RATS TO RICHES

by David Breakspear

CW: suicide

“Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time!”. In terms of reform and progress within our penal system, the proverb is about as much use as eating soup with a fork. For a start, how would you know?

Unfortunately, we do need prisons. Ever since Eve – reportedly – ate the forbidden fruit from the garden of Eden, crime has been in existence in human narratives. Crime, either directly or indirectly, affects us all; victims of crime or the family/loved ones/friends of the victim, perpetrator of crime, or, yet again, the family/friends/loved ones of the perpetrators. You may even pay higher insurance premiums due to crime. Crime affects all, therefore, crime is the responsibility of all, especially the prison system.

If I put to society the question “Do you want a criminal justice system fit for purpose?”, I am confident I would walk away armed with more yes than no. However, our prison system is definitely, in its current state, not fit for purpose. Because it is not fit for purpose, it is failing in its duty to protect the public by not returning its residents back to society as reformed characters with the necessary set of skills in order to live crime-free lives. Do not think that I am putting all the blame on the system; a lot of prisoners are set on causing and making trouble throughout their sentence, in particular, those who are sent to prison with sentences of less than 12 months. In the last year, around 61,000 people were sent to prison; of those, over 47% received sentences of less than 6 months. It’s as if the system is being fed – but that’s another issue to be discussed in future articles.

No doubt most of you will have seen a news report or a dramatic headline in the Daily Blah about how bad our prisons are, and yes! they are on a precarious knife edge, but are we getting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? No.

One of my goals in relation to prison, is to make the prison walls metaphorically invisible. One development, that I’m pleased to say has appeared to snowball, is the appearance on social media, via Twitter, of prisons across England and Wales. I have been screaming from the rooftops, though not prison ones, for this to happen for the last few years. It allows prisons direct access to a society kept in the dark about the good that actually does go on, on a daily basis, in our jails, up and down the country. If, on a daily basis, society is being bombarded with negative stories and images from prison, it will only cause negative thoughts of and towards those being released, done so to create even more division between those with life chances and those with none, or very little. Ironic, when considering the diversity of prison life – from rats to royalty – makes no exclusions.

If, on a daily basis, society is being bombarded with negative stories and images from prison, it will only cause negative thoughts of and towards those being released

A particular tweet, that filled me with hope, came from HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes. The prison, at one stage, was tagged with the highest rate of suicides in the prison estate of England and Wales. In 2016 alone, seven men took their own lives. However, between 12th December 2016 and 10th May 2018 there were no suicides at the jail. The governor, Nicola Marfleet said in a recent BBC report that having “full staffing figures” has helped in this incredible turnaround; however, it’s been the training of staff in mental health issues that had a major impact on the reduction. Ms Marfleet actively encourages her staff to play pool with the men, believing that banter builds better relationships, leading on to the men being able to discuss any personal issues they may have. A philosophy successfully adopted by the UK Men’s Sheds association.

Through personal experience, and this may seem obvious, what makes a prison run efficiently and effectively is the relationship of those at the coal face. The lack of staff has caused this important aspect to become fractured, but that’s been discussed to death. It does look like that the staffing issues are being addressed with tangible numbers, and let’s hope, in all our interests, that this continues. It will take a while yet for this new influx of staff to learn the craft of the wings, and they will – you have to if you want a long career walking the landings. Until then, let’s hope the changes, being introduced over the coming months as all prisons become self-governing, are enough to hold the fort till the experience is gained.

It does look like that the staffing issues are being addressed with tangible numbers, and let’s hope, in all our interests, that this continues

The future of the prison system is in a precarious position; however, early signs that the corner is starting to be turned. There is still a long way to go in reforming the system, but as long as we remember it is our social obligation to ensure the system is reformed then there is hope. There is always hope.

Featured image via BBC

 


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