Prisons – Making Them Work

As I continue my observations on why the current prison service is failing I’ll address how dealing with prisoners as individuals will help to reduce reoffending.

I’ll stop short of saying that it will help them become full and useful members of society because accepting ex-prisoners especially with employment is a major issue for reasons that will become apparent?

It is well-known and especially by those working in the penal system that prisoners invariably have complex multiple issues and problems that contribute to then ending up in prison.

Prisoners by the very fact that they are in prison are not ‘normal’ in the traditionally accepted sense of the word.

By that I refer to them being able to maintain a job – if they are able to get one in the first place – and to support themselves.

And no I am not going to say they are victims of society who have fallen through the net or are victims of institutionalised persecution, however the majority of prisoners do live on the margins of normal society.
It is the reason they live on the margins of society that has to be addressed if we are serious about rehabilitation in prison otherwise what else is for them but to return to the margins?

If prisoner addictions are not dealt with and resolved then clearly the chances of rehabilitation being effective is zero.

Drug and alcohol abuse are major reasons why many prisoners are in custody and yet bizarrely habitual drug users are prescribed opiate based synthetic drugs whilst in custody.

The argument being that it is necessary to wean off them off their addiction to drugs in a controlled way over time.

Even more bizarre perhaps is that the same argument doesn’t apply to prisoners with an alcohol addiction apparently because it is a bad thing and they need to be cured of it immediately.

It is an argument that on the face of it is difficult to argue against, except that there are a number of problems that are not taken into consideration.

The first is that the prisoners invariably are not being ‘weaned off’ of their dependency on drugs but are in fact on a maintenance dosage which has an impact on the other providers of services ability to deliver a coherent service to prisoners.

I would argue that the policy is flawed for a number of reasons, not least being that if prisoners are still drug dependent on release then how an earth is that preparing them for integration into society?

Will all prisoners have access to free dependency drugs on release?

Of course they won’t so why are we than amazed that they can’t get a job and return to crime to pay for their ‘daily fix’?

The problem is that drug and alcohol abuse also creates mental and physical health issues which makes it difficult if not impossible to deliver a coordinated rehabilitation process at the same time.

I would argue that the first stage of any sentence should be to carry out a full and comprehensive assessment of every individual prisoner and before moving on to rehabilitation the priority should be to address and resolve their dependency and health issues.

With over 30,000 prisoners a year serving sentences of two years or less the very minimum we should expect is for them to leave prison dependency free.

And yes for some prisoners it will take a long period of their sentence to address the health especially the mental health issues.

I am not advocating prisoners during this period don’t do anything other than have their issues addressed but it should be made the priority and would remove a major cause of prisoners returning to crime.

Collective targets for drug and alcohol services in prisons should be scrapped and replaced by ‘individual prisoner’ treatment targets so that if as is common when prisoners are moved between prisons they will continue to have a continuity of treatment.

There will of course be prisoners who for whatever reason are non-compliant with the system but if public safety, reducing re-offending and preventing the next victim is the priority then it shouldn’t even be open for discussion.

Non cooperation and compliance is just not acceptable.

Once prisoners have completed ‘dependency’ treatment and other related courses they should then and only then progress to the rehabilitation stage of their sentence.

Those who wish to maintain the status quo will argue that my proposals would be too radical and cause prisoners to be upset?

There will be others who will recognise the need to get prisoners ‘clean’ if they are ever going to be in a position both physically and mentally to take advantage of opportunities designed to prevent them re-offending.

As a former Head of Offender Management I admit the task of explaining the difficulties faced by those in the prison service faced with the challenge of delivering the rehabilitation services is complicated.

Not the least because the public and almost certainly every Westminster politician I’ve ever met have no idea what rehabilitation means and therefore what to expect from it.

In very simple terms a prison is equivalent to a small village with the complication that of the community groups by far the largest is the prisoners themselves.

Whenever we hear a politician talk about those who work in prisons they almost always talk about ‘prison officers’ but what about all of the others who work in a prison?

