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Volunteering in the Justice Sector

51st birthday

Today I read volunteering is good for your health as you tend to visit the doctor less!

This may be the case and I should know, I have worked as a volunteer for over 20 years and in the Justice sector for over 3 years

A big misconception is that a volunteer just makes tea!

After going to University as a mature student I received a BSc (Hons) in Criminology in Nov 2011. I then spent a year working with my local CAB and completed the course to become a Gateway Assessor as I was told you need to have voluntary work on your CV especially if you have changed direction. This was a real eye opener to the needs of people. After answering an advert in the paper to join the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay in 2013, I started on a very interesting journey. I am now the Chairman.

Apart from the IMB, I have been a group leader for Prison Fellowship England and Wales since 2012 involving managing a small team, all volunteers that deliver the Sycamore Tree victim awareness course in prisons. Meeting monthly and also speaking at various clubs, groups and churches on Restorative Justice and the work I do in prison. I have also been on the Steering Group for the Reclaim Justice Network for over 3 years, attending meetings, AGM’s and supporting events when I am able.

In addition I am a member of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) and the Howard League. I have been invited to visit many prisons and events in the Justice sector and have been an observer at the Justice Select Committee. I have lost count of the number of conferences, lectures, wine receptions and exhibitions I have attended as I try and keep informed. I write a blog and am known on twitter!

I am passionate about wanting change within the prisons, purposeful activity and education are but a few of changes needed. I try to encourage those in prison and those that have been released.

But all of this is as a volunteer.

I have applied for many jobs since graduating but there have been two main problems. The first being the idea that volunteers make the tea and don’t have real input and so can be a bit clueless. The second being I cannot find a more interesting and at times rewarding line of work. I’m not someone to sit in front of a computer on a daily basis. My work is varied and I enjoy the interaction with prisoners, Governors, staff, my team and my many contacts. I like to be organised and punctual. I like tea, but don’t sit around drinking it all day.

Volunteering is rewarding, I recommend it as it’s an essential part of society but I’m ready for a change…!

Kids in prison…!

My first visit to a YOI was a few years ago around Christmas time. I had been invited for the annual Carol Service. I arrived early and awaited the youngsters, to be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect. 10 minutes later they started to file into the Chapel, followed by almost as many members of staff.

Dressed in plain ill-fitting sweatshirts and mis-matched jogging trousers, goodness knows how many times these clothes had been passed on, there was no pride in their appearance as they were dressed in basically clothes you would sling on. My heart went out to these children who were deemed too dangerous to be in society and therefore locked up. What a pitiful sight!

Some joined in with the singing of carols but most stood up and looked bored and dejected; a few smiles came afterwards with the juice and chocolate biscuits. Others were fascinated with the musical instruments which were left out so they could have a try; this gave me chance to talk to them. I remember one lad told me he was 13 years old and hadn’t had a Christmas outside some sort of institution for 5 years. I didn’t ask why they were there; I didn’t want or need to know.

I wanted to hear laughter and chatter but most of these children were fairly quiet and expressionless!

There has been a lot in the media about children locked up, new contracts signed by companies that have dubious methods and terrible treatment.

I applause the Howard League for their tireless campaign to close down prisons for children…

Yes kids need boundaries, yes they need to be taught what is/isn’t appropriate behaviour but is a prison really the place to learn these principles?

I don’t think so.

I’m well aware how some children can be a problem to society but surely we don’t help as we put in so many unnecessary rules and regulations. How about the signs such as “no ball games” “no-skateboarding” and “keep off the grass” around where we live?

Kids need stimulus; they are inquisitive and like to push boundaries. Often the kids in prison have had a difficult past; often they have been victims themselves and have had to survive.

For those that think prison is right for kids then try spending time in one!

Ministry of Justice priorities…?

At the beginning of the month (5th – 7th Feb 2015) I attended the IMB conference. It was my first after over 2 years serving on the board at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay, 14 months as Vice-chair.

After the formalities of opening the conference by IMB President, John Thornhill, we were introduced to one of the key speakers Mr Andrew Selous MP, Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation.

And then it got very interesting!

