Notes From Inside
In an effort to write something a little more upbeat about the prison system this week, I’ve been messaging inmates (off the record) and interviewing staff (even more off the record) to try to find a positive story from inside.
I know there are some. I know there are people who have made a go of it on The Out, fully rehabilitated, employed, happy. The problem is, these successes are usually in spite of, not because of, the system.
I really did try to find a happy story for this week. Unfortunately, prisons have been operating under a restricted regime throughout the pandemic and this means that any thoughts of rehabilitation has been put on the backburner.
A recent guest in HMP shared the now all too common stories of drones flying drugs and weapons directly to cell windows and screws bringing the same packages onto the landings, hand delivered to cons. He spoke of stabbings, suicides and constant self-injury on the wings. The prison estate, already breaking records year-on-year for assaults and deaths before the pandemic, has carried on as normal.
One experienced officer spoke of his fear of the regime returning to normal now that the outside world is ‘learning to live’ with covid. Staff turnover has been so high in recent years that the majority of staff on the landings have only ever worked during the pandemic's restricted regime. They have never experienced a normal regime, where all prisoners are unlocked at the same time for mass movement.
Mass movement can often be the riskiest time in a prison, as all inmates move to education, work, therapy and doctor’s appointments together. It is the time when it is vital to have cool, calm and experienced staff on hand to recognise any brewing problems before they explode and respond quickly and effectively if there are incidents. The officer I spoke to believes that the regime may never return to normal again.
‘It’s easier just to keep them banged up all day’, he said, expressing the opinion of higher-ups, not his own.
The prison estate is also suffering from a massive increase in the number of remand prisoners. There are over 12,000 people on any one day in custody who are innocent, yet to be proven guilty. There is such a backlog in the courts that more and more people are waiting months before their case goes to trial. These inmates are at a higher risk of self-injury and suicide than the sentenced prison population. They are held in cells and on wings with sentenced prisoners. They are often vulnerable. Around half of these prisoners will be acquitted or receive a non-custodial sentence when their case finally reaches court. This means they should never have been in prison in the first place.
Another employee told me that all group therapy has been cancelled for two years and there is no sign it will be returning to the timetable. Throughout the pandemic, sessions to address offending behaviour or substance misuse issues have been done over the phone, if at all. Even with the most dedicated staff, rehabilitation seems even more unlikely than before.
Amidst all this bad news, I pushed for something, anything, to show there was a reason tp be hopeful about the system.
‘There’s a basket weaving class for the boys, sometimes’, was the only answer I got.
I don’t want to disparage the creative arts that are offered by caring and considerate staff. As part of a complete package of support that addresses housing issues, offending behaviour, substance misuse and mental health issues, they can be incredibly useful in the rehabilitation process.
But when there’s a wing on 23 hour bang up every day, when the only thing to do to kill time is get high, when family visits have been cancelled for weeks or you’ve waited over 8 months for a court date, a bit of crafting is not going to solve the problem.
I vividly remember the day I handed in my notice. There had been one too many violent incidents and the prison was on full bang up. I’d resorted to posting word searches and colouring-in under cell doors to grown men, in the hope it would quell their boredom better than spice. I had a moment of utter clarity. No matter how well-meaning, no matter how much I cared, there was nothing I could do within the system as it was to rehabilitate, change lives or make society any safer.
I had hoped something had changed since then, that perhaps a meaningful shift towards rehabilitation had occurred since I left.
Instead, we have a few skilled basket weavers and not much else to show for the billions spent each year.