Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Great Prison Escape

Since becoming Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice for in May 2015, Michael Gove’s efforts to reform the justice and prison system have continued at pace. Over the last six months there has been a constant flow of media reports illustrating a very thorough and thoughtful approach to reforming the system.

It is particularly encouraging to see many media reports in which Michael talks not just about solutions but focusses first on the problems. Too often politicians make policy announcements without having done the necessary ‘ground-work’ to explain and illustrate the problem which the policy change is designed to cure. The result is that either the policy doesn’t work to deliver the intended result - those dreaded unintended consequences as a consequence of a limited research and solid policy development or an opposition group is able to kill off a reform by galvanising an ill-informed public and media. 

However. I do have one concern related to reform of the prison system which I feel could upset the reform process and even potentially render it a complete failure.

With prison re-offending rates running at close to 50%, it’s clear that the prison system is failing. Criminals are simply being warehoused. Rehabilitation and prisoner reform is way, way below the levels it needs to be at for the system to be described as successful or working. 

But the first question is this. Do those who work in the prison service see it as their role to achieve this rehabilitation and reform?

Imagine you did a single question survey across the prison estate of say 500 members of prison staff across all levels of seniority. The survey would be confidential and answers posted anonymously but each paper would be coded so that the management level or non-management level of the respondent could be ascertained.

The question would ask:

What is the Role of the Prison Service and Your Role Within it?

Please put a number next to each of the five answers below to indicate order of priority. i.e. put a 1 next to the answer which you feel best answers the question, a 2 next to the second best and so on.

  1. To punish criminals.
  2. To protect the public.
  3. To prevent criminals from committing more crime.
  4. To reform prisoners.
  5. To educate and empower criminals.

I think you would get some interesting answers and possibly also prompt some interesting and overdue thought processes.

So what am I really getting at here?

Let me tell you a couple of stories.

Around 25 years ago I was on a skiing holiday in the French Alps with my then girlfriend, now wife. We met a really nice bunch of prison officers, I guess 7 or 8 of them, and spent a lot of the week with them. One evening late in the holiday after an excellent adrenaline filled day of skiing we found ourselves in a bar with them and I started asking about what it was like to work in the prison system. At first I got some basic inoffensive answers. Then as the evening progressed and the alcohol flowed the inhibitions started to recede. 

I introduced the subject of violence in prison. I was expecting to prompt a conversation about prisoners becoming violent and how they dealt with the issue. ‘How do you deal with violence in prison?’ was my question.

One of the prisoner officers was steaming drunk by this stage. His inhibitions were gone, we had spent a week together - a combination of trust and a loosened tongue were prevalent. Imagine him swinging his pint glass around as he speaks.

‘Do you know how we deal with prisoners to keep them in line?’ he asked me with unexpected anger and passion in his voice. I had no idea.

‘We take them into a cell and a group of us beat the crap out of them’ 

‘So if a prisoner is violent you respond in kind?’, I asked.

‘No mate. We smash open the door of someone’s cell, pile in and beat the shit out of him so everyone knows who is in charge’.

I looked around at his colleagues. A couple smiled back nodding and a few others went quiet - varying levels of self awareness, perhaps even conscience.

‘So even if a prisoner hasn’t been violent you do this randomly? Are you allowed to do this?’ I asked naively. 

‘That’s how the system works. They are scum.’ he said flatly turning away to the bar to continue his drink.

Hmm. So - a brutal control system. 

Now fast forward to 2010. I found myself involved in a radio phone in on prison reform with Crispin Blunt MP who was prison minister at the time. After i had said my piece the next caller was a prison officer. He was bemoaning the difficulties of his job and rounded off his remarks by describing prisoners as ‘the lowest form of life’. He made it clear that his role was containment of a problem and thought rehabilitation was pointless.

It was fairly shocking to hear a prison officer who had identified himself by name speaking so blatantly and openly. It was very clear that he simply viewed his attitude and approach as normal, logical and rational - nothing to hide.

Crispin, to my surprise, congratulated the officer on doing a good job.. No attempt to question his approach or even gently persuade him towards another way of looking at things. But then MPs have to be ‘nice to everyone’ I suppose..

In 2009 I started reading a blog by a long term prisoner, Ben Gunn, which provided a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the prison system. The prison system tried very hard to shut it down but being a highly intelligent character and someone who subsequently, and this was really the point, told me that ‘there are more important things than me getting out of prison’, Ben kept it going. I read it avidly. A subject that was always prevalent in Ben’s musings was abuse of power and the ‘control systems’ used in prisons.

