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An interview with Phil O’Brien by John O’Brien
Phil O’Brien started his prison officer training in January 1970. His first posting, at HMDC Kirklevington, in April 1970. In a forty-year career, he also served at HMP Brixton, HMP Wakefield, HMYOI Castington, HMP Full Sutton, HMRC Low Newton and HMP Frankland. He moved through the ranks and finished his public sector career as Head of Operations at Frankland. In 2006, he moved into the private sector, where he worked for two years at HMP Forest Bank before taking up consultancy roles at Harmondsworth IRC, HMP Addiewell and HMP Bronzefield, where he carried out investigations and advised on training issues. Phil retired in 2011. In September 2018, he published Can I Have a Word, Boss?, a memoir of his time in the prison service.
John O’Brien holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Leeds, where he specialised in autobiography studies.
You deal in the first two chapters of the book with training. How do you reflect upon your training now, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in the service?
I believe that the training I received set me up for any success I might have had. I never forgot the basics I was taught on that initial course. On one level, we’re talking about practical things like conducting searches, monitoring visits, keeping keys out of the sight of prisoners. On another level, we’re talking about the development of more subtle skills like observing patterns of behaviour and developing an intimate knowledge of the prisoners in your charge, that is, getting to know them so well that you can predict what they are going to do before they do it. Put simply, we were taught how best to protect the public, which includes both prisoners and staff. Those basics were a constant for me.
Tell me about the importance of the provision of education and training for prisoners. Your book seems to suggest that Low Newton was particularly successful in this regard.
Many prisoners lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. For anyone leaving the prison system, reading and writing are crucial in terms of functioning effectively in society, even if it’s only in order to access the benefits available on release.
At Low Newton, a largely juvenile population, the education side of the regime was championed by two governing governors, Mitch Egan and Mike Kirby. In addition, we had a well-resourced and extremely committed set of teachers. I was Head of Inmate Activities at Low Newton and therefore had direct responsibility for education.
The importance of education and training is twofold:
Firstly, it gives people skills and better fits them for release.
Secondly, a regime that fully engages prisoners leaves less time for the nonsense often associated with jails: bullying, drug-dealing, escaping.
To what extent do you believe that the requirements of security, control and justice can be kept in balance?
Security, control, and justice are crucial to the health of any prison. If you keep these factors in balance, afford them equal attention and respect, you can’t be accused of bias one way or the other.
Security refers to your duty to have measures in place that prevent escapes – your duty to protect the public.
Control refers to your duty to create and maintain a safe environment for all.
Justice is about treating people with respect and providing them with the opportunities to address their offending behaviour. You can keep them in balance. It’s one of the fundamentals of the job. But you have to maintain an objective and informed view of how these factors interact and overlap. It comes with experience.
What changed most about the prison service in your time?
One of the major changes was Fresh Start in 1987/88, which got rid of overtime and the Chief Officer rank. Fresh Start made prison governors more budget aware and responsible. It was implemented more effectively at some places than others, so it wasn’t without its wrinkles.
Another was the Woolf report, which looked at the causes of the Strangeways riot. The Woolf report concentrated on refurbishment, decent living and working conditions, and full regimes for prisoners with all activities starting and ending on time. It also sought to enlarge the Cat D estate, which would allow prisoners to work in outside industry prior to release. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t yet come to pass sufficiently. It’s an opportunity missed.
What about in terms of security?
When drugs replaced snout and hooch as currency in the 1980s, my security priorities changed in order to meet the new threat. I had to develop ways of disrupting drug networks, both inside and outside prison, and to find ways to mitigate targeted subversion of staff by drug gangs.
In my later years, in the high security estate, there was a real fear and expectation of organised criminals breaking into jails to affect someone’s escape, so we had to organise anti-helicopter defences.
The twenty-first century also brought a changed, and probably increased, threat of terrorism, which itself introduced new security challenges.
You worked in prisons of different categories. What differences and similarities did you find in terms of management in these different environments?
Right from becoming a senior officer, a first line manager at Wakefield, I adopted a modus operandi I never changed. I called it ‘managing by walking about’. It was about talking and listening, making sure I was there for staff when things got difficult. It’s crucial for a manager to be visible to prisoners and staff on a daily basis. It shows intent and respect.
I distinctly remember Phil Copple, when he was governor at Frankland, saying one day: “How do you find time to get around your areas of responsibility every day when other managers seem tied to their chairs?” I found that if I talked to all the staff, I was responsible for every day, it would prevent problems coming to my office later when I might be pushed for time. Really, it was a means of saving time.
The job is the same wherever you are. Whichever category of prison you are working in, you must get the basics right, be fair and face the task head on.
The concept of intelligence features prominently in the book. Can you talk a bit about intelligence, both in terms of security and management?
Successful intelligence has always depended on the collection of information.
The four stages in the intelligence cycle are: collation, analysis, dissemination and action. If you talk to people in the right way, they respond. I discovered this as soon as I joined the service, and it was particularly noticeable at Brixton.
Prisoners expect to be treated fairly, to get what they’re entitled to and to be included in the conversation. When this happens, they have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It’s easy to forget that prisoners are also members of the community, and they have the same problems as everyone else. That is, thinking about kids, schools, marriages, finances. Many are loyal and conservative. The majority don’t like seeing other people being treated unfairly, and this includes prisoner on prisoner interaction, bullying etc. If you tap into this facet of their character, they’ll often help you right the wrongs. That was my experience.
Intelligence used properly can be a lifesaver.
You refer to Kirklevington as an example of how prisons should work. What was so positive about their regime at the time?
It had vision and purpose and it delivered.
It was one of the few jails where I worked that consistently delivered what it was contracted to deliver. Every prisoner was given paid work opportunities prior to release, ensuring he could compete on equal terms when he got out. The regime had in place effective monitoring, robust assessments of risk, regular testing for substance abuse and sentence-planning meetings that included input from family and home probation officers.
Once passed out to work, each prisoner completed a period of unpaid work for the benefit of the local community – painting, decorating, gardening etc.
There was excellent communication.
The system just worked.
The right processes were in place.
To what extent do you feel you were good at your job because you understood the prisoners? That you were, in some way, the same?
I come from Ripleyville, in Bradford, a slum cleared in the 1950s. Though the majority of people were honest and hardworking, the area had its minority of ne’er-do-wells. I never pretended that I was any better than anyone else coming from this background.
Whilst a prisoner officer under training at Leeds, I came across a prisoner I’d known from childhood on my first day. When I went to Brixton, a prisoner from Bradford came up to me and said he recognised me and introduced himself. I’d only been there a couple of weeks. I don’t know if it was because of my background, but I took an interest in individual prisoners, trying to understand what made them tick, as soon as I joined the job.
I found that if I was fair and communicated with them, the vast majority would come half way and meet me on those terms. Obviously, my working in so many different kinds of establishments undoubtedly helped. It gave me a wide experience of different regimes and how prisoners react in those regimes.
How important was humour in the job? And, therefore, in the book?
Humour is crucial. Often black humour. If you note, a number of my ex-colleagues who have reviewed the book mention the importance of humour. It helps calm situations. Both staff and prisoners appreciate it. It can help normalise situations – potentially tense situations. Of course, if you use it, you’ve got to be able to take it, too.
What are the challenges, as you see them, for graduate management staff in prisons?
Credibility, possibly, at least at the beginning of their career. This was definitely a feature of my earlier years, where those in the junior governor ranks were seen as nobodies. The junior governors were usually attached to a wing with a PO, and the staff tended to look towards the PO for guidance. The department took steps to address this with the introduction of the accelerated promotion scheme, which saw graduate entrants spending time on the landing in junior uniform ranks before being fast-tracked to PO. They would be really tested in that rank.
There will always be criticism of management by uniform staff – it goes with the territory. A small minority of graduate staff failed to make sufficient progress at this stage and remained in the uniform ranks. This tended to cement the system’s credibility in the eyes of uniform staff.
