Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Just A Plain Old Fashioned Rant!

Now I don't want to go off on a rant here but……

I don't know how many of you recently watched Michael Gove’s appearance in front of the Justice Committee’s Panel on Prison Reform but as an ex-offender I took absolutely nothing from it.

Like a lot of people, I was warmed by the fact the Mr Gove had been appointed the new Secretary of State for Justice. I was in prison at the time and the place was abuzz with “anyone will be better than Grayling. “ To that extent he has achieved his goal.

I can not pass comment on his entire brief as Lord Chancellor and will only discuss prison reform as it is of that, albeit regrettably, I have first hand experience.

I sit back and look exactly what he has achieved since his induction.  My dear readers, correct me if I am wrong, but I see nothing apart from the decline of the prison estate. I see more deaths in custody, more reports of self harm, reduction in operating budgets, reduction of staff, and horrendous over crowding .

During my time in custody, I witnessed the decline in prison morale and felt the effects of a system hanging together by a thread. I often felt the “tinder box” effect of locking prisoners up for 22 hours a day, refusing them access to association, showers, gym, libraries and telephone calls.

Until the Ministry of Justice and NOMS understand that if they do not staff the prisons properly, the issues I mention above shall continue to spiral into an abyss from which few can come back. If you cage people like animals and treat them as such, should we be surprised that people come out of prison having learnt nothing?

I am aware of many prisons that are staffed well below their operating limits and are constantly having to ask staff to work overtime (at the normal rate as there is no budget for overtime). This is a recipe for disaster. In 2014 the Ministry of Justice decided to ask officers to take early retirement only for a year later to have a recruitment drive for junior officers. The sole aim of this was to cut costs and had a disastrous effect. The drive was not successful and ended up with NOMS contacting those who took early retirement and asked them to come back (and to add insult to injury; to hand back their early retirement packages). I, for one, prefer the old school prison officers (Mr MacKay, from Porridge, if you will) at least you know where you stand with them. If it is a “no” then I was told straight away, but I found that treat them with respect and your application was answered quickly, honestly and with respect. Lose these officers at your peril, Mr. Gove; they are what make your system function even under the despicable conditions you have placed upon them.

Mr Gove, in his appearance at the committee last month, stated that he did not feel that the prisons were over crowded. I am sorry, that was a blatant lie. I site, the recent figures issued by the Howard League as evidence. HMP Wandsworth was designed to hold 943 prisoners and as of the time of writing now houses 1568. I am not an accountant (the judge in my case agreed with me on that) but even I know that is overcrowding!

He insisted that maintaining family ties was important to him and that he stressed that he felt prisoners should be able to receive regular visits. So please, for the love of God, someone tell me why NOMS places prisoners 100’s of miles away from their families. The Prison I was resident in was deemed to be a London Re-settlement prison but yet it was more than 3 hours travel. Should my family wished to have seen me it would have cost them £45 on the “subsidised” bus that left London on a Saturday morning at 06:00hrs.

He talked about Capital Investment into Prisons, but we as prisoners see none of this. Look at the recent “watered down” report of Wormwood Scrubs where prisoners were filling their window sills with paper as the windows, themselves, were broken. The fact that someone has to use a prison sheet as a toilet curtain says it all. The cells in all the prisons I was resident in left a little to the imagination.  But the one thing, the one horrendous, disgusting thing is that my toilet was located 2 feet from where I ate my food. In what world is this deemed to be acceptable?  Basic human hygiene is impossible in today’s prison.  Perhaps I should have invited Mr Gove to have dinner with me in my cell to see how his thoughts on overcrowding are not an issue! Imagine if you will that you are sharing a room with someone else in quarters so tight that the both of you cannot sit at a table at the same time. Now take it a step further and that, nature has to take its course and you must ask your room mate if he would mind lying on his bed whilst you use the toilet. No privacy as there is no where sectioned off. See my comments about animals in the paragraph above, if you want to know how I feel.

