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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.
‘The Grass Arena’ 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’.
A daily struggle for life itself, for the breath to breathe and the sustenance to give strength is a battle many start but then give up, as hurdles become visible, barriers are built and prejudice is rife. Drink becomes an obsession. I am sure we have all at some point tried to look through the window of others’ lives. We analyse their behaviour; we penalise whilst categorising them, we pity them. Not forgetting we compare their misfortune with our own accomplishments.
We read about them. Some use it as research to further their own life chances whilst disregarding the people involved. Some may find it entertaining; others as a measure of how they personally are doing, or how far they have failed. For myself, when reading about others there is an element of intrigue of course, but it’s more than that. I do not like small talk, its uncomfortable. I want facts and meaningful conversations. That is true communication.
This book communicates.
I frequently read about people’s journeys in life.
We all have a story to tell and I am eager to listen.
I have met many authors with fascinating quotes and anecdotes and maybe one day I will have the opportunity of meeting John. It was hard to put down this autobiography, an often harrowing account mirrored by the lines on my forehead, my furrowed brow. It is intense, it is absorbing yet thought provoking in a greater sense than most books on my shelves.
“Life was becoming more complicated. I was back in the old routine: stealing, drinking, fighting, my probation order, car insurance, detectives. I was pulling so many strokes for drink that I could not remember what I was doing…”
The stories of Fred, Dipper, Spikey and more carry merit, lives entwined with a common desire in life. Their struggles, contentions, crusades, rivalry and exploitations all add to the chart laid out in front of us.
“We look at people with only one thought. How can we get the price of a drink out of them? Looking, always looking, even when there is nothing to observe”.
An obsession leading to a lifestyle and a painful path trodden – alcohol picking you off one by one becomes a dangerous liaison. Yet seeing others fall is no way to interrupt the cycle, there is no end in sight, its continuous. I tried not to interpret my initial thoughts, the “if only”, “but” or even “what if” can become a distraction.
I just read. The shady doorways, the open green spaces, the derelict houses and the public houses all feed John’s obsession. Recovery from excess is quick and the thought of drink is always on his mind and he will do anything to take the constant battle, the weight on his shoulders and the voice in his ear, away.
This book is about a fight for survival, the many characters described within it are people trying to get through trauma, abuse and hopelessness. Many do not make it through.
Prison, I would not wish on anyone, I have visited enough to know they are not holiday camps, never have been and never will be. They are dangerous places. Here in ‘The Grass Arena’ they imitate the chaotic world that John is in. Familiar faces, familiar stories, and familiar issues to deal with.
Is it possible to escape from the grip of an obsession – even in prison? I read with impatience, asking that question many times.
Can John break free?
Does he want to break free?
Slowly but surely his obsession is substituted, by a game of chess. Yes chess, a game often associated with money, with brilliant minds; not a wino living each day for the dangerous toxic thrill of a drink.
A good book impacts you, challenges you, and this book is no exception, but it does leave the reader wanting more.
As I wrote earlier, it is a window into many lives and now the onus is on the reader to decide what to do next…
first published, Insidetime November 2020
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.
I was delighted when Phil Forder agreed for me to interview him. There is always a lot more to a person than their job so I wanted to learn more about him. When I asked why he agreed, he responded:
“Because you are a speaker of truth”
So, who is Phil Forder?
“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”
One thing we have in common is our association with Suffolk, I believe you were born there?
“I moved from Suffolk at 3 weeks old. Mum and Dads parents were from Suffolk, we then moved to Somerset and to Harlow in Essex where I grew up. I am one of six children.
Just before lockdown, I found the time to go through my mum’s memories she had written down before she passed away.
Mum grew up as a child in Beccles, Suffolk. Working class, brought up in the country before 2nd World War.
Grandfather prisoner of war in Germany, but never spoke about it.
Dad was a strict Catholic and worked at Downside Abbey, in Somerset and whilst there trained in teaching.”
“We moved to Harlow on the outskirts of London, in limbo between two worlds and was voted as the 2nd most boring place in British Isles.”
But Living in Essex Phil felt excluded because of his sexuality and tried to avoid facing up to it.
Whilst searching for his own identity and a way of fitting in somewhere and searching for a way out of Harlow, he decided to train to be a priest, but 3 months later he realised that was not the direction for him.
Before college Phil hitched to Afghanistan then blagged his way into Art college without an interview even though he had failed most of his exams. During his time, he managed to get a sabbatical and hitchhiked a second time to Kashmir.
Was he running away again?