Were there any other differences between graduate governors and governors who had come through the ranks?
The accelerated promotion grades tended to have a clearer career path and were closely mentored by a governor grade at HQ and by governing governors at their home establishments and had regular training. However, I lost count of the number of phone calls I received from people who were struggling with being newly promoted from the ranks to the governor grades. They often felt that they hadn’t been properly trained for their new role, particularly in relation to paperwork, which is a staple of governor grade jobs.
From the point of view of the early 21stC, what were the main differences between prisons in the public and private sectors?
There’s little difference now between public and private sector prisons. Initially, the public sector had a massive advantage in terms of the experience of staff across the ranks. Now, retention of staff seems to be a problem in both sectors. The conditions of service were better in the public sector in my time, but this advantage has been eroded. Wages are similar, retirement age is similar. The retirement age has risen substantially since I finished.
In my experience, private sector managers were better at managing budgets. As regards staff, basic grade staff in both sectors were equally keen and willing to learn. All that staff in either sector really needed was purpose, a coherent vision and support.
A couple of times towards the end of your book, you hint at the idea that your time might have passed. Does your approach belong to a particular historical moment?
I felt that all careers have to come to an end at some point and I could see that increasing administrative control would deprive my work of some of its pleasures. It was time to go before bitterness set in. Having said that, when I came back, I still found that the same old-fashioned skills were needed to deal with what I had been contracted to do. So, maybe I was a bit premature.
My approaches and methods were developed historically, over the entire period of my forty-year career. Everywhere I went, I tried to refine the basics that I had learned on that initial training course.
Thank you to John O’Brien for enabling Phil to share his experiences.
A retrospective of 2020
The author Peter Mayle once wrote “The year began with lunch…” which pretty much mirrored mine, although for me it started on Aldeburgh beach in the freezing cold, eating chips, and surrounded by family celebrating my birthday.
Cambridge is a favourite place of mine, having spent hours in libraries, museums and taking in the splendour of the architecture. So in February when I was invited to a seminar in the Institute of Criminology (IoC), I immediately responded. I have entered that building many times, studied in their library, attended seminars and even had tea in Professor Bottom’s office.
The subject was ‘Can Prisons Rehabilitate?’, delivered by Yvonne Jewkes. Rehabilitation is a subject I have thought long and hard about. Whilst awaiting the start, I received a very warm welcome from Rebecca L. Greene, Artist in Residence at IoC. It was good to catch up with those I hadn’t seen for a while, chat to Ben Crewe and have some interesting conversations with students who were keen to engage with me.
Months later Rebecca kindly invited me to take part in the digital exhibition Drawing Connections at the edges, Arts in Prison at the Museum of Cambridge following on from the Festival Of Ideas: Arts in Prisons, what changes can they bring? in 2019. The title to consider was “How did lockdown make you feel?” drawing on experiences of lockdown relating to the perception of my work with people within the Criminal Justice System. For my contribution I decided to write a poem:
Dare I compare my lockdown to theirs?
Can I not reach out to those in prison to manage my isolation and to draw on their resources to get through this challenging time?
Perhaps this has been a way to understand their hopes, fears and feelings too, leading to a breakdown of mental and spiritual barriers between us.
No longer is it just about reaching out to those in prison, instead it is an opportunity for us to be reached out to, from those within the prison walls.
Their voices illuminating
Their voices resonating
Their voices compelling
Are we not all part of society?
Has lockdown reinforced this?
Can freedom come from within and can freedom come from without?
I invited Rebecca to say a few words for inclusion in this retrospective and this is what she wrote:
“I was honoured to be asked by Faith Spear to write a short piece on how we met for her blog: as the year which has proved challenging and complex for everyone in myriad ways draws to a close, it seems hard to believe it was only in February of 2020. We met, when I welcomed her to a Public Seminar presented by Professor Yvonne Jewkes’ Can Prisons Rehabilitate?, hosted by the Institute of Criminology, my place of work. Faith’s ability to speak clearly and concisely has meant her work is something I have taken an interest in since my first engagement with the CJS through Learning Together in 2016. The material Faith shares on Justice and Social matters is done so, I feel, with fairness and truth and since our meeting this has been further enhanced through a shared love of the Arts and their restorative qualities.” (Rebecca L. Greene)
Poetry played a major role in my activities this last year. After being approached by Gerry Hamill, @FirstTimeInside, I became a panel member and part of a community for a Hidden Voices project with HMP Edinburgh. This was a poetry competition open to men and women entitled ‘Saughton Sonnets‘. The prisoners were asked to express their feelings on lockdown and Covid-19 and how they have been affected by this crisis. For 5 weeks a new batch of poems were sent to us to judge, score and comment on. Each weeks winners were then scored to find an overall winner. It was brilliant to work alongside other community members and to discover the amazing potential in those that are so often overlooked. The finale was to see these sonnets in print and to hear how those that had taken part had been encouraged to continue to write.
Writing is steadily becoming a passion for me, and I have been fortunate enough to have two book reviews printed in the InsideTime newspaper:
In June 2020 edition: ‘Can I have a word Boss’ written by Phil O’Brian after 40 years within Her Majesty’s Prison Service. His passion and drive come across in every chapter. Sadly, this kind of experience is now fading as his calibre is being replaced by those with little experience in the world, let alone within the justice arena. Is this a good thing? Only time will tell.
In November 2020 edition: ‘The Grass Arena‘ written by John Healy is a book centred round a world I thankfully have never ventured into – either by choice or circumstance. Drink, drugs, vagrancy, death, prostitution and money – the somewhat graphic portrayal of a life I can only describe as ‘brutal’. This book was recommended to me by Charlie Ryder after having read a blog I wrote the previous year “A Conversation with: Erwin James“.
Erwin kindly sent that review to John Healy and days later I received a supportive and positive response from John inviting me to keep in touch.
Sadly many conversations have not been face to face, with numerous events cancelled, meetings postponed and travelling almost non existent. Instead we have all embraced/tolerated/accepted, zoom, video calls and the old fashioned just picking up the phone to communicate. For example, I had a zoom call with Chris Daw QC, quizzing him on his new book ‘Justice on Trial‘ and trying to find the answers to so many questions I had.
During the year, I have written about two conversations with amazing individuals and their enthralling journeys in life.
The first was “A Conversation with: Phil Forder“, we chatted for hours, a remarkable man. When I asked “Who is Phil Forder?” the response was brilliant:
“My job title is community engagement manager at HMP Parc but as you so rightly said previously. ‘There is more to an individual than their job.’ I’m also a painter writer and woodcarver. LGBT rights supporter. Environmentalist Nature lover. Lecturer, etc.
But in a nutshell
“Just a bloke doing what I think is right and enjoy doing”
I asked Phil if he would like to say a few words for inclusion in this retrospective. This is Phil’s contribution:
“Over the years I had read so much about conditions in prisons on social media, most of it not good, that as a person who works in one I decided to launch my own account in 2017. Although a lot of what was being written about was true, I also knew there was another side to it where positive initiatives and positive people were striving to make a difference under increasingly difficult circumstances. So I put my head above the parapet, using my own name, and began to try and show another side to prison life, of which examples were daily. Twitter can be a pretty ugly place as I soon found out. There were times aplenty I was disheartened and tempted to stop as I began to receive flack from all directions but then I noticed it wasn’t all bad as a lady called Faith was following me and what’s more she had started retweeting my work and making constructive comments too. Although not alone in doing so, as there were others, that constant support was, and still is, invaluable in putting out the work that I do. As anyone who follows Faith will know, she is pretty fearless in her pursuit of Truth and not someone to take lightly. But what is so refreshing, especially on social media, is to hear a voice that is not only honest and always well-thought out but one that is objective and well-balanced too. Through her insights, Faith has proved herself, again and again, a valuable member of the prison community that we are lucky to have in such a complex prison system. And as for me personally, she continues to be a constant source of inspiration and support”
My second “A Conversation with Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Penal Reform Solutions” was equally inspiring. I felt that her overall message was one of HOPE:
Sarah said: I believe in people
I don’t quite believe in the system yet.