Ben’s blog is still up and can be read all the way back from 2009 at:

So. Am I suggesting that the prison system today is not controlled by policy and management direction but instead by a barbaric under-the-radar system of control involving systematic violence against ‘innocent’ prisoners to maintain order?

No. Not exactly.

Ben assures me that things have improved since the dark days of his early imprisonment and times when the horrors of prisons such as Dartmoor were legend and people apparently, quite literally disappeared. I will leave others to explore exactly where the current real state of play surrounding prison violence sits. ‘Suicide’ rates are alarming I gather.

What I am more concerned with is culture and it’s ability to upset real efforts at reform.

A short time after I started reading Ben Gunn’s blog I met him for the first time and then spent the next two years researching the prison system, talking to prison officers and prisoners, legal people, psychologists and reading extensively. I was focussed on helping him get out of prison whilst at the same time dealing with his need to continue publishing his thoughts and criticisms of the system - tricky to say the least but he was finally released in 2012 after 32 years (his original sentence tariff was 10 years). He was never a violent prisoner.

During this period, one particularly illuminating encounter was with a man called ‘Razor Smith’ - a repeat violent offender who had spent the overwhelming majority of his life inside. He had just been released from prison. So I took him out for dinner one dark night - like you do with complete strangers called ‘Razor’ with a proven history of violence. I had a mixed grill and he had something else with chips. Razor doesn’t like ketchup and physically blanched when i tore the top off my sachet and the red liquid oozed out. You don’t need to be a psychologist to work that one out do you?

Razor had lived his life from his teenage years in and out of almost every prison institution on offer but had finally managed to get to Grendon (a group therapy rehabilitation prison) and as the tragic consequence of the death of his beloved son had put himself through the deep contemplation and personal demon-facing process necessary to stay the course and finally get himself out of prison on life-license.

Razor wrote a book called ‘A Rusty Gun’. If you are involved in prisons or justice in any way you absolutely have to read it - in fact it should be law that anyone involved does so - it really is that good.

Avoiding the temptation to share the many brilliant anecdotes from Razor’s book (just buy it please..) the relevant point of this encounter was Razor’s insight into the attitude of prisoners towards prison officers and other prisoners.

While I was happily chomping through my mixed grill, liberally spread with ketchup, Razor’s eyes were constantly darting around the crowded pub. The second anyone moved or entered the room his eyes would flicker towards them. Having watched this for a while I realised that what I was witnessing and had witnessed since picking him up, driving along, parking and walking to the riverside pub were literally hundreds of ‘threat assessments’. 

Eventually I asked him about this very unusual behaviour - it really was extraordinary. He explained that in prison you have to be constantly super-aware of everything around you and having only been recently released it was a habit that hadn’t worn off. It emerged that the threat assessments in prison were not simply directed at other unknown or ‘untrusted’ prisoners but at prison officers. I explored this further. Razor explained that there is a very firmly embedded and re-inforced ‘them and us’ culture in prisons. This was no surprise to me. I firmly understood that there was a very prevalent attitude amongst prison officers about how they viewed prisoners.

But. What Razor was explaining was that it works both ways and was very heavily reinforced by prisoners with a system of ‘respect’. The behaviour of a prisoner is expected, by his fellow prisoners, to be ‘respectful’. But this isn’t ‘respect’ as you might understand it. 

‘Respect’ means that prisoners have to behave in a particular way. There is a very clear and rigorously and sometimes brutally enforced ‘respect’ self governed system in place. Imagine hundreds of eyes each making hundreds of 'threat assessments' every day. If prisoners step outside the system by for example consorting with or being friendly with prison officers extreme measures are the possible consequence. Cell burn outs (prison cells being set fire to) or the famous sugar in boiling water skin treatment, almost always without consequence for the perpetrators, are examples of extreme measures.

So. Am I suggesting that the prison system today is not controlled by policy and management direction but instead by a barbaric under-the-radar system of control involving systematic violence against ‘innocent’ prisoners to maintain order?

Again No. Not exactly. 

But what I am suggesting is that the deeply and firmly embedded culture of prisoners on one hand and the prevalent culture amongst prison officers on the other hand and the ‘them and us’ divide between needs to be thoroughly grasped and understood to achieve effective reform.

The most famous example, of which I am aware, of unintended consequences from prison policy change is drug testing. At some point it was realised that smoking weed in prison was a problem. So random drug testing was brought in. Urine samples retain traces for a a long period so it was easy to work out who had been smoking weed. So was the problem cured? No. Prisoners switched to heroin and other hard drugs for escape as they didn't show up in the drug tests to the same degree. The problem was immeasurably increased.

