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May 26, 2006

Our prisons are not working - they need a radical overhaul, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

Our prisons are currently not doing their job, says prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham. She argues that the prison system needs a radical overhaul and the Liberal Democrats are right to tackle the issue. The views expressed here are those of Emily Kingham, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

The Liberal Democrats have been doing their homework on prisons, crime and recidivism, or what is now called re-offending. Whether this has any implications for society is another matter. But at least they are provoking more shudders of embarrassment in the hunched shoulders of the jobsworths who occupy desks at the Home Office. These shady characters faced fresh public shaming this week over the revelation that the prison and probation services lose track of four prisoners a day.

Prison Service figures have been released which back up allegations of the service's incompetence. The prison that has been fingered is Leyhill, one of thirteen open prisons in England. Before I describe life in an open prison I want to describe life in a foreign prison. In countries like Sweden, prisoners are given 100 per week to live on within the prison walls. This means they have to pay electricity, gas and phone bills, as well as buy food and essentials. This means they learn how to be responsible for themselves and how to budget their resources.

Our prisons infantilise prisoners. They pay for nothing they receive. If they do work, it's menial and mindless and the pittance they earn is spent on canteen and phone calls. They do not learn self-reliance, responsibility or budgeting. They get used to being locked up, ordered about, and having their movements and rights restricted.

Open prison is a shell shock to these automatons. The freedom scares them. The fact that they can cross a line into a brave new world is too much responsibility to give men who have been treated like children with special needs. These prisoners are so institutionalised they don't know how to behave responsibly.

More worryingly, there is another type of institutionalised prisoner. This is the hardened criminal, hardened, that is, into an attitude of bitterness and resentment towards a society that has taken away his freedom and treated him like a child. This prisoner will take advantage of any trust shown him. It doesn't surprise me that 393 prisoners absconded from Leyhill between 1999 and 2006. It doesn't surprise me that the Home Office refuses to reveal absconding rates for the other open prisons. Everyone in the prison system knows that the escapes from Leyhill are broadly consistent with other open prisons.

Politicians need to look at the effects our prison policies have on local communities. This is what David Laws, the Lib Dem MP for Yeovil, did after local police told him there had been mini-waves of crime in the area. These crimes had been carried out by criminals on the run. In the course of his investigation, Laws found out that offenders have been disappearing from Leyhill open prison at the rate of more than one a week. Robbery and burglary offenders were the main absconders but twenty-two murderers and seven rapists have escaped since 1999.

He obtained the figures from Leyhill and scored a real point (not just a debating one) by citing them as another example of the "shambolic state" of the Home Office. So his numbers add up to a bad week for a department that has been shamed into revealing that half of all prisoners lack the skills for 96% of jobs. Less than one third of prisoners have access to education in prison, and, as a result, the prisoner education target has been abandoned. And I haven't even mentioned the 152% increase in foreign nationals in our prisons.

Ming Campbell was on the Today programme this morning, and though his debating style has been criticised I could not but admire his grasp of the problems attendant on overcrowded prisons. In the last ten years, the number of prisoners has increased by 25,000. My figures are from the Prison Reform Trust. They reveal that previously, it took nearly four decades (1958-1995) for the prison population to rise by the same number. Although the number of people found guilty by the Courts has remained consistent there has been an 81% increase in the number of custodial sentences given. This wouldn't be such a big problem if the 55% of prisoners who have a Class A drug in their system on reception into prisons were given treatment.

We need, Campbell said, to "re-equip these people to lead useful lives". I know an armed burglar, "Fred", who wants to be a drugs counsellor. At first he did every course going in prison because it looked good for his parole hearings. Doing courses, "addressing your behaviour", shows the right attitude. I know that prison officers have a mocking attitude towards the work I do with prisoners. They see the cynicism of prisoners very clearly. Unfortunately, they fail to see beyond it. Fred had all the wrong reasons for doing drugs rehab, group therapy, Enhanced Thinking Skills, and creative writing. But the cumulative effect of these courses, of having been listened to, and not judged for a change, had an effect on him.

He will always be a bit of a chancer, and will always be sceptical of his fellow humans. I don't blame him, so am I. But he has seen kindness, concern and compassion in action. He has been on the receiving end of goodness. And now he wants to dish it out. No more violence, no more terrifying small shop-owners and post-officer workers, he wants to help the young people of his community find a way out of drugs.

Campbell said prison should be "for those who have to be kept there". By this, he means, serious offenders, men like Fred. He is right. Fred has served a long sentence, and he needed to for several reasons not least protecting the rest of us. In a year or so, I reckon he will be psychologically ready for release without there being a risk of him re-offending. I agree with Campbell that those sentenced to five years or more should not receive automatic early release as is the present policy. I base my opinion on what I have seen, and the effects of long-term imprisonment on a violent offender. Fred is learning, but it has taken some time.

Over-crowding will get worse if we use prison as a "dumping-ground", as Campbell put it, for the druggies and hoodies who have nowhere else to go. It seems only charities are looking out for them. They desperately need re-training, educating, and even looking after. They are children but they need to be fast-tracked into adulthood. Prison does not achieve this. But our criminal justice system does not know what else to do with them. And that is the problem at the root of all these other problems.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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These prison articles put me in a dilemma. I find myself in warm agreement with what Emily Kingham writes, but so also with the writings of the former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Take, for example, the following:

A prison officer in the prison in which I worked, a man of Jamaican origin and therefore by no means culturally predisposed to such a conclusion, had found also that rock and baroque exerted quite different effects on the prisoners. The first agitated them to the point of violence, the latter soothed them to the point of docility. But he had difficulty in persuading the other officers of the value of his observations, for culturally they were themselves more inclined to rock than baroque.

My guess is that these two authors are politically poles apart, which leaves my head spinning like an electron. In its own little complex world, the electron behaves quite sensibly, but in our own (mathematically) real world it has to turn right round twice in order to reach the position it started form.

The point of this little parable is, perhaps, that we should not rush too hastily to apply the Law of the Excluded Middle to situations where it does not apply.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 29, 2006 08:58 AM
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Could Mr Mosbacher set a couple of topics or questions which our pair of prison experts might address, in order to facilitate contrast and comparison? With thanks,

Posted by: s masty at May 30, 2006 05:27 PM
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As a counselor in the Florida juvenile justice system, I observed with approval the practice of rehabilitation camps for ghetto kids out in the brush, far away from any roads. These little brutes had never seen a wild animal in their lives. An initial lecture about the prevalence of alligators, panthers and rattlesnakes in the surrounding swamps was sufficient to keep the escape rate down near zero, even though no bars or fences kept the inmates from leaving. Surely there's enough room in Scotland for the same idea to take hold in Britain?

Posted by: Robert Speirs at May 30, 2006 07:11 PM
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