On the "Prison Works" and Courts Bill
So prison reform is on the agenda and The Queen has spoken. The rhetoric is on the use of imprisonment in the creation of "Reform Prisons", driving a revolution in education, training, healthcare and security for prisoners. Have they already forgotten the problems with overcrowding, staffing, resources and privatisation, and what about the alternatives to custody? The Probation Service wasn't mentioned either despite its 100+ years rehabilitating and supporting released prisoners and offenders serving community sentences. There was no praising the work of Probation Officers, no expansion of the use of community sentences and no announcement of the reversal of the Chris Grayling's failed "rehabilitation revolution" and the associated Offender Management (Probation Privatisation) Act.
It's a regressive approach that this government intends to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged individuals in the country by continuing to send them to prison. The Queen, the politicians, the NOMS non-effectives, how many of "them" have been inside a prison? I mean serving time as a prisoner, or maybe having a parent, partner, sibling or child serve time? I had this pleasure via Her Majesty once upon a time, long before I even dreamed of becoming a Probation Officer. It doesn't really matter what the crime or sentence was, the outcome was spending too long in a juvenile hellhole full of people I never wanted to meet. Fellow justice professionals would have heard similar stories a hundred times and more. The moral of the story is usually the same, that prison doesn't work.
This is my story
Scratched into the wall of the Crown Court cell was "yea as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because I am the most evil bastard in the valley". I knew right then I was in trouble and before I could let loose the tears building up another convicted unfortunate appeared and passed me a lit joint. During the ride to prison in the tiny sweat-box compartment we stopped off at a holding centre full of at least 50-100 other prisoners. I remember trying not to notice the few poor souls being manipulated, robbed and beaten up. At least it wasn't happening to me.
I'd never seen a prison before. The induction was a conveyor belt, the search and shower intrusive and the clothes didn't fit. The cell was clean enough, although some of the cells that followed were filthy, infested and had mixes of naive, sophisticated, overbearing, depressed, addicted and absolutely crazy, inhabitants to call cell-mates. Everyone believed they were innocent, some even became good friends. We talked, reasoned, debated, I read letters for some prisoners, usually the travellers who were all called 'Paddy', and shared my phone-cards, usually with foreign nationals who didn't have much and were mostly called 'Yardie'. The officers weren't bad but I quickly learnt which ones to avoid. I remember my first personal officer started a few days after I arrived and was forever telling me "we started our time together". We didn't because he wasn't doing time, he went home at the end of the day.
The first night was the worst but after a few days, maybe weeks, I found my mojo and got on with it. There was the bad porridge in the morning and the rabbit food on weekends, but I had money sent in to buy extras. I didn't use or get addicted to hard drugs, but I did smoke a lot of tobacco which took years to quit. I didn't get raped in the showers (or greenhouse if there was one) as my mum feared I would after watching Scum, but I did get beaten black and blue on one occasion. I can tell you that getting hit in the face with a PP9 battery wrapped in a pillowcase really hurts. If you're wondering, no it wasn't possible to block it while being rushed by the violent version of Laurel and Hardy. It's hard to avoid fighting in there, there's so much testosterone and aggression floating around it doesn't take much to make anybody lash out. It was commonplace to witness fights, bullying, assaults, self harm, mental illness, drug use and every now and then you'd hear of a suicide, murder or escape. Most of the time it was okay though, you got by. There was no TV's, phones or Playstation's in cells back then, time dragged and despite my books, cards and press-ups it was still very boring.
I learnt not to trust, borrow or seek or accept help or favours from prisoners or officers, and this follows you into the outside. During the first few weeks I reacquainted with those I'd known on the outside and others I was meeting for the first time. Fast forward a few months and the gym training, arrogance and frustration had set in and after a few trips to the block I was shipped up North with a few others. The prison was newer and cleaner, but the regime was harsh and the officers were bastards to begin with. My first few months were spent on the top landing where most of the cells had broken glass in the windows. Blankets and plastic bags blocked the draught but it was still freezing in winter. I tried to keep my head down, got to know the officers who turned out to be mostly okay, avoided conflict, provocation and retaliation except on the sports pitch, and got to my release date.