He told us that, according to the Ministry of Justice, these were the priorities:

  • Education
  • Family relationships
  • Work and time out of cells

The following day, to a guest panel (Frances Crook, Chief Exec of The Howard League for Penal Reform; Paul Baker, Deputy Director of Custody East Midlands, HMPS; Ben Gunn, former long serving prisoner and Clare Checksfield, Director of Returns in the Home Office), I put the following question:

“Firstly I would like to congratulate The Howard League on the books for prisoner’s campaign. Secondly the Minister yesterday explained the MOJ’s priorities were Education, Family relationships and Work including time out of cells. Do you agree and do you see them implemented?”


faith and frances

Let’s start with Education. On this priority, Frances Crook responded by saying that “MoJ priorities are fiction”. She went on to say,

“Don’t send people to prison to get an education, send them to college. Prison education budgets have been realigned so they focus on basic skills, which is all very well but what about the 30,000 adult men who are serving long sentences and who now get little education beyond the three Rs”.

I still come across prisoners that have served many years in prison and still struggle with basic reading and writing. But should we be blaming the prison system, what happened for them to enter prison without these skills, not a straightforward issue?

Well I’m sure many of us have heard about Jonathan Robinson and his experience when he was trained to teach other in-mates to read yet, when in an open prison, was prevented by the then head of Education.

However, four years later and with new staff this same prison has just been awarded ‘Outstanding’ from Ofsted. Change does happen!

Family relationships

On this priority, Frances Crook shared that desistance is about relationships, engagement, commitment, consistency. Prisons cannot fulfil this.

One of the workshops I attended was overseen by two very enthusiastic women from HMP/YOI Parc entitled ‘Family Interventions, Supporting Positive Family Involvement. They work with the whole family and look at their needs in order to reduce offending, reduce inter-generational offending and encourage community inclusion. In the Family Intervention wing Safe Ground runs a couple of courses, Fathers Inside and Family Man aimed at teaching essential fathering skills.

Work and time out of cells

On this priority, Frances Crook said,

“Time out of cell is disappearing as staff cuts are so swingeing. Latest figures show in the last six months of last year the big city prisons were still losing staff. Morale is at an all time low, MoJ survey showed that, and sickness rates sky high.”

There are many stories that prisoners spend up to 22 or 23 hours locked in their cells but with the shortage of staff very little can be done.

Work is an essential element to prepare for release and what is needed is more companies willing to take on those with a criminal record.

A couple of months ago I spoke to a group of people about ex-offenders being re-integrated back in society, all were for it and all thought it was an important step… until I asked

“what about your society?”


IEP regime and books for prisoners

The latest debate is focused on the stopping of prisoners from receiving books from outside the prison estate. This is all part of the Incentives, Earnings and Privileges scheme which was revised in November 2013.

An on-line petition,  through twitter has been initiated to call on the justice minister Chris Grayling to immediately reexamine the latest rules which restrict access to material possessions that are sent to prisoners.

This can be seen as a backward looking retributive action and far removed from the rehabilitation revolution.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, communicated that this is “… part of an increasingly irrational punishment regime orchestrated by Chris Grayling that grabs headlines but restricts education or rehabilitation”.

Surely books play a vital role in the education of prisoners and the rehabilitation process, there should be an increase not decrease in prisoners access to items that will aid rehabilitation. This debate leads to the problem of too much non-purposeful activity in prison and too much time locked up in cells. Even the Home Affairs Committee (2005) picked up on this many years ago and the inconsistency of provision from prison to prison. At this rate we will be looking at the rehabilitation of prisoners from the effects of imprisonment!

Prisoners are allowed up to 12 books in their cell; however access to prison libraries can be varied depending on prison, sentence and behaviour. Being locked up in a cell most of the day having a television is not always the best way to pass the time. However, due to the IEP scheme, books are seen as a privilege and are restricted, only books outside of the prison library have to be bought from their meagre wages. With all the cuts, prison libraries are not exempt and stock can be limited. But books are important when you realise that many prisoners have low literacy skills, so can the ban on books be justified? Education is not the same throughout the prison estate and access on online courses even more inconsistent.

According to Haywood (2006), “…lifelong education slows down the revolving door of incarceration and reincarceration”, so why bring in any reforms that will counteract this?

This is a form of punishment, but where is the proportionality or is that old hat?

The effects of the changes in the IEP’s are being tracked by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), but these may not be seen for some months to come.

There has to be a justification for the decisions made where prisoners are concerned and quite frankly they don’t seem to add up, is this going beyond punishment?

Haywood, D. (2006) ‘Higher barriers: ex-prisoners and university admissions’, in S. Taylor (ed) Prison (er) Education (2nd edn). London: Forum on Prisoner Education.

