathed predecessor.

Of course, it is always a massive bonus for any politician to follow a genuinely hated previous act. A few minor, if high profile, concessions can work wonders in the short term. Indeed, I came to realise that much of Michael Gove’s positive press was purely down to him not being Chris Grayling, as well as his taking credit for ditching large swathes of his predecessor’s toxic legacy.

Petty France... MOJ HQ
There was also a much greater spirit of apparent openness down in Petty France, the MOJ headquarters in London. Mr Gove was willing to meet with prison reform campaigners, deliver keynote speeches at their conferences, allow journalists to visit prisons and – pause for a sharp intake of breath – even ask advice covertly from a handful of articulate ex-cons. In public he managed to crack that slightly lopsided grin. Whenever Grayling had smiled it felt like he was a Grand Inquisitor about to preside over some horrific auto da fé. It genuinely seemed like a different era had dawned, a bit like Narnia after the death of the Witch.

However, no amount of positive personal press or glad-handing of campaigners is going to bring our dysfunctional prisons back from the brink of the abyss. Sometimes it seems that just about everything that can possibly go wrong behind bars is doing so: violence, drug taking, bullying, debt, self-harm, suicide and – in Secure Training Centres – alleged physical assaults on detained children.

Is this a Just Solution?
There is still some occasional mileage to be had by scrapping odds and ends left over from the Grayling nightmare years. Personalised hi-tech electronic tags (ditched), the massive secure ‘college’ (ditched) and MOJ training for Saudi torturers and executioners (ditched), but the real challenges inside our prisons – overcrowding, understaffing, poor mental heathcare – remain unaddressed on the wings, as does the disaster outside the main gate that is Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) in the probation sector that deals mainly with low to medium-risk ex-offenders. Add to that the continuing fiasco of Legal Aid provision and Mr Gove’s positive balance sheet starts to look pretty uneven just ten months into his mandate.

No-one really believes that accumulated problems that have built up over many years, including crumbling fabric, too few staff and poor morale, can be sorted out overnight. Michael Gove doesn’t have a magic wand that he can simply wave over our dysfunctional prison system and reform it immediately. However, there needs to be a very fundamental discourse about what prison is really for and what outcomes are really desirable.

At present, most prisons offer little more than costly human warehousing in increasingly unsafe conditions. Rehabilitation is generally absent. During my own time inside in six different prisons from the south to the north-east, I can honestly state that I saw no evidence of genuine rehabilitation being on the agenda. There was just too few staff available to help prisoners coming up to release with accommodation or access to benefits, let alone offer any guidance on future employment prospects.

Human warehousing, zero rehabilitation
Not one of these establishments had any kind of resettlement unit. All had been closed in previous years due to budget cuts and links with external agencies were either non-existent or so rare as to be virtually the same thing. Even in an open resettlement prison dealing with both short-termers and prisoners approaching the end of life sentences or long fixed-term stretches, the lack of provision was painfully obvious.

Education provision and vocational training in closed prisons – even in its most basic form – was severely hampered by shortages of uniformed staff to act as escorts. Missed classroom sessions were becoming the norm in 2012, rather than the exception and reading recent reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons it is clear that in many jails the situation has got much worse than it was back in 2014 when I was released.

Add to that some spectacularly poor standards of tutoring and classes regularly disrupted by inmates who had no interest in attending but were compelled to be there owing to threats of disciplinary action and I think it is fair to say the prison education system hardly covers itself in glory. Yes, it is true that there are some notable exceptions, but they are highlighted in reports purely because they function in a manner that resembles a ‘normal’ learning environment. The sad truth is that failure and underachievement in prison education is now the norm.

In reality, there are only two viable routes to address the current crisis in our prisons: reduce the overall population – nearly 86,000 in England and Wales – or substantially increase resources, including staffing. Anything else is ultimately doomed to failure, as the former Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick correctly pointed out in his recent interview with this blog (read here).

However, Michael Gove has now made that most fundamental of elementary errors for any politician. He gave a recent interview to The Guardian in which he allowed his pose as a genuine prison reformer to slip (read here). In short, he told the truth as he sees it. He rejected the description of the present situation in our prisons as ‘a crisis’ – in common with his benighted predecessor who also preferred to live in a state of continuous denial of reality – and, even worse, he made the quite preposterous claim that prison reform was still possible without reducing the current historically high prison population.

If he really, honestly believes that to be true, then he has heard nothing when speaking to reform campaigners, to prison staff, to prisoners or to ex-cons. Moreover, he appears to have learned nothing from the many HMIP and IMB reports that must have landed on his desk over the past ten months.

Recent official statistics released by the MOJ reveal the stark facts that violence in our prisons – both aimed at staff and between prisoners – is continuing to rise to dangerous levels. Specially trained Tornado teams were deployed to deal with serious violence or riot situations 373 times during 2015 – a massive increase on the 223 call outs in 2014. Simon Israel recently analysed these figures for Channel 4 News (read here). That increase has happened mostly on Michael Gove’s watch.

We are also told that there has been, on average, a hostage taking in our prisons every week. According to the MOJ figures, there have been serious incidents of violence in prisons such as Leeds, Leicester, Parc and Wandsworth pretty much every single month.

Drugs intercepted by staff
At a time when almost every report by the Prisons Inspectorate or the local Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) warns of increasingly violent prisons awash with drugs and mobile phones, staff shortages are contributing to the effective – if temporary – loss of control in prisons across Britain. It can only be a matter of time before an incident of violence or a mass protest over poor conditions escalates into a full scale prison riot, with the risk that other establishments follow suit in ‘copy cat’ style, aided by news spreading via illicit mobiles.

All of this amounts to a crisis by any standard. Pretending that it doesn’t really won’t help to improve anyone’s morale or make the threat of serious bloodshed any less likely.

However, the grinning Mr Gove prefers to believe that tinkering with a few aspects of prison regimes, particularly education, is capable of turning round establishments that are clearly failing to deliver. In my view there is little point in focusing on rehabilitation if it involves little more than attending a few classes (if and when staff are available to escort prisoners) when there is often nothing but chaos and failure awaiting those being released outside the main gate on release.

Grayling: TR sabotage
The wilful sabotage of the probation service by Chris Grayling and his cronies for purely ideological reasons has done nothing to support any reduction in reoffending and any newly released ex-prisoner who is facing life on the street isn’t likely to remain offence-free for very long, especially if he or she still has drug or alcohol-related dependencies and/or mental health needs that will almost certainly not have been addressed while they have been in custody. Recall for licence breaches or arrest for new offences is, unfortunately, becoming more likely than successful resettlement, particularly for those serving short prison sentences.

Although I should have been better prepared for disappointment, I must confess to having read Mr Gove’s interview with Amelia Gentleman for The Guardian with a real sense of a historical opportunity being lost before my eyes. To what extent he is trying to keep on side with his own Tory constituency – the blue-rinse hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade from Tunbridge Wells – I can’t judge, but I do believe his comments have been deeply damaging to any serious hopes that he can truly deliver genuine prison reforms, especially now that he is leading a bruising political campaign over whether Britain should leave the EU.

I suppose like many others I was conned by Mr Gove’s apparent bonhomie, or perhaps I deceived myself. I should have remembered Alexander Pope’s excellent advice: ‘Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.’ I’ve been a prisoner, after all. I should have learned.