Facts, fears and fables…part 2

Where can you learn how to be a prisoner? The only logical answer is, of course, prison!

In the year to June 2018, around 61,500 people, were sent to prison to serve a sentence in England and Wales. I wonder how many of them knew what was expected of them, or knew what opportunities were available within prison? The same could be said for family and loved ones, who invariably receive a, metaphorical, sentence of their own. Their lives, for how ever long the sentence, will be turned upside down, and that’s before release. It’s bad enough they lose a loved one to the system, without all the extra stresses and strains placed on them by an inefficient system which lacks in it’s support for families and loved ones.

So, how do you teach someone to become a prisoner and how does including families in the prisoner’s sentence benefit all?

I would first like to highlight the work of three peer support schemes run by prisoners for prisoners. I strongly suggest that if it wasn’t for this group of prisoners, OUR prisons, would see higher rates of self-harm, violence and suicides. Peer support schemes add vital roles to prisons, which in some, is the default mental healthcare system.

The Shannon Trust Reading Plan – Peer mentors are prisoners who are trained to encourage and support other prisoners who have little or no reading skills. They provide informal, one-to-one learning. A role, I am proud to say, I relished in prison, which in turn, not only made me a better person in terms of empathy, compassion and patience, it was also a privilege to share individuals private stories as well as being a part of their education journey. It was whilst working in this role that led on to me becoming a listener.

Samaritans/Listeners – Listeners are prisoners who are trained to give confidential emotional support to other prisoners. The Listener scheme, which has been in existence in it’s current form since September 1991, is only as effective as to the number of trained listeners that are available. In 2015/16, I was the only listener covering four wings, one of which was a healthcare unit. The Samaritans reported, in the 12 months up to September 2018, listeners had a recorded 80,000+ contacts, yet there were only, just over 1,500 listeners. The Samaritans are available, the prisoners are too, it’s for the prisons to up their game.

Insiders (support for new prisoners) – The insiders scheme involves trained prisoners and volunteers who give basic information and reassurance to new prisoners when they arrive in prison. The first 24 hours in custody can be distressing and this scheme helps reduce prisoners anxiety. This was another role that I was privileged to work in, and for me, especially with the current statistics in relation to the amount of  active listeners, and also staff shortages, one of the most important roles in prison. You’ll find that a lot of insiders have a wealth of experience, which they use to help new prisoners settle in. I was an insider in a busy B cat local reception area (HMP Norwich) and cannot express how fast, fractious and uncaring that environment can be at any given moment.

Fellow prisoners, can be, and are, lifelines in prison. Especially peer support/mentors. The amazing work these individuals do in a prison setting goes largely unnoticed by, well! Most really, which is a shame, because I have seen more compassion from a murderer, more empathy from a burglar and more community spirit from so called ASBO’s than I see from those paid good money to have a duty of care. I’d like to share a somewhat fictitious case study to try and take you in to the thought process of a new prisoner.

Steve is 26 and was in a trusted position in the local branch of Haliwest Building Society. He came from a loving family. A family who had never even received a parking ticket prior to this. None of Steve’s peers or friends had ever been in trouble with the police.

On a night out with his fiancee, whom he was due to marry later that year, a drunk became aggressive in his approach to Steve and his fiancee, to cut a long story short, the man died from a single punch that Steve threw.

Thirty-six hours later, remanded by the courts, Steve is in a sweat-box on his way to prison for the first time, along with five other, loud! prisoners. Although talking in English, the other five co-riders, who had all been to prison before, may as well have been talking in a foreign language. I’m sure their stories also did nothing to alleviate Steve’s fears, especially when they found out it’s his first time.

If some feel the case study is a bit far-fetched, I can assure you, it’s not that far from the truth. Having been employed as a reception orderly at HMP Norwich I can also add that it is pot luck, as to the ongoing situation, when the sweat-box you are on arrives at the prison. Reception areas in a B Cat local have regular set situations throughout the day. The first to be processed are the prisoners attending court, that could be any number. That’s followed by a slight lull until the time x’s (time expired, going home), HDC’s and transfers start appearing, again, this could be any number, and the transfers may also extend to after lunch. – this was quite often the case with Norwich as they had C and D cats on the same estate. During the day, there would also be occasions where someone had a hospital appointment, or needed to be taken to A&E, or the police would turn up to take a prisoner away for questioning. Along with a few other reasons that prisoners go via reception. Apart from the time x’s and HDC’s (and even those on occasions to be honest) not all are happy at the inconvenience.

