Did you know…? A little quiz to see who is really guilty when it comes to ‘prisons’

Talking with friends – an admittedly unreliable study on which to base objective conclusions – I am wondering if you too are experiencing a dull grey weight to your days. If your thoughts are slightly befuddled, your energy levels subdued, your feelings a kind of bland beige. Whether it’s mild depression, Long Covid, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the impact of eighteen months of restrictions, worries and losses caused by a perfect storm of Covid, Brexit and long-term neglect, the usual palette of life seems, for many, to have mixed itself into a nondescript yuk of a colour. 

September inevitably brings change. As the nights steal increasing light from our mornings and evenings, we pack away those hopeful but unworn summer clothes, watch leaves crinkle and kickstart jobs, studies or projects. From soaring energy prices and fuel shortages to cabinet re-shuffles, we are rocked by uncertainty. Even in Germany it’s all change as Mutti, the very face of stabilitytries her best to retire.  

Meanwhile, our sclerotic prison system resists change as it plods through the ebbs and flows of the outside world. In the ten years since 2011, the Right Honourables Clarke, Grayling, Gove, Truss, Lidington, Gauke and Buckland have tried, but largely failed, to stop the relentless rhythms of ineffectiveness. Will Dominic Raab, our new Secretary of State for Justice, who didn’t exactly shine in his role overseeing the evacuation of Afghanistan, be able to re-direct its course? Just looking at some of the more recent headlines, I don’t think so.

Albert Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” At my Wednesday morning dance group, I experienced firsthand why. Change does not always come about through control and enforcement. It comes about through compassionate attention, movement, connection, acceptance and love.

Everybody wants to be seen for who they truly are. Because in our essence, we are all beautiful. By only seeing and judging the outer product of a person’s upbringing, education, tragedies and choices, we miss their inner selves with all their original hopes and dreams and unique offerings to the world.   

I recently attended a webinar of Ian Hislop, Editor of Private Eyein conversation with Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. She is stepping down after 30 years as one of Britain’s leading and most respected voices on prison reform. That’s pretty much the same length of time I have been involved in teaching prisoners or campaigning for better prisons, albeit with considerably less impact. The conversation was actually more entertaining than depressing, though the facts never cease to confirm Britain’s role as an excessively punitive nation. Did you know, for example, that we give out more life sentences per year – around 13,000 – than all European countries (Turkey excluded) combined? 

Just for fun – or to add another dollop of grey to any minor depression – let’s do a little quiz based on their conversation and my on-going research.

  1. How many people are currently in our prisons?
  2. What percentage of those are women?
  3. How much does re-offending cost the government and taxpayer?
  4. What happened recently in HMP Bronzefield?
  5. What almost always works?

If we start with that last question – the answer according to Frances Crook is: education. Education nearly always works. It can be beneficial to everybody. Life-changingly so. We all know that, not least because those who can afford it are prepared to invest £40,000 a year to get the best for their child. You no doubt want your children and grandchildren to have a good education too. It’s natural. So why is no more than a tiny fraction of that same sum (which is what it also costs to keep an adult in prison for a year) invested in as much education as possible for those who have so little?

One of this week’s headlines pointed out this neglect. 

This ‘Prisoners not taken to lessons…’ thing is precisely why I stopped running the Learning to Learn through the Arts scheme that I set up in my capacity as Arts Coordinator to Koestler Arts from 2002-2006. Having raised the funds, sourced appropriate artists, bought materials, liaised with prisons and organised all the many other practicalities involved in running a 4-6 week art project, all the prison had to do was deliver the men to the allotted room at the appropriate time. But more than often they didn’t. Or couldn’t. Staff shortages was one reason. Old-fashioned punitive attitudes, a risk-averse governor, bad organisation were others.

You might know the answers to the rest of the questions.

