Yesterday’s ‘riots’ are a misery – most of all for the prisoners themselves and for the committed staff who work in the prison. About 60 prisoners have been removed with no notice to other prisons and the sense of insecurity and uncertainty on the wings must be ghastly. Somewhere between 150 and 230 prisoners were involved – at the end of a long Sunday, which are of course particularly challenging days for prisoners: very little to do, little ‘regime’ and many hours of ‘lock down’.
Only last week the Minister of Justice published a White Paper called Prison Safety and Reform. Society as well as staff, prisoners and their families deserve the promised overhaul. There are many (often somewhat vague) promises in the White Paper. They are going to put power into the hands of those working on the frontline in order to “sweep away” the current centralised system. While setting detailed policies and standards from the top is important to improve conditions in prisons, it has indeed become overly bureaucratic, thus sapping the initiative of staff and stifling innovation. Of course prisons have to be safe before they can be rehabilitative. And what they need now is loads more committed staff and good facilities.
The White Paper promises that independent scrutiny and the monitoring of prison inspections will be strengthened. Let’s see what happens. All prisons have an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) which have struggled for years (forever?) to get their concerns heard. The 2015-16 report of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of Bedford prison is soon to be published. But last year’s is on the web. It paints a picture of a crumbling Victorian prison, where much needed upgrading has been deferred time and again. “There has been an alarming increase in the number of prisoners considered to be at risk of harming themselves, in the number of violent encounters between prisoners, and in the incidence of officers employing control and restraint techniques to deal with difficult prisoners. It is the Board’s position that, despite being central aims of the prison, resettlement and rehabilitation have been comprehensively overshadowed by containment. Inadequate time and resources have been available for the kind of positive engagement with prisoners that can address offending behaviour”. The IMB discuss chronic staff shortages, overcrowding, the dangers of new synthetic drugs and the systematic erosion of local management authority, amongst many other things. The Board’s overall evaluation of the staff response to some very difficult impositions, and to unsustainable levels of unremitting stress, is one of praise for their resilience, professionalism and essential decency. The Report asked hard-hitting questions of Ministers and of the National Offender Management Service.
I should declare an interest. My husband Christopher (Engineering, 1968) is on the IMB of Bedford Prison, and indeed he chairs the National Association of Members of IMBs. They have tried hard to get their voices heard. They fight to find and recruit more volunteers to join their Board. How much support, respect and encouragement have they had from the Ministry of Justice? Let’s hope the new regime in the Ministry of Justice is genuinely prepared to improve the regimes in prison. And can I encourage all readers of this blog to find people to join their local IMB?