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Reading this book is like listening to myself as Richard writes like I think!
This is a compilation of journeys of many people within a prison environment with a reoccurring theme, the truth about prisons. Truth can be hard to swallow, it can be hidden, but it’s there if we take the time to find it.
I know that speaking the truth can come at a personal cost.
Truth also hurts. But should we ignore it, should we cover it up? No, certainly not.
Walking into a prison is like opening that door C.S. Lewis wrote about and entering another world. A world without the same rules regulations or expectations. To start with its rather strange, almost intriguing and no day is ever the same. Conversations are limited, people are watching you and waiting for you to make a mistake as you are expected to know the rules, but when they are unwritten how can you? It’s like you walk into someone else’s life
When you start reading this book you open in your mind that wardrobe door. If you have never visited a prison you begin to visualise what really happens, who lives and works there. Most importantly you begin to wonder what are the benefits? What is its purpose? And just Why?
Questioning the stories, the anecdotes, the nitty gritty of prison life changes you. Once you open that door there is no going back. From then on, the reader cannot say “I never knew” as you have just begun to learn and hopefully understand about prison.
I seem to be making a habit of this; on Wednesday 16th March I attended the Justice Select Committee for the third time, again listening to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP being questioned by a team of MP’s.
I sat behind Mr Gove and watched as he interacted with the committee. The meeting can be accessed from this link: http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/e67772ca-8c75-4112-853a-0fbd80688389
The first question he was asked was “How would you encapsulate the overall purpose of the thrust of the Government’s prison policy”? Michael Gove replied “In a sentence, it is about turning prisoners from liabilities into assets”. Interesting use of language I thought.
He continued by stating that…”the critical thing is to make sure that during their time in prison there is purposeful activity…” I have come across some excellent forms of purposeful activity but to be honest there just isn’t enough going on. Is it all down to money? If millions can be found to build new prisons then surely purposeful activity has to be included.
The stories coming out of many of the prisons in England and Wales are appalling, locked up at least 22 hours a day, rat infested are but a few I have read this week.
When will we see real progress?
The most successful custodial establishment according to Nick Hardwick former chief inspector of prisons was the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) in Colchester. However, in October 2015 there were 35 being held at the MCTC, hardly an example to compare. The ratio of staff to detainees is far higher than within the prison estate which is surely a factor along with greater governor autonomy that contributes to its success. I have visited it and was impressed by the order, cleanliness and regime. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/484448/Detainees_Military_Corrective_Training_Centre_Colchester.pdf
But how do you really measure success?
Michael Gove gave an example of Bronzefield prison as being a very successful female prison, yet this week one of the main stories I have read is about staff giving out sleeping bags to women released with no accommodation. It doesn’t add up!
I want to read more success stories, see real progress and watch as these “liabilities are turned into assets”
Today I read volunteering is good for your health as you tend to visit the doctor less!
This may be the case and I should know, I have worked as a volunteer for over 20 years and in the Justice sector for over 3 years
A big misconception is that a volunteer just makes tea!
After going to University as a mature student I received a BSc (Hons) in Criminology in Nov 2011. I then spent a year working with my local CAB and completed the course to become a Gateway Assessor as I was told you need to have voluntary work on your CV especially if you have changed direction. This was a real eye opener to the needs of people. After answering an advert in the paper to join the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay in 2013, I started on a very interesting journey. I am now the Chairman.
Apart from the IMB, I have been a group leader for Prison Fellowship England and Wales since 2012 involving managing a small team, all volunteers that deliver the Sycamore Tree victim awareness course in prisons. Meeting monthly and also speaking at various clubs, groups and churches on Restorative Justice and the work I do in prison. I have also been on the Steering Group for the Reclaim Justice Network for over 3 years, attending meetings, AGM’s and supporting events when I am able.
In addition I am a member of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) and the Howard League. I have been invited to visit many prisons and events in the Justice sector and have been an observer at the Justice Select Committee. I have lost count of the number of conferences, lectures, wine receptions and exhibitions I have attended as I try and keep informed. I write a blog and am known on twitter!
I am passionate about wanting change within the prisons, purposeful activity and education are but a few of changes needed. I try to encourage those in prison and those that have been released.
But all of this is as a volunteer.
I have applied for many jobs since graduating but there have been two main problems. The first being the idea that volunteers make the tea and don’t have real input and so can be a bit clueless. The second being I cannot find a more interesting and at times rewarding line of work. I’m not someone to sit in front of a computer on a daily basis. My work is varied and I enjoy the interaction with prisoners, Governors, staff, my team and my many contacts. I like to be organised and punctual. I like tea, but don’t sit around drinking it all day.
Volunteering is rewarding, I recommend it as it’s an essential part of society but I’m ready for a change…!
On 2nd November I was pleased to attend the Prisoners Education Trust, annual lecture celebrating 25 year of ‘Inside Time’ the prison newspaper, at Clifford Chance. There were many people there I have either met face to face before or communicated with via twitter! Some said “Hello Faith” as they recognised me from twitter, maybe I tweet too often?
Eric McGraw was very entertaining whilst giving us insight into the initial trials and tribulations of producing and distributing Insidetime.
For the first-timer in prison it offers help, support, an inroad into the complexities of prison life, but most of all it can be a lifeline in some of the darkest days. A lot of it is written by prisoners for prisoners but don’t be put off by that.
I believe Insidetime is an excellent tool for other organisations working within the prison estate. It can be used to show the bigger picture of what really goes on in prison. Yes we all read the often media hype, the stories that sell papers which increases the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’. But what picture do they paint reality? Probably not!
If you have never read it I recommend it as it’s not just for prisoners!
This morning I was pleased to attend the Justice Select Committee meeting. It was the first one with Rt Hon Michael Gove MP being called as a witness in his new role as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.
The session was recorded on video. Watch it here.
Getting down to business
After an exchange of pleasantries and mutual congratulations on appointment, the committee set about putting forward questions on important issues such as safety in prisons, rehabilitation, absconds from Open Prisons, court closures, and court and tribunal fees. This was good to see; Select Committees sit to scrutinise Government policy and progress.
This Justice Select Committee meeting came just a few days after the publication by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales’ Annual Report 2014-15, in which Open Prisons have been highlighted once again.
On the same day as the HMIP Annual Report, Nick Harwick also published the unredacted version of the report on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) featuring three high profile cases of prisoners who each committed awful crimes whilst out on ROTL has challenged the current risk assessment within prisons.
The cases of Ian McLoughlin, HMP Springhill, Al-Foday Fofanah, HMP Ford and Alan Wilmot, HMP North Sea Camp were highlighted by Hardwick of where those on ROTL committed the same offence as they were sent to prison for in the first place, giving rise to questioning on whether there is ‘Rehabilitation’ in prison.
You can read the report here.
This was raised by Philip Davies MP when asking Mr Gove “what are you doing to protect the public from these future awful consequences?”
His reply was “…transfer to open prison should only follow an appropriate risk assessment.” He then added …”there will always be cases where there are individuals even if they have committed very serious offences may be suitable for a transfer to an open prison. Each case has to be judged on its own individual merits”. However, the underlying message was that public safety is paramount.
It was clear that Mr Gove was new to the job, there were many err and ums in his answers, but he did assure the committee that he would be happy to return when he had reviewed various aspects within the justice system.
So will I.