  1. 80,000. We lock up more people than anywhere in Western Europe.
  2. Roughly 3000 or up to 5% are women. 
  3. Re-offending costs £18 billion. In contrast, to run an educational course costs a few hundred pounds per person.
  4. At HMP Bronzefield, the private prison run by contractor Sodexo, an 18-year-old gave birth alone in her cell . When her calls for help were ignored, she passed out in pain. The baby died. She bit through the umbilical cord, climbed into bed and cradled it for 12 hours.

Looking at Answer Nr. 4, Chief Inspectors, charities, pressure groups can all point out the failures behind such a traumatic incident. They have been there for so long.

Yet ministers repeatedly ignore facts, common sense, morality, humanity and even kindness. 

When our prime minister quips behind closed doors at a Conservative party fundraiser that the UK could become ‘the Saudi Arabia of penal policy’ under his current ‘hardline’ home secretary, Priti Patel, you know for sure that there is little sensitivity towards the grim levels of stress, pain and discomfort experienced by those living or working in some of our prisons. Little understanding of how growing up surrounded by violence and fear has an impact on a person’s nervous system and brain functioning. Little understanding of the strain on a mother of three who has to choose between putting food on the table or heating the room for an hour. 

I believe the plethora of such unempathetic attitudes and policies towards those who are less advantaged, less educated, less fortunate are massively contributing to the current ‘yuk’ colour of life. Understanding is one of the paths to a compassionate and restorative Criminal Justice System. A lack of understanding mixed with emotional immaturity is one of the surest paths to an unjust and failing prison system. And the latter is costing us all dear, on many levels. 

They/We are squandering the precious opportunities incarceration could offer to nurture and rebuild rather than waste and destroy human potential. 

So who is really the guilty party and the danger to society here? 

If you feel moved to, please support the excellent work of Howard League for Penal Reform and/or Prison Reform Trust

Further reading – not all articles represent my opinions

Warning on ‘parlous state’ of jail education

The reform of prisons has been my life’s work, but they are still utterly broken‘ by Frances Crook

‘Deep crisis’ in British prisons as use of force against inmates doubles

Fear of more baby deaths as ministers stand firm on jailing pregnant women

Newborn baby dies in prison cell after teenage mother left alone without medical helpB

Are ‘chain gangs in high-vis jackets’ really the best way to beat crime?

I was going to divert from the usual themes of my blog and write about something light and summery. But then the government published its Beating Crime Plan and, though I can’t face going through all of it, I feel compelled to point out a couple of things. Because its showy, populist, tough-on-crime bluster and glaring ignorance of the real issues is a smack in the face for anyone who dared hope for a different, progressive or even a building-back-better or levelling-up approach.

You can read the full paper here if you really haven’t got better beach or staycation reading. Or just get an idea from the different views on its content in some of the links below. For now, I am just going to take two examples that come straight out of Boris Johnson’s mouth to illustrate my point. Which is basically that little of this is going to work… because it never has. 

The first quote is from the foreword:

“None of us can fulfil our potential if we live in fear, none of us can rise up if we’re held down by those who would do us harm. If we as a society, as a country, are to truly flourish then we have to start by beating crime – and I’m proud that this Government has the plan to do just that.”

So, the first sentence, while true, is also an own goal. Living in fear is precisely what so many children and young people are forced to do in their early lives. It’s what drives them to join a gang for supposed safety-in-numbers; to reach for the perceived protection of a knife; to become an aggressor rather than a victim. 

The second sentence, also off. ‘Beating crime’ is the not the way for a society and country to truly flourish. Crime, like drugs, is a largely a symptom, not the cause of failure. To thrive as a nation, we need to give the most disadvantaged more of a chance to fulfil their potential; to educate and support them to become the person that deep down they know they could be, but can’t find a way to be. As for the government’s plan Johnson is so proud of…

The second example is what Johnson said to reporters: 

“If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.” 