I have hope in individuals.
I believe in them.
We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”
I have hope in people.
We talked about rehabilitation, complexities within the prison estate, radical reforms and so much more. But the question to her that I received the most feedback on was: “Do we need more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?”
“Yes to both. We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.
Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes”
As I have mentioned before, we all know the saying ‘action speaks louder than words’ yet often you have to speak before any action can take place. So this year I was pleased to work together with a number of charities in the justice sector to write a consultation submission to the Ministry of Justice. In addition, I have offered advice and encouragement, assisted in media articles, proof read books, edited web sites and also shared a bit more of my story for Female Leaders At 50 – Women Behind the Network Series.
But the cherry on the cake for me was to be invited to write the forward for a book. Phil Martin published in November ‘The People in Prison and their Potential: Insights into imprisonment and true stories of rehabilitation’. As I have discovered for myself, the potential in prisons is vast and this book highlights what can be achieved. We appeared to be on the same wavelength here. Those with convictions do have potential, deserve to be given opportunities and can be valuable members of society. Many are willing to change but are we willing to accept them?
This is just a snippet of what became a challenging year both personally and professionally. Yet I enter this new year 2021 with anticipation, a renewal of energy and a continued determination in speaking truth to power. I will not be on mute.
In the context of a blog like this, it’s possible to only mention a fraction of the workload, time and miles covered. For obvious reasons you will appreciate I’m unable to share the full extent of everyone I have met or all that has been done.
In her Twitter bio it states: A passionate prison reformer. Interests: collaborative research, personal growth, creative action research, relationships, Nordic prisons, prison reform.
Just reading this I knew we would have a connection and a great conversation together.
What does it mean to you to be a prison reformer?
What I do has meaning, consumes me, its a purpose that is constantly in my blood and mind.
Collaboration matters to me, so does inclusion and having an unconditional regard for people. My inspiration comes from Elizabeth Fry, however, there are many with her passion. We need to work together to make a collective impact, not rely on one individual to drive change in prisons. I also believe that reform is not only situated in prisons, but in the community at large.
I don’t want to consistently bash the Criminal Justice System, but we need to be realistic about the problems whilst instilling hope. We need to meet people where they are at.
Prison reform needs to be a social movement in order to create a climate outside of raising awareness and drawing people together for a common purpose.
Prisons can be a transformative place.
Do we need any more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we just need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?
Yes to both.
We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.
Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes.
Do you see yourself as an academic?
Yes, but I’m a bit of an odd ball in academia, being an academic is part of my identity, but it doesn’t define me.
You mention personal growth, can you elaborate on this?
Growth for me is inclusion, growth in the community and families. People can reform, but you need to create hope and invest in unconditional relationships.
Growth, which includes love, acceptance and trust is also about unconditional support, nurturing and building relationships.
How important is it to establish relationships with prisoners/prison staff?
From determing the level of trust, to how people talk about their feeings, their fears and trauma. It’s the key to prison reform, desistance, cleanliness, safe environment, trust and many more…
What are some of the elements from the Nordic prisons that can be easily incorporated into prisons in England and Wales?
To never enter a prison and think people are broken with no hope.
Would you describe yourself as resilient?
I’m strong through stubbornness, but I am focused on what I want to achieve. Resilience means you bounce back, I’m susceptible to tiredness and pain due to health conditions, but this won’t stop me. I refuse to give in, so by overcoming obstacles I adapt to my environment.
Where does your strength come from?
My husband is my rock, my team, friends and importantly my sense of direction.
In an article in the InsideTime newspaper, June 2020, Sarah stated:
“My lifelong mission is to create a more humane system, which provides conditions where people can find meaning, have hope in the future and be happy”
In relation to this statement where do you see the prisons in England and Wales?
We are far away from that, further than we think. We have the ability to change, yet we underestimate the collaborative abilty of staff and prisoners alike. Culture and climate are important. A more humane system will not happen on its own, we need investment and training.
I have 100% hope in the future, that’s my logic.
We want people to live and not just survive.
With your work in schools, do you believe it is possible to instil meaning, hope and happiness into children’s lives?
From my experience it is easier to teach children than adults. The idea of the “Growth Project” at Guys Marsh was one of nurture, principle of growing and a purpose and peace in children. Divert them from prison by focusing on these building blocks around relationships, in order to protect them in later life.
You mentioned the “Growth Project”, how did this come about and how do you see it progressing?
The Norway Project took place in 3 Norwegian prisons and started as a photographic exhibition about how I captured collaboration. I spent 3 years researching Norwegian prisons and during the fieldwork I created a research team to understand their exceptional prison practices and priciples of growth. Out of this the Growth Project was born in England and Wales. We now have a collection of passionate people forming a steering group with prisoners and their families involved. We discuss issues such as diversity and inclusion in both prisons and society alike.
The aim of the “Connection Campaign” is to bring the inside and outside together, how are you managing to break down the walls to achieve this?
We are looking at where there is disconnection and the needs of young people. We magnify a voice that is quiet from various criminal justice areas. But we are not about blaming or shaming prisons. We wanted senior management to have conversations with prisoners families. Our strategy is to meet people where they are at and how to be a bit more compassionate, a critical friend.
Is rehabilitation possible within the current prison set up?
They need to be habilitated in the first place. Rehabilitation is a managerialistic term which often sets people up to fail. Like a game of trying to catch people out which is not conducive to change and no growth can happen. It can be harmful as no one wins.
Do we need radical reforms, if so what are the possibilities, if not, why not?
We need an authentic meaningful longterm investment in those principles that are encouraged in the Nordic model, applying the principles of growth in a meaningful way within our own context.
Irrespective of ideology, we want to strive for a just and humane system. This needs to happen, we need to change the narrative around prisons, prisoners and prison staff. But it must be sensitively executed. It’s not just about success stories.
Working within the prison estate can be rewarding but also can be disappointing, exhausting and demoralising. How do you deal personally with the complexities you face?
I see and hear a lot of stuff. However, I have such a strong mission.
Yes it is. Absolutely.
We have lost 2 growth members, 1 person through suicide after prison and 1 whilst he was in prison. It was a painful experience, I knew their families and the ripple effect was hard because their lives matter.
The question I really wanted to ask Sarah was: Is your underlying message of hope?
I believe in people.
I dont quite believe in the system yet.
I have hope in individuals.
I believe in them.
We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”
I have hope in people.
A retrospective of 2019
It was a year of challenging the norms, exploring the Arts and Media and pushing some boundaries. It has had its highs and lows with times of difficulty and frustration yet amongst it all there have been moments to celebrate, moments of laughter and new friendships made.
The year began at one of my favourite places, the beach at Aldeburgh on the beautiful Suffolk coast, wrapped up against the elements, a brisk walk with my family and then tea in the warm. Perfect.
My first trip of the year into Westminster was for the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice, at a session entitled: ‘Aftermath of Wrongful Convictions: Addressing the Needs of the Wrongfully Convicted in England and Wales’. We were reminded that half of all victims of miscarriages of justice were homeless within six months of their convictions being overturned.
According to ‘Supporting Exonerees’ a JUSTICE report published 2018, in the last five years only five people have received compensation from the Ministry of the Justice after having their convictions overturned and not a single person in 2018. By contrast, between 1999 and 2004, there were 162 successful applications.
Across the year there were four sessions of the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice, all of which I managed to attend. These were co-chaired by Baroness Stern and Lord Garnier QC, and featured members including: Dame Anne Owers, National Chair of Independent Monitoring Boards; Michelle Nelson QC, Barrister at Red Lion Chambers; Dr Philip Joseph, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist; and Erwin James, Editor-in-Chief of Inside Time.
My sincere hope is that the work performed by this APPG, even though it has no statutory powers, will be effective in some way and not evaporate like a silent conversation that never happened.