It is not the job of the judiciary or of our government to strip a man of all his dignity when he is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, but that is exactly what is happening in today’s prison estate. I can not and indeed do not lay the blame at the feet of prison officers or prison governors, I lay it at the alter of the higher echelons of power as it is they that have the ability and wherewithal to change it. Yet they steadfastly refuse to do so. Why? Some people say it is because they do not want to be seen to be” soft on crime” as that it is a vote killer. I say balderdash (and I don't use that word lightly)! Being soft on crime would be, giving people 18 months for an offence that should carry a heavier sentence! The whole mandate of prison is to help make the offender a better member of society through the use of rehabilitation, substance abuse courses, etc.  And EDUCATION!

Deep breath needed here, I fear!

What in heavens name do NOMS and the MOJ think they are doing by reducing the education budget in prisons? It is by educating the offender in where he has gone wrong that will enlighten him as to the error of his ways. It is by allowing him access to books, or teaching him to read if that is the case and by teaching him basic life skills that maybe, just maybe he will go on to live a fruitful and beneficial life away from crime. But shut down education courses, remove vital courses from the curricula and do not dare be shocked when recidivism rate sky rocket. In one of my establishments they even removed the IT courses, which of course makes sense because no one needs to know how to use a computer these days do they.

They demand that, as prisoners, we meet certain criteria in order to progress through our prison sentence and to come out the other end a better human being and that is fair enough. However, they then stop us from attending the very courses they have set for us. I fully understand the carrot and stick methodology but the stick and stick?

Emphasis has been put on the prisoner being engaged in “purposeful activity.” For those of you who are as unenlightened as I, purposeful activity is supposed to mean that the prisoner is addressing his offending behaviour. In reality it means that they are out of their cell and working. There are not enough jobs to employ all the prisoners housed in an establishment and most of the jobs are seen to be mind numbingly tedious. I for one once worked 8 hours per day putting tea bags in a plastic bag. I know that this job certainly put me on the right track for freedom. I apologise for my sarcasm, reader but really, how is this purposeful?

The last, point I take issue with is Mr Gove’s comments on continuity of sentence. He mentions that upon a recent visit to a German prison he found that the majority of prisoners were resident in one prison for the major part of their sentence, until they were eligible for open conditions (D Cats). He stated that he would like to see this being the case in England and Wales. Why then, does his department and the judiciary demand that prisoners are present for the most basic of hearings during their case? On average a prisoner will have to appear in court roughly 7 or 8 times. When a production order is sent for the prisoner to attend court he is told to pack all his belongings as he may not be coming back to the same prison. I have touched on this subject before in a previous blog. The mental upheaval of not knowing where he will end up that night plays heavily on his mind; it certainly did with me. So much o that my focus was not 100% on the issue at hand. Why is he made to do this when with today’s technology he could appear via video link? I understand that there are certain times when he must appear (such as at sentencing or the actual trial) but the rest of the time it can be handled by using the technology the government has so widely invested in. Continuity is a must and it will reduce costs in the long term. Perhaps the cost cutting could go back into the budgets that the MOJ constantly cuts? Just an idea.

There are so many other things that need to be discussed. However, I fear that most of you reading this will have reached for your Horlicks by now and I shall leave them for the subjects of other rants. Resettlement and the crucial role of the Offender Management Unit is a huge issue that demands better attention. I shall leave you for now with just two thoughts.

1) How can a system attempt reform when the basic foundation up on which it wishes to reform is so inexorably broken?

2)     I have read many of m’colleagues blogs and comments on Twitter and I am in awe of them. However, what next? We talk and talk but how do we get action? I have said before, I am not anti-establishment, nor anti-prison. I do not want to be friends with those in power; I only want them to listen.

As always, I welcome your comments and to quote the great Dennis Miller:

“Of course, this is just my opinion, I could be wrong!

“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
-- Fyodor Dostoyevsky