Home Affairs Committee (2005) Rehabilitation of Prisoners First Report of Session, 2004-5. Volume I. London: HMSO.

Corston review revisited

It’s about time the Corston review was revisited.

Baroness Corston was commissioned in 2006 by the then Home Office Minister Patricia Scotland, to examine the issue of vulnerable women within the criminal justice system (Ministry of Justice, 2007 p. 2). This was not the first time that the Government had sought to assess the specific needs of women.
In 2004, the ‘Women’s Offending Reduction programme’ was launched; this project was for three years to deal with women’s offending rates and to help reduce the number of women in prison. Also in 2005 the ‘Together Women Programme’ of many diverse agencies came together to look into the various needs of women offenders. This was launched with a government funding of £9.15 million (Government Equalities Office, 2008 p.44).
The Corston Review was conducted as a result of 6 deaths of women prisoners in HMP Styal between August 2002 and August 2003. The classification for all these deaths was self-inflicted. The cause of death for 4 prisoners was hanging and for the remaining 2 was overdose. The youngest was Sarah Campbell aged 18 who had drug problems and overdosed on prescription tablets the day after she had been sentenced and returned to HMP Styal.
These deaths highlighted the problem of vulnerable women with a history of mental health problems, drug misuse or violent and sexual abuse within the criminal justice system and the risk of self-harm. In the case of Sarah Campbell, the coroner at the inquest Nicholas Rheinberg issued recommendations to ensure that similar situations would not occur again. This included a review of the use of segregation units within prisons and training in suicide and self-harm should be available to all prison staff.

According to INQUEST, a non-governmental organisation in England and Wales working directly with the families of those who die in custody, in 2003 there were 14 self-inflicting deaths of women in prison and 13 in 2004. This showed that the system in some way had failed these offenders (INQUEST, 2005)

Deaths of Women in HMP Styal August 2002-August 2003

Name                Classification Establishment Ethnicity Age Status Cause Date of Death
Julie Walsh Self-inflicted HMP Styal UK white 39 Convicted Overdose 12/08/2003
Hayley Williams Self-inflicted HMP Styal UK white 41 Convicted Hanging 04/06/2003


Jolene Willis Self-inflicted HMP Styal UK white 25 Convicted Hanging 20/04/03
Sarah Campbell Self-inflicted HMP Styal UK white 18 Convicted Overdose 18/01/03
Anna Baker Self-inflicted HMP Styal UK black 29 Remanded Hanging 26/11/2002
Nissa Smith Self-inflicted HMP Styal UK white 20 Remanded Hanging 10/08/2002

Source: INQUEST Casework and Monitoring

The report was welcomed by Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust who saw it as a blueprint for reform and stated “The Corston Review gives government the chance at long last to join up its social policy with its criminal justice policy” (Prison Reform Trust, 2007).
Baroness Corston examined each stage of the criminal justice system from arrest to sentencing to resettlement in order to ‘address the multiple and complex needs of women’ over a time scale of 9 months. The subsequent report was published on 13th March 2007 (Ministry of Justice, 2007 p.4).

The recommendations were divided into 5 areas, Governance, Sentencing, Community provision, Prison and Health which the Government pledged its commitment.

Fast forward now to what has arisen since the May 2010 election. A commitment was made in March 2012 to set out strategic priorities for women in the penal system but as of January 2013 no such document had materialised. In written evidence to the Justice Select Committee in September 2012 the Ministry of Justice pledged this document would be published in the New Year.

In September’s government reshuffle Helen Grant MP was appointed Minister with particular responsibility for women in the justice system. This was short lived after yet another reshuffle in the summer of 2013.
In January 2013 Chris Grayling, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice said in a written Ministerial statement:
“I am conscious that women offenders have particular needs and that the custodial female estate should be organised as effectively as possible to meet gender specific requirements whilst also delivering best value for the public. I have therefore asked officials to undertake a review of custodial arrangements for women. I expect this review to be completed by the summer.”

An All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on women in the penal system was set up in July 2009 with Baroness Corston as the chair and with administrative support from the Howard League for Penal Reform. Its purpose was to publicise issues around women in the penal system and push for implementation of the Corston Reforms. In March this year there was a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System entitled “Community interventions for women: lessons from the frontline” (All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, 2013).

Let’s go to the present day what do we know about the Government’s attitude to women prisoners, what has Chris Grayling got lined up for them?

