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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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).
Two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival left me feeling… well, strange. One was about a male ex-prisoner, the other about a female victim of rape. Light, cheery subject matters for me as always, but actually, intense and personal story telling abounded.
The first play was Doubting Thomas, created by multi-award winning director Jeremy Weller. The listings said: Thomas McCrudden, a man with a tortured and violent past but with hope for a different future, tells his own complex and moving story about abandonment and the stress of being forced to take on multiple roles, in Thomas’s own words, “…none of which were me! When I was growing up, I wasn’t able to accept love, and that created not just a man without a conscience or empathy. It created a monster.”