Prisons Today, May 2002

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Notes on the Crime Forum held on 14 May 2002 - ‘Prison in 2002’

Peter Davis, in the Chair, introduced the new Chair of the Executive Committee, Marcus Beale, who was in the audience. He then introduced the members of the Panel. who were David Lancaster (DL), Governor of HMP Downview, Simon Morrison(SM), Chair of Prison Visitors at Downview and Catherine Renau (CR) Head of Service Delivery for Merton and Sutton Probation and Rehabilitation Services.

DL started by explaining that Downview had re-rolled to become a women’s prison in September 2001. There are women on remand, unsentenced and convicted in the prison. The re-rolling will need to happen elsewhere to meet the growth in the female prison population. Of the 71,000 in prison today more than 4,300 are women and it is the female population that is growing the fastest. The UK is second only to Portugal, in the EU, when it comes to the per capita prison population at 125 per 100,000.

He asked why these statistics are so high and whether it was all absolutely necessary? Are we achieving anything and how do we set about achieving what we want from the prison service?

DL commented on regional variations in sentencing and criticised the high number of short sentences which lead to overcrowding. This may be because of a lack of belief in community penalties and that the numbers being imprisoned is related to societal and economic pressures. Is this indicative of a misplaced belief in what prison can achieve?

Prisoners are different to the rest of us in that they present with a whole catalogue of problems and prison cannot transform the years of neglect already experienced. 65% of women prisoners have children under 16 and there lives are greatly affected by their mother’s time in prison. The women lose their jobs and homes which significantly affects their chances of leading a crime free life after they leave prison.

80% of women have drugs and, or psychiatric problems. Prisons will attempt to detoxify and get women into a stable state but since the average stay in Holloway, where DL was Governor previously, is only 28 days this is not long enough to effect long term stabilisation. He also pointed out that of the total female prison population 800 are foreign nationals of whom 400 are Jamaican women on drugs smuggling crimes.

DL feels it to be important that we learn to manage the risk that these people present. We should learn from history but first we need to identify the lessons. Those who go to prison will live amongst us again so we should try to ensure that the experience of prison is not further damaging or embittering. People need to be treated with dignity and respect. We need to focus on getting the relationship right between prison officers and prisoners. There should be positive activity provided within prisons but this is difficult in such overcrowded prisons.

SM began by explaining his role which he likened to being a prison watchdog taking an independent and detached role in looking at every aspect of the prison. Prison visitors are those people organised by the Chaplain who visit the individual prisoners and this is quite different from his role. The Home Secretary appoints the Board of Visitors and the service has been in existence for more than 100 years. Each Board has two Magistrates on it and all the members are given extensive training. They have no executive powers but they are there to monitor and advise. They produce annual written reports for the Home Secretary which cover the way the prison is running and express any concerns that may be felt. This report is required to be published.

Members of the panel have the right of access, at any time, to anywhere in the prison. They have the right to talk to any prisoner in private. There are other statutory tasks such as monthly Board meetings, inspections of all facilities, listening to prisoner applications and complaints and, more rarely, being involved in serious incidents such as riots or hostage taking situations. They also sit in on Governor’s Adjudications in cases where there has been a serious breach of prison rules.

Each visitor has an area of special interest such as suicide, race relations or education.

Their Statement of Purpose allows them to inspect the state of the premises, the administration of the prison and the treatment of prisoners. They direct the attention of the Governor to any matter which they feel calls for his attention and report to the Home Secretary on any matter which they feel it is expedient to report.

SM concluded by saying that there are currently two vacancies on the Board and he would be pleased to hear from anyone who may be interested.

CR explained that the Probation Service used to be about advising and befriending but it is now about the protection of the public and the safe return of offenders to normal life. There are currently 12,401 remanded in custody and awaiting trial. Only half of the people on remand each year will be found guilty and not all of these will be committed to prison. People have to return to their communities.

There will always be a small number of people who need long term, secure imprisonment but now it is recognised that many of the others need treatment and rehabilitation. Although this was recognised some years ago and a Rehabilitation Programme was introduced to provide education, training, counselling and a sentence management plan for their release, the reality is that too many prisons are ill equipped and too many officers insufficiently trained to offer this programme. The position is changing but it is not doing so fast enough to cope with the increasing prison population.

There are not enough Probation Officers. All prisoners are released on Licence. Once parole has been agreed the home Probation Officer provides a pre-release plan. The Sex Offender Register and High Risk Register are kept by Local Area Panels.

CR believes that too many people are imprisoned and that offenders go to prison as punishment and not for punishment. She believes that young offenders are particularly vulnerable because they have few coping mechanisms for prison.

She outlined Community Punishment Orders, Community Rehabilitation Orders and the possibility of combining the two which are the current methods of dealing with those who are found guilty but not imprisoned.

Peter Davis then opened the questions to the floor and Richard Vaughan Payne started the discussion about what people think prison is for? He feels that prison is there to provide protection to the public from violent people. Prisons should treat people with respect and that no society can call itself truly civilised until it looks after the least able part of itself.

Anne Blaikie stressed the importance of contact with the outside world and supporting the families of those who are imprisoned. She reflected on the short sharp shock tactics of the 1970s.

John Ellison said that society sees prisons as punishment but he believes that there should be a distinction between criminal acts and those who are simply unable to cope with society.

Marie Hughes commented on an American experiment where prisoners were given real jobs for which they were rewarded and consequently given the opportunity to build their self esteem.

A member of the audience said that those who do graffiti do know what they are doing and should be made to remove it.

PD suggested a vote on what the audience saw as the prime purpose of prison. The majority saw it as a means of protecting the public with fewer seeing the function as punishment and rehabilitation.

Marcus Beale asked what is the purpose of punishing people who are inadequate?

DL replied that protection, rehabilitation and punishment all have to be tackled but questioned whether all of the people who are sent to prison are really a threat? Prisoners often recognise the need for punishment but they are looking for a just system to impose it. Those involved in the Prison Service have to believe that they can do some good with some people. Remand prisoners are often in for too long. So much crime is drug related and in Holloway there is a 40 bed detox facility which is always full, making stabilisation difficult.

SM said that all the audiences stated objectives are valid but pointed out that the deterrent value of prison is difficult to measure. He said that people who are mentally ill get sent to prison because there are no other facilities for them and also that often people are remanded to prison because of a belief that it is the only way to get them to court.

CR felt that rehabilitation is a way of protecting the public.

The discussion continued on topics which included, why the prison population continues to spiral and if there were practical ways of combining prison and home such as those provided by Latchmere House, a B & B prison. PD closed the evening by thanking the speakers for their very interesting contributions to the evening.

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