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

Boris Johnson’s plans for ‘cracking down on crime’ aren’t ‘bold’, just old. And they don’t work.

More prison places, more punishment, longer sentences and tougher stop-and-search powers for police… I am far from alone in being dismayed at Boris Johnson’s ideas on prison reform. 

However, his prison policies are no more and no less than I would expect from him: vain, backward-looking, wilfully ignorant of evidence and expertise and whiffing of his trademark self-serving disregard for the people affected. Anybody who works in the system or has occupied themselves with the deeper issues behind the revolving door of our flailing, and failing, system can see the shallow grasp he has of what is required. As the respected Prison Reform Trust says: “Tough rhetoric is no substitute for understanding the evidence.” 

In a blatant display of easy vote-winning, tough-on-crime policies, Johnson is returning to Michael Howard’s aggressive and long disproven claim: ‘Prison Works!’ So let’s just unpick a little of what he and his team are suggesting as part of their “bold” plan (‘bold’? ‘Old’ would be a more accurate description) “to create a justice system, which cuts crime and protects law-abiding people.” 

1. “10,000 new prison places” – at a cost of £2.5 billion – “so we can keep criminals behind bars.” Nothing new here, not least the well-known fact that prison is not a solution to cutting crime or reoffending. The then justice secretary, Liz Truss, made the same pledge in 2016 and the places were first due by 2020. The government then quietly reduced its target to 3,360 places by 2023. So far only one prison has been completed.

Responses to this idea: 

Peter Dawson, Director of The Prison Reform Trust: “Doing away with overcrowded and outdated prisons makes a lot of sense. But governments have been promising that for decades and they always underestimate what’s involved. According to the prison service’s own figures it would take 9,000 new spaces just to eliminate overcrowding – not a single dilapidated prison could be taken out of use before that figure was reached.” 

Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform: The construction of new prisons is “an exercise in ego and reputation” and a “gross squandering of taxpayers’ money.” 

Robert Buckland QC, the fifth Conservative justice secretary in four years: “More and better prison places means less reoffending and a lower burden on the taxpayer in the future…” Except it DOESN’T Mr Buckland! And there is a raft of evidence, teams of experts and front-line workers and decades of failure to reduce re-offending through a punitive system to prove it. 

2. To “properly punish” offenders by sending more to jail and to make sure criminals are “serving the time they are sentenced to” by putting an end to the automatic release of prisoners half way through their sentence. Hmmm… just a few weeks ago research indicated that short prison sentences were driving up reoffending and former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, had called for “ineffective” prison sentences of under six months to be abolished. You can do the maths yourselves. Currently reoffending costs the UK £18bn per annum. Keeping an adult in prison costs around £37,000 a year, with at least double that amount for a young offender. Reoffending rates for sentences of less than 12 months stand at 65%. There are 83,000 people in the system… Put those figures on your campaign bus Mr Johnson. 

3. Apparently it’s “time to make criminals feel afraid, not the public.” Home Secretary Priti Patel goes further and wants them to feel “terror.” “Populist electioneering” says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, and it is. Even the most basic psychology or a bit of listening to offenders’ stories would reveal the terror many of them have already felt in their homes, schools or communities making them feel compelled to join gangs or arm themselves with knives. Can the government not see the relationship between the rise in knife crime and the nine years of brutal cuts – that Johnson supported – to community support officers, probation, police, not to mention education, youth services, housing, mental health and other public services? Johnson wants “…to keep criminals off our streets and turn them into law-abiding citizens when they have paid their debt to society.” But has society honoured its duty to educate those people, to support their needs, to protect them? 54% of prisoners are dyslexic, 50% can’t write, 29% were victims of abuse as children. They will be released with just £46, a criminal record, often a newly acquired drug habit and frequently nowhere to live… so where is the ‘bold’ plan for the chances they will be receiving to become ‘law-abiding citizens’?

That’s still not the end of it.

