I was honoured the other day when, none other than the prisons minister, Rory Stewart retweeted a comment of mine along with a comment of his own. For someone in my position, as a former prisoner campaigning for prison reform, it was a special moment for me. I was, however, also left a little disappointed. I would suggest, as Rory Stewart felt compelled to, not only, retweet my comment but also to add his own comment, that I had struck a nerve. A reaction, I would argue most of us wish for when making certain comments. I made my comment to, hit a nerve, gain a reaction and hopefully open dialogue as to why I made that statement.
I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a good friend, who is also a former prisoner. It was about the importance of lived experience and how politicians, civil servants, probation and certain criminologists only think they know. The other thing they have in common, and one that sets those with lived experience apart, is that they view crime through fear.
Let me, briefly, take you inside the mind of a prisoner. Normally, I would base my comments on my own experience, which in a way I am still doing, however, I can’t envisage too many disagreeing with me. Prison has and will always be “me first!”, there’s not many in prison too concerned about anyone else in prison other than themselves, and rightly so, to a certain degree.
I’d also like you to bear in mind that a lot of prisoners will tell you whatever you want to hear, especially if it means getting out of your cell for an hour or two, even more so if there’s a promise of coffee and biscuits, incredibly so, if it’s linked to your sentence plan. No doubt the mention of ETS (enhanced thinking skills) will raise a few eyebrows and cause a few groans. I’m not suggesting that ETS (or TSP, PDQ, ASAP, B&Q or whatever it’s called these days) wasn’t useful for everyone, but, in my opinion, they would be in a small minority. The one trick to ETS, and most offending behaviour tick box courses, is to make sure that what you write on the last page, shows a difference in your attitudes, thoughts and feelings, compared to what you wrote about on page one. Guaranteed pass, whether you actually learnt anything or not. Considering that ETS was a requirement for some to gain HDC, re-cats, parole or even release, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prisoner evaluating the course anything other than being successful, I can’t imagine there being too many evaluation forms asking if it was possible to stay and sit the course again rather than progress or go home.
So, what was the dialogue I wished to open? I totally agree with the minister that we should be targeting both areas, my argument is that until you deal with the problems at ground level, it matters not, what politically expedient, knee-jerk, security measure is introduced. All it will serve to do, is push up prices and place more pressure on prisoners who are prescribed drugs that provide the un-prescribed with a ‘night out’, and will do nothing to the rates of self-harm, violence and suicide, we may even see an initial rise. Let me share some more statistics with you. The following is from a 2017-18 annual report published by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons:
“The MDT (mandatory drug testing) programme was not running effectively in nearly half (46%) of the men’s prisons they inspected in 2017-18, mainly due to staff shortages.”
A programme introduced in all penal establishments in England and Wales by March 1996 was not running effectively in nearly half of our prisons between 2017 and 2018.
Reconviction rates show a significant drop if prisoners receive family visits compared to those that don’t. The reconviction rate of prisoners who do not receive a visit is 68% while those that do receive visits is 47%, a 21% difference in reconviction rates based on families being able to visit. Of those surveyed only 69% reported they received visits from families, with those not receiving visits citing distance and financial restraints as to why not. However, in a 2014 criminal justice joint inspection report, titled, ‘Resettlement provision for adult offenders: Accommodation, education, training and employment’, “the inspectors found that family and friends are the most important in enabling successful resettlement on release. Despite this, inspectors found no evidence that families were involved in sentence planning, even when a person said they were relying on family for support after release.” (HMCIP as cited in Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile: Autumn 2018, London: Prison Reform Trust)
- 1 in 3 prisoners said they had used class A drugs since leaving custody.*
- People are more likely to be reconvicted if they use class A drugs on release. 76% reconviction rate for those that do, compared with 43% that don’t use class A drugs on release.*
(*Ministry of Justice (2014) Prisoners’ experience of prison and outcomes on release: waves 2 and 3 of SPCR, London: Ministry of Justice)
Also, from the 2017-18 annual report published by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons:
- Just over two in five prisons (43%) received a positive rating from inspectors in 2017-18 for purposeful activity work.
- Inspectors found that people continue to spend too long locked up in their cells – around a quarter were routinely locked up during the working day, and in some cases more than half. ‘This is leading to frustration, boredom, greater use of illicit substances and often deteriorating physical and mental health.’
- People are more likely to be locked up for longer in local prisons and young adult prisons. Nearly a third of people in local prisons (32%) and nearly four in 10 people in young adult prisons (38%) said they spent less than two hours a day out of their cells.
- Even in training prisons, where people serve most of their sentence and work to reduce the risk of reoffending, one in five people (20%) said they were locked up for more than 22 hours a day.
- In 18 of the 39 adult male prisons inspected in 2017-18, there were not enough places for all people to take part in education or vocational training throughout the week. Three in five prisons (60%) inspected failed to use all their activity places – leaving people without work, education or training.
In concluding my dialogue with the minister, I would point out, that for many years, the solutions to reducing reoffending have been staring ministers in the face, and yet, for some reason, in my opinion for political expediency, they have been constantly overlooked in favour of security measures. Yes! Of course, security measures are integral to the smooth running of a prison, but may I suggest the time is right for a fresh approach. If the basics are not yet being achieved, based on reports from those tasked with informing you and your colleagues on the goings-on in our prisons, how can any new initiative, or even security measure be expected to work. “The inspectors found that family and friends are the most important in enabling successful resettlement on release.” May I ask how much budget is given to security measures compared to the budget for the support of families? It is rehabilitation and reducing reoffending that are the governments aims, is it not?