But the problem is you can’t run away from self.
Back to Art college to finish his course and was voted Student of the Year.
He decided to live in isolation in a caravan and worked in a wholefood shop and then was promoted to managing it. But still there was a struggle within as to who he really was and what he should do in life.
There were many changes in the pursuing years including being a father, wanting a different kind of education for his child led to home-schooling and eventually attendance at an alternative Steiner School. This somewhat alternative way of educating was based on the idea that a child’s moral, spiritual and creative sides need as much attention as their intellect.
Helping out in Kindergarten as an assistant influenced Phil to train as a Steiner teacher in alternative education.
“But after 8 years, I wanted to do something completely different”
“A friend who was a magistrate phoned me up and said there was a job going as an Art teacher at HMP/YOI Parc, talk about a baptism of fire”
Such a contrast from working in a nurturing environment where parents cared for their children, were financially secure and where children grew up in a healthy environment.
He was then faced with dysfunctional families reminding him of his upbringing in Harlow that he had fought so hard to leave behind.
“Many of the lads in the YOI had known poverty, had mental health problems, history of abuse, came from dysfunctional families, history of crime in their family, history of substance misuse in their family and had poor education”
“Look what they were born into, their formative years. These young men then become society’s problem by falling through every net and ending up in prison”
Phil’s job changed when he became Equalities Manager and as he aptly said to me:
“To make an impression on a person you have to work with them and not against them.”
He developed a course to help the inmates engage and address their behaviour as most courses focus on what is wrong with them. But some are so ashamed of what they have done they cannot talk about it or even admit it. Phil wanted them to focus on what was good about themselves, what they had achieved, and only then when in a position of strength and comfortable can you tackle some of the issues.
“I brought a three day course into prison “The Forgiveness Project” founded by Marina Cantacuzino. It’s an amazing course, it’s important to put yourself with the prisoners and teach by example”
“I joined the Sports Council for an equalities point of view and invited a gay football club (Cardiff Dragons) and a gay rugby team (Swansea Vikings) to play against the prisoners. I wanted to break down stereotypes”
Who has inspired you?
“One of the most influential person has been Barbara Saunders Davis, her life very much influenced by Rudolf Steiner, came from an aristocratic family having studied in Paris and lived on her estate in Pembrokeshire. She taught me self-worth, life, Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophy (a philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) which maintains that, by virtue of a prescribed method of self-discipline, cognitional experience of the spiritual world can be achieved) I was honoured at her funeral to read the eulogy”
In your Twitter bio you have an impressive list apart from your work. Can you expand on some of these?
“In 2015, I wrote a book “Inside and Out”, a compilation of writings from LGBT people within HMP/YOI Parc, both prisoners and staff alike”
This book was featured in the Guardian in an interview by Erwin James.
His boss at HMP Parc, director Janet Wallsgrove, expressed pride in what Phil and his colleagues achieved.
“This book is a statement,” she says.
“It’s saying that we at Parc recognise and support everyone’s right to be respected as an individual. It’s both about tackling homophobia and challenging people who express views that are unacceptable and about getting people to feel comfortable with themselves and more motivated to buy into a rehabilitative culture in prison and in society.”
Another book Phil wrote was:
Coming out: LGBT people lift the lid on life in prison: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/12/lgbt-people-prison-struggle-book
“When I first started working in the prison, I realised there was no art available on the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit. As there was no classroom available, I taught art on the wing, with up to 30 men although resources were scarce”
“Over the years I have been asked to lecture on various aspects of prison life mainly to do with LGBT in prisons”
“I am a trustee of two charities, the first FIO a theatre company that tells stories that are or would otherwise go untold or unheard
and the second is the Ruskin Mill Education Trust for young people with learning difficulties.”
The last words go to Marina Cantacuzino:
“In the 10 years I was closely involved with several prisons in England and Wales I met three exceptional staff members who worked far and beyond what was expected of them, and were responsible for supporting charities like The Forgiveness Project to deliver their programmes to help change prisoners’ lives. The other two people burnt out – and left the prison service but Phil is still there! He seems to have reinvented himself a couple of times but his complete dedication to supporting prisoners is I think unprecedented. I don’t know what it is about him – is it his sense of humour, his deep creative/artistic streak, his compassion, his humanity, all of this! – that allows him to continue and keep doing outstanding work in this field. I now follow his progress on Twitter but for a long time he was our mainstay in Parc prison – the person who brought in the RESTORE programme and ensured it continued even when he was no longer in charge of this area. A wonderful human being!”
