What will it take for the British public to get behind prison reform?

Ok, here’s a challenge for a rainy day. 

Can anybody name one good reason why this country repeatedly does nothing about the state of our prisons? Can you give me any single benefit to us, as a nation, of keeping people in institutions that have repeatedly been condemned for their wholesale ineffectiveness?

Since 2001 when I got involved in Britain’s Criminal Justice System having worked in Germany’s for 6 years, I have heard one government-appointed Chief Inspector of Prisons after another – from the judge, Sir Stephen Tumin, to the army officer, Sir David Ramsbotham, to the current retired senior police officer, Peter Clarke – denounce the conditions in our jails. All their reports reveal systemic failures, appalling levels of filth, readily available drugs, lack of educational opportunities and deeply disturbing practices that arise as a result of overcrowding.

Since the 40% budget cuts of 2010, things have only got worse. 25% to 1/3 of prison officers and staff were lost. This has led to prisoners being left languishing in their cells for up to 23 hours a day because there are not enough officers to unlock doors and take them to education, employment, anger-management or drug rehabilitation courses – all things that have been proven to help prevent re-offending. I experienced it myself in HMP Belmarsh when I was Arts Coordinator to Koestler Arts. We raised the money for a 5-week art project, we provided the artists, the materials, we organised the practicalities and we then showed up. But the prisoners didn’t. Because the officers didn’t have time to deliver them. It is one of the reasons I gave up my front line work and focused my attention on raising awareness of what is going on.

Learning to Learn through the Arts projects in HMP Belmarsh, 2004

Now in 2020, I would finally like to understand the apparent logic behind the criminal waste of time, money, opportunity and human lives. And why we, as a nation, allow it to continue.

What is the block that is preventing the British public, the politicians, the Justice Secretaries – of which there have been seven in the past ten years – from recognising the illogic of depriving people of their liberty with the justification of punishment or deterrent, only to then make everything else infinitely worse? Surely it is not rocket science to comprehend that placing people… and they are people… in squalid, overcrowded environments in which they are likely to become more brutalised, embittered and frustrated; in places where they may well acquire a new drug habit, learn hot tips for new criminal methods, possibly self-harm or commit suicide; in places where they have limited or no access to the services, education and general help they need… cannot produce positive results? How can any reasonable person not see that ejecting them back into society after their sentence with £47.50 in their pocket, a criminal record – and sometimes a TENT! – is not going to stop them from re-offending, possibly within days? How is this supposed ‘tough on crime’ approach to people, who often come from catastrophic, traumatic or hugely disadvantaged backgrounds going to make our communities safer? 

I am no economist or mathematician but let’s just look at 2 figures:

1. The Prison Service budget is £4.5 billion per year.

2. The cost of re-offending is £18 billion. 

Let’s look at 2 more:

1. 70% of prisoners suffer from some sort of mental health issue.

2. 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate.

The logic is there in black and white, in the figures. So why this dug-in-heels resistance to changes that embrace methods that have been proven to work? Not least Restorative Justice.

This week, in his last report as Chief Inspector of Prisons, a weary looking Peter Clarke, like so many of his predecessors once again explained the detrimental impact our system has on the mental health of prisoners. Once again he reported rubbish and rat-filled environments, apparently ‘so dirty you can’t clean it’. Once again he described the overall failure of managers who are proud of their data-driven and evidence-based methods but have rarely been inside prisons to ‘taste it, smell it.’ Clarke expresses similar bemusement to me as to why these damning reports so often come as a surprise to the management of the Prison Service. This has been going on for years! We may not be ‘world-beating’ in the appallingness of our prisons but we certainly are close to, if not at the top of the European table of failure. 

As Chris Atkins says in his new book A Bit of a Stretch, our prisons have become little more than ‘warehouses’ for storing offenders. Justice Secretaries, often lacking any background in law, let alone prisons, announce new initiatives with great fanfare, but nothing gets done and after a year, they move on.

Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence in Roadkill

How I wish we could have a minister like the actor Hugh Laurie’s Peter Laurence, in the brilliant new BBC series, Roadkill. Laurence is deeply flawed as a man and corrupt as a politician, but in his newly appointed position as Justice Secretary, he at least verbalises the obvious question: Why are we wasting so much public money on a policy that’s not working? ‘Everyone knows the prison system is grossly inefficient,’ he tells the wholly resistant, thankfully fictional, female Conservative prime minister. ‘So I’m going to shake things up. Justice deserves that.’

And it does. But he will fail. Because it is not just the right-leaning politicians who want to stick to our punitive approach. It is also the British public. In the series, both their attitudes are revealed: ‘We lock criminals up and throw away the key… in the interest of public safety… We’re famous for it… It’s our nature… It’s our bond of trust between the Conservative party and the public…’

Covid-19 has of course made conditions even worse. Some prisoners are locked in their cells for 24 hours a day, and for several weeks at a time in what amounts to solitary confinement, as Clarke points out. Of course that leads to the ‘more controlled, well-ordered’ environment the Prison Officer Association is relieved to have. But what does it do to the people inside? Clarke is convinced there must be an exploration of other ways to do things, safely. After all, ‘Are we really saying we are going to keep prisoners locked in their cells for another 3 months… 6 months… a year?’

