Friday, 26 February 2016

The Scariest Time of my Life

First Night In Custody and The Perils of The Prison Service failing to give a Proper Induction to Custody.

I had never been to prison before. What was I to expect? How could I contact my family? Would I have to share with someone? I had never felt so alone and petrified. I wasn’t suicidal but, oh my goodness, what would happen to me? The fear of the unknown was overwhelming.

In March of 2015 the Prison and Probation Ombudsman issued a report on how to tackle the 56% increase in prison suicides that had taken place in the preceding months ( from April 2013 to March 2014.

The key thread to the report was that those prisoners that had committed suicide or self harmed “were more likely to have been in their first month in custody” SHOCKING, DISGUSTING, EMBARRASSING, SADDENING are only 4 or many  adjectives that come to mind. Especially, when I feel that many of these could/have been avoided.

The PPO raised concerns about early days in custody, poor assessment in reception and weakness in First Night Support. The report specifically mentions that staff working in prison reception should actively identify  known risk factors for suicide and self-harm. The report recommends that a proper induction to provide information to prisoners to help them meet their basic needs takes place and stresses that prisoners are most at risk during their first month in Custody.

As I state on my introduction page, I have been in numerous establishments  and what I have to say now, may shock those that have had no experience of being in prison:

I have never met a member of staff who has been specifically trained in reception duties or trained in induction procedures!

If prisoners are most at risk during these times, should they not be dealt with by properly trained staff?

In February of 2015, one month prior to the report by the PPO being published, NOMS issued PSI 07/2015 “Early Days in Custody – Reception In, First Night In Custody and Induction to Custody”. It is interesting to note here that NOMS considers a transfer from one prison to another to also be considered First Night in Custody. I have often said that if moving home is deemed to be one of the most stressful times in one’s life then I beg you to understand the stress a prisoner has when that happens. You, the public, more often than not will arrange your move several weeks/months ahead of time. Imagine if someone were to knock on your door at 08:00 one morning and tell you to pack your belongings in an hour as you are moving, Additionally, you are not allowed to contact your family to tell them where you are going. It is no wonder, then, when a prisoner arrives at his new establishment he is rather volatile. But I get ahead of myself, let me get back to the basics.

It is so very important for staff to be able to manage a prisoner’s expectations when he first arrives either from court or as a transfer and also look for the tell tale signs of someone who is struggling It goes without saying that some of those arriving to prison straight from court did not expect to be sent down on either remand or conviction. Some have never been to prison before. I know that when I arrived to prison  all those years ago, I had no idea what to expect.

I hadn’t been able to talk to my wife and let her know that I was ok and that I would  try my best to adapt. I was more worried for her than I was for me. I arrived at a desk where I was asked all sorts of questions, my property removed from me but at least I was on remand so I got to keep my own clothes. It is a semblance of decency that a person is allowed to wear their own clothes and I would argue that all those serving time should be allowed to do so. Our punishment is our loss of Liberty. To what purpose does the removal of someone’s clothes serve? Under the current IEP policy the prison service gives as a reward, a person’s clothes back. In what form of society does this make sense?

My Induction to custody consisted of being told to go to a meeting room at the First Night Centre the following morning at 08:00hrs where I would be told everything I needed to know about prison life. But wait, it was only 17:00hrs I had to wait 15 hours before I would know when/how I could see my family,  This induction would be given by a prison officer. The induction lasted about 15 mins where we were told about, visits, canteen availability and the use of the phones. That was it! But wait, how could I send a letter to my family, I had no stamp? When could I go to church? Could I see a doctor? I was being locked up 22 hours per day, could I not get a book or something to read? I didn't have any clothes with me, as I didn't expect to be there, how could I get clean underwear? I desperately needed to wash, when and where could I do that?  When could I see my lawyer? All these questions, you may take for granted but when one is in a state of panic everything is exasperated ten fold. If only prison officers would understand this. Yes, I know they have heard the same question a hundred times before but for us, it is the first time to ask it. To dismiss us offhand only adds  fuel to the fire. Compassion goes a long way and it is for that reason that I believe Induction Officers should be especially trained to deal with new arrivals. Regrettably due to staffing issues, Induction officers are either deployed elsewhere or simply do not have the time to spend with a new arrival. 

