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Guest blog: Being visible: Phil O’Brien

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.

Phil O’Brien

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.

John O’Brien

~

Prison as Punishment…really?

For a few years now I have been fascinated by people’s perception of Punishment. From Open Prisons seen as “Holiday Camps” to bringing back hanging all encompass the subject of Punishment.

We all have ideas of what it should be and have our preferred theories;

  • Retribution: vengeance and just deserts
  • Rehabilitation: reforming the offender
  • Deterrence: reduction of crime by the threat or anticipation of a penalty
  • Denunciation: reinforcement of community values by indicating certain behaviours reprehensible and not tolerated
  • Restitution: compensation for the victim
  • Incapacitation: physical restraints such as imprisonment, removing potential offenders from the community thus reducing future crime

But what does it really mean and does it work?

Does prison rehabilitate?

Should prison rehabilitate?

This is a really interesting report that I recommend:

Prison: the facts (Prison Reform Trust)

http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Prison%20the%20facts%20May%202015.pdf?dm_i=47L,3ETJN,3KIY3M,C7EXO,1

With custodial sentences one size does not fit all. Imagine all prisoners trying to fit in one box, doesn’t work and how can it work? There are too many variables within a prison which may affect the outcomes for inmates such as attitude of staff, regime, distance from families, abilities of inmates, crime committed, length of sentence…I could go on!

There are groups of prisoners that make little or no progress within a ‘normal’ prison environment; it’s similar to children that are unable to cope with mainstream schooling. These prisoners are unlikely to be able to address their offending behaviour.

This week I was invited to HMP Grendon by Officer Clare Cowell to see for myself how those that might fall between the cracks are treated by introducing the work undertaken.

 

F wing (TC+) is a new community providing specialist intervention for prisoners with a low-level of intellectual functioning to address offence-related risk and associated personality and psychological disorders.

It was explained that as part of the Personality Disorder pathway they deliver a core treatment model suitable for sentenced offenders with a wide range of offending needs whose complex needs cannot be adequately met by a single intervention.

Treatment consist of structured small group therapy and community living where members have shared responsibility inter the day-to-day running of the community, decision-making and problem solving.

F wing (TC+) places a greater emphasis on structural interventions targeting specific learning styles.

Residents (inmates) welcomed us to the unit alongside the friendly approachable staff, offering hot drinks and biscuits whilst revealing parts of their prison journey. The day was well planned with chances to take part in music therapy, discuss art therapy, relaxation and measuring the IQ of residents.

So back to the original question prison as punishment? You decide

Where’s Mum?…she’s in prison with an author and an actor off Eastenders!

Daughter: Did you just say Mum’s visiting a prison in London with an author and an actor off Eastenders ?

Son 1: If I stop someone from killing someone else and in so doing I kill them, am I a bad person or is it just what I have done bad?

Son 2: Did you really sit in a room with prisoners, what if they were murderers?

Boyfriend of daughter: Wow, you were in the audience and sat with prisoners?

Are these the kind of conversations you have with your family?

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Over the past four years I have met many prisoners who all had one thing in common: they just needed someone to believe in them, to listen to them and to help them whilst in prison and once their sentence had ended.

I’ve found that, for some of them, criminal activity had become a way of life; they knew nothing else and would most likely continue in the same way after release. For others, falling into crime was a result of a stupid decision or action, often spontaneous, which had got them in to trouble with the law, convicted and sent to prison; they felt a debilitating remorse and that they had let themselves and their families down.

Crisis – what crisis?

We read that the prison population continues to rise, overcrowding in prison seems to be the norm rather than the exception and violence, suicides and self-harm are weekly occurrences. There is tragedy after tragedy yet we are told that there is no crisis in our prison system.

So what should we do? One solution is to accept the status quo and keep our heads in the sand. Another is to actually address the issues. But, as I keep hearing, this has to be a coherent team effort.

Not settling for the status quo

In January, I visited a London prison and was accompanied by NoOffence! Patron, actor Derek Martin (Eastenders’ Charlie Slater) and author Jonathan Robinson (@IN_IT_THE_BOOK) from their Advisory Board. I’ve already blogged about the visit and the lessons I took away from that experience.

At a peer mentoring conference last year, I met with Rob Owen OBE the chief executive of St Giles Trust, an Ambassador for NoOffence!

St Giles Trust aims to help break the cycle of prison, crime and disadvantage and create safer communities by supporting people to change their lives.

Next week, I will be meeting Geoff Baxter OBE the CEO of Prison Fellowship who is also an Ambassador of NoOffence!

This is just a small sample of the organisations that work to improve the lives of offenders, there are many more.