It was also a pleasure to attend a joint Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) and Ministry of Justice event, held at Petty France, London to discuss the aging population in prisons. It’s well known that the level of healthcare and social care within prisons is inconsistent and all too often not fit for purpose.
This was the first of six CJA round tables and meetings I attended and participated in during the year, including their AGM.
Not all my work is in Westminster or even in London. For example, as a part of the Female Leaders at 50 (Twitter: @femaleleaders50), I was able to share part of my story, listen to others and enjoy a fantastic evening reception and dinner in Cambridge. Thank you to Ciara Moore, looking forward to our next gathering this year.
Being recommended for membership of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) was a highlight because it showed that what I am able to contribute to society has value. In fact the letter I received from the RSA included a copy of the statement by the person who recommended me, saying:
“Faith is a very potent voice and commentator on prison issues. Her blog https://faithspear.wordpress.com/ has quite a following. She is an accomplished writer and speaker and has huge respect in prison reform circles.”
In the letter, the RSA said:
“I believe that you have an important contribution to make in supporting our work, and that you will be a valuable addition to our diverse and influential movement of like-minded people committed to building a better society”
I was so delighted and can assure you I’ve already begun to make good use of my membership to this prestigious organisation. Planning, sharing ideas and debriefing after meetings. The RSA provides an excellent space to meet and greet at its venue in central London which is very convenient given the nature of the work I am asked to do.
The Spring season was busy both personally and professionally. Dr Marianne Colbran kindly invited me to attend an LSE media event: ‘Breaking prison narratives’. The event produced interesting conversations, some heated debate, and time for participants to reflect individually on what the day meant for them. It was eye-opening and definitely an event I was pleased not to miss.
The Executive Ladies lunch with Lady Val Corbett later the same month featured guest speaker Michael Palin. Michael was very engaging to listen to, with anecdotes of his life and adventures. He showed particular patience afterwards as many asked for a memento selfie photo. Networking, raising funds for prison reform and for the Robin Corbett Awards always makes it a working lunch with a clear and meaningful objective. The help, strength, encouragement and inspiration that people derive from these lunches is priceless. And that was exactly how it was when Prue Leith joined us as guest speaker later in the year. What an entertaining and fascinating woman.
Large parts of my work can be challenging and distressing. Sometimes it can be harrowing.
I attended the inquest into the death of a young man, Thomas Kemp. The Suffolk area coroner, Jacqueline Devonish, recording narrative conclusions, said: “Kemp stabbed his wife to death during a psychotic episode when she tried to prevent him from harming himself. He then took his own life.”
The fact that he killed his wife and then himself was widely reported, including in my local media because he worked at the local university. But his full connection with the justice arena was not mentioned. I first met him back in Summer 2017 when visiting the University campus because I was invited to observe training of graduates. Thomas was employed by the University of Suffolk as an administrator. He worked on the Masters programme called ‘Unlocked Graduates’. After his death, his name was rapidly erased from the university’s website and, to the best of my knowledge, no acknowledgement of his tragic death was ever published on the Unlocked Graduates website.
Let’s hope the memory of Thomas Kemp has not been totally erased. Whilst I do not condone what he did, as someone who appeared to have serious mental health issues, it is clear that the system failed him and his wife.
I have subsequently learned that many involved in the teaching of the Unlocked Graduates programme at the University of Suffolk have themselves had to take time off due to stress. For me, there are many questions about Unlocked Graduates which remain unanswered and I know I’m not the only one.
The Creative arts in prisons is an area which interests me greatly. So, this year it was particularly interesting to have visited Snape Maltings for the celebration of their 20-year collaboration with HMP Warren Hill. The day was made up of performances, art exhibition and workshops showcasing the role of music and arts in rehabilitation with their partners Koestler Arts, The Irene Taylor Trust, Clean Break and Fine Cell Work.
Entering the main auditorium, I noticed someone waving at me and was surprised to see it was Dame Anne Owers (Chair of Trustees, Koestler Arts). We sat together to watch the performance; at one point, they handed out percussion instruments and everyone was encouraged to join in with creating improvised music. The whole event was one of inclusion, acceptance, hope and the potential of those currently serving sentences. It was a privilege to speak afterwards with some of the musicians and singers.
From that event came an invitation by Fanny Jacob, Creative Project Leader and Julian Earwaker, Writer in Residence at HMP Warren Hill to an art exhibition and fundraiser. A fascinating afternoon was spent with around 30 guests including the local Mayor. I chose to support the Families In Need (FIND) charity by purchasing one of the works of art.
I wanted to explore a little more about what role the Arts play within the prison estate. For that reason, I attended another Koestler Art exhibition, this time on London’s South Bank entitled “Another Me”.
Some people visit these exhibitions in groups, others in pairs but I prefer to visit alone so that other people’s initial reflections don’t become mine. For me it’s not just the pieces of art that can stop me in my tracks but the titles given to the pieces. For example, this year I discovered works of art called “Stand Alone”, “Consequences”, “Innocent Man” and “Woo Are You Looking At?”.
From matchsticks to J-cloths, from socks to gold leaf, such variety of materials used with such ingenuity.
But the question that stayed in my mind was:
“Are these exhibits examples of escapism or expressionism?”
I took this question forward and developed it when having the opportunity to interview the writer Erwin James. Choosing a venue familiar to me but unfamiliar to Erwin, my motivation was to try to explore the impact on a person who becomes a prisoner of being categorised and given a number and watched by security; just like works of art in galleries. An interesting parallel that I have tried to explore in the past.
This is the amazing feedback from Erwin:
“One of the highlights of my year in 2019 was being interviewed by Faith in the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve been interviewed many times over the years by press, radio and tv – but what I liked about Faith’s approach was that she wanted to introduce art as our common ground as well as our interest in prison reform. I’ve known and admired Faith for a number of years. We haven’t always agreed on prison reform issues, but I’ve always respected her integrity, which shines in her writing, her passionate crusade for a more humane and effective prison system – and above all her indomitable spirit. I’m just glad we’re on the same side…”
My return visit to the Bernard Jacobson Art Gallery in London was on a warm summers evening. It was the occasion of the bi-annual Contrarian Prize, for which I was pleased to have been nominated in 2017. The gallery was full and I met some real and would-be contrarians. The winner was Katherine Birbalsingh (Twitter: @Miss_Snuffy), founder of Michaela School and the prize was awarded by Jeremy Paxman. Chatting afterwards, Jeremy told me he had heard of me, which was somewhat astonishing. But the conversation with him was good and far from superficial.
It was also a genuine pleasure to catch up with my friend Ali Miraj, founder of the Contrarian Prize.
Being met in the entrance hall at the Lebanese Embassy by His Excellency the Ambassador for Lebanon to the United Kingdom, Rami Mortada, was an unexpected and memorable moment. Having received an invitation from Dr Lewis Owens the evening reception was arranged for former hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy to meet on Lebanese soil together for the first time since their kidnap. It was a proud moment for me to meet them both, Dr Waite for the second time, and to have the opportunity for a short conversation. The ordeal of these remarkable men, imprisoned against their will, provides us all huge lessons about incarceration.
This year it has once again been a pleasure to be an associate member of The Corbett Network. It’s founder Lady Val is an inspirational woman, who I am pleased to call a friend. Her determination to promote reintegration and to support those released from prison into meaningful employment is exemplary. She has gathered around her a group of people who share this vision. Among them is Jo Apparicio, Business Management Director at The Chrysalis Programme, with whom I share the same passions and sense of humour, and to whom I leave the last words of this blog.
Thank you for reading.
