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Has prison reform become a humanitarian issue?

Think carefully – why would people who have been released from prison want to be integrated back into a society that thinks it’s okay for them to be locked up for 23 hours a day, with little nutritious food, lack of education, virtually no purposeful activity, squalid living conditions, unsafe, rife with drugs and violence, where staff struggle to maintain order, where corruption, suicides, self-harm and unrest are all increasing, where budgets are cut and staff numbers reduced.

Surely it’s time we asked why?

I think it’s because prison reform should not be just a political issue.

Regardless of who the Secretary of State for Justice is, or who the Prisons Minister is, or what political party they are from, prison reform should not be contingent on who is at No 10, it should be happening anyway.

It has become a humanitarian issue.

Faith Spear 7741 600px

Nominee for The Contrarian Prize 2017

I want to get things done.

I’ve had some prison Governors and Officers talk to me about prisoners and – honestly – I cannot even repeat the words that came out of their mouths.

And yet I’ve had other prison Governors and Officers confide in me about the growing concerns they have for people in prison.

On Friday 28 April, I learned that I was named a nominee of The Contrarian Prize 2017. It’s a prestigious prize for those who have shown independence, courage and sacrifice. I didn’t apply for this or seek the nomination, it found me. And I’m deeply grateful for it.

My fellow nominees are a formidable bunch and we’re all Contrarians in our own way. In my case, I wasn’t afraid to speak the truth to those in power, talking about the criminal justice system in the public interest. Doing so came at a huge personal cost including a face-off with the ‘goliath’ of the Ministry of Justice.

I’d like to use this nomination to propel and advance the issues I’ve been talking about. If it means we can see change and real prison reform by people seeing it more as a humanitarian issue then it has been worth it.

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Contrarian Prize 2017 shortlist announced here

The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise individuals in British public life who demonstrate independence, courage and sacrifice.

Now in its fifth year, it aims to shine a light on those who have made a meaningful contribution to the public debate through the ideas that they have introduced or the stand they have taken.

Ali Miraj (@AliMirajUK) is the founder of the Contrarian Prize.

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Why our prisons need to be reformed

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

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

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

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

So why have prisoners behaved in this way?

Toxic combination

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

Faith Spear

Faith Spear 

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

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

IPP is defunct

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Gate

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

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

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

Grayling’s latest crackdown

From 1st November there has been a change in the Incentives, Earnings and Privileges (IEP) system within the prison estate (Ministry of Justice, 2013a; 2013b). How individual prisons will be able to make sure all prisoners comply will be interesting to follow. The 3 categories of basic, standard and enhanced will from now on be stricter and for those not on enhanced ROTL will not be possible. Therefore, for open prisons where rehabilitation through outside work is the norm, if those on enhanced do not fulfil the criteria they will likely be downgraded to standard.

This potentially will leave many prisoners with nothing to do during the day and bored prisoners are not good for any prison. If there are large quantities of prisoners which should under the new rules be moved to standard then how can they be managed? Likewise if prisoners are downgraded to basic, suddenly they will not only have to wear prison clothing which believe me is something to be desired but will have their TV’s taken away.

Grayling has said that under the new policy, the lack of bad behaviour would not be enough to earn privileges; instead inmates would have to work actively towards rehabilitation and help other prisoners (No Offence, 2013)

But then some say why should they have a television? But where do you draw the line on punishment? Each prisoner is still a person and there should be a measure of consideration placed on each one. What has wearing a uniform, well jogging trousers and sweatshirts, got anything to do with punishment for an offence. It’s not like the city where suits are the normal attire. Next prisoners will be wearing striped outfits or ones with arrows on. Time for a change surely! Let’s stop wasting time money and energy in making prisoners look uniform and get down to addressing real issues such as reducing the prison population.

The Maidstone Prison incident this weekend (BBC, 2013; BSkyB 2013) shows that there is unrest within; let’s hope this will be the exception rather than the norm in the future. Can this be linked to the regime changes introduced by Mr Grayling?

BBC (2013) ‘Kent prison disturbance resolved’. BBC News. 02 November. [Online]. Available at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-24791003> [02 November 2013].
BSkyB (2013) ‘Maidstone Prison ‘Riot’ Brought Under Control’. Sky News. 02 November. [Online]. Available at <http://news.sky.com/story/1163060/maidstone-prison-riot-brought-under-control> [02 November 2013].
Ministry of Justice (2013a) Toughening up prisoner privileges. [Press release dated 30 April]. Available at <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/toughening-up-prisoner-privileges> [accessed 01 November 2013].
Ministry of Justice (2013b) Major shake up to prisoner incentives. [Press release dated 01 November]. Available at <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/major-shake-up-to-prisoner-incentives> [accessed 01 November 2013].

No Offence (2013) Male prisoners to wear uniforms and be banned from watching television. [Online]. Available at <http://www.no-offence.org/entry.php/533-Male-prisoners-to-wear-uniforms-and-be-banned-from-watching-television> [accessed 02 November 2013].