The PSI that I mention above, specifically, deals with this issue and states that all new receptions into prison should be interviewed by an officer prior to being locked up for the night. As an induction orderly and one of the founders of the Insider’s program, I have yet to see this vital interview ever taking place. The prison service should be ashamed of this. We are all human beings and sometimes, just sometimes a gentle word could make all the difference and help reduce the terrible figures I refer to above.

The same PSI opens by saying “Induction is a process not an event”. Never a truer statement was issued by NOMS.  Why, then,  are these instructions ignored by every establishment that I have been in (8 in total)? Induction is the most important event in a prisoners life in custody and it starts from when a person arrives at the prison. Indeed an argument could be made that it starts from when the prisoner is “sent down” at court.

Induction to custody should take over a month to complete and the well being of the prisoner must be paramount in the process. When a prisoner leaves his induction wing, sometimes after only a few days he is often left to fend for himself. A program was implemented at one of my previous prisons where an Insider (peer mentor) visited the new prisoner at least twice after he had moved wings. This reduced the feelings of confusion, loneliness, disparity that one often feels when  moving into a new establishment or when someone’s normal way of living has been so drastically altered. 

It is regrettable that prison staff take their obligation so lightly. In 2005, I witnessed the sheer desperation of a prisoner, new into custody, who was being completely ignored by staff. They considered him to be a pest and annoying with all his questions. If they had only taken the time to listen to him they could have, perhaps, prevented him from sitting in the corridor and slicing his wrists in anguish.

Induction has often been given no quarter in prison and it is seemed to be a burden. All of my fellow prisoners are aware of the “tick-boxing” exercises that The Prison Estate undertakes and it is worrying that Induction into Custody seems to be one of these casualties.

I say this now to all Governors, Prison Officers, Inspectors, Prison Lobbyists that might be reading this:

Please ensure that your prison, your wing, any prison ensures that new arrivals are catered for properly. Failure to do so could cost the prisoner their life.

A set program is in place (as per the PSI)  and can be implemented throughout all prisons. Obviously, there are “local” policies that need to be explained to the prisoner, but explain them you must. Do not just expect a prisoner to know everything in the first few days of arrival. That is why I stress that each induction officer must be properly trained in being able to handle new arrivals. Not all wing officers have the ability to do this and some leeway must be given when dealing with the new arrival.

Induction classes are best run by fellow prisoners as these are the people with whom other prisoners can relate and that is the program that I organised via the Prison Insider’s  scheme. However, too many staff just ignore the process completely and tell the new arrival to find things out  as they go along. Then when a prisoner does something wrong, he is dealt with by the IEP scheme! Ads I often found myself asking during my time in custody, “Where is the logic?”

In today’s climate with staffing issues being at an all time low it is depressing to note that the first department that loses staff to be detailed elsewhere is induction. At the very point where staff are needed the most, the prisons decide to abandon them!

For those of you reading this who have had no direct dealings with prison life, what I may be ranting about may make no sense to you. Let me try and put it into some sort of perspective for you. Imagine you are transported away from your “comfort zone” to a land where you don't speak the language, know no one, and are stripped of all your possessions. You are then told to fend for yourself and learn as you go along. How would you cope? Some of us like to think that we can adapt to most circumstances but if there is no one there to explain the basic rules of the way of life then we are lost. I sympathise with those who knew nothing else other than to self harm or even  their own life and my thoughts go out to their families.

The blame for ignoring a prisoner is not a blame that can rest on any one person’s shoulder rather at the feet of “the system”. We have all recently heard the government’s new proposals about prison reform and some of us welcome at long last the intervention of a Minister of Justice who seems to care. But what I detail above is not rocket science, needs no financial backing just a commitment to treat people with decency and with care.

If one life is saved by a proper induction into custody then it is time well spent.

These Rants are entirely my opinions and I mean no offence by them.