Around 11.30am the courts, mainly from Norwich Magistrates to begin with, start returning and is continuous throughout the day until all have returned from courts. It is also around this time we start receiving those held in police stations on recalls, or who have been remanded by virtual court (video link). The afternoon may consist of transfers in and out, or just one or the other. At around 4 – 4.30pm, reception would be informed of the following day time x’s, transfers and so on, for whom stored property needs to be made ready (items the prisoner has brought in, or had sent in and is not allowed in possession for whatever reason). Waiting for court returns can also turn a hard, long day into an extremely stressful, long day. Having said that, reception can turn into a stressful situation in a heartbeat, or just by saying no to the wrong person at the wrong time. It’s why I stated earlier that it’s pot luck as to when your sweat-box arrives and the current situation. Poor Steve!

To go off topic slightly, I feel this is an area that could be improved by having support available, prior to people getting on the sweat-box for the first time. This could be achieved by the courts being serviced by former prisoners or serving prisoners on ROTL (release on temporary licence) as trained insiders/listeners. A dedicated telephone service could also be serviced, by the same, for those in police stations, a service that could also be accessed by family and loved ones.


When all the reception procedures are over you will be taken to your wing. I’d hope, to a dedicated first night centre, although it’s no guarantee that you will be taken to an ‘Induction Wing’, let alone first night centre.

“The nature of the induction process varies for prison to prison but all of them will cover the same ground. You will attend lectures and presentations about the prison rules and guidelines, what jobs or education opportunities exist, and details about visiting rules. The better induction processes will tell you about how to change your prison kit, get clothes brought in, how to book visits, how to get money sent in, canteen timetables, gym timetables, library etc but the quality varies greatly. If you are on an induction group where you are the only “new” prisoner and the rest of the group have already had a previous prison sentence the officer giving the presentation will gloss over most of it as the “audience” won’t be paying attention anyway.” DoingTime.co.uk

I would like to see an induction process where the first priority is on the prisoners mental health and wellbeing. A real, well thought out, dedicated first night centre. Ideally, staffed by mental health practitioners, along with support from carefully selected prison officers and peer support/mentors. With so much to learn in such a short space of time, the circumstances need to first exist for the prisoner to take on board the barrage of instructions and information that is thrown at them as soon as they step off the sweat-box. I have seen the lost look on so many faces, who you know are still in shock, yet are also expected to take on board information that is important. In a police station or court cell, you are instructed that if you need anything you are to push the, what’s known as a, cell bell, this saves anyone having to shout or kick their door for attention, no doubt that was part of the plan, not always the case though. Yet, when you arrive in prison, get the wrong officer when you forget and push the cell bell, which in prison is meant to be for emergencies only, and you can find yourself on a nicking for misuse of a cell bell and it’s still the first night of your first time. Imagine, if you can, the scenario. Locked behind a door with no handle. Already full of anxiety, and now, on your first night, have a nicking and upset an officer and still not having a clue about what is going on, or what happens next. An understanding, dedicated first night centre with the right selected staff would not see this happen, plus it allows a perfect opportunity, in a better tone of voice, to explain the cell bell rules.

I mentioned earlier, in this blog, about how the five prisoners on the sweat-box with Steve may as well be talking in a foreign language when using prison parlance and slang. I mean, how many of you know what I meant at the start by sweat-box?

I envisage, in the main, that someone would need around 48 hours, on a dedicated first night centre, to be in a position to begin the process of knowing what is expected of them, and also, to take in what opportunities are available within prison. Teach them how to be a prisoner, how best to get the most out of their time and not just how to survive prison in the best way. Provisions need to be made for those requiring more than 48 hours.

Induction needs to be a two-part process, first, the wellbeing of the individual, then the rules, regulations and opportunities. Following the induction process (or maybe as a part of it) and where the family could start to have an input, there needs to be a needs analysis/sentence plan put in place for which the prisoner, and family, have a say in, ask what is needed. Then, provide the resources for the prisoner to take responsibility for his own sentence. Give them back choice and responsibility. We cannot expect individuals to make responsible choices in the community if we have taken choice and responsibility, as well as liberty, away for a number of years.

In 2010, reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners was estimated to cost the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually. National Audit Office (2010)

Families are a vital source of encouraging lasting positive behaviour according to respondents to our Prisoner Policy Network. Prison Reform Trust (2019)

People who are given ROTL have lower rates of reoffending. The more that ROTL is used, the greater the impact on reoffending and the number of offences people commit. Ministry of Justice (Hillier, J. and Mews, A., 2018)

Employment and education are repeatedly cited as mainstream rehabilitation activities in offender management that all prisoners are expected to undertake whilst, in stark contrast, work to maintain and improve family and other relational ties is rarely even mentioned. Yet such work can provide meaning and all-important motivation to these other strands. Ministry of Justice (2017)

Offenders’ families are amongst the most socially excluded groups
in society. Some are assumed to be ‘guilty by association’, and many suffer stress related conditions – almost three-quarters of partners and mothers in one survey attributed their health problems directly to the imprisonment of a family member. Ministry of Justice (2009)

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