4. “20,000 more police officers” – which will merely reinstate those lost by the past years of Tory cuts. “Extended stop and search powers” – which often result in the unfair targeting of ethnic minorities and were a key factor in the anti-police anger that triggered the riots while Johnson was mayor of London. Even reports by both the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police found no long-term significant reductions in crime. And “£100 million worth of airport style X-ray scanners, metal detectors and mobile phone blockers to crackdown on drugs and weapons coming into prisons – even though many of them come in with underpaid officers wanting to make an extra buck.

Johnson’s next point makes me laugh… and weep!

5. “It is vital we have a world-leading prison estate…” How about aiming for a fair, functioning, humane prison estate as a start? Every single HM inspector of prisons says the same: our prisons are shameful shambles. We lock up more people than anywhere else in Western Europe; we already have excessively long sentences; prisons are filled to 95% of their operational capacity; overcrowding, cuts in front-line prison staff (1/3 of newly-appointed recruits leave within a year of being in post) and squalid conditions have led to the highest levels of violence and self-harm. Drugs abound while meaningful activities, education and work remain a luxury… you can read about countless other contradictions of purpose and violations of human dignity almost weekly.

Frances Crook again: Mr Johnson “doesn’t seem to understand” how the current justice system works. “What is coming out of Number 10 is politics but not real life. It’s not going to deal with real-life crimes and victims. It’s a lot of hot air.

I am in good company when I say a government’s approach to prison policy is a litmus test for its maturity, wisdom, far-sightedness and humanity. 

Dostoevski:“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” 

Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” 

Even Johnson’s hero, Churchill:“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country…” 

In his macho rhetoric on the treatment of crime and criminals, painfully devoid of detail on educational or rehabilitative measures, Boris Johnson may mean well. ‘Tough on crime’ always appeals to the general public as it’s apparently for our safety. But with these measures, he is merely exposing naked ignorance, vanity and apparent indifference to the issues faced by real people. Emptying prisons of short sentence prisoners; providing extensive education and work opportunities; rolling out victim awareness and restorative justice courses; offering incentives for good behaviour; instating many more, well-trained prison officers on the wings with time, not only to open and close doors but to listen and guide… These are some of the things that will move our prison system in the direction of being fit for purpose. Only then can we start dreaming of ‘being safe’ and having the “world-leading prison estate” Johnson wants.

Further reading:

Mark Capleton: I’ve been in and out of prison for 35 years – trust me, Boris Johnson’s criminal justice policies are useless. Behind every sentence, there is a person. Without the rehabilitation and education opportunities given to me, I would be back inside. But the prime minister’s announcements don’t offer those chances at all. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-crime-policy-prisons-cps-stop-and-search-a9056966.html

Putting more people in prison is not the way to cut crime. If Boris Johnson wants to be tough on crime he must reduce re-offending rates, says Reform researcher Aidan Shilson-Thomas. https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/opinion/2019/08/putting-more-people-prison-not-way-cut-crime

Boris Johnson thinks building more prisons can curtail violence – he couldn’t be any more wrong. Johnson is appropriating the pain of victims for political legitimacy while simultaneously abandoning those who need help rather than jail time.  https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-prisons-stop-and-search-criminals-a9056286.html

Doing time… or simply wasting time?

When you work in prisons or other extreme situations, certain snapshot images ink themselves on the walls of your memory. Hidden from view for much of the time, they appear like a tattoo when a sleeve is rolled up. I have one such image that often causes me to stop and think. 

Doing time

It came about on one of my morning rounds, walking from wing to wing gathering up the participants of my art class to accompany them to the art studio. I had a key for all the locked gates through which you had to travel to get anywhere in the prison, but not a key for the cells. Casting his eye over my list of names, a prison officer stuck his metal key into a cell door, turned twice and pulled. The door opened to reveal a small, wiry man sitting on a neatly made, metal-framed bed just staring at the narrow space in front of him. He was dressed and ready for another day of… nothing; of waiting for time to pass. The slight slump of his body and thin, grey hair combed back from his forehead accentuated his pallor as he slowly turned his head to face us. Blank eyes betrayed a hint of the resigned surprise of someone who had got used to the loss of all privacy and power. For a tiny moment our eyes met. Was it a flash of hope I saw before the officer, realising his mistake, pulled the door closed without a word and locked it once again? I stood motionless as he studied the list and moved towards another cell, imagining the tiny man turning back his head to continue staring through the tidy arrangement of objects on the table opposite him: a single mug, a jar of cheap instant coffee, a toothbrush and a roll of toilet paper. 