I am kind of assuming that all my readers can see reasons why this might not just be wrong, but also deeply offensive? Is it progressive, or even remotely appropriate to bring back what amounts to little less than medieval public shaming? Basic psychology, the Treaty of Versailles, no doubt your own experience of shame all demonstrate how humiliation, even if ‘justified’ usually leads to counter-productive outcomes. As for ‘chain gangs’… really?

And what ‘debt to society’ is he talking about? The debt of having been failed by the education system, of having lived in poverty due to the absence of a living wage, of having been a victim of systemic disadvantage / racism / drug addict parents / trauma / lack of opportunity? Not all criminals fall into those categories, but a great many do.

The plan continues with ideas that blatantly ignore recommendations, previous experience, the expertise of those on the ground… and even logic. More stop-and-search powers, even though these are known to disproportionately target black people. More prisons, even though their £37,000 per person per year merely results in the £18.1 billion bill for high re-offending rates, usually within 12 months of release. You just have to read the below paragraph and compare with the statistics to see how deluded and detached from reality the reasoning behind these plans are!

If prisons worked you wouldn’t have to embark on the largest prison building programme… you could spend all those millions of pounds on mental health therapies and drug addiction treatment and prevention; on building soft social skills; on support for dyslexia, jobs, housing… Anyway, I could go on, but it is too frustrating and fruitless to. Maybe next month I will find something lighter and more summery to write about… as long as the government don’t publish any more of their plans.

Related links – not all representative of my opinions

‘Weird and gimmicky’: police chiefs condemn Boris Johnson’s crime plan

Boris Johnson says stop and search is ‘kind and loving’. He’s gaslighting Black people

Boris Johnson Under Fire From Business Chief Over Hi-Viz ‘Chain Gangs’ Plan

Hi-vis chain gangs? This is what happens when a newspaper columnist becomes prime minister

Johnson proposes hi-vis chain gangs as part of crime plan

Crime always pays for the Tories – that’s why they turn to it again and again

Boris Johnson promises ‘fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs’ so criminals can visibly pay debt

Boris Johnson defends police pay freeze

Boris Johnson’s new police plans slammed by former Met officer

BBC World at One (start at 28:18 mins)

PRITI PATEL: The public want to see justice done

I dare you not to look away…

What is the difference between ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I didn’t know’?

I ask this question in the wake of what must be one of the best television series in the past year: BBC One’s deeply uncomfortable and disquieting three-parter, Time.

It is described as: ‘Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting, brutally honest portrayal of a failed public service which gets everything right about prison life – minus the tedium.’ If you haven’t seen it – and sorry to my readers abroad if you can’t get BBC – I would like to invite you to watch it, even to dip into it for ten minutes. I’ll tell you why.

Having worked in many prisons in England, I feel everybody needs to know what is going on in them. In our name. There was nothing in the series that I didn’t recognise from my years inside. As I am up against a tight writing deadline for my book (and this blog actually!), I am going to allow the three episodes to speak for me and bear witness to the sheer illogic, and all too often, inhumanity of our current system.

This doesn’t apply to all prisoners, but if we recognise that many addictive, violent and destructive behaviours derive from childhood trauma; if we fully comprehend the impact of untreated traumatic incidents, then the cruelty of locking up people, who were first and foremost victims, in what are often little more than hell holes, becomes very clear. 

My admittedly provocative opening question stems from a genuine desire to understand the answer.

For decades, the adult-generation of Germans living through the Second World War have not been believed when they say, ‘we didn’t know’ (about the concentration camps). And people around the world often blame them for having looked the other way. I don’t want to get into that debate here. There is a consensus among historians that some would have known, some would have heard about them and not believed it, and others would not have known. Most of the camps were miles away in the east and there was little access to free press. There was also a deadly dictatorship controlling thoughts and actions. Yet not knowing, or knowing and not doing anything, allowed the deadly system to persist for as long as it did.