“I was first introduced to Faith in May 2017 at a Networking event. I was immediately struck by Faith’s absolute passion, drive grace & unconquerable spirit in ensuring that individuals caught up in our judicial system are listened to, given a voice opportunity & support to reintegrate back into their families & communities in a positive & sustainable way with dignity as returning citizens to our society. Working with Faith over the past couple years in this environment sharing many common goals & thoughts I am in constant awe of Faith’s passion & drive and feel a great privilege to call her a dear friend. Faith is indeed a rare lady & a real woman of substance & I have no doubt that with her drive & passion she will be instrumental in the future in helping change the judicial system & prison reform for the better supporting individuals both in the prison system & also on release reintegrate and return to our society in a positive way”
In the context of a blog like this, it’s possible to only mention a fraction of the workload, time and miles covered. For obvious reasons you will appreciate I’m unable to share the full extent of everyone I have met or all that has been done.
Busy London streets
I made my way out of the crowds towards my destination: The National Portrait Gallery, London.
Although this will be a time to indulge my love of Art, I’m actually here to interview rather than be an interviewee.
I arrived early and found a quiet(ish) corner of the café to collect my thoughts, helped enormously by the Earl Grey tea and slice of orange and polenta cake.
Two days previously I attended the Koestler Art exhibition on the South Bank entitled “Another Me”
I prefer to visit alone; I don’t want other people’s initial reflections to become mine. For me it’s not just the pieces of art that can stop me in my tracks but the titles of the pieces. This year I discovered “Stand Alone”, “Consequences”, “Innocent Man” and “Woo Are You Looking at?”.
From matchsticks to J-cloths, from socks to gold leaf such variety of materials, such ingenuity.
But the question that stayed in my mind was:
“Are these exhibits examples of escapism or expressionism?”
I made my way up to the large information desk at the National Portrait Gallery and sat patiently awaiting my guest.
Ten minutes later, he arrived looking rather bemused at my choice of venue to interview him.
Erwin James followed me up a flight of stairs where we slowly wandered around looking at portraits of people, from HM The Queen to Zandra Rhodes and every conceivable individual in between.
Trying to get my bearings, we turned a corner and entered the Statesmen’s Gallery, lined on each side by a series of white marble busts on projecting plinths in between painted portraits. It looked outstanding.
At the far end hung a portrait painting of Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright (oil on canvas, exhibited 1909), militant Suffragette, persuasive speaker and effective strategist. Erwin and I stood and pondered.
In one of the rooms off this gallery we found a bench, sat down and started to talk. Straight ahead was a significant portrait, covering a large part of the wall, entitled:
The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari
Faith Spear: When you look at that picture what does it tell you?
Erwin James: There are people who care about people that others don’t care about. This lady cared for the wounded she didn’t care about the war, she cared about people.
FS: How does it make you feel when you see that?
EJ: My experience of prison was that occasionally, more than occasionally there are people who care about people, about the wounded people in our prisons who need assistance, it’s a challenge for any community or society to think that we should care or help those that have hurt us. But she cared about everybody.
FS: Do paintings like that inspire you?
EJ: I found paintings in prison. I did an Arts degree and I was given this folder of great art; I had never had access to art or that sort of thing, ever in my life until I went to prison. I found art through the Open University.
I have never seen this painting before if I’m honest, but it tells us, “this lady, she doesn’t care who you are. She just wants to heal you.” The Onlookers: What are they thinking, should we help this person? There’s hesitance, others are standing away, observing. But you can’t hesitate or observe when people need help. My feeling about our attitudes to prisoners is that’s it’s a challenge to help people who’ve hurt us but if we don’t help them, they are going to hurt more people. When I look at that painting, I promise you some are taking advantage of the crowd.
FS: That’s interesting “taking advantage of the crowd”
EJ: We do that in our society now, longer prison sentences…we deserve a prison system that hates the crime, perhaps hates the criminal but for Christ sake give the prisoner a chance. That’s my philosophy really.
We slowly moved from room to room admiring and yet questioning the art we saw. Both of us were struck by a painting of Henrietta Maria (1635) and our hidden thoughts became open dialogue
EJ: Look how attractive we are, look how wealthy we are, look how amazing we are
FS: Always trying to prove something
FS: Is that because people can’t accept who they are?
EJ: People seem to want to portray an image that is more than what they are, that is exactly what these people did
FS: It’s not just status is it?
EJ: Status, its look at me, look at us, all the poverty in the country when she was painted.
The poor people, we always looked up to the people doing well, we always aspire to be like them
FS: Always looking down on those that are not doing so well?
EJ: I don’t know why because we are all trying to get up that ladder
FS: Do you think we fall into the trap that we don’t actually accept people for who they are?
EJ: Well we are not sure who they are, all we know is we think we know who we are we want to be better versions of ourselves come what may
There are many self-portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, some more obvious than others.
FS: With a self-portrait you are not necessarily portraying the real you
EJ: No, you are portraying what you want the world to know about you. As a writer I am the same, I’m exactly the same, I want the world to know me through words because the world sort of knew me through the courts through prison through prosecution
FS: So, do you think you were trying to re-invent yourself
FS: But then that is saying previously that wasn’t the true you
EJ: Yes, that wasn’t the true me
FS: Do you think that this is the true you now, what you are doing now?
EJ: Yes, before I became who I think I am, I’m not perfect by any means, but I am my own person and I think lots of people go through life thinking, well is this me? I’m born into this way of living but gradually you think did I decide this. Other people decide our lives and what prison gave me was the freedom to choose my own, if that makes any sense. But even though I am a million miles away from perfect, I am a real person
They all portray dominance over everyone else. The whole purpose of art in these ages was to say look at us, we dominate you – and then the dominated looked up and said, “we are so pleased to be dominated by you”, we didn’t know then that any of us could be dominate and dominated we didn’t realise then before mass education, we didn’t understand that we can all be people with education with skills and abilities
We walked up to level 2, not knowing what to look at first. We entered a small room.
FS: Do you see that painting over there of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with his books showing he is an educated man, well in fact, a poet?
EJ: Books for the educated people? No. books are for everyone, to me Faith, books are a great leveller. If you can read, you can be a King.
By this time, I needed to sit down; juggling bag, jacket, notebook, pen and phone was getting problematic. I found a wooden bench in one of the corridors and with phone at the ready I continued my questions as we sat down.
FS: One thing I am always amazed at in an art gallery is that everything is categorised, often by year, era or by event. Everything is numbered. And there is a lot of security. When you come into an art gallery you are watched by cameras everywhere.
Everything is numbered, everything is categorised exactly the same as it is in a prison.
How did it feel to be categorised and given a number?
EJ: That is a really good question.
Well I was categorised; I was a Cat A prisoner for 5 or 6 years. The system categorises you and gives you a number. I hated my prison number. I was in Devon driving down a lane and I saw a signpost for the B73…, arghhhhhh! That’s my prison number!
It was awful, I had forgotten it, forgotten it purposely. When you are categorised and given a number you become labelled, you’re not human you’re a prisoner. But thank god there are some amazing people that work in prisons who want you to be human. For various reasons you end up there, they work there, and they are there to help you to become like them. Thank god for that. Without those people I would never be here I would never have made it. Teachers, psychologists, probation officers some prison officers…
FS: But when people are reduced to a number do you think that is degrading?
EJ: Well I think the danger Faith, you are asking me something quite profound here, because the danger when we do that, we detach people psychologically from our community. Now prison is detaching. You did harm, you caused pain, grief etc, but what we do with that in our prison system is that we detach further psychologically so the people in prison psychologically don’t feel part of society. Don’t feel part of the community, there’s no sense of wanting to come back.
I want to do some good when I come back, but mostly we don’t want them back. But actually, there’s so many people that do come back do good but it’s the physiologically detachment that presents danger from the released prisoner.
As Erwin is a writer, I wanted to probe a little more into different aspects of his life.
FS: For someone who is setting out on a journey as a writer what advice would you give?
EJ: Well what I would say is first and foremost is tell your truth. But first, you have got to find your truth because if you don’t know your truth you will never be able to share that truth. So, there are a couple of things: have discipline, have courage because when you put your truth out there you are going to get people who hate you and your truth. You need to have courage and be bold, but as long as you know your truth you will have a significant number of people who will accept that. Whatever the obstacles whatever the challenges you just keep going.
I decided to probe a little deeper too.
