At the beginning of the month (5th – 7th Feb 2015) I attended the IMB conference. It was my first after over 2 years serving on the board at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay, 14 months as Vice-chair.
After the formalities of opening the conference by IMB President, John Thornhill, we were introduced to one of the key speakers Mr Andrew Selous MP, Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation.
And then it got very interesting!
He told us that, according to the Ministry of Justice, these were the priorities:
- Family relationships
- Work and time out of cells
The following day, to a guest panel (Frances Crook, Chief Exec of The Howard League for Penal Reform; Paul Baker, Deputy Director of Custody East Midlands, HMPS; Ben Gunn, former long serving prisoner and Clare Checksfield, Director of Returns in the Home Office), I put the following question:
“Firstly I would like to congratulate The Howard League on the books for prisoner’s campaign. Secondly the Minister yesterday explained the MOJ’s priorities were Education, Family relationships and Work including time out of cells. Do you agree and do you see them implemented?”
Let’s start with Education. On this priority, Frances Crook responded by saying that “MoJ priorities are fiction”. She went on to say,
“Don’t send people to prison to get an education, send them to college. Prison education budgets have been realigned so they focus on basic skills, which is all very well but what about the 30,000 adult men who are serving long sentences and who now get little education beyond the three Rs”.
I still come across prisoners that have served many years in prison and still struggle with basic reading and writing. But should we be blaming the prison system, what happened for them to enter prison without these skills, not a straightforward issue?
Well I’m sure many of us have heard about Jonathan Robinson and his experience when he was trained to teach other in-mates to read yet, when in an open prison, was prevented by the then head of Education.
However, four years later and with new staff this same prison has just been awarded ‘Outstanding’ from Ofsted. Change does happen!
On this priority, Frances Crook shared that desistance is about relationships, engagement, commitment, consistency. Prisons cannot fulfil this.
One of the workshops I attended was overseen by two very enthusiastic women from HMP/YOI Parc entitled ‘Family Interventions, Supporting Positive Family Involvement. They work with the whole family and look at their needs in order to reduce offending, reduce inter-generational offending and encourage community inclusion. In the Family Intervention wing Safe Ground runs a couple of courses, Fathers Inside and Family Man aimed at teaching essential fathering skills.
Work and time out of cells
On this priority, Frances Crook said,
“Time out of cell is disappearing as staff cuts are so swingeing. Latest figures show in the last six months of last year the big city prisons were still losing staff. Morale is at an all time low, MoJ survey showed that, and sickness rates sky high.”
There are many stories that prisoners spend up to 22 or 23 hours locked in their cells but with the shortage of staff very little can be done.
Work is an essential element to prepare for release and what is needed is more companies willing to take on those with a criminal record.
A couple of months ago I spoke to a group of people about ex-offenders being re-integrated back in society, all were for it and all thought it was an important step… until I asked
“what about your society?”