Thank you, Phil.
Photo credit: contributed by Phil Forder
I have been waiting eagerly for more news as to how the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) would operate ‘indirect monitoring’ of prisons and places of detention as it had stated on its website on 30th March 2020: “This is a fast-moving situation…” but there has been nothing for 4 weeks.
When a new hotline initiative was first mentioned by the National Chair in an update on the IMB website it claimed:
“We are in discussion at a national level with specialist contractors about the possibility of freephone lines to enable applications using in-cell telephony and the additional telephone capacity proposed by the Prison Service”
Seeing the headline on their website this morning, “Independent monitors launch new hotline for prisoners to report concerns during pandemic”, I was relieved. That is until I read the detail.
A few things about it stood out to me.
First, this hotline will only be available to 13 prisons, around 11% of the entire estate.
The prisons taking part are Wayland, Pentonville, Lewes, High Down, Berwyn, Woodhill, Eastwood Park, Bronzefield, Durham, Buckley Hall, Swinfen Hall, Onley and Elmley.
The hotline will be part of a new pilot scheme running for 6 weeks.
Ten thousand prisoners will be able to call for free from a phone in their cell or a communal phone.
That’s a start, but what about accessibility to the IMB in the meantime for the other seventy one and a half thousand people in prison?
Lines will be open, with a voicemail service, from 7am-7pm seven days a week.
In other words prisoners will not actually be able to talk to someone; it’s an answerphone and their message will be recorded.
Second, the actual process.
The prisoner’s concerns will be passed on to the relevant board, who will respond through the ‘email a prisoner’ service, or through the normal IMB routes or the IMB clerk.
It doesn’t say who will pass on the prisoner’s concerns and to the relevant Board. Presumably a member of staff will have to listen to the message and then write out the complaint/concern and send it to the relevant Board via email. Replies from IMB to the prisoner will then go through the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service.
Incidentally, the ‘Email a Prisoner’ website states:
“We are sending your messages to the establishments daily, as normal, but please note that prison staff are very compromised at the moment, so there may be instances where messages and replies are unfortunately delayed”
I cannot see how using an already saturated system will be particularly efficient.
Moreover, giving staff an additional task of transcribing the messages and sending them to the IMB would not be seen as a priority.
Even using the IMB clerk, which I’m aware happens in some prisons, is not the best way as they are HMPPS staff. In fact I know of one IMB Board where the clerk was closely related to one of the Governors at the same prison.
Like calls to the Samaritans, these calls will be confidential, and not recorded by HMPPS
Third, how can these recorded calls ever be considered confidential?
A prisoner telephones the hotline and has to leave a message on an answering service as the hotline is unmanned. The prisoner will have to leave personally identifiable information: their full name, their prisoner number and the name of the prison they are in. No mention is made in the announcement as to where these recorded calls are stored or for how long, nor who has access to them.
Someone has to relay these to the relevant IMB Board which means either sending a copy of the digital recording or transcribing them. Either way the confidentiality which should exist between a prisoner and a Board member is broken and trust is compromised.
Once the message is in the hands of the relevant IMB Board, assuming it reaches the correct one first time and does not go astray, the IMB must then find the information and respond to the prisoner.
The reply from the IMB to the prisoner must be made via the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service, which as everyone knows is a web based email service that depends on a member of the prison staff logging in and printing off to hardcopy all the individual messages sent to prisoners.
This step breaks for a second time the confidentiality that should exist between a prisoner and the IMB Board. Please don’t tell me that messages arriving for prisoners are not read by staff.
One more point worth making here is that only 9 out of the 13 prisons in the pilot have in place the ability for prisoners to reply back to messages from the IMB using the ‘Email a Prisoner’ platform. In other words, there will be 4 prisons where prisoners will have to start the process all over again should the response from the IMB not answer their concerns.
(Immigration detainees can already email IMBs directly which surely must be a much easier solution, and far more likely to be confidential as well as quicker)
Whereas it is only a pilot and teething troubles will naturally be ironed out, this system is fundamentally flawed from the beginning.
For it to have any credibility in effective monitoring the prisons in England and Wales the IMB must urgently rethink what it considers to be acceptable ‘indirect monitoring’.
Update: A short message I received from Sarah Clifford, IMB Head of Policy and Communications:
Hello Faith – Just wanted to clarify that the IMB freephone pilot is a live service, staffed eight hours a day by IMB members with voicemails as a back up. I have added a note to the IMB website announcement to that effect: https://www.imb.org.uk/independent-monitors-launch-new-hotline-for-prisoners-to-report-concerns-during-pandemic/. Many thanks.