FS: What makes you laugh?
EJ: You will be amazed how many people in prison laugh, it’s a funny thing in jail you laugh at the most banal things.
FS: But what makes you laugh now?
EJ: My great granddaughter she makes me laugh. “Grandad, grandad look at the chickens” she chases chickens and I run after her and I’m laughing like hell and then she catches a chicken. Then she chases the ducks.
I do laugh but I am a very serious thinker, but I laugh when she laughs, its infectious. I feel safe to laugh with my great granddaughter.
FS: Is that because you are not being judged?
EJ: In the public if I am laughing, I feel awful because there are people grieving because of me. Even in jail I was scared to laugh sometimes because it looked like I didn’t care about anything.
FS: What makes you cry, do you cry?
EJ: I cried a long time ago in prison when I came to terms with what I had done with the effects on victims’ families of my crimes. I didn’t cry before that.
What makes me cry now? A good drama where there’s an amazing writer who brings the human condition into our living rooms and shows us how weak, strong, dominant, how we are as humans.
That makes me cry.
My final question was about what others say.
FS: What is one of the most memorable statements about yourself?
EJ: The best thing that’s been said of me, that I am really proud of, I do school talks. I was in a school in Southampton a few years ago, the Headmaster said afterwards:
“It was one of the best talks we have had all year and, for some, will be an abiding memory of school.”
It was time to switch my recorder off, I took in a last view of this amazing gallery and headed outside for some air. After a refreshing drink we said goodbye and I headed for the tube.
What an interesting conversation.
Erwin James is editor-in-chief of ‘Inside Time’, the national newspaper for people in prison and the author of ‘Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope’.
Photos: Copyright © FM Spear. All rights reserved.
How/why did your involvement in the CJS come about?
I turned down my place to study for a degree and instead moved from Lincolnshire to Essex at the age of 19. My first “proper” job was in admin with NACRO in Colchester. I worked primarily in wages and finance. At that point NACRO provided 6 months work placements in painting and decorating or in gardening teams etc for those who had just come out of prison. I heard amazing stories from those men and some brought newspaper cuttings to show me of their various escapades, including a headline “Most wanted man in Britain” They made me laugh and some made me shed a few tears. But for me I had many questions that were never answered.
What happens after 6 months?
What about their families, how can they support them financially?
Was this really a way for integration back into society?
Why is only manual labour available?
Fast forward 25 years, I was accepted into University. I became a full-time student studying Criminology with 2 kids at school, 1 at college, a part time job and my husband working full time and studying also, I embarked on a very busy 3 years of multi-tasking!
For my first presentation I chose to speak on Women in prison and the Corston report, I researched thoroughly but was marked down because no one was interested in prisons and especially not women in prison, it was deemed not an exciting enough subject. Great start. My next presentation was about Restorative Justice and yet again I was questioned as to why I was interested, one lecturer even said, “What’s that?”. A pattern was emerging of my interest into those within the CJS and those that had been released increased. I was not put off and in my 3rd year the title for my dissertation was: Restorative Justice: Is it delivering strategic change in England and Wales or just a cost cutting exercise by the Government?
To understand the significance of Restorative Justice I arranged interviews with experts in the UK, NZ and USA, even Howard Zehr widely regarded as the Grandfather of RJ agreed to help. I consumed document after document on RJ and was a frequent visitor at the Cambridge University Library, floor 6 (those stairs almost killed me!) and the Institute of Criminology Library.
I graduated with an honours degree in Criminology and looked for my next step.
I joined the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay and in just three years became the Chair.
I wrote about the things I saw and heard but what I didn’t expect was what happened next. I was confronted with a prejudicial character assassination brought against me, a fight to clear my name, being investigated twice by the Ministry of Justice, called in front of a disciplinary hearing in Petty France and the involvement of not one but two Prison Ministers. I felt that I was on my own against a bastion of chauvinism. Not the last bastion of their kind I would come across. Welcome to the IMB!
My continuing journey can be found in my blog: The Criminal Justice Blog www.faithspear.wordpress.com
Because my story is fairly unique it has been covered by BBC News, Channel 4 News, BBC Radio Oxford, BBC Radio Suffolk, 5Live, LBC as well as National and Local newspapers, law journals and online publications etc.
Religion is clearly important to you, what role does God play in your life?
I remember going to Chapel with my grandparents as a young child and hearing my Dad and Grandfather sing the old hymns with deep sincerity. Christianity has always been part of my life. My faith in God has often been tested.
How do you balance work and life responsibilities?
I often say I’m a Mum first, always have been always will be. My husband and my kids are the most important people in my life, I have a great relationship with them all. They understand who I am and what motivates me to do what I do. They understand the bigger picture and that for me it is a cause and not merely a job. That in itself I realise is exceptional and I find I am continually grateful because I know that the level of family support I have is sadly not available to everyone. I can’t do this stuff on my own. They are also aware of the work I do behind the scenes and the many hours of support I give freely.
What role, if any, has luck played in your life?
Things happens for a reason, we don’t always know or understand the reason why. We all have issues to face and hurdles to climb and times of joy and celebration. Luck doesn’t fit in my life at all.
Not only have you been a source of inspiration to me in certain areas, I have also seen you inspire others and would like to know who inspired, or inspires you and why?
A few years ago, I wrote a journal article with a friend of mine, Dr David Scott about a remarkable woman, Lady Constance Lytton, commemorating 100 years since her book Prisons and Prisoners was published. In it she presented one of the most significant challenges to 20th Century anti-suffrage politics. Her book is a harrowing personal account of her four prison sentences as a militant suffragette. It is also a compelling insight into the mind of a young woman consumed by a cause which would prove to be instrumental in prison reform and votes for women, as well as tragically being a contributory factor to her death. My inspiration, which comes from her being consumed by a cause, makes me wonder if that is still possible. This wasn’t a phase she was going through or a pastime, it was a lifestyle.
I admire her courage and determination. I see this in so few people but when I find it, it is unmistakable. Let me give you an example, Tracy Edwards MBE. At the age of 26 she was the skipper for the first all-female crew for the Whitbread Round the World Race. It is not so much the fact that she sailed around the world, although that in itself is remarkable, but it is the reason why that I find compelling. She said “First time in my life I stood up for something I believed in” I have met and chatted with Tracy, she is an inspiration to me without a doubt.
What would you say is your greatest accomplishment and/or achievement is?
I think that my greatest accomplishment is staying true to myself, maintaining integrity and not bowing to pressure to conform.
In terms of my greatest achievement let me give you a couple of examples. First, being nominated for the Contrarian prize 2017 especially when you realise the key criteria that the judges look for are Independence, Courage and Sacrifice.
Second, last year I was deeply moved and excited to learn that I had been counted as one of the 100 inspirational Suffolk women alongside people such as Dame Millicent Fawcett.
As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?
On one of my visits to the House of Parliament I took time to seek out one of the most outspoken MP’s known for saying it as it is. I sat down next to Dennis Skinner and asked him a very simple question. I asked, “How do you get heard in this place?”. Mr Skinner looked me straight in the eye and offered me advice I will never forget. With his characteristic directness, he said, “You have to be seen to be heard”. I’ve taken his advice and applied it to all I do. This has not come naturally to me as people who know me will tell you.
Everybody wants to have their say and everyone has an opinion. But there is a big difference between those who say their piece ad nauseum and those who have something to say.
In one sense all that people have heard from me so far is simply learning to overcome the barriers of not being heard. When I have learned enough then I am sure I will have gained the clarity with what I have to say.
If you were given the prisons and probation ministers role, what changes would you make?
I would scrap the titan prison building programme and instead invest in smaller local units, making families more accessible and start to break down the barriers between those in prison and those on the outside.
I would encourage industry to step out of their comfort zone and give more people with convictions a second chance. To remove the stigma of a criminal record so that it is not forever hanging around people’s necks. We are a deeply divided and hurt society that is full of prejudges.