The prisoner population is supported by prison staff responsible for managing the custodial element of the sentence, discipline, accommodation etc.

But there is also the education staff responsible for delivering educational and vocational services, library staff, drugs and alcohol treatment staff, health services staff, chaplaincy services, establishment maintenance staff catering staff, probation and psychology staff and volunteers working with prisoners and their families.

The skills that are needed to work with prisoners with complex problems require staff across the whole spectrum of service providers to be – and yes I am biased – unIquely special in their approach.

It is not the fault of those who work in the prison system who are responsible for the failure of the system to rehabilitate prisoners and prevent re-offending but politicians who sit in Westminster for making decisions without any idea of whether or even how they can be implemented.

The complications that arise from so many service providers having a chaotic and unstructured approach to meeting the needs to individual prisoners in a one size fits all system are immense.

Why are rehabilitation services not prioritized to those prisoners where it will do most good?

I’m not suggesting that groups of prisoners should be totally excluded from the services being provided, and it is clearly in the interest of everyone and especially those working within the prison system that health services are provided.

The question I would pose is this,

“With a finite budgets for education, vocational training, probation and drugs treatment services shouldn’t they be focused on those prisoners who will be released into the UK community”?

In June 2016 there was almost 83,000 prisoners in England and Wales of who 13% were registered as ‘foreign national’ prisoners.

We are holding in prison almost 11,000 foreign nationals at a cost of over £430 million.
If the UK Border Agency and Immigration departments ever got there acts together – which sadly history consistently demonstrates they haven’t and don’t look as if they ever will – then foreign national prisoners would and should be deported back to their countries of origin.

It would be interesting to know how many of the foreign national prisoners who are released in the UK at the end of their sentence go on to re-offend.

I argue that if we are serious about preventing re-offending and preventing further victims those prisoners not entitled to live in the UK should be deported on completion of their sentence.

A view I believe that would have the majority of the populations support.

In practical terms it would mean a fundamental change in how prisons operate and especially with regard to prisoner access to employment, educational and vocational opportunities within the prison system.

Employment, education and vocational training opportunities vary between different establishments however there are common elements alongside of which are also some crazy nonsensical elements as well.

Prisoners receive ‘payment credits’ for attending their ‘designated place of work’ which they can then spend on items obtainable from a contracted supplier which is universally known within the system as the ‘canteen’.

Prisoners who are ‘unemployed’ in other words those who choose not to be involved in work, education or attend prescribed courses receive unemployment pay.

It is a ludicrous situation that prisoners are allowed to choose not to take up employment or rehabilitation opportunities and yet still receive between £5 – £10 a week.

There are a host of common roles and jobs that need to be carried out in all prisons of which cleaning, collecting refuse, painting, minor maintenance of accommodation and grounds maintenance are only a few.

Education and Vocational training opportunities are provided by contracted education providers.

I argue prisoners should be compelled to address the issues that have led them to being given a custodial sentence before moving to the rehabilitation phase and there is no reason why they shouldn’t also be compelled to work.

If as I argue prisoners individual needs are identified in phase one of their sentence then they should be required to engage with the system to address the needs.

If prisoners refuse to engage then why should they receive ‘unemployment pay’ and still have access to ‘canteen facilities’?

But what about other jobs which are far removed from the days of sewing mail bags?

Prison workshops under what is called ‘prison industries’ are fulfilling contracts negotiated with private industries some of which is work that is subsidised by the prison service who pay the prisoners from their own already stretched budgets.

I would argue that only industries who guarantee to provide a number of jobs for prisoners on their release should be allowed to have prison contracts and that prisoners engaged on this type of work should receive the ‘National Minimum Wage’ paid for by the company.

Education and Vocational training is more complicated made increasingly so by the dysfunctional nature of which qualifications are delivered and the increased need to satisfy Ofsted who seem to take no account of the type of ‘learners’ found in prisons.

