Prisons will only improve if the public demands change

Why isn’t there more public pressure to improve the state of British prisons? Dan Kitwood/PA Archive

The state of prisons in England and Wales is dangerous and deeply concerning. According to the government’s own figures, assaults rose from 9,440 in 2000 to 28,165 in 2017 – an average of 77 per day. Self-harm levels are the highest ever recorded. A report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in 2017 showed that living conditions are filthy. Prisoners lack basic sanitary supplies. The daily food budget per prisoner is £2.02.

I spent nine years working in prison psychology and witnessed the human consequences of our prison conditions at first hand. They are unacceptable in any society which cares about human rights. I left because I cannot help people leave behind a criminal lifestyle while prisons are in their current state. I cannot help when my clients arrive to see me fearing assault en route, lacking toilet roll or toothpaste, or feeling ill and scared because they had not been given their basic medication. I was employed to help people thrive, not simply survive.

So what is being done? The new prisons minister, Rory Stewart, refers confidently to the recruitment drive for 2,500 extra prison officers. But since 2010, staff numbers have been cut by 5,620. Therefore, the government is returning less than half the staff they took. It can never return the decades of experience lost, by employing new recruits. “Jailcraft”, as it is called inside, takes time to learn.

By 2019, the Ministry of Justice will have had its budget reduced by £3.7 billion since the drive for austerity began. Essentially, an already broken system is set to be broken further, with only lip service paid to reform.

Prisoners or citizens?

The sad truth is that the plight of prisoners does not inspire the same kind of public outcry as crises in education, the NHS or the care system. Prisoners are not seen as “citizens” but as “criminals” and “offenders”, in prison to be punished. If poor and dangerous living conditions form part of that punishment then so much the better – or so some think.

So, without public pressure, there is simply not the same level of ministerial concern with prisons, as with other public services. The government is regularly informed and lobbied by organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform about the need for prison and justice reform. But there is no real incentive to allocate the money and resources needed while voters are silent, unconcerned, or overtly punitive in their views.

To garner public support, a fundamental change in thinking is needed. Prisoners are currently seen as outside of society, having offended against it. And yet with only 59 whole-term lifers imprisoned in England and Wales, 99.9% of the 83,899 people now imprisoned will one day be released. Whether we like it or not, they are part of our society.

We cannot expect prisoners to willingly conform to the laws and duties we desire them to if we simultaneously send them the message that they are excluded from the society that makes those laws and duties. By seeing prisoners as anything less than fellow citizens, the cycle of reoffendng that people wish to prevent, is actually continually reinforced. In my work in prisons I was frequently asked by more perceptive prisoners: “How can everybody expect me to be humane when I am treated inhumanely?” It was a difficult question to answer.

Decades of research show that – broadly speaking – prisoners who are successfully reintegrated into society are less likely to continue reoffending. The government is neither ideologically or practically inclined to make the changes really needed to achieve this, while public opinion remains punitive.

A solution is needed that starts in society – and in local communities. And it starts with concern.

The real stories

It starts with stories, with connection. We are fed a steady media diet of crime dramas about murderers and rapists of the most extreme variety. This is an unrepresentative picture of people in prison: 71% are there for a non-violent offence. Those who are there for violence are much more complex than their crudely stereotyped media counterparts. Their stories need to be heard: of parental abuse (29%), neglect (24%), violence in the home (41%), school exclusion (42%), mental health problems (41%), addiction (86%), homelessness (15%) and most forms of social and familial adversity.

So too do the stories of triumph against odds which many of us would struggle to overcome. Prisons are full of artists, writers, hard grafters, skilled craftsman and potential future leaders. Many of them meet immense challenges with determination, integrity and good humour. They fundraise. They give back to their communities. They make cake. Criminal justice professionals and volunteers know this. But we need others to know too. We need to share a rounded picture of these imprisoned individuals through books, articles, social media and art. We need to give a platform to prisoners which clearly shows their potential to contribute to society, both before and upon release. And we need to show how current prison conditions are completely incompatible with this goal.

From concern to action

But public concern needs to translate to public involvement. The number of people in prison is staggeringly high and there are simply not enough professionals to provide the focused one-to-one and social support which we know works best. The general public can really help. Whether that be with money, time, a job, a room, a listening ear, teaching a skill, sharing experiences, a visit, a welcoming invitation to a community group, mentorship, friendship, or simply a “welcome”.

These things can be offered inside prison and carried on outside, by anybody willing to offer them. This is societal reintegration carried out by members of that society. There are already schemes doing these things, but to truly reintegrate prisoners, a broader increase in public involvement is needed.

Improving prisoner welfare is not a case of being “soft”, or doing an injustice to victims. It is a pragmatic decision. It is an investment in the safety of our friends and families, by reducing repeat offending and preventing further victimisation. Currently the repeat offending rate stands at 49% for adults released from custody in England and Wales. In Norway – famed for its relatively safe and decent prisons – it is 20%. The director of Halden Prison in Norway neatly sums up the pragmatism of investing in prisons: “Do you want people who are angry – or people who are rehabilitated?”

The approach to imprisonment in England and Wales has to change. And it will not change unless the public become sufficiently outraged to demand that the government take real action. That outrage will not happen until there is a more rounded public understanding of those who are housed inside our prisons. When the public brings their voices to bear on prison reform, ministers will have to listen.

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