Wednesday, 10 February 2016

My Answer to the Prime Minister's speech on Prison Reform

An Open Letter to The Primer Minister and The Secretary of State for Justice


Like many ex-offenders, and I am sure current prisoners, I watched with anticipation the Prime Minister’s speech on Prison Reform this week. Whilst many in the media noted that it was the first time in 20 years that a Prime Minister had spoken exclusively on such a subject, this is not something of which to be proud.

Many of the sound bites were received with thanks but I, for one feel, that the speech scratched the surface of what seems to be the main cause for concern for the  inmates and staff alike.

The building blocks for the reform and rehabilitation of prisoners go back many years. Indeed both the Prison Reform Acts of 1865 and 1898 set those in stone. It is shameful that there has been no other Prison Reform Acts laid before Parliament since the times of The Marquess of Salisbury. It was then that the idea of Borstals were introduced and your latest comments seem to be going back to those days. Margery Fry, the co-chair  and co-founder of the Howard League for Penal Reform voiced her concerns over the government’s  treatment of female prisoners and yet the problem still is relevant today. It is a shame that today there is still a need for her work to be continued by her marvellous organisation. Is it not time that you address the problem “head – on” and introduce a new Act? 

White papers have been proposed and Criminal Justice Acts have been introduced and engrossed but no actual Prison Reform Acts have been introduced. The most notable white paper was debated in 1959 (Penal Practise in a Changing Society) and is eerily attuned to the current prison estate.

The aim in 1959 was to prevent as many offenders as possible from returning to crime and I believe that to be your main issue today. It was proposed to take further the principle that Young Offenders as far as possible be kept out of prison. At the time of writing there are in excess of 1,100 youth offenders incarcerated. The principles in the white paper were incorporated in the Criminal Justice Act of 1961. It was recognised then that most local prisons had been designed to deal with a separate type of prisoner and were overcrowded. Now 57 years later we are at the same point.

I could go on, citing statistics to counter-argue your points but that is not the point of this letter.

Recently, someone said to me “If we were to rebuild the NHS today, would it look anything like the NHS now?” The answer is a resounding “NO” and so must the answer be the same be said of the Prison Estate.

Your building blocks for the rehabilitation of prisoners are indeed admirable and should be recognised as such. However, when one is building a house; the foundations must be solid. If they are not, the house will surely crumble. That metaphor is never more true than with the state of our prisons today.

You must simply deal with the core issues first before building.

Your prisons are woefully understaffed with some prisons operating at less than 80% of its operational needs. This in turn ensures that classes are cancelled, meaningful work is cancelled and the prisoners locked up for in excess of 20 hours per day frustrating them needlessly. Need I say that a frustrated  prisoner is a volatile  prisoner? Additionally, having a prison understaffed ensures that those prisoners inclined to do so will take full advantage of this.

The staff I have come across, as a rule are a decent, empathetic group who generally want to assist prisoners but due to staffing problems are not able to even answer the most basic of applications from an inmate. They are underpaid  and seriously over worked. They are mostly working on “toil” with no prospect of getting time off in lieu. Without a good team implementing your new ideas,  they will fail at the starting post.

Education is key to rehabilitation of offenders with the Offender Management Unit being in charge of setting a prisoner’s sentence plan to address his offending behaviour.. Why then have prisonsremoved key offender management workers and replaced them with Prison Officers of Senior Officer grade who are constantly deployed elsewhere? During my incarceration I met my Offender Manager twice in 3 years. If these are the people who are in charge of our rehabilitation then surely they should be in contact with the prisoner not working in a visits hall.

Education has been cut across the board in the prisons and you should be ashamed of such a draconian measure being implemented. Many rehabilitative courses have been cancelled altogether due to budgetary cuts and staffing issues. The result being that a prisoner is unable to progress through his sentence by no fault of his own and yet he is the one punished. If we are sent to prison as a punishment NOT to be punished then surely the blame must lie at someone else's feet?

Gentlemen, you must get your house in order. Prisoner rehabilitation is a must and it is an obligation of the Society that incarcerated us to ensure that it is the thread that runs through the garment of Prison Reform, but it can not be achieved without cleaning house first of all.

You say your desire is to ensure that recidivism is reduced. I for one believe that building more prisons and creating youth offender schools is not the way to go. I believe that addressing the issues that have occurred in the last 57 years is.

You have bravely, said that you wish to “ring fence” the annual prison budget and that is to be admired. However the waste that goes on in the prison service is nothing short of astounding. 

A prisoner is sent to his prison shortly after being convicted. He arrives and does the best to make it his home for the foreseeable future. Should his case be ongoing and further court appearances be needed he is then transferred from his current prison and transported to court at an exorbitant cost. He will then need to stay at a local prison until he can be returned at the same cost to his establishment. This process can take from a few days to a few months. More often than not, the prisoner is in court for a short time and, as I have witnessed sometimes, not needed at all. What has this accomplished? In today’s world of technology would it not be better to have the prisoner appear by video link and save the prison the cost of moving the inmate. Moving, it is said, is one of the most stressful times for an individual. Imagine the impact that this simple introduction would make to the prison and to the prisoner himself. A more relaxed prisoner is a more manageable prisoner.

Giving a Governing Governor more autonomy over his establishment is all well and good but where will that start and end? Are the public aware, to give on small example and establishment must buy a printer cartridge from the approved (governmental supplier) at a cost of £72 when the cost in the high street is @£30? These bureaucratic idiosyncrasies beggar belief. If a wing’s budget is £120 for the month and £90 of that is spent on toilet paper, how can that wing function? Multiply that by the number of wings in an establishment and you can see the shoe string that the prison must operate on. 

Gentlemen, you have the ability of being far more than footnotes in the history of prison reform, please do not waste the opportunity.

Yours sincerely,