It has been announced that Mother and baby units are to close. Separation of infants from their mothers is cruel and is likely to cause bonding problems later. When you have a baby why should a man in Whitehall insist that your baby is taken from you just because you are in prison? I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas we could give Mr Grayling on how to save money!

I recommend you read Frances Crook’s blog; its enlightening nothing seems to be as it first appears.
…“Holloway prison’s mother and baby unit is to close. This means that London women prisoners or those from the South East who have babies will be faced with a choice: go hundreds of miles to Cheshire or the Welsh borders to a mother and baby unit, or, separate from your baby so that you can stay in a London prison so you can be near your other children. Askham Grange was the only open prison that had a mother and baby unit and that is to close down. With the closure of two mother and baby units there are now only five units.” (Frances Crook, 2013)
A child should not have to pay for a woman’s crime; a woman should pay for her crime! Moreover, if you speak to people like Frances Crook, the woman should never have been put in prison in the first place, especially if she is a teenage mother.

But let’s not forget “Gender appears to be the single most crucial variable associated with criminality. Put more bluntly, most crime is committed by men; relatively little crime is committed by women” (Heidensohn, 1987 in Carlen and Worrell, 2004 p. 119).

All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (2013) ‘Community interventions for women: lessons from the frontline’, Minutes of committee meeting 6 March 2013, All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, Committee Room 4, House of Lords.

Carlen, P. and Worrall, A. (2004) Analysing Women’s Imprisonment. Cullompton, Willan Publishing.

Frances Crook (2013) Don’t be fooled by the government’s deceit over women’s prisons, Frances Crook’s blog, 1 November. Available at: <; [accessed 3 November 2013]

Great Britain. Government Equalities Office (2008) Women’s Changing Lives Priorities for the Ministers for Women One Year On Progress Report. London, The Stationery Office [Online]. Available at <; [accessed 10 November 2009].

Great Britain. Ministry of Justice (2007) The Government’s Response to the Report by Baroness Corston of a Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London, The Stationery Office [Online]. Available at <; [accessed 10 November].

INQUEST (2005) Verdict in Sarah Campbell inquest – 18-year-old woman who died in HMP Styal. [Online] at <; [accessed 11November 2009].

Prison Reform Trust (2007) Women’s Imprisonment: Corston review provides blueprint for reform. [Online] at <; [accessed 9 November 2009].

Problems at YOI’s? send in the dogs!

After being inundated with tweets concerning Feltham YOI, it’s time to take a step back and consider what really is happening and what could be done about it.

Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release  Believe it or not this is part of the statement of purpose for the prison service! This clearly is not the case.

There are limitations to  current penal system  with problems of overcrowding and high levels of recidivism. But that is no excuse for locking up children for at least 18 hours per day. How can this treatment help in the rehabilitation of young offenders? And what about them leading “law-abiding and useful lives in custody”?

According to the Independent : Last month, though, the present chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, wrote what the Howard League for Penal Reform called the worst dispatch from any such institution in more than a decade. “There is no concealing the fact that this report is one of the most concerning we have published recently,” Hardwick wrote. He painted a picture of aimlessness, and hopelessness, and endemic gang violence. If you were a parent with a child locked up there, he told this newspaper, “you would be right to be terrified”.

Later Nick Hardwick stated…“I don’t think this is just a Feltham problem, it’s a wider problem. We need to get our heads around what we are going to do with these very damaged boys, because simply punishing them, well, it doesn’t work. It absolutely doesn’t work.”

According to the Halliday Report (Home Office, 2001)

  1. Sentences are more severe
  2. Judges and magistrates award more custody
  3. Average length of custodial sentences are 50% longer then 10-15 years ago
  4. Magistrates sentencing significantly higher proportion to custody

So what now?

The Howard League is driving a  campaign for justice for children. They want to raise the minimum  age of criminal responsibility and ensure that society engages the child  behind the crime. They also believe that too many children are in prison. Through  their projects such as U R Boss they aim to give children a voice and work to improve the treatment and conditions for children in custody.

Send in the dogs?

YOI Warren Hill in Suffolk houses young offenders with a variety of problems and backgrounds. It is here that an old dog known as Eddie visits each week to help those inmates that need a bit of therapy. Eddie is part of the “Pets as Therapy Dogs” and gives the lads the unconditional love of an animal that is one of the things that are most missed aspects of their lives when they enter prison.

Home Office (2001) Making Punishments Work. London: Home Office [Online] Available at:

Managing offenders?