After my talks on Art behind Bars in which I reveal the shocking but oft-printed statistics of our prison system’s failures, people frequently come up to me and say “Gosh, how awful, I had no idea.” Well maybe with all the upheaval of Covid-19, it really is time for the public to gain an idea of the horrors that are being perpetuated in their name; in the interest of their safety. Of course we can stick with the old approaches, but at our peril. For who pays the price? Don’t think it is just the prisoners and their families who are punished. It’s all of us. We make ourselves less safe. We make ourselves less just. But above all, we make ourselves complicit in a system that is less than humane.

If you would like to do something to help bring about a shift in attitude and policy, you can write to your MP. You can support the important work of The Prison Reform Trust or the Howard League for Penal Reform. Or any of the charities offering help to prisoners and their families. Or you can look at the wonderful work of my favourite charity, The Forgiveness Project, and their excellent and effective prison RESTORE programme, that I have both witnessed and on one occasion co-facilitated.

Links to follow up

Prisoners locked up for 23 hours due to Covid rules is ‘dangerous’ – BBC News

BBC Newsnight 20.10.20 with Chief Inspector of Prison, Peter Clarke Start at 21.27 mins

Chris Atkins A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner at Wells Festival of Literature

Roadkill on BBC player

The Guardian view on failing jails: an inspector’s call

Times article, 13.10.20

To honour Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, I urge you to support their positive attitudes to rehabilitation

Sometimes something is reported in the news that inspires an immediate counter-response to the usual political finger-pointing that ensues. When faced with horrific and tragic incidents like the London Bridge attack on Friday 29thNovember, it is all too easy for our knees to jerk us into the simplistic mindsets of wanting to punish, blame and demand, or promise, policies that are ‘tougher on crime.’ After all, two bright young people – 23-year old Saskia Jones and 25-year old Jack Merritt – were killed. What’s more, it was while attending a conference celebrating the five-year anniversary of Learning Together, a prison education initiative from the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, through which students and prisoners learn side-by-side. 

Jack and Saskia were clearly two shining lights whose hearts and talents were directed towards helping those residing in the darkest corners of our society. In words taken from tributes to them: 

“Saskia’s warm disposition and extraordinary intellectual creativity was combined with a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offences should have opportunities for rehabilitation… (More here)

“Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog. He was deeply, creatively and courageously engaged with the world, advocating for a politics of love.” (More here)

The incident is tragic. Our anger is justified. Our desire for action, natural. Our fear of the same thing happening again, heightened… But when political leaders and media outlets effortlessly slip into the amplification of these emotions, there follows a rash of promises and policies often based on inaccuracies or blatant lies, which all too often lead to harmful and unforeseen failures further down the line. I am relieved that over the weekend this process was quickly called out and widely condemned as “beyond disgusting.” And David Merritt, Jack’s father, tweeted: “Don’t use my son’s death, and his colleague’s photos to promote your vile propaganda. Jack stood against everything you stand for – hatred, division, ignorance.”

According to his father, “Jack Merritt died doing what he loved, surrounded by people he loved and who loved him…” That knowledge will, I hope, bring him and his family comfort during the dark times ahead. When I worked in prisons and was often, if not daily, in situations where I could have been harmed, I sometimes wondered whether I would stop my work with prisoners if something terrible happened. I was lucky, I wasn’t attacked. But even if I had been, I don’t believe I would have necessarily stopped, for I too loved and believed in what I was doing, in spite of the risk. Just as a fire fighter can love his/her work while knowing they may well get burned, or even die.

Back in the nineties, I came close to falling victim to the dangerous “Sex Beast of Cologne,” as the tabloids labeled the quiet, unassuming man in my art class who, unbeknownst to me, was plotting to take me hostage. His plans failed, but if they hadn’t, I know I would not have wanted macho bravado and knee-jerk reactions to dominate the post-incident discourse. Nor would I necessarily conclude that my way of working had failed or was wrong. It would have devastated me if the prison had closed down or placed guards in my art classes thereby destroying the chances for rehabilitation I was so dedicated to establishing. Of course there are lessons to be learned, but may the right lessons be learned. 

Me teaching ‘The Sex Beast’ in 1996

Over the next days and weeks, as more facts emerge, we’ll hear more simplified explanations of the causes, more tough talk, more blame and more reactive and punitive measures being promised… I beg you not to fall for unashamed political optimisations of this tragic situation such as our prime minister’s “Give me a majority and I’ll keep you safe from terror.” Boris Johnson’s policies on prisons and crime do not make sense. They have long been proven not to work. They will not make you safer. You can see that for yourself here. And here. And here.

I believe the best way to make sense of such seemingly senseless tragedies is to hear and honour what the people who died stood for. So I urge you to heed Jack’s wishes as passed on by his father:

“What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.

That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences, or convict people on joint enterprise. Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. Where we do not consistently undermine our public services, the lifeline of our nation. Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that. Through us all, Jack marches on.

Borrow his intelligence, share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.

You can read Dave Merrit’s full article here

And a few of the many other related articles… if you can face the political blame and shame games:

London Bridge attack: Boris Johnson ignores family’s plea not to exploit victims’ deaths

London Bridge victim’s father said his death shouldn’t be used to justify ‘draconian sentences,’ as Conservatives call for tougher punishment

Johnson’s response to London Bridge attack ignores complex reality

Blame game: Johnson and Corbyn clash as political row over London Bridge terrorism continues