I have been talking to a wide range of audiences about my experiences of working as an artist in prisons for nearly three decades. The most common thing I hear afterwards is a shocked “I had no idea.” It’s totally valid, I make no judgment. There are loads of things I have no idea about. But why don’t more people know about this? There are prisons in nearly every major town. The shocking statistics of failure, the appalling conditions and the tragic stories of many of the people locked up in them are reported on all the time, in every form of media. How can we not know about them?

There is obviously a wide spectrum from having no idea, to knowing but looking away, to knowing and acting. I would just like to use this month’s blog to encourage you to become more informed, specifically about the system in which we warehouse prisoners. Not just for their sakes, but for all of us who live in the communities into which they are returned… usually worse.

When enough people ‘have an idea’, things can and will change.

Watching this series is a start. It’s tough watching, but the reality is much, much tougher.

I dare you not to look away.

Reviews:

Time review – Sean Bean and Stephen Graham astound in enraging prison drama

Time review – like a punch in the face, but in a good way

Time review: This gripping, gruelling portrait of life in prison is essential viewing

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

A talk, an exhibition and a TV series…

October is a busy month. Lots to see and do or get done. Can I just add three things to your list? The first two are London-based and optional; the third should really be compulsory for everybody.

So firstly, for anyone in London on Friday 11th October at 4pm, I am very excited to be speaking at the National Army Museum’s inaugural Chelsea History Festival. My talk How Germany Remembers is just one in a whole line-up of talks by impressive historians, writers and speakers – including Max Hastings.

Secondly, and also this month until 3rd November, The Koestler Arts annual exhibition – Another Me – will be showing at the Southbank. I personally haven’t been yet but I know it will once again provide visitors with a glimpse of the huge talent and potential locked up in our prisons. It is a showcase for what the arts can do for people’s well-being, self-esteem and rehabilitation.

I was in fact invited to expand on these benefits for the autumn edition of The Arts Society magazine. Please feel free to read my article ‘Art behind Bars’ to learn more.

But thirdly, and in stark contrast to the positivity of the arts, is the shocking Channel 4 series Crime and Punishment. I know, I know, I have been here many times before. You are probably sick of me going on about the plight of prisoners and state of our prison system. But you won’t be half as sick as all the people involved, who know how acute the crisis is.

Please watch it. Even just Episode 2. And then compare what you see with the Ministry of Justice’s evidence-based summary of what works…

Even I was aghast at what I saw in the first three episodes, and I have been in many of our jails. Everything has got so much worse since the 43% cuts to the budget from 2011 onwards: the levels of frustration from being locked 23 hours a day in conditions that even animal rights campaigners would protest against; the levels of desperation that lead people to shred their bodies or hang themselves to get a radio or better clothes to wear for a visit from their wife and kid; the levels of terror in young officers who patrol the wings after just 10 weeks training and 2 weeks shadowing; and the levels of weary resignation of those who enrolled to help and make a difference but are repeatedly forced to cower behind plastic shields and just ‘contain’.

Photograph 3
Guernsey Prison, Margaret Macdonald Platinum Award for Photography 2019, Koestler Arts

I believe everybody you see in this series is doing their best. But increasingly without hope of change. What you witness is the underbelly of our society. A society that punishes disadvantage, that punishes mental health, that punishes lack of education. In almost every shot, hopelessness seeps under the cell doors to mix with the blood of self-harm.

We all probably feel there are far better causes to engage with – cancer patients, the rain forests, refugees and hedgehogs; that offenders have only themselves to blame and that prison has nothing really to do with us. But if you are reading this, it probably does. Because so many of us have had advantage, education, guidance and love. And it is precisely us who can help bring about change. How? you might ask. Well a good start would be to recognise that Boris Johnson’s policies to extend sentences and build more and bigger prisons are wholly illogical and will only make the situation worse. You could then take a moment to retreat into your imagination, put on the battered, ill-fitting shoes of some of these offenders and try to walk a few steps. See how far you are able to get. The barriers to a crime-free productive life on release are enormous and once more of us realise just how bad things are, we can all join in with the other voices that are demanding: enough is enough.