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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.”

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A funny thing happened on the way to prison

St Pancras Rail Station London

St Pancras rail station, London

Sat drinking my Earl Grey tea at the train station on my way to a London prison, I was approached by a young man. He was dressed in grey jogging bottoms, a hooded jacket and a union Jack bobble hat, carrying a small bag and a small blanket tied to the straps.

He asked me for any loose change and I asked him what he needed it for. In a hushed voice he said it was for a bed for tonight yet it was only 11:15 am. He explained the hostel would cost £12 for 5 nights. I asked him if they provided food he said yes. I apologised for not having any change with me but said I hoped he would manage to get the money together and told him to take care.

There are many like this young man; you could see the hopelessness in his eyes and his manner.

We live in such a rich country yet there are so many who struggle financially for various reasons.

It wasn’t really the poverty of that young man that struck me, but the way other people in their fine clothes completely ignored him.

Even if we are not in a position to help we can still show kindness. We are all capable of prejudices, even when we don’t see the full picture. I think we need to stop living our lives with our heads in the sand!