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Purposeful activity in Prisons!

Why is it that so many prisoners have very little to do whilst serving their custodial sentence?

Surely it cannot help their mental health that is often quite fragile anyway when they spend hours upon hours in their cells with nothing to do. With access to workshops, education and the library dependent on the number of staff on duty, prisoners are just locked away.

Prisoners need meaningful activities that serve a purpose not a mind numbing repetitive exercise. I remember having a tour of HMP Whitemoor after a meeting, one of the workshops was dismantling CD’s. Talk about repetitive. Prisoners removed the plastic film, took apart the case, removed the paper inside, and took out the CD for hours and hours on end. Come on I’m sure the prison service can do better than that. Recently I visited HMP Norwich; here they have a fantastic facility for training prisoners in sewing skills using industrial machines. They made prison issue towels and wash bags, however, all the material used was bland off-white no pattern no bright colour. Now I like sewing but staring at the same colour days on end would drive me potty! Why these machines can’t be used for something more stimulating I wonder? The equipment is available, the workforce is trained so…!

In society there are those that are not particularly academic but are very creative, it’s the same in prison.

Many prisoners seem to be placed in prison then spat out at the end of their sentence with not much to show for the time inside. This needs to change, how can prisoners be rehabilitated and not reoffend if they have often no job or education to go to afterward? It’s then a spiral downwards, what a waste of time, money and more importantly the lives of those that have been incarcerated.

There is so much un-tapped potential in prison!

Last weekend I travelled to Tymperley’s in Colchester to see an exhibition and sale of textiles such as cushions, bed-runners and Christmas decorations all produced by prisoners trained through Fine Cell work.

20151128_155151There I met I met a very enthusiastic Lucy Baile, fundraising and administrative assistant.

It was so refreshing to see work produced to such a high standard and it certainly was one of the best examples of purposeful activity I have seen.

Lucy explained that there were around 270 volunteers giving up their time to teach needlework skills both to male and female prisoners so that the many hours spent in their cells are not time wasted.

Why can’t there be more schemes like this?

20151128_155242

Buying a piece is an investment not just in a beautiful object but in people’s lives, to me worth every penny

http://www.finecellwork.co.uk

This is what they say on their website:

OUR MISSION

STITCHING A FUTURE

Fine Cell Work trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. This helps them to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending.

OUR VISION

We wish to build Fine Cell Work as a sustainable charity with the prisoners as stakeholders in the enterprise. We are aiming to become more embedded in the prison system and to guide prisoners towards formal work training and qualifications and to match them up with organisations that can provide support or employment on release.

OUR VALUES

  • Listening and Respect: Inclusiveness, equality and empathy with each other. We are non judgemental and accepting of our difference.
  • Creating Opportunites: We believe in second chances and people’s ability to unlock their potential in a safe, creative environment. 
  • Giving back to Society: Not just us, but prisoners and volunteers too.
  • Collaboration: We have a “can do approach”, we believe in clear boundaries, open, honest communication and in staff, volunteers and prisoners working together to create solutions.
  • Creativity and Enterprise: We take pride in creating products of high value.

Cat B visited

Well I have now visited Cat A, B, C, D and a YOI just leaving women’s estate which is on the agenda and an IRC.

Cat B yesterday, I must say it was not what I expected, Razor wire yes, heightened security yes, but not what I would call a “typical” prison environment.

I accompanied an actor and an ex-prisoner who campaigns for prison reform; Derek Martin an Eastenders actor and Jonathan Robinson, who I nick-named the “Dynamic Duo”.

From left:  Jonathan Robinson and Derek Martin. Photo: Faith Spear

From left: Jonathan Robinson and Derek Martin.
Photo: Faith Spear

My reason for visiting this prison was that after hearing good things about staff and their attitude towards prisoners with encouragement and motivation, I wanted to see for myself and not rely on the accounts of others.

This planned event started around 12.30, where the three of us met in the prison car park. I had met Jonathan before at various events but it was a first with Derek who came across as such a likeable character I was sure it was going to be a memorable afternoon!

On the inside

Fast tracked through security we waited in a through room for our host the Librarian and Learning Leader. Wow was he tall (well most people are tall to me)

Our first port of call was the library, what a vibrant organised room, a place where you would just want to learn in. Education was encouraged. There were colourful posters covering the walls, some of which showed previous guest appearances and reading schemes. You might say “a library is a library” what’s so special about a library?