Throughout my time there wasn't any interventions or services available. They assessed me as too smart for education and it's only afterwards someone told me I should have answered all the question incorrectly. I went to a few art classes but there were too many craft knives around for my liking and nobody actually did any art. I was okay spending my time on the wing playing darts, pool and table tennis, I'm still quite good. I gained enhanced, got a job as a cleaner and then on the servery and held it to my release date. When the date came I put on my now slightly smaller clothes stored from when I arrived and walked out the gate, and it was over.
Prison doesn't work
So what was the point, apart from to lock me up and imprint an unforgettable prison number into my brain? I had already decided pre-sentence I wouldn't become involved in a crime ever again, and I didn't, so being imprisoned didn't help or change me. I honestly can't identify a single thing from being in prison that helped me, except that it made me a stronger person in the long term, physically and mentally. Weekend prisons, reform prisons, tagging, it would have made no difference, apart from learning how to scrub a floor quite well and learnt a few tips for keeping sinks and toilets clean, prolonging battery life, redirecting electricity from lights, lighting a wick, finding alternatives for Blu-Tac and blocking a swinging PP9. Other than this I think I was released no better than when I went in, possibly worse as I had learned to live in a hostile environment so bad that a term of National Service would have been better. I think I felt a bit like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption on release, lost and out of place, but without the friend to give me a new start. The community didn't particularly accept or provide and I didn't expect it to. It was down to me and I struggled for the next few years to keep my head above water, and opportunities disappear and mud tends to stick when you've got a criminal record. I was one of the lucky ones because I had a home, I got into training course, then college and later onto university, and I had good people around me. Over time I learned to believe in myself and to not dwell on the past because I couldn't change it.
I see parts of my journey in every person I meet in the course of my work. Most prisoners I ask what would keep them from reoffending describe what they need post-release rather than pre-release. Most that have not been to prison simply describe not going to prison. The prison reforms I've read about today I do not welcome. Prison does not work, "reform prisons" or otherwise, and makes people worse. There is no rehabilitation or reform in locking up wayward, damaged and sometimes deranged people in the cesspits of the justice system. To further spend resources to attempt to improve what is already long broken is a waste, especially when there are better alternatives. I say this from personal and professional experience, and because the evidence against prisons outweighs the evidence for it because punishments do not work.
"The [probation] service – which for a century was the envy of other countries because of its rehabilitative success, but whose ethos now begins with punishment – was better off when it was an operational service with its own professional head. It is time that this ill-thought through venture was ended or, not only will there be more similar cases [Sonnex], but there will be no one left in the probation service to manage them." (David Ramsbotham, 2009.)
We need to stop following the 'American experiment' because America's view has long been that locking up people for as long as possible is the answer to crime prevention. We've increasingly used a similar method for the past 50 years and it's not worked for us either. It's about time we stop this perverse preoccupation with prisons, programmes, privatisation and "public protection" and instead develop a system of rehabilitation, re-entry and resettlement that only needs to reserve a handful of well resourced prisons for the grave offenders and the critical few.
There is much scope for improving services to those serving custodial and community sentences with the right help and support from probation officers, social workers, prison officers, support workers mentors and more. The evidence is that community sentences are cheaper and can better reduce reoffending, and this is where a progressive government would spend our money and ensure that access to housing, training, employment, health, addiction and counselling services are available, all under the banner of advising, assisting, befriending and supervision. We can successfully do this and a progressive government would be forging progressive policy and legislation, and investing in the probation service who can provide all of the above and put strategies in place to ensure the quality of training, practice and professionalism is upheld.
If the obsession with prison and punishment is put on hold it would be so easy to devise a new strategy to crime prevention and rehabilitation, a new approach using justice professionals, sentencers, teachers, academics, local councillors, community leaders, business leaders, ex-offenders and others for reoffending to be reduced. Instead the political non-effectives at the Ministry of Justice rule the roost and current whitewashing of the probation service from history continues. I doubt we will witness the necessary realignment of probation with social work training and values, or the end of the private control of prisons and probation, or that we see a progressive justice policy with probation officers and rehabilitation professionals at the helm
15 years to retire