I’d dearly like to explore how these organisations can find more ways to work together; these plus leaders such as Howard League perform outstanding work as organisations in their own right. Just imagine what could be achieved if new ways of working could be agreed to improve the Criminal Justice System.

In December 2012 I was accepted by the Secretary of State to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of an open prison. To carry out my duties effectively, the role provide the right of access to every prisoner and every part of the prison I monitor, and also to the prison’s records. Independent monitoring ensures people in custody are treated fairly and humanely; I take this work very seriously.

When I started working in prisons it was as a group facilitator for Sycamore Tree, a victim awareness programme teaching the principles of restorative justice. For many offenders on Sycamore Tree one of the most powerful element of the programme is when a victim of crime visits to talk with the group how crime has impacted their lives. In week 6 of the programme, participants have an opportunity to express their remorse – some write letters, poems or create works of art or craft. Members of the local community are invited to the course to observe the many varied symbolic acts of restitution.

I’ve seen some remarkable lives turned around among offenders who make it to this stage of the programme. Okay, you argue, there is no way these outcomes can be achieved in 100% of cases. I agree.

But programmes that provide education and encouragement have to be a more purposeful activity and more effective towards increasing the chances of better outcomes with more offenders than them simply being banged up for 23 hours a day with the TV.

But all it takes is a bit of coherent team work.

I like what NoOffence! says in their mission statement and vision:

Mission Statement: NoOffence! will encourage, promote and facilitate the collaboration of organisations from the voluntary, public and private sectors to address the issue of reducing crime and reoffending.

Vision: To be the leading online criminal justice communication, information exchange and networking community in the world. Our vision for NoOffence! has always been to bring justice people together to overcome barriers to rehabilitation. We believe the solution to complex justice problems lie with the people…

They have got a point, haven’t they?

I for one would be open to try to forge more collaboration than we see today. And I know I’m not alone in that view; many others are prepared to voice a similar willingness and appetite for supporting each other.

Actions speak louder than words. Let’s get on with it.

Continue the conversation on Twitter #rehabilitation

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.

Westminster: Justice Select Committee

Tuesday 9th September 2014

Entering into Westminster Hall with its stone floor, places where famous people have stood and given speeches  and seeing police with weapons can make you wonder where on earth you are. But walking up the steps at the back you enter a statue lined corridor and then you enter the lobby, beautiful architecture which never ceases to amaze me. I half expected to see Nick Robinson conducting an interview, instead I met  Jonathan Robinson,  an ex-prisoner, now author and prison reform campaigner.

 

Jonathan Robinson along with  Paula Harriott, Head of Programme, User Voice, Angela Levin, former Chair of HMP Wormwood Scrubs Independent Monitoring Board, and Deborah Russo, Prisoners’ Advice Service were witnesses giving evidence on Prisons: Planning and Policies in front of the Justice Select Committee. The complete oral evidence is available from the following link:

http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/justice-committee/prisons-planning-and-policies/oral/12519.html.

I decided to sit in the public area and hear each witness in order to gain insight into what is actually happening in prisons.  It is important  that prisoners are rehabilitated whilst inside and one way is through using the skills that are present within the prison population itself.

 

Courtesy of Parliamentlive.tv

Courtesy of Parliamentlive.tv

The Toe by Toe project run by the Shannon Trust is an excellent example of this, where  literate prisoners  help those that are illiterate. This is a peer-to-peer mentoring program. Not being able to read has a negative impact on  job prospects and also self-esteem. It’s quite shocking when prisoners that have been in the prison estate many years face release unable to read!

Jonathan Robinson has spent the last three years pushing for prison reform, he has written on his own personal prison experience and is a voice for those inside. He champions mentoring and is on the Advisory Board for NoOffence CIC!

http://www.jonathanrobinson.org/

 

 

 

 

G4S AGM shambles

It is always good to reflect back on experiences.

Well here goes

Yesterday I attended the G4S AGM at the Excel Centre in London, I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced. I  felt oppression as soon as I entered the building; it was as though I was being ‘kettled’ into an area to be contained. Security was very tight and uncomfortable, my every movement was watched, and it was intimidating! Before being allowed into the actual room for the AGM, G4S security eye-balled you, the atmosphere was heavy and everyone remained silent!

I sat down 5 rows from the front on the left and quickly the seats were filled around me. I felt nervous, apprehensive and uneasy. A G4S security guard sat beside me and another guard that was lined up along the wall had his eyes focused on me. I had dressed smartly in a suit, was polite, yet I seemed to be targeted by the staff. Within minutes of the start of the meeting I saw the heavy-handedness of the G4S security staff and after only 20 minutes or so 3 shareholders had been pulled and dragged from beside me. One man was dragged over my legs pinning me to my seat and I was unable to move away. I was horrified as the staff showed no respect and no due care and attention. The majority of the board of 12 members  in front of us remained silent. To be honest I felt rather scared and wondered if for my own safety I should leave at that moment. I was visibly shaken by the whole experience, but I was determined that I would put my question to the board so I pulled myself together and prepared for my opportunity.