But this was in a Cat B prison! I would have been quite happy to curl up on their sofa with a good book for a couple of hours.

I then expected just to go to the room for the talk given by Derek, instead we had a cuppa in the visits hall, a large bright modern room, laid out in small seating areas, well stocked kids play area and a purpose built coffee bar. Although I didn’t see it, the staff raved about the new baby unit just off the main hall.

It was good to chat with staff about the ways that families are supported with one member in prison. There was such a relaxed atmosphere which reflected the staff’s willingness to engage with the inmates. I believe maintaining family ties are such an important element in the rehabilitation programme. They even had incentives to enable inmates to earn extra time with their loved ones.

Our visit included Tesco express well the store for prisoner’s canteen, a wing, cell, laundry and the impressive gym. I started talking with a very enthusiastic member of staff who I immediately warmed to. Her determination to work with the prisoners to achieve was remarkable. As with my work, I meet many in prison that have never achieved anything positive in their lives. This was not something that this staff member was going to accept, she explained when faced with barriers there was always a solution even to the point of condensing courses, providing material in Braille and help with dyslexia.

Yet again education was encouraged at what ever age and what ever ability.

Oi, Charlie!

Sure, the celebrity guest was Derek, but we all were treated so well. Walking towards the multi-faith room. cheers went up from inmates and staff alike as they recognised Charlie (Derek).

On finally reaching the room, Derek and Jonathan sat at the front and Derek addressed the audience. Then the entertainment began with Derek’s sense of humour being displayed as he recounted story after story. Then it was time for the questions from “where can you buy pie and mash?” to “how can you be an extra on a television show?”

I enjoyed the chatting afterwards with the inmates; many wanted a signed poster from Derek or a copy of Jonathan’s book IN_IT.

Key takeaways

So what effect did the day have on me?

Today I have been going over and over in my mind the experiences of yesterday:

  • I met inspirational staff who enjoyed their job
  • I saw respect from staff and inmates
  • There was no heaviness in the air that I have experienced at other prisons
  • There was a hunger to learn
  • At no point did I feel vulnerable
  • There was a sense that the staff were all singing from the same hymn sheet
  • Rehabilitation in prison can and should start from day one
  • Even short sentences can be filled with purposeful activity
  • Prisoners taking responsibility
  • Education is a key to rehabilitation

Now I’m not saying this prison is perfect, there are issues facing the whole of the prison estate. But good practice needs to be shared.

We cannot sit by and see wasted lives within a prison environment, rehabilitation is the key to breaking the cycle of reoffending and yet its not about money, its more about attitude.

Art for arts sake/prison for prisons sake

I was in Liverpool at the weekend attending the ‘How violent is Britain’ conference, hosted by the University of Liverpool and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies which was attended by academia, policy makers and practitioners within the Criminal Justice System.

Whilst walking around the Tate in Liverpool, I recognised some unlikely parallels believe it or not between prisons and art galleries. It started by me thinking “who decided this was art? why is this piece of art here? and Oh that is a good idea” we all have our tastes, our ideas, our expressions, we are all different, individual. Every piece of art here is numbered, recorded and catalogued. Some piece have been transferred from other collections or other galleries, yet some are new. There are many flavours, many expressions and many tastes here. Security is high, you are watched.

Now let’s turn the page; walking around a prison my thoughts are “who decided this was a crime? why is this prisoner here? and that is a good idea” Every prisoner is numbered, recorded and categorised. Some have been transferred from other jails or other institutions and some are new to the system. Many nationalities many ethnic origins are represented here. Security is high, you are watched.

Which environment do I prefer?

In a gallery I look, enquire, have an interest, ponder, sometime write, buy postcards as a reminder to myself and to show others and then leave and return to my world.

In a prison I look, enquire, have an interest, ponder, write reports to remind me and to inform others and then leave.

The difference is I cannot just return to my world, what I see and hear surrounds my mind and my soul. I cannot just turn away, I want to be able to initiate change, see progress and ultimately see the Criminal Justice System reduced. That’s not to say that I want to close all prisons, sack all the police and let people live how they want. But there has to be an element of Restoration, just like a dirty canvas to reveal the true picture. I believe justice should restore and not just criminalize. Some pieces of art have a lasting impression on me the same can be said of certain prisoners. There is an uproar when we leave pieces of art to rot and in so doing deteriorate in front of our eyes so let’s not let people rot in jails and have greater problems on release than when they arrived.