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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?
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.
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.”
In the space of 6 weeks I have written an article which has been published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, just before the Prime Ministers speech. I have been interviewed by Ian Dunt with an article put on politics.co.uk, been in my local paper with a 2 page spread, had a front page article in Converse prison newspaper, had an interview with another newspaper with an article ready for the next months edition… If I can achieve all this in just 6 weeks, just imagine what could be achieved in 6 months or a year?. It’s all about going at pace.
It’s not always about what you have achieved in the past, although it does help. But it’s about what you can/will/want to do in the future.
Can’t abide being held back because of what I haven’t done yet. Especially when I’m at the start of something significant and have plenty of passion, energy and drive for what is to come.
And despite the knock backs, to keep a sense of humour.
Yes I have mainly worked with vulnerable adults and children before, but we all have a vulnerable side to us. Some are able to reveal it, others not, some it leads to being a victim and others it leads them into criminal activity.
Have you noticed how quick some people are to judge others, put you into boxes and to categorise? I hope you won’t judge my life by the chapter you just walked in on.
Prisons are no different.
Many problems arise when people enter the prison system and then leave in a worse state than when they arrived.
Why after all the money pumped into prisons is this happening?
Profits are made out of prisoners, we all know that.
How many reviews, reports can you count over the last say 10 years that involve prisoners?
There have been countless
How many organisations do you know that work hard to bring reform to prisons and prisoners?
There are countless
How much money has been spent on prison reform?
On 8th February, the Prime Minister set out a vision for prison reform. Mr Cameron said:
This system will be hard to change because it is, in some ways, still stuck in the dark ages – with old buildings, old thinking and old ways of doing things.
So I don’t want to go slow here – I want us to get on with proper, full-on prison reform.
Today, 27th May the Public Accounts Committee report warns that the criminal justice system is close to breaking point:
- The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.
- Lack of shared accountability and resource pressures mean that costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another and the system suffers from too many delays and inefficiencies.
- There is insufficient focus on victims, who face a postcode lottery in their access to justice due to the significant variations in performance in different areas of the country.
Criminal justice system “already overstretched”
- The system is already overstretched and we consider that the Ministry of Justice has exhausted the scope to make more cuts without further detriment to performance.
- The Government is implementing reforms to improve the system but we are concerned that users of the system won’t see the full benefit for another four years.
- There are opportunities for the Ministry to make improvements before then, including better sharing of good practice and making sure that everyone is getting things right first time.
But what is the answer?
(If I had the answer I would be a very rich woman!)
Over the last few years I have visited every category of prison, YOI and Women’s. I have sat behind the Right hon. Michael Gove MP whilst he has been in front of the Justice Select Committee twice. I have attended meeting after meeting in Westminster, attended conferences, training courses, lectures, seminars etc. at my own cost.
I want to learn, I want to understand but most of all I want answers to the questions I have posed.
I also want to be a part of the change that is so desperately needed in our prisons.
We don’t just need a vision, we need a cause!
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
Houston, B. (2001) For this Cause: Finding the meaning of life and living a life of meaning. Castle Hill: Maximised Leadership Inc.
I seem to be making a habit of this; on Wednesday 16th March I attended the Justice Select Committee for the third time, again listening to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP being questioned by a team of MP’s.
I sat behind Mr Gove and watched as he interacted with the committee. The meeting can be accessed from this link: http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/e67772ca-8c75-4112-853a-0fbd80688389
The first question he was asked was “How would you encapsulate the overall purpose of the thrust of the Government’s prison policy”? Michael Gove replied “In a sentence, it is about turning prisoners from liabilities into assets”. Interesting use of language I thought.
He continued by stating that…”the critical thing is to make sure that during their time in prison there is purposeful activity…” I have come across some excellent forms of purposeful activity but to be honest there just isn’t enough going on. Is it all down to money? If millions can be found to build new prisons then surely purposeful activity has to be included.
The stories coming out of many of the prisons in England and Wales are appalling, locked up at least 22 hours a day, rat infested are but a few I have read this week.
When will we see real progress?
The most successful custodial establishment according to Nick Hardwick former chief inspector of prisons was the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) in Colchester. However, in October 2015 there were 35 being held at the MCTC, hardly an example to compare. The ratio of staff to detainees is far higher than within the prison estate which is surely a factor along with greater governor autonomy that contributes to its success. I have visited it and was impressed by the order, cleanliness and regime. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/484448/Detainees_Military_Corrective_Training_Centre_Colchester.pdf
But how do you really measure success?
Michael Gove gave an example of Bronzefield prison as being a very successful female prison, yet this week one of the main stories I have read is about staff giving out sleeping bags to women released with no accommodation. It doesn’t add up!
I want to read more success stories, see real progress and watch as these “liabilities are turned into assets”
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…!
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.
There 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?
Buying a piece is an investment not just in a beautiful object but in people’s lives, to me worth every penny
This is what they say on their website:
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.
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.
- 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.
This morning I was pleased to attend the Justice Select Committee meeting. It was the first one with Rt Hon Michael Gove MP being called as a witness in his new role as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.
The session was recorded on video. Watch it here.
Getting down to business
After an exchange of pleasantries and mutual congratulations on appointment, the committee set about putting forward questions on important issues such as safety in prisons, rehabilitation, absconds from Open Prisons, court closures, and court and tribunal fees. This was good to see; Select Committees sit to scrutinise Government policy and progress.
This Justice Select Committee meeting came just a few days after the publication by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales’ Annual Report 2014-15, in which Open Prisons have been highlighted once again.
On the same day as the HMIP Annual Report, Nick Harwick also published the unredacted version of the report on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) featuring three high profile cases of prisoners who each committed awful crimes whilst out on ROTL has challenged the current risk assessment within prisons.
The cases of Ian McLoughlin, HMP Springhill, Al-Foday Fofanah, HMP Ford and Alan Wilmot, HMP North Sea Camp were highlighted by Hardwick of where those on ROTL committed the same offence as they were sent to prison for in the first place, giving rise to questioning on whether there is ‘Rehabilitation’ in prison.
You can read the report here.
This was raised by Philip Davies MP when asking Mr Gove “what are you doing to protect the public from these future awful consequences?”
His reply was “…transfer to open prison should only follow an appropriate risk assessment.” He then added …”there will always be cases where there are individuals even if they have committed very serious offences may be suitable for a transfer to an open prison. Each case has to be judged on its own individual merits”. However, the underlying message was that public safety is paramount.
It was clear that Mr Gove was new to the job, there were many err and ums in his answers, but he did assure the committee that he would be happy to return when he had reviewed various aspects within the justice system.
So will I.