When the Chairman John Connolly finally noticed my hand I took the microphone, stood up and addressed the board by saying “I would like to go back to the subject of caring for prisoners…

One year ago (10–21June 2013) the Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Oakwood by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons stated that…

“Against all four of our healthy prison tests, safety, respect, activity and resettlement, the outcomes we observed were either insufficient or poor”

Why is it that after a year, there are still major issues within that prison? An example is that the Government released figures in April revealing that more than 600 incidents of self-harm had been recorded in HMP Oakwood in 2013, yet the web site for  HMP Oakwood states: we aim to inspire, motivate and guide prisoners to become the best they can be.

My question was not answered, the CEO said that he was aware of the recommendations of the report and that it was normal to have teething problems with a new jail. In reference to the alarmingly high levels of self harm all that was said was there are self harm issues in all prisons.

I was closed down and unable to respond to his feeble answer, twice!

There was no remorse for what was happening in this prison, the CEO didn’t seem to be that concerned even though we are talking about lives.

On the train heading home I re-lived the afternoon and was still shocked at what I experienced. I am not put off, I plan to follow through my genuine concern for how G4S runs prisons in this country and I will be better prepared for next year’s AGM.

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: <http://www.howardleague.org/francescrookblog/&gt; [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 <http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm74/7455/7455.pdf&gt; [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 <http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm72/7261/7261.pdf&gt; [accessed 10 November].

INQUEST (2005) Verdict in Sarah Campbell inquest – 18-year-old woman who died in HMP Styal. [Online] at <http://inquest.gn.apc.org/pdf/2005/Sarah%20Campbell%20Inquest%20verdict%202005.pdf&gt; [accessed 11November 2009].

Prison Reform Trust (2007) Women’s Imprisonment: Corston review provides blueprint for reform. [Online] at <http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/subscription.asp?id=866&gt; [accessed 9 November 2009].

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].

To build or not to build the ongoing titan prison saga

When the crime rate is falling and the prison population is falling month by month, why has the titan prison building programme re-emerged. Yes it will bring much-needed jobs into an area, but are these prisons really necessary or is a punitive game that the Government is playing. Lets knock down an old one and build a bigger better one!

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong. Not our words, but those of David Cameron before he became Prime Minister. http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/north-wales-new-250m-super-4725395#.Uc1K5cuJ5h4.twitter

If prison is so ineffective when looking at re-offending statistics, then why build more? There are alternatives to prison so why not use this money to invest in methods that give more positive results?

According to Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust ” There is scope to close some outdated prisons and reinvest the money saved into effective community solutions to crime,”

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d6e013c8-d65c-11e2-b03f-00144feab7de.html#axzz2Y15sn3Dy

Do prisons help to break the cycle of re-offending?

On Monday, 17 June 2013 a report was published by the Policy Exchange entitled “Future Prisons: A radical plan to reform the prison estate”

The report recommended:

  • Closing more than 30 run down and dilapidated prisons and constructing 10-12 state of the art Hub Prisons.
  • Locating the prisons on brownfield sites near to main transport routes and to hold more prisoners as close to home as possible.
  • Constructing the prisons using cutting-edge architecture, with technologies such as biometric security systems. Halfway houses would be located inside the prison estate and the sites would include courts to cut the cost of transferring prisoners for trial.
  • Allowing private providers to compete on a level playing field with the public sector to manage and run the new establishments.

http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/item/future-prisons-a-radical-plan-to-reform-the-prison-estate?category_id=24

This is reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, could Foucault’s comment be translated to the idea of a “Hub” prison, would they be seen as a “mechanism of power”. We will have to wait and see!

 

The rise and fall of the prison population!

Prison population figures continue to fluctuate. The latest figures show an increase of 80 in the last week, an increase of almost 800 since the beginning of the year yet a decrease of 3,159 in the last 12 months.

I have just read an interesting report recently published in France on ways to fight against prison overcrowding. Two important points mentioned were:

  1. Consider imprisonment as ultima ratio in criminal matters
  2. Use, if necessary, a system of numerus clausus to solve prison overcrowding until 2017, then prevent its reappearance

I wonder if Chris Grayling has any thoughts on this?

Raimbourg, D and Huyghe, S (2013) Ways to fight against prison overcrowding. Report of 23 January 2013. [Online]. Available at
http://www.cepprobation.org/uploaded_files/France_Report-on-Prison-Overcrowding-2013.pdf [accessed] 26 February 2013