This is incredible that this clarification was needed. This should have been on the website from the start without myself having to point it out in a blog. There was an uproar when I copied the IMB plans straight from their website. There was no hint at all that it would be a live service, staffed eight hours per day by IMB members. This was an essential point that was ommited.
Lets hope the IMB itself becomes a little more transparent and accountable.
This week I was sent information issued by Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) Head of Policy and Communications Sarah Clifford, to IMB Regional Reps, Chairs and Vice Chairs detailing guidelines for all Board members.
“Following the Prime Minister’s announcement last night, Boards should not visit the establishment they monitor for any purpose and should move fully to indirect monitoring. This includes serious incidents, during which Boards should arrange to be kept in contact with the command suite via telephone. We will review the position if the Government’s approach changes following the initial three-week lockdown period.”
Indirect monitoring? There is no such thing.
Board members will now have to rely on the prison staff to pass on information, further removing any semblance of independence it ever claimed to have had.
“It is important to maintain active contact with the establishment by phone, email and other electronic means. As a minimum, Boards should ensure that every member is receiving the daily briefing from the establishment and, for prison Boards, any updates to the regime management plan”
Keeping IMB up to date
Whereas it is essential that individual boards are kept up to date indirect monitoring will, at best, be from the prison’s perspective and biased as a consequence. Very little can be verified when you are outside a prison.
On 25th March, all members were sent a comprehensive letter from the IMB Secretariat. In that letter, under the heading “Impact on prisoners/detainees – reporting mechanism”, there was this statement:
“We will be gathering Boards’ serious concerns about deteriorating conditions and treatment for prisoners/detainees caused or significantly exacerbated by the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak so we can bring these to ministerial/senior level attention”
How on earth are monitors meant to collect and collate information such as this if Board members cannot go into prison for their own safety?
Indirect monitoring is complete nonsense.
Under the heading “Board meetings via teleconference/videoconference” the letter stated:
“Boards now each have dedicated teleconference lines to enable meetings to take place by phone. Please note that only Skype has been cleared by the MoJ for use for Board business”
I have been informed that dedicated teleconference lines are completely different technology to Skype, which uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) running over the public internet and which is susceptible to hacking. Confidential information of a serious and official sensitive nature should not be discussed using Skype.
Posters have been issued to be stuck onto IMB application boxes showing inmates the changes in dealing with their applications. One notable detail is this:
“We will still get daily updates from senior managers, so we know what is going on in the prison”
In other words, senior managers will tell IMB only what they want them to know.
IMB boxes will be emptied by IMB clerks (MoJ staff) or prison officers (MoJ staff). The IMB clerk or member of administrative staff will scan the application and email it to the prison’s IMB who will investigate concerns.
Responses may be emailed to the IMB clerk or member of administrative staff and delivered in an envelope or it may come direct from the IMB in an envelope. But not all Boards have access to a clerk.
Many members of the IMB may be in the high-risk category due to their age, others may have children to look after. Therefore, it is inevitable that changes will need to happen to safeguard prisoners, detainees, staff, and IMB members to minimise the risk of spreading infection.
Although the situation is changing daily, I think it’s safe to say:
All scrutiny of prisons is lost for the foreseeable future
The IMB has placed itself in an impossible position; the failure of the Secretariat to assure a sufficiently diverse membership is only one of a set of longstanding issues which the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing in the full glare of public attention.
IMB National Chair Dame Anne Owers, who holds ultimate responsibility for the organisation, must urgently rethink how the IMB is to fulfill its statutory obligation to provide monitoring of the prisons in England and Wales.
UPDATE 3rd April 2020
According to www.imb.org.uk. the message has now changed:
“Dame Anne Owers, IMB National Chair, has today (30 March) written to stakeholders to update them about monitoring of prison and immigration detention during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 epidemic:
Given the significant health risks for prisoners, detainees and staff during the current COVID-19 crisis, and following the Government advice issued this week, direct monitoring activity in prisons and immigration detention has inevitably been restricted.
Boards will be able to carry out some limited on-site work where it is safe and feasible to do so. However, we have also developed remote methods of providing some independent assurance at a time of heightened concern for prisoners and detainees. This is a fast-moving situation, but we have advised Boards as follows:..
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affecting prisons, a change of direction such as this raises serious questions. How is it safer than a week ago for Board members?
Photos of Dame Anne Owers by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission.
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.
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.