The average numeracy and literacy age of prisoners is that of a 7 to 10-year-old so how an earth – bearing in mind that the education system has already failed them – does anyone think that the standards and requirements Ofsted apply to secondary school education is applicable to prisons baffles me.

The reality is that a comprehensive needs assessment and individual learning plan is the only sensible approach to take when looking at how prisoners are progressing during their time in custody.

This is highlighted by the fact that even where prisoners may be progressing towards taking an exam they are deprived of the opportunity because of the system itself.

With over 84,000 prisoners it is an accepted policy that prisoners will be moved around the system at short notice.

The problem with the current system is that with different education providers across the prison estate there isn’t a commonality of qualifications being delivered.

In effect and in fact far too often prisoners taking an education or vocational qualification in one establishment have to start again when moved to another prison.

Is there any wonder they give up if moved just before taking their exams?

I would argue that qualifications across the whole of the prison estate should be common, in other words if for example it’s a carpentry or English the qualification should be the same in all prisons.

I would also argue that the current Ofsted inspection process should be abolished for prisons and replaced by a system where individual progress and quality of teaching is assessed by ‘qualifications authority assessors’.

My biggest fear is that all political parties through either ignorance or by choice will continue to promote and support the current system that has so blatantly failed to address the real problem.

In common with the majority of the population when I read or hear of someone becoming a victim of a person who has been repeatedly in prison I get angry.

Perhaps if the victims had recourse to challenge and hold responsible the politicians who have failed to protect them things might change?

It is not easy to say but the reason prisons are not working lies not with the prison staff and those who work in prisons but is down to abject the failure of successive Home Secretaries and Ministers of Justice.

It is politicians who have failed to develop policies and provide prisons and the probation service with the resources and support for them to do their job.

It is noticeable – if only by its absence – that when quite rightly talking about and praising the other emergency services, the police, the fire service, NHS staff, there is rarely, by any politician, mention of the Prison Service.

Prison officers and staff working with the most difficult of people in society are subjected day in day out to verbal and increasingly physical assault.

They are professionals who every time they go to work have no idea what is going to happen either to them or their colleagues and they do it with nothing more than a radio and their wits.

Over the past few years we have seen what is euphemistically called ‘prison disturbances’ – or riots as they used to be known – that has brought prisons to a standstill and even worse.

If it wasn’t for the professionalism of the staff many more of the ‘disturbances’ would have have become full-scale riots and in fact as we know even with the professionalism of the staff it does happen as was seen with the riots at Ford Open prison and HMP Ashwell which led to its closure

Politicians of all parties have over the past 30 years ignored and cynically disregarded the importance of prisons and the excellence of the staff who work in the system.

In pursuing a prison privatisation policy both Conservatives and Labour have failed to understand the importance of having a unified, coherent, consistent and coordinated approach to working with offenders.

It is why talk of closing prisons or privatising them to save money is absolute nonsense because all it really does is reduce professionalism, which in turns leads to a failure to address the issue.

Those of us who have worked in the system recognise that unlike the ‘hang them, flog them and lock them up brigade’ the issue is much more complicated.

There is no question that there are a minority of families where a number of the family have been in trouble with the law and sentenced by the courts.

The fact is though that the majority of families and especially parents of prisoners are generally distraught and constantly question themselves about how did they fail their sons and daughters.

It is an unseen role of the prison staff to reassure the vast majority of parents that they are not responsible for the decisions taken by their children and especially where the offences are drug related.

This series of blogs on prisons has only scratched the surface of the problem and the criminalization and demonization of whole families and communities as some from the far right have suggested is not and never will be the answer.

What is required – and I regret I don’t think it will ever happen – is for those in Westminster who are responsible for ensuring the public are protected to recognise, understand and radically change what prisons are for.

My great regret is that the political will to develop a criminal justice system to ‘Protect the Public’ and ‘Prevent the next Victim’ is unlikely to ever be a focus of this or any future Government of whatever political persuasion.

Still, as an eternal optimist I live in hope!!!!!