I would ban all industries within prisons that do not provide purposeful activities and a decent wage. People need to be work ready on release with housing and job options already in place. Families should be able to stay together and be supported, children should be prioritised.
I would make sure everyone working within the CJS were trained sufficiently for their roles and supported in their jobs.
As a prisons minister you can only change what is in your field of influence to change. In other words, you need to be precise, you need be pragmatic and you need to learn whose advice you can trust. Then act on it.
One of my priorities as Prisons Minister would be to take advice to demonstrate better things to invest in. Diversion, or Restorative Justice or Community.
Put money into early years, into youth etc.
We have to stop this madness of believing that we can change people and their behaviour by banging them up in warehouse conditions with little to do and not enough to eat and sanitation from a previous century.
As Prisons Minister I would initiate change that would lead to every prison Governor carrying personal accountability for the way they run the prisons they are responsible for. It’s not their prison, its ours and they must run it properly, giving people in their care decent conditions and personal dignity regardless of what crime the courts have sent them to prison for. The moment Governors carry that personal accountability is the moment you will see astonishing changes in HMPPS.
I will ensure under performing Governors leave the service and are not continually rotated around the prison estate or promoted to more senior positions. They have to know the weight of the accountability they carry.
Finally, what are you hopes and aspirations for the future of the criminal justice, and also for you?
Transparency and Accountability should underline every decision made. No more carpets where issues are swept under. No more excuses for the crisis within the system. We talk too much, we deliberate too much and have too many committees. There are too many roundtable events, conferences, discussions where everyone is saying they are experts yet so much remains the same. We produce too many reports, reviews and paperwork that gets filed away. Now is the time for action, for investment in people and for priorities to change. Lets just get on with it and stop competing and instead work toward a common objective, such as drastically reducing the prison population
In the next five years, I will continue to speak up truthfully and will add my voice to the very many voices calling for change. I will support policies introduced by the current Prisons and Probation Minister or by their successor where those policies do bring about real change. However, I shall not hesitate in bringing a strong critique where those policies gloss over the hard questions or where they shirk the implementation of measures for real reform. I will finish on this:
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
The Wales Governance Centre, a research centre and part of Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics undertakes innovative research into all aspects of the law, politics, government and political economy of Wales.
This week they released a report: Sentencing and Imprisonment in Wales 2018 Factfile by Dr Robert Jones
Before looking at this report, lets put things in context by referring to the first unannounced inspection by HMIP of HMP Berwyn in March 2019. Here it is reported that “impressive” support procedures are in place for new arrivals. Positive note. However, use of force was considerably higher than at similar prisons and 1 in 4 prisoners (23%) told HMIP that they felt unsafe. Alarm bells?
Below are the four tests when inspecting a prison, Safety, Respect, Purposeful activity and Rehabilitation and release planning. Not the best outcome for the first inspection.
Safety: Outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good against this healthy prison test.
Respect: Outcomes for prisoners were reasonably good against this healthy prison test.
Purposeful activity: Outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good against this healthy prison test.
Rehabilitation and release planning: Outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good against this healthy prison test.
HMP Berwyn prison has only been open just over 2 years, hasn’t reached full capacity and has its 3rd governing Governor.
Now let’s look at some of the facts revealed that are not easy reading
The number of self-harm incidents
2017 = 231
2018 = 542
Self-harm incidents rose by 135% in 2018
Rate of self-harm: (48 per 100 prisoners)
This is what the Government website states:
“Self-harm may occur at any stage of custody, when prisoners are trying to deal with difficult and complex emotions. This could be to punish themselves, express their distress or relieve unbearable tension or aggression. Sometimes the reason is a mixture of these. Self-harm can also be a cry for help, and should never be ignored or trivialised” https://www.gov.uk/guidance/suicide-self-harm-prevention-in-prison
This is what the HMIP report states:
“The strategic management of suicide and self harm required improvement. Strategic meetings were poorly attended and too little was done to analyse, understand and take action to address the causes of self-harm. Most of the at-risk prisoners on assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management did not feel sufficiently cared for. ACCT documents required improvement, and initial assessments and care plans were weak”
Yet below are more uncomfortable facts showing that this prison is not just dangerous for prisoners but for staff too. Nothing to celebrate here.
The number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults rose by 338% in 2018
Rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults: (20 per 100 prisoners)
The number of assaults on staff at HMP Berwyn increased by 405% in 2018
Rate of recorded assaults on staff (18 per 100 prisoners)
You would think that a new prison would have a security department second to none, with little chance of items being brought in. Yet these figures show that weapons, drugs, alcohol and tobacco are increasingly being found. Some may say hats off to the staff for finding these items, but really there’s still no cause for celebration…
The number of incidents where weapons were found in prison, years ending
March 2017 = 1
March 2018 =25
March 2019 Berwyn = 138
The rate of weapon finds (11 per 100 prisoners) year ending March 2019
This was the highest rate per prisoners in all prisons in Wales, astonishing. Serious problems with security.
The number of drug finds at HMP Berwyn increased by 328% in the year ending March 2019 (prison population increased by 67% during this period)
The rate of drug finds (16 per 100 prisoners)
Where are the robust measures to stop drugs coming into the prison?
The number of incidents where alcohol was found in HMP Berwyn years ending March
2017 = 0
2018 = 21
2019 = 146
Alcohol finds at HMP Berwyn rose by 595% (prison population increased by 67% during this period)
Rate of alcohol finds (12 per 100 prisoners) year ending March 2019.
Yet again the highest rate of alcohol finds in all the prisons in Wales
The number of incidents where tobacco was found in HMP Berwyn years ending March
2018 = 20
2019 = 61
Rate of tobacco finds (5 per 100 prisoners)
The prison is covered in photos of Wales and the countryside, everywhere you look there is a motivational quote, there are flowers, bees, greenhouses yet one in 4 prisoners didn’t feel safe.
Comfy chairs in reception, pretty pictures, colourful décor does not appear to contribute to the safety of HMP Berwyn.
Motivational quotes such as “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows not the flower” means nothing if a quarter of the population feel unsafe.
Prisons can be austere places, drab, filthy, old and not fit for purpose. But here we have a new prison with serious problems. There can be no excuse that these are teething problems, we are talking about peoples lives.
Remember the Berwyn Values?
V = value each other and celebrate achievements
A = act with integrity and always speak the truth
L = look to the future with ambition and hope
U = uphold fairness and justice in all we do
E = embrace Welsh language and culture
S = stick at it
Is this just a marketing ploy, designed for a feel-good factor, making us all think that the money spent on this Titan prison was worth every penny?
Independent monitors have praised the work of staff at HMP Berwyn describing their efforts to establish a new prison as a ‘considerable achievement” (Recent comment by IMB) After this shocking report, what will they now say? Or will they remain silent?
I don’t doubt there are some hard working, diligent and caring staff. In fact, I met some on my visit last year. But when the prison opened in 2017 over 90% of staff had never worked in a prison before. When you have prisoners arriving from over 60 prisons all with different regimes, you find they have far more experience of the prison estate than the majority of prison officers.
But more worryingly is that the Government is continuing with its programme of building new prisons. A new prison will be built in Wellingborough as part of the Government’s Prison Estate Transformation Programme. I’ve read gushing articles on how this prison will benefit the community etc, similar to when HMP Berwyn began construction. Just like HMP Berwyn there are many promises and opportunities, but theory and practice can be a million miles apart.
As the second anniversary rapidly approaches of the disciplinary hearing I stood in front of in Petty France, my heart tries not to sink.
Yes, I am still banned from being a member of the IMB, just over three years to go.
I am often asked if I would want to join again, I can honestly say in its current form, no, not at all. I want to see a monitoring board that is truly independent not just in title but in actions, the prisoner’s perceptions and their Annual Reports.
I miss the work, it was work to me and I took it seriously even though the Governor once said, “you don’t work here, you are a volunteer” This kind of attitude stinks and shows how little he regarded the IMB.
