Normally, I have to sit and think about the subject of my monthly rants but in this instance my thanks go to Her Majesty’s Government for such a stupendously bad month and giving me such a fantastic treasure trove of topics to choose from.
In the last month we have read about the squalid conditions in HMP Slade (Wormwood Scrubs), The Justice Committee’s report on Prison Safety, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice’s appearance at the despatch box on 9th May, The Secretary of State for Justice’s appearance at the Governing Governor’s forum on 12th May, and the horrendous bullying of the IMB chair at HMP Hollelsey Bay; to name just a few.
But before I go on to tackle some of those issues above, I want to touch on one of the most systematic and ongoing failures in our prisons today.
I have read three terrible reports this month and I despair:
1) On 9th March 2015, Sheldon Woodford died whilst in Custody at HMP Winchester. An inquest found that his death was due partly to poor staffing and training according to an article published in The Guardian Newspaper. Mr Woodford had previously tried to take his own life and shockingly was rated as “low risk” by officials. The inquest heard that no healthcare staff were present at Mr Woodford’s initial case review and that there was no continuity in any of his reviews (indeed there were 7 different case managers responsible for 10 of them). Perhaps, if there wasn't such a breakdown in communication, Mr Woodford’s suicide could have been prevented.
2) On August 5th 2015, Shalane Blackwood was found dead in his cell at HMP Nottingham. He died of a perforated stomach ulcer. Mr. Blackwood had complained of stomach issues previously but because he was located in the segregation unit and there were insufficient staff to allow him to attend a nurse’s appointment, he passed away. Indeed the only way the nurse could examine him was through the spy hole located in his door. The inquest found “systematic failings amounting to neglect” and that these contributed to his untimely and needless death.
3) In March of this year a prisoner was found dead in his cell at Sodexo run HMP Northumberland, which in my opinion holds the rather un-envious record of most deaths in custody.
My heart goes out to those people affected by the above and indeed anyone touched by the death in custody of a loved one.
Now I don't want to go off on a rant here but……..
The Prison Service’s’ standard answer to such a dreadful incident taking place has always been; “We make every effort to learn from each death in custody”. WHAT? Surely they should be making every effort to learn from each LIFE in custody? Either way, people, deaths in custody are on the increase so they are not learning too much are they? How many more needless deaths will it take before they sit up and listen?
Two weeks ago we heard about the staff walkout at Wormwood Scrubs where over 70 members of the POA decided that the prison was just too unsafe a place to work in. Now if these people figure a place to be too unsafe, you know that it must align with Dante’s seventh level of Hell. Can you imagine how the prisoners felt when they heard that the staff thought it to be unsafe?
I have mentioned before, I respect most of the staff that work in the prison estate, just as I treat everyone with the same respect so did they treat me. These people do a good job as much as they can. Obviously as is the case with all positions of trust there are those that will take advantage of it; I have read far too many articles about Officers being caught smuggling phones into prisons and quite rightly they are hung out to dry.
The chronic understaffing of our prisons is the vein that runs through the heart of the problems within the prison estate.
In the report on Prison Safety issued on 16th May by the Justice Committee, Bob Neill said that “There is a serious and deep rooted issue of staff retention by NOMS”. Well excuse me if that isn't a slight understatement.
Andrew Selous, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice, stated that there was a major recruitment drive underway and that there would be an extra 2,250 prison officers. Well, dear reader, the actual fact is that, there was a net increase of only 440 officers! Now, with over 100 prisons in the country, how many more staff does each prison receive? Come on, people are we the only ones that see what is happening here? The government is fudging the numbers to make the public feel that they are actually doing something! When in essence with 2,250 people joining up in one year 1,810 left! I love Government mathematics don’t you? There are 7000 fewer prison officers now than there were in 2010 and the population has increased by 2,500 (there’s your answer Mr Selous, as you said in Parliament that you didn't have the numbers to hand). Even Bernie Madoff couldn't run those numbers!
Andrew Selous? Let’s just shine the spotlight of blame onto him for a minute, shall we?
Now, I don't want to go off on another rant here, but I would have thought that (deep breath) The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (exhale) ought to have known slightly more about his remit for prisons before standing up at the despatch box on Monday 9th May at 15:40hrs to face a question from Andy Slaughter about Safety in Custody. But, hey, what do I know?
Apart from getting his figures wrong on the prison staffing issue he made two glaringly insensitive remarks. He Said
"Reducing the harm that prisoners may cause to themselves or to others is the Government’s top priority in prisons.”
Look, I am not the most intelligent of people but even I know the main mandate of a prison is to rehabilitate a prisoner, help him see the error of his ways and make him a better member of society. Yes of course, we need to keep the environment safe, but come on Andrew, spend more on rehabilitation and resettlement, allow the prisoners meaningful activities and you will see the violence reduce. Volatility breeds violence.
And to top it all he then went on to say:
"Now is the time for action before more prisons become ungovernable and there are more serious injuries or – God forbid – the death of an officer on duty.”
Now, before I really let go, let me say here and now, I do not relish the thought of any prison officer dying whilst on duty and my sympathy would go out to that person’s family without equivocation. BUT REALLY, Mr Selous are you saying that you value the life of an officer above that of an inmate? Because, it looks that way. The death in custody of anyone, officer or inmate is lamentable.
Mr Selous states that NOW is the time for action! What? As opposed to last year, the year before last? What will it take for action? More deaths? More walkouts?
Next on my list is The Secretary of State for Justice's appearance and speech at the Governing Governor's forum on 12th May. (Rt. Hon Michael Gove MP).
I was heartened to read that Mr Gove contradicted Mr Selous’ comment about the principal purpose of Prison and that it was, indeed, rehabilitation. Sadly that was about all I could agree with in his speech. A lot has been stressed about giving Governing Governor’s more autonomy in running their establishment and that is all well and good. Or is it?
One of the worst times in a prisoner’s internment is when he is moved to another establishment. If Mr Gove allows the Governing Governors to run their prison as he or she sees fit then it goes without saying that all prisons will run differently. There will be new rules and regulations to learn and a fear of falling foul of them. Prisoners like a routine as it gives them a sense of order, take that away from them and we are back to the volatility issue again. I am all for the prisons becoming a part of the local infrastructure of the location in which they are set but there must be a sense of unity between them all.
Mr Gove has mentioned that the reforms he spoke about back in March of this year will take several years to implement. Well for those in custody that just isn't good enough. They are suffering now. Mr Gove mentions that he wants to see prisoners spend more time in meaningful activity. A plan that all of my former fellow prisoners would welcome. It isn't achievable. In all of the prisons that I was resident in a vast majority remained unemployed because there just wasn't the work for them to do nor was there spaces on the educational courses that would help them gain employment upon their release.
I am comforted that Mr Gove, seems to be dismantling the draconian rules that were put in place lace by his predecessor but in reading his speech, as an ex-prisoner I see very few changes indeed.
Dear Reader, our prisons are in disarray and continue to go downhill. If you know me by know you know that I am partial to a quote. Tartarus was quoted as saying:
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that great men do nothing”
I am now asking you to do something. Will you stand and be counted?
I believe that we, the people, need to watch the watchers. Mr Gove has some great ideas in prison reform and I want him to succeed. But what happens when Mr Gove leaves his post? Do all these good things go by the wayside and the next Secretary of State just unwinds them? I want to make a difference like most of you who read this blog do. I do not want to keep ranting month after month, year after year. I want to see action.
As always, the above is just my opinion, I could be wrong. However I leave you with this thought:
“When Shall it be said in any country of the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am a friend of its happiness. When those things can be said then and ONLY then may that country boast of its constitution and government.”