So am I suggesting caution?

No way! 

If re-offending rates are to be dramatically reduced then prisoners need to be rehabilitated. The entire attitude to the purpose of prison needs to be re-defined and completely embedded against a culture which unless it is tackled simultaneously will result at best in a sense of ‘unattached levers’ being pulled and at worst perhaps even in worse outcomes - as has been seen before.

In other words, simply offering carrots to prison management and officers and prisoners will not do the job unless everyone buys into the process. There is a huge legacy of failed ‘rehabilitation revolutions’ over decades that leads prisoners and officers alike to pay nothing more than lip-service to current and future attempts. And the culture, albeit in all probability a dilute version of the extremes I have described in some institutions, is against working together.

But. If their attitudes and beliefs are really challenged, if change can be demonstrated and its benefits illustrated and conveyed then it can work. 

If prisoners continue to be warehoused in very expensive residential criminality schools with hundreds of others and have at least 23 hours a day spare to discuss criminality whilst their ‘role models’ for authority and the societal system treat them with varying levels of contempt then nothing substantial will change.

But if prisoners leave with a proper ‘respect’ for others, for difference, have dealt with their demons (Again please get on Amazon and order Razor’s book if you haven’t done it already!), comprehend and buy into the concept of society, have some skills with which to earn a decent living and with the possibility of becoming wealthy even! and have cast aside their attitude that society is working against them and so they are ‘allowed’ to work against it… then change is likely.

The nub of this is the attitude of prison management and officers towards prisoners and vice-versa. Without working out how to change this, change will be full of false starts, failed initiatives and ultimately nothing worthy of the excellent minds employed to solve this problem. The are a hundred spanners available to be thrown into the works for every excellent policy decision delivered without buy-in.

In the two years I spent researching the prison system I met exceptions. People like Ben Gunn and Razor who threw so much of his life away but who finally came to the realisation. And prison officers such as John Podmore (he really is quite extraordinary) author of ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind who have spent a career in the system for the right reason. 

Sadly there will be those who can’t be reformed - they will have to be sacked (wink). 

People such as Ben, Razor and John have the grasp of the detail. I don’t. But I would argue that I see the problem from the perspective of the prisoner, the prison officer, the policy maker, the public and the media. The key is to define the solutions with full account and buy-in from every one of those perspectives.

It’s a clash of culture problem. A public who, thanks to the media, believe that prisons are holiday camps and that punishment is the answer to crime prevention (ok you made inroads there already), prison management who work around the system to maintain control and who often maintain contempt for their guests, and prisoners who rarely learn anything than from other prisoners.

Back to the survey. 

The real test for culture change will be when every one of the groups identified above put the education and rehabilitation of prisoners as priorities. Then the sticking wheels will come unstuck and the wagon will roll, the revolving door will slowly stop spinning and the escape from the prison problem will be truly underway.


Goose said...

The prison service in this country is an institution that has historically been resistant to change.

Even the Woolf report sank with very little trace, and recommendations for modernisation and a fresh look at the whole structure and function of incarceration are treated with fear and suspicion.

How, then can we bring about Reform?

The answer has to be from the inside out, by training staff, sloughing off the old ideas based on prejudice, cutting out the dead wood and replacing it with a modern approach based on healing rather than punishment.

If an individual has wronged society, maybe it is because society has wronged the individual. Look closely at the faces behind the prison bars and you will often find damaged lives, a lack of opportunity, a wrong turn taken or maybe simply a misfit - someone who didn't run with the crowd. Why take this individual and damage them further, remove them from family and friends, then return them to society penniless, jobless and in some cases homeless? A different attitude is needed if we are to right the wrongs and re-integrate the person into a society that can accept them.

First, look at the people who deal with these prisoners on a daily basis. Screws, guards, warders, call them what you will but they are prison officers in the UK. What qualifications does one need to become one? A thick skin and @ GCSE's? Or a degree, as in some countries? Proper training should be given to the overseers first, before any scheme for prison reform can be successful. Attitude is all, and for people with low self esteem and very little confidence, a negative comment from the guy with the keys can ruin their day.

Training, apprenticeships, support from local colleges and sponsorship from companies (ending in an offer of work on release) all need to be fully supported by prison staff. Prisoners need to hit the ground running when they are released. Accommodation, work, a goal to work towards, are all essential in order to avoid the "revolving door syndrome" and all it entails.

After all, one of these guys might become your next door neighbour....

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