I still see this man when I am running though wild garlic-filled beech forests or soaking in the exuberance of my mother’s colourful flower beds; when I feel the warmth of sunshine or the heat of a bath. I think of him still sitting there alone, just quietly waiting… wasting. And that basically sums up what our prisons are. One big waste: of time, of money, of opportunity, but, worst of all, of human lives. If you put aside questions of whether a person is guilty and deserving of punishment and, for one minute, place yourself into his cell and slip on his shoes… what do you feel? 

I know I bang on about it, but I hate waste. And the illogic of locking people up in increasingly depraved conditions with nothing purposeful to do, and then ejecting them back into society with the expectancy that they will somehow be changed for the better, urgently needs to be addressed. We all know the benefits of exposure to nature, the arts, colour, fresh air, exercise, work, self-discipline, being listened to… the list is long. So why, why are we systemically depriving the people in our prisons of all those things? The prison service’s self-declared mission is to help offenders lead “law-abiding and useful lives on release.” Yet in practice, it too often does the opposite.

As Brexit procrastinations continue to drag minds and resources away from pretty much all other societal issues and constant changes in Justice Secretaries and Prison Ministers prevent anything from getting done, our prisons are becoming even more overcrowded, understaffed, drug-infested, inhumane, dangerous and failing institutions. There are thousands of my ‘small, wiry man’ sitting on beds in tiny cells, over half of them with literary skills of an eleven year old, many of them victims of violence, neglect and abuse as children, each costing £38,000 per year, each just waiting and wasting while we become increasingly guilty of ‘looking away’. 

So what can you do? There are lots of wonderful initiatives, charities and people trying to make our prisons better places. Let the government know the current situation is unacceptable by supporting their work. Here are a few suggestions: Prison Reform Trust or Howard League for Penal Reform or The Forgiveness Project or The Koestler Trust or contact your local prison and offer to teach literacy, become a prison visitor or mentor to someone on their release. You will probably find it incredibly rewarding!

Minefields of ticking time bombs just waiting to explode

Pentonville Prison is “crumbling and rife with vermin”. HMP Birmingham is in a “state of crisis”. Prison staff protest over “unprecedented violence” in jails. “Biggest UK prison riot in decades could and should have been prevented,” report finds.

We have been reading one such headline after another for months now, actually years, probably decades. Almost everything about our prison system is failing and contributing to this dire state: chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of purposeful activity, easily available drugs, squalor, rises in violence, self-harm, suicide… they are all interlinking, poisonous contributors to what is becoming a system wholly unfit for purpose. Yet still nothing substantial is done.

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What can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.

Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then,  with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).

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“Britain’s Shame” – the price for trying to be “Great”?

Last month I wrote about how the words “Britain” and “shame” rarely appear in the same sentence. This month the two words have been inseparable. “Britain’s Shame” even became the title for BBC’s Panorama programme on the horrifying and heartbreaking fire at Grenfell Tower on 14th June. The programme opens with the accusation that shoved these two words together to sit unwillingly and uncomfortably side by side for all the world to see: “They were warned several times, countless times; they were warned probably until the day before the fire…”

IMG_1336.jpg‘Falling on deaf ears’, Koestler Trust entry from HMP Standford Hill

I don’t feel in any position to write about the tragedy that has ended or blighted so many innocent peoples’ lives. It is too sad and it is too soon. But I do feel in a position to talk about the shame that surrounds it, the shame that needs to be looked at and above all felt so that vital changes can be swiftly made before another tinderbox of neglect ignites.

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