The Criminal Justice Blog

Home » downsizing criminal justice

Category Archives: downsizing criminal justice

Why our prisons need to be reformed

First published 05 January 2017 in East Anglian Daily Times under the headline ‘Prison reform is taking too long, say ex-Hollesley Bay IMB chairman and former inmate’

Had the authorities listened to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Birmingham the riot on 16 December maybe could have been prevented. In their annual report the IMB wrote:

“the increasingly difficult behaviour of individual prisoners coupled with staff resource constraints give the Board cause for concern… Many staff are now concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of the prisoners… A solution is required urgently.”

Instead what happened was described by the Prison Officers Association as the biggest prison riot since Strangeways in 1990.

So why have prisoners behaved in this way?

Toxic combination

Sentencing guidelines have placed more people in prison for longer periods of time and has, therefore, inflated the prison population to record numbers. This in turn has given rise to overcrowding, and together with under-staffing and the emergence of psychoactive substances also known as “legal highs”, our prisons have become places of deprivation on a record scale. It’s a toxic combination.

Faith Spear

Faith Spear 

Less well publicised factors such as restricted access to education, to facilities, and the right of association with one another add to the frustration felt by those living inside. People being locked in their cell for 23 hours every day or sometimes for days on end during “lock down” creates a volatile atmosphere.

A high number of people in custody suffer from genuine mental health issues. They are imprisoned sometimes to protect society. But those are in the minority. Many people in prison with mental health issues are only there because the courts have no idea what else to do with them. For their sake and for the sake of society in which we all live, it is entirely the wrong place to send them.

IPP is defunct

Others are in prison under the now defunct rules on Imprisonment for Public Protection, known simply as “IPP”. These people don’t have a release date. Many prisoners today under IPP have already served time far beyond the normal tariff They are left to languish until the parole board decides it is safe to let them out.

I’m not saying we should open the prison doors and let everyone walk out. That would be reckless and irresponsible. But I am saying it is time to speed up the process of evaluation to make sure that those who don’t pose any risk to the public be allowed to go home as soon as possible.

What concerns me most is the utter boredom that so many of people in custody must endure. They are invariably portrayed as having a low IQ, a high percentage with a reading age of an 11year old; many have been in care and come from seriously complex situations. What isn’t realised is that many people in custody are intelligent, well-educated and have skills that could benefit other prisoners and need something worthwhile to do.

In other words, purposeful activity whilst in prison must be a priority. Lives are wasted here; I see it all the time.

So many organisations are involved in the ‘prison industrial complex’. Big money is made from those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Everyone wants a slice of the profits, but too little is re-invested in the prisoners and in the conditions in which they are held.

There are not enough links with the outside community, with colleges and University. Too few businesses are willing to give prisoners another chance, but without a fresh start it is impossible for them to be reintegrated back into society.

Beyond the Gate

I have seen the crushing stigma that ex-prisoners live under on release; the failure of a system that is meant to be there for them beyond the gate, the lack of accommodation, the difficulties of finding work, the list goes on.

It’s time for society to think differently towards people who find themselves in prison.

“Our prisons are in crisis and prison reform is taking too long.”

IEP regime and books for prisoners

The latest debate is focused on the stopping of prisoners from receiving books from outside the prison estate. This is all part of the Incentives, Earnings and Privileges scheme which was revised in November 2013.

An on-line petition,  through twitter has been initiated to call on the justice minister Chris Grayling to immediately reexamine the latest rules which restrict access to material possessions that are sent to prisoners.

This can be seen as a backward looking retributive action and far removed from the rehabilitation revolution.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, communicated that this is “… part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation”.

Surely books play a vital role in the education of prisoners and the rehabilitation process, there should be an increase not decrease in prisoners access to items that will aid rehabilitation. This debate leads to the problem of too much non-purposeful activity in prison and too much time locked up in cells. Even the Home Affairs Committee (2005) picked up on this many years ago and the inconsistency of provision from prison to prison. At this rate we will be looking at the rehabilitation of prisoners from the effects of imprisonment!

Prisoners are allowed up to 12 books in their cell; however access to prison libraries can be varied depending on prison, sentence and behaviour. Being locked up in a cell most of the day having a television is not always the best way to pass the time. However, due to the IEP scheme, books are seen as a privilege and are restricted, only books outside of the prison library have to be bought from their meagre wages. With all the cuts, prison libraries are not exempt and stock can be limited. But books are important when you realise that many prisoners have low literacy skills, so can the ban on books be justified? Education is not the same throughout the prison estate and access on online courses even more inconsistent.

According to Haywood (2006), “…lifelong education slows down the revolving door of incarceration and reincarceration”, so why bring in any reforms that will counteract this?

This is a form of punishment, but where is the proportionality or is that old hat?

The effects of the changes in the IEP’s are being tracked by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), but these may not be seen for some months to come.

There has to be a justification for the decisions made where prisoners are concerned and quite frankly they don’t seem to add up, is this going beyond punishment?

Haywood, D. (2006) ‘Higher barriers: ex-prisoners and university admissions’, in S. Taylor (ed) Prison (er) Education (2nd edn). London: Forum on Prisoner Education.

Home Affairs Committee (2005) Rehabilitation of Prisoners First Report of Session, 2004-5. Volume I. London: HMSO.

http://downsizingcriminaljustice.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/rjn-iep-feb-2014.pdf

The rise and fall of the prison population!

Prison population figures continue to fluctuate. The latest figures show an increase of 80 in the last week, an increase of almost 800 since the beginning of the year yet a decrease of 3,159 in the last 12 months.

I have just read an interesting report recently published in France on ways to fight against prison overcrowding. Two important points mentioned were:

  1. Consider imprisonment as ultima ratio in criminal matters
  2. Use, if necessary, a system of numerus clausus to solve prison overcrowding until 2017, then prevent its reappearance

I wonder if Chris Grayling has any thoughts on this?

Raimbourg, D and Huyghe, S (2013) Ways to fight against prison overcrowding. Report of 23 January 2013. [Online]. Available at
http://www.cepprobation.org/uploaded_files/France_Report-on-Prison-Overcrowding-2013.pdf [accessed] 26 February 2013

Don’t you think the person is more important than the policy?

More than 86,000 people behind bars in England and Wales

More than 86,000 people behind bars in England and Wales

Last year I presented a poster session to cohort and faculty at my local university. The poster was the most visible infographic in the room. It acted as a magnet for attendees. Its immediacy communicated right to the heart of the issue and triggered some substantive discussion. And so it should. Latest figures available from Ministry of Justice shows that over 86,000 people in England and Wales are currently serving custodial sentences.

Frances Crook (@FrancesCrook), Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform said that many of these people should not be in prison at all; many offenders, particularly those serving short sentences, would be move effectively punished using community sentences.

She has a point. If offenders can be more effectively punished using a sentencing strategy which not only costs around one tenth of the cost of a prison place, but also controls prison population at the same time as being in the better long term interests of the offender, then it deserves serious consideration.

“It isn’t crime that puts people in prison – it is policy that puts people in prison.”

In my experience dealing with a range of offenders, I can see that sentencing strategy, in some cases, causes “penal excess”. This phrase means different things depending on your standpoint. For example, to a probation officer it may mean a harsh sentence behind bars. To a politician, it may mean “…it is the sentencers not the Government who are responsible for the prison population as it stands today” (said Jeremy Wright MP, 21st Nov 2012, speaking on the occasion of the AGM of The Howard League for Penal Reform).

Don’t you think the person is more important than the policy?