Changing prisons in challenging times

Dr Jenni Ward Middlesex UniversityOn 16 March 2015, Middlesex University hosted a roundtable seminar ‘Changing prisons in challenging times’. Event organiser Dr Jenni Ward, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex, reports.

The seminar drew a varied audience to hear an expert panel presenting thoughts and questions on prisons and imprisonment in the current period. The speakers were HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick; Erwin James – journalist for The Guardian newspaper and author of the books A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook and The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole; Chair in Psychiatry at Cardiff University Professor Pamela Taylor; Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex Anastasia Karamalidou; Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody Lord Toby Harris; and Dr Kimmett Edgar, Head of Research at the Prison Reform Trust.

The starting point for the event was the political will put forward a few years ago to reduce the prison population in England and Wales by finding alternative ways to penalise certain categories of offenders, specifically those sentenced to short prison terms for low-level, non-violent offences, and diverting less serious offenders with drug and alcohol addictions and mental health problems. At the same time as this desire for reversing the incline in prison numbers was a call to invest in in-prison employment training so that prisoners could be both meaningfully occupied while in custody, and better equipped to secure a job on release.

A pressurised system

It can be argued this political ambition of the time fitted in with notions of ‘decarceration’; a movement gaining ground in some jurisdictions. However, what we have seen instead is a prison population that has remained largely unchanged in terms of numbers, alongside swingeing financial cuts to the prisons budget resulting in a pressurised system with many present difficulties.

The seminar aimed to bring together an audience to converse candidly about the changes and challenges occurring within the prison estate, how they might be impacting on prison organisation and management, and whether the public discourse is paying sufficient attention to the day-to-day working lives of prison staff, prison governors and the care and rehabilitation of prisoners?

The expert panel presentations referred to the common themes of an overstretched prison estate and its contribution to declining conditions and standards on a number of fronts; its impact on the ability of prisons to adequately react to prisoner heath care and treatment needs, which are sometimes acute, but typically multiple and complex; as well as performing the important rehabilitation and resettlement role expected of prisons.

Prison cell - Adam Jones

Prison cell – Photo by Adam Jones (Creative Commons 2.0)

Another main theme of the day centred on prison staff and the diminishing opportunities for prison officers to help enhance a prisoner’s route to rehabilitation. It was emphasised that positive relationships between prisoners and staff are highly important. Indeed, the capacity to build these is being potentially compromised by the present staffing shortages and the incumbent stresses and strains upon officer working hours.

In speaking about mental stability among prisoners, one speaker asked questions around whether there is oversight of an individual prisoner’s state of being including their mental well-being and functioning while inside. Who in terms of staff has the knowledge and understanding of individual prisoners? This links to a discussion that emerged comparing the value and respect placed upon the prison officer role in other jurisdictions. In particular, Norway was highlighted as a country where the prison officer job is a well-regarded professional position that requires lengthy and professionalised training, and which is as such, well compensated. Returning to the UK context, Dr Karamalidou suggested that it is time to acknowledge the important and valuable role prison officers’ play, and to increase the status of this profession.

Critical questions

In addition to these discussion themes, searching questions were put forward within the broad areas of the purpose of prison, early and effective diversion from crime, and a consideration of a more welfare-oriented system. Some of these questions were: “What do we as society, see as the purpose of prison?”; “Is it prison rehabilitation or the deprivation of liberty?” It was put that if prison is seriously about rehabilitation then it needs to be sufficiently resourced – both monetarily and with satisfactory specialist facilities and staff. If we are inclined to use imprisonment as punishment with the frequency we do, we need to adequately provide for it.

Another question asked was, by looking at the incarcerated population what could we have done earlier in these people’s lives to divert them from offending? Essentially, this was referring to very ‘early interventions’ in what are referred to as ‘problem’ or ‘troubled families’ where the antecedents to offending can manifest. An important and challenging dimension was put forward that referred to our “fixation with chronological age” in sentencing and punishment. For instance, what makes people suddenly different beings at age 18 as opposed to age 17 in reference to the fact that within criminal justice, 18 year olds move to become tried and punished as adults. Here, the concept of ‘psycho-social maturity’ was put forward as important. It needs to be acknowledged that a person’s psycho-social maturity might not match their developmental age, which may well impact upon their ability to engage and be socially included. The question therefore was what can we do at the sentencing stage to take psycho-social maturity into account?

These are some of the critical questions raised that challenged our thinking and set us the task of answering. If taken seriously in terms of finding solutions and mobilising the right structures to achieve them, then we could go some way towards seeing a prison system able to perform the role it is tasked with. Indeed, we could say the event ended with a consensus that rather than ‘warehousing’ people with alcohol and drug addictions, mental health problems, and educational and skills deficits who could be diverted into more suitable and effective arenas, prisons should provide inmates with effective rehabilitation services and job training, as well as give prison officers the rewarding and meaningful job it should be.

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