Managing seems to be a very popular word at the moment, especially where offenders are concerned. A clear example is the latest Transforming Rehabilitation: A revolution in the way we manage offenders, a consultation paper detailing the Government’s proposals for reforming the delivery of offender services. This paper is available to download at: The period of consultation runs from 9th Jan to 22nd Feb 2013.

Page 13 is very apt:

“Successful bidders will be responsible for delivering requirements of community orders or licence conditions. They will also be incentivised through payment by results to tackle offenders’ life management problems and reduce reoffending. For offenders leaving prison, providers should work with them ‘through the prison gate’, engaging them before their release into the community and maintaining continuous support. This should be linked with the important role that prisons play in the rehabilitation of offenders and in reducing their risk of harm, including efforts to increase the number of prisoners working while in custody.”

To achieve this successfully will involve an incredible amount of resources not just in terms of money but would need an army of volunteers. In a period of cut backs voluntary organisations are already stretched whilst private companies are focused on making money!

According to the East Anglian Daily Times up to 20% of prisoners in HMP Highpoint are underemployed. This amounts to around 260 prisoners. However, Andrew Neilson, Howard League for Penal Reform, stated “It is important that prisoners are engaged in purposeful activity, but too many at Highpoint are underemployed, meaning they are unlikely to develop skills that will be useful after their release”. And the cycle continues!

Why should we concentrate on making the prison system cheaper not smaller, Mr Grayling?

A theme that is close to my heart is the reduction of the prison population, unfortunately the Government has other ideas. Chris Grayling MP  in his speech to the Centre for Social Justice on 20th November stated the five priorities that he has given to the Ministry of Justice for the remainder of this Parliament, priority three included

“We have to focus on making the prison system cheaper not smaller”.

In addition Jeremy Wright MP at the AGM for the Howard League for Penal Reform on Wednesday 21st November 2012 said that the Government has no plans to reduce the prison population and it is the sentencers not the Government who are responsible for the prison population as it stands today.

Maybe we should look at simplifying the Criminal Justice System by reviewing historical scholars. In On Crimes and Punishment and Other Writings (1764), Cesare Beccaria critically challenges the current thinking of the 18th Century by putting forward his theory of Criminal Justice from an enlightened perspective as he himself searched for truth (Bellamy, 1995). He concluded that:

“In order that punishment should not be an act of violence perpetrated by one or many upon a private citizen, it is essential that it should be public, speedy, necessary, the minimum possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crime, and determined by the law”

What is clear is that the objectives of sentencing have changed over time, with different priorities being given by different policy makers. The criminal justice system has been reduced to a managerial system rather than improving on a punitive system. In other words, policy makers are more interested in assuring that the system works than assuring that the punishment works, which totally misses the point of crime and punishment as Beccaria saw it.

Bellamy, R. (ed.) (1995) Beccaria: On Crimes and Punishments and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Links
‘Prisons: cheaper not smaller’ by Richard Garside. UK Justice Policy Review. 20 Nov 2012. click here
‘An open letter to Chris Grayling from an ‘old lag’ ‘Downsizing Criminal Justice. 28 Nov 2012. click here

Don’t you think the person is more important than the policy?

More than 86,000 people behind bars in England and Wales

More than 86,000 people behind bars in England and Wales

Last year I presented a poster session to cohort and faculty at my local university. The poster was the most visible infographic in the room. It acted as a magnet for attendees. Its immediacy communicated right to the heart of the issue and triggered some substantive discussion. And so it should. Latest figures available from Ministry of Justice shows that over 86,000 people in England and Wales are currently serving custodial sentences.

Frances Crook (@FrancesCrook), Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform said that many of these people should not be in prison at all; many offenders, particularly those serving short sentences, would be move effectively punished using community sentences.

She has a point. If offenders can be more effectively punished using a sentencing strategy which not only costs around one tenth of the cost of a prison place, but also controls prison population at the same time as being in the better long term interests of the offender, then it deserves serious consideration.

“It isn’t crime that puts people in prison – it is policy that puts people in prison.”

In my experience dealing with a range of offenders, I can see that sentencing strategy, in some cases, causes “penal excess”. This phrase means different things depending on your standpoint. For example, to a probation officer it may mean a harsh sentence behind bars. To a politician, it may mean “…it is the sentencers not the Government who are responsible for the prison population as it stands today” (said Jeremy Wright MP, 21st Nov 2012, speaking on the occasion of the AGM of The Howard League for Penal Reform).

Don’t you think the person is more important than the policy?