Even now many IMB members face opposition from their boards when they stand up and challenge the “but we always do it that way” brigade. It’s not good enough.
I recently chatted to an IMB member who recognised me and wanted to meet and was keen to explain that she had tried to implement some of my suggestions, such as out of hours visits. But that hadn’t gone down well with her board, apparently nothing happens outside of office hours in a prison and there’s nothing to see, therefore, IMB members are not needed. A short-sighted response. I have heard it before and I’m sure I will hear it again.
My article for the Prisons Handbook 2016 is just as relevant today as it was two and a half years ago when it was first published. There are still the same questions and very few answers.
Although the new Governance structure appears to be a re-package concept with little bite, there is a hint of optimism.
I haven’t given up, I haven’t disappeared into one of the many cracks of the Criminal Justice System, I am aware that some would want that to happen. Too bad.
I am very much alive and kicking.
I have a voice and I use it.
Mr David TC Davies (Twitter @DavidTCDavies), Conservative MP for Monmouth and chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, has launched an inquiry into prison provision in Wales. At the moment, there are no facilities for women yet there are proposals for another “Titan” prison in South Wales at Baglan.
Let’s look briefly at the record
HMP Swansea, HMP Parc and HMP Cardiff rank amongst the worst prisons in the UK.
All have serious problems with prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, suicides, overcrowding and drugs. Here are some statistics:
Swansea: 80% of prisoners are in overcrowded cells. On arrival at the prison 53% have a drug problem and 32% have an alcohol problem.
Parc: this prison is ranked 111th place out of 117 in England and Wales. In 2017 there were 881 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and 1451 incidents of self-harm.
Cardiff: 64.5% of prisoners are in overcrowded cells. There were 220 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in 2017.
Usk/Prescoed: There is no full-time health care provision at either prison, concern by IMB of frequency of ‘lie downs’
If South Wales is serious about a new super prison it should first take a long look at what’s happened in North Wales:
Berwyn, the flagship of the MoJ which opened in February 2017.
Despite being Europe’s second biggest prison, with a capacity of more than 2,100, up to July of last year the £212m facility was less than a quarter full – with just over 500 inmates being catered for. By November there were 800 men.
Digging a little deeper, we find:
- HMP Berwyn received 319 complaints from prisoners February to September 2017.
- There were 219 complaints about the living quarters in the first seven months and 31 complaints about the quality of the food.
- There were 4 complaints about prisoner-on-prisoner violence or assault compared to 50 lodged by prisoners alleging abuse or assault by prison officers.
- Five of the alleged assaults were passed to North Wales Police for investigation, no action was taken over any of them.
- Ministry of Justice revealed that 376 items were confiscated from prisoners between its opening in February and October last year.
- 30 unspecified weapons, 56 items relating to drug paraphernalia and 34 mobile phones were among the items found in the possession of prisoners.
- Other items confiscated include 21 debt list items, 66 lighters, 17 USBs, 26 vaping objects and 10 chargers.
- There were also a number of items described as “miscellaneous” that were confiscated by prison officers.
So, whether prisons are new, old, Victorian, large, average size, have highly respected Governors or frankly those that should not be there (believe me I’ve met both!), it makes no difference as they all have similar issues to contend with:
Overcrowded. Understaffed. Underfunded.
To alleviate this prison crisis, we need fresh approaches in order to:
REDUCE the population: send fewer people to prison for non-violent offences
INCREASE the use of community orders
CUT the number of recalls
DEAL with indefinite sentences IPP’s convert to fixed length sentences?
FACILITATE prison release, therefore reduce self-inflicted deaths and reduce self-harm
REFORM prison estate and ensure all facilities are decent
SHARE best practice
INVEST in the long term and DELIVER in the short term
ADD more mental health facilities
The list can be endless and will depend on whether we see the purpose of prison as punishment, rehabilitation, both of these or a form of social cleansing.
Only last September, Lord McNally said in the House of Lords debate on prison overcrowding:
“We therefore have to understand the debate today which will be overwhelming in favour of sensible reform still has to pass that test of how we get a Secretary of State, a Prisons Minister and a Prime Minister who are willing to drive through reforms”
But that’s not the end of the story
We need a change in public attitude and that can only come from being informed and educated and not continually having issues covered up and hidden, the brushing under the carpet syndrome. There must be transparency.
We then need investment in life after prison in the provision of a home, a place of work, training or education and a reduction of the stigma in having a criminal record.
This month marks one year since I sat in front of a disciplinary hearing at Petty France.
I had stood up and spoken out publicly on the state of our prisons and the state of the Independent Monitoring Boards that has a statutory role within each prison. Some may think I was too severe, and undermined the work that was done by volunteers. Others praised me for being brave enough to speak out as they were too fearful to face the consequences themselves.
I spoke from my experience and I spoke the truth. Seriously, the IMB is a shambles for the main part, a weak voiceless organisation that purports to be independent. Yes, there are some serious members that care about their role but blink and you will miss them! It’s not independent by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a department of the Ministry of Justice based at the MoJ headquarters Petty France.
I didn’t have to appear at the disciplinary hearing, the MoJ/IMB could have made a decision on my future as a Chairman of an IMB without my presence. I was determined to be there and try to uncover the ridiculous allegations against me. What a farce it was. I had been suspended from my role for 8 months and during that time was investigated twice by the MoJ.
During the investigation, I learnt that the article I wrote “Whistle blower without a whistle” in the Prisons Handbook 2016 was not an issue with the IMB Secretariat. The problem was that I spoke to the press. I was interviewed by my local paper ‘East Anglian Daily Times and by the ‘InsideTime’ prison newspaper. Suddenly my story was not only out in the open but was in every prison across the country.
Then came the prejudicial character assassination by both MoJ and IMB. I had struck a raw nerve. Three years previously the MoJ had commissioned Karen Page Associates to review the IMB. Conclusion was the IMB needed root and branch reform. They were so right, each board operating as a separate entity. There was nothing earth shattering about by article, I raised similar points to the review so why did the MoJ/IMB try to shut me down and silence me?
I believe it was a campaign initiated by a member of my board who had the audacity to send in additional material to the disciplinary hearing as he was scared that the decision would go in my favour and that I would reveal what was really going on in the IMB. It was rejected of course.
I didn’t realise that when you needed support or help in situations you faced as a member of an IMB it wouldn’t be available. There is so much I could say but basically the care team made up of members around the country that you could approach for support and guidance had been disbanded. So where difficult situations arose I was on my own.
Entering the hearing I was faced with a couple of familiar faces. The first panel member was on the executive committee for AMIMB. The same association that without permission had taken part of my article and printed it in their magazine and sent it to their members. So, no impartiality there.
I realised the MoJ had decided to change the terms of reference for the investigation without informing me, is that right?
The investigation was as a result of being suspended yet the direction and conclusion of the investigation had changed. I also found out the MoJ had been watching my every step for months and had a list of what I had said and when. Boy they were determined to silence me. I requested notes taken during the hearing and was disappointed but not surprised that so much that I had said was missed out. I don’t know what so-called “evidence” was sent to the Prisons Minister everything was done behind closed doors. They had made up their minds, nothing I could say or do would change that. Just as in the beginning of their campaign against me I knew there would not be fairness. Ironic that the IMB strapline is “Monitoring fairness and respect for those in custody”
Trying to silence me didn’t work
Since the hearing and at every opportunity without my hands being tied anymore, I have spoken out for positive change in the Criminal Justice System both locally and nationally.
I have met some amazing people, visited excellent schemes within prisons and worked with those I admire for their stand.
In trying to silence me the IMB/MoJ have given me a voice, a National voice. As I have said so many times before, I have never tried to raise my personal profile, for me the priority has been the issues I have raised. If you knew me you would understand this.
There have been so many that have walked beside me over the past year, some I have laughed with and some cried with. We have encouraged each other, we have shared our stories. I thank them all.
I am stronger now than I was a year ago and even more determined to play a part in the change that is needed within the Criminal Justice System.