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Prison doesn’t have to be like this
Prisoner Policy Network draws on lived experience to design a better prison system.

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Prisons need to become places of purpose, not just punishment

The latest (1 December 2021) report from the Prisoner Policy Network (PPN) which operates out of the Prison Reform Trust makes for fascinating reading. Entitled “It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This: Prisoner Policy Network Perspectives on Future Prison Design”, the report is based on the contributions from more than 600 people in 50 different prisons who were asked to help design a better prison regime. The report is purposefully launched at the same time as prison leaders are working out how to “build back better” following nearly two years of severe restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

PPN reports are normally characterised by a positive and constructive approach. After almost two years of a pandemic-induced restricted regime, this proved more difficult to achieve.  People in prison have been profoundly affected by coronavirus with the PPN team speaking with some very withdrawn men and women during the summer of 2021. The quote below is typical of many.

“I have ‘regressed’ to the basics for so long that I’m not that bothered about the regime anymore. As long as I can phone my family, exercise and shower every day, I truly don’t care about anything else.”

Prisoners talked repeatedly about the deprivations that they have endured during the pandemic, and continue to endure. Importantly, they said that ambition to embed a new regime would be affected by the same structural and operational problems that frustrated efforts to reform before Covid-19 struck. Some of the report’s key findings are summarised below.

What’s the point?

Prisoners were perplexed and confused by the purpose of the regime and of the prison itself. Many contributions alluded to tensions between experiences of punishment and experiences of rehabilitation. Prisoners wanted to know that there was a purpose to their time inside. And they wanted the regime to make use of their time to deliver that purpose. Prisoners consistently identified the tensions in the system, between punishment, care, rehabilitation, personal growth and progression. The balance of the competing priorities and the differing weights given to them at different prisons, as well as by different staff contributed to either gratitude to have landed in a “good” prison that delivered on needs, or despair at being in a “bad” prison that did not.

“I get it’s punishment, but then if that is what it is, stop talking about rehabilitation. There isn’t much of that happening, and I am just getting wound up looking for it.”

“I have already been punished by being sent to prison, why I am also being punished whilst I’m here.”

Normality

One of the most prominent themes of the consultation was a wish for the prison environment to mirror the outside community as much as possible. People talked about how retaining some sense of normality inside can help personal growth in the criminal justice journey, and contribute to successful release.

“How is lying in bed all day normal? How is always having to ask for a toilet roll normal, how is being allocated work normal, like you don’t have to do an job application; because it isn’t normal, well then abnormal behaviours develop that only work in prison, but not outside; so in losing normality, we lose our ability to be normal again.”

Safety and progression

People talked about how prison is not a safe place even when they are “banged up” 23 hours a day. People generally felt the severe lockdown in response to Covid-19 had been a necessary evil, and it was accepted by prisoners as part of a global effort to control infection. However, any thoughts about seeing it continue because it had led to reduced violence were not well received. People were concerned that although violence had reduced on the wings, the consequences of long term isolation were significant and experienced differently by different groups within the prison system. One person echoed my own thoughts about claims that say self-harm reduced (initially) during lockdown:

“But what I want to know is, how do they know? Sure they know about the severe cases, but actually what’s changed is that no one sees anymore. The officers and healthcare don’t see us anymore. The gym staff haven’t really seen us. I see no less cuts on the arms or on people’s thighs when I am in the shower. From where I’m standing it looks as bad as ever, but no one sees us, no one sees the cuts.”

© Andy Aitchison

Humanising the system

Connecting with others was the most common theme in the consultation for this report with contributions covering communication of all kinds: staff to prisoners, prisoners to prisoners, and prisoners to loved-ones. Prisoners wanted staff to know their role, adhere to prison policy and be able to work with people who are living under constant tension and pressure, many harbouring past trauma and/or mental health issues. There was a recognition of the need for officers to exert authority and maintain professional distance, but a hope this would not be abused.

Although prisoners told of prisons which appeared to have cultivated a genuinely strong relationship between prisoners and officers, many others did point to this generally being strained and power-led. Communication was said to be inconsistent, and needed to improve, with concerns that little accurate information was being shared between staff and prisoners, particularly in the last 18 months. Notices to prisoners were welcomed, but prisoners also wanted information to be endorsed and conveyed by staff on the wings, especially as there are many prisoners who do not read.
Visibility of staff and in particular senior staff emerged as an important requirement of any new regime; visibility assured prisoners there was oversight and conveyed feelings of safety and care.

There was a worry that many officers who had joined the service since March 2020, had not yet experienced lots of prisoners being unlocked at once. People were worried that this would lead to further fractures to the relationships if newer officers were expected to know how to interact and manage complex issues.

“Work must be done to rebuild functioning relationships among prisoners and staff and I feel communication has broken down and staff have lost a lot of respect because of this. New inexperienced staff, unused to the whole wings being unlocked will need to learn how to interact with prisoners, and prisoners will have to relearn basic social skills.”

Finding purpose

Many people talked of  wanting to have something to get up for in the morning, something to keep them motivated during their time in prison. Overwhelmingly there was a focus on self-development and change.

“A typical day in prison should provide a rehabilitative culture that offers meaningful activities that are progressive, inclusive, safe and give hope.”

Prisoners reflected on how this had not been the case in prison for a long time, and there was a palpable sadness that young men in custody struggled to (or simply could not) imagine a prison service that could provide them with any aspiration or drive.

“Bang ups will definitely weaken if not kill brains.”

Recommendations

As prison leaders plan for life beyond the pandemic, the report highlights a number of areas that any future prison regime must consider. These include:

  • Meeting basic daily needs must be  a priority for recovery. These are the foundation of a stable and successful prison community.
  • The prison environment should mirror the outside community as much as possible. This includes a longer working day for prisoners; studying for qualifications which outside employers value; and being able to create and maintain more typical parental or familial relationships.
  • Prison management and staff should  encourage and cultivate a community between prisoners and the establishment they are living in—with more opportunities to get involved in decision making, activity planning, and sentence progression.
  • Safety must be built on trusting relationships, not punitive actions or fear of reprisal.
  • There should be consistent application and adherence to prison policies, applied fairly to prisoners and staff alike.
  • The prison workforce needs to be more diverse, and create an environment that respects everyone’s cultural background.
  • A greater focus on improving links with the wider community to give people the best chance of success on release, including housing, employment opportunities, support networks, and healthcare.

Thanks to Erika Flowers (erikapostcards@gmail.com) for the drawing which comes from the front cover of the report and Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the cell photo in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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