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Why our prisons need to be reformed

First published 05 January 2017 in East Anglian Daily Times under the headline ‘Prison reform is taking too long, say ex-Hollesley Bay IMB chairman and former inmate’

Had the authorities listened to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Birmingham the riot on 16 December maybe could have been prevented. In their annual report the IMB wrote:

“the increasingly difficult behaviour of individual prisoners coupled with staff resource constraints give the Board cause for concern… Many staff are now concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of the prisoners… A solution is required urgently.”

Instead what happened was described by the Prison Officers Association as the biggest prison riot since Strangeways in 1990.

So why have prisoners behaved in this way?

Toxic combination

Sentencing guidelines have placed more people in prison for longer periods of time and has, therefore, inflated the prison population to record numbers. This in turn has given rise to overcrowding, and together with under-staffing and the emergence of psychoactive substances also known as “legal highs”, our prisons have become places of deprivation on a record scale. It’s a toxic combination.

Faith Spear

Faith Spear 

Less well publicised factors such as restricted access to education, to facilities, and the right of association with one another add to the frustration felt by those living inside. People being locked in their cell for 23 hours every day or sometimes for days on end during “lock down” creates a volatile atmosphere.

A high number of people in custody suffer from genuine mental health issues. They are imprisoned sometimes to protect society. But those are in the minority. Many people in prison with mental health issues are only there because the courts have no idea what else to do with them. For their sake and for the sake of society in which we all live, it is entirely the wrong place to send them.

IPP is defunct

Others are in prison under the now defunct rules on Imprisonment for Public Protection, known simply as “IPP”. These people don’t have a release date. Many prisoners today under IPP have already served time far beyond the normal tariff They are left to languish until the parole board decides it is safe to let them out.

I’m not saying we should open the prison doors and let everyone walk out. That would be reckless and irresponsible. But I am saying it is time to speed up the process of evaluation to make sure that those who don’t pose any risk to the public be allowed to go home as soon as possible.

What concerns me most is the utter boredom that so many of people in custody must endure. They are invariably portrayed as having a low IQ, a high percentage with a reading age of an 11year old; many have been in care and come from seriously complex situations. What isn’t realised is that many people in custody are intelligent, well-educated and have skills that could benefit other prisoners and need something worthwhile to do.

In other words, purposeful activity whilst in prison must be a priority. Lives are wasted here; I see it all the time.

So many organisations are involved in the ‘prison industrial complex’. Big money is made from those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Everyone wants a slice of the profits, but too little is re-invested in the prisoners and in the conditions in which they are held.

There are not enough links with the outside community, with colleges and University. Too few businesses are willing to give prisoners another chance, but without a fresh start it is impossible for them to be reintegrated back into society.

Beyond the Gate

I have seen the crushing stigma that ex-prisoners live under on release; the failure of a system that is meant to be there for them beyond the gate, the lack of accommodation, the difficulties of finding work, the list goes on.

It’s time for society to think differently towards people who find themselves in prison.

“Our prisons are in crisis and prison reform is taking too long.”

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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.