Prisoners to wear a uniform for two weeks – do we really care?

I do wonder about the “major shake up to prisoner incentives” published by the Ministry of Justice on 1 November.  Officially “significant” reforms to the Incentive and Earned Privileges (IEP) policy have been brought into force.  So what is the IEP – it is a national policy framework set out in Prison Service Order 4000 Incentives Earned Privileges, which gives prison governors authority to devise their own local scheme to meet the needs of the prison regime.  Yawn….. to you and me, this means that prisoners can have access to:

  • Extra and improved visits
  • Eligibility to earn higher rates of pay
  • Access to in-cell television (paid for by the prisoner)
  • Opportunity to wear own clothes
  • Access to private cash
  • Time out of cell for association

Round about this time of writing I gave up the will to live.  I began to question – what’s on my mind, what’s my beef with the change to this policy.  I researched the background of the IEP, discovered what the regulations covers.  And still was no closer to resolving my problem.  Then, it dawned on me.  It’s not the shakeup to the policy, which is fine and dandy, it’s the attitude of the policy maker – that all those serving a prison sentence are wastrels, are the lowest of the low, are scum living the life of Reilly in a prison cell.

For our Justice Minister to publicly make the statement “For too long the public has seen prisoners spending their days languishing in their cells watching TV, using illegal mobile phones to taunt their victims on Facebook or boasting about their supposedly easy life in prisons” is reprehensible.  What statistics has the Minister used when coming to this conclusion?  Or has he used no statistics but is just pandering to populist opinion?   It’s worth delving a little bit into his statement –  do the vast majority of prisoners have an actual “victim” to taunt – if you are inside for tax evasion, who are you going to taunt?  The poor, quaking Inland Revenue?  You’ve defrauded a company, who are you going to target?  Those fags you brought into the country without paying the tax on….. I could go on.  As I’ve said before, not everyone inside is a rapist, child molester or murderer.

And which of the changes to policy is going to stop “illegal mobile phones” entering the prison estate?  Why not just jam signals so that any phones that do make their way in are useless?

The actual changes, in case you are still with me are:

  • The introduction of a new IEP level – “Entry” – where privileges are restricted.
  • Certificate 18 DVDs and subscription channels banned from all prisons.
  • A national standardised list of items available for each level.
  • An automatic IEP review for bad behaviour, with a presumption of downgrading.
  • TVs turned off when prisoners should be engaged in work or other productive activity.
  • Prisoners who misbehave will lose their TV.

The change most reported on in our newspapers, are that prisoners are going to be required to wear a uniform in their first two weeks of sentence – that’s the “Entry” level.  A quick glance at the incredibly dense PSI 30/2013 document (Google it) asks all prisons to “identify the potential number of prisoners who will require prison issue clothing…..”.  Hang on, isn’t that more expense to the tax payer – we now have to supply grey jogging pants and tops to entry level offenders.  And what exactly is the purpose of two weeks of enforced lounging outfit?  You’ve committed a crime, we are now going to punish you by making you wear an unflattering pair of trackie bottoms….?   Why?  Is that really a punishment or a method of bringing about rehabilitation?  Can you imagine it striking fear into criminals – no, no, I’d better not rob that bank, I’d hate to have to wear a grey tracksuit for a fortnight.

The banning of 18 DVDs and subscription channels – subscription channels only operate in private prisons.  These are the minority of prison estates.  The vast majority of prisons do not supply subscription channels.  18 DVDs were never allowed when my husband was inside (not that he wanted them, he was more interested in watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

TVs turned off when prisoners should be engaged in work or other productive activity.  What work and what productive activity?  Prisoners in Category A or B prisons, or even C’s for that matter, often do not have the opportunity to work.  They certainly are not occupied 8 hours a day in meaningful activity.  Cleaning the toilets doesn’t take that long and serving pre-cooked food is over in a snip.  Do you think they still sew mail bags?  They don’t.  Many prisons do not have occupations like those you saw on episodes of Porridge.  Gone are the Prison farms and markets gardens, some are lucky enough to be able to work in an “open to the public” café like The Jailhouse Café on Portland but these are the absolute minority.  The flagship Latchmere House had almost its entire population out on work programmes, but was closed by the Government.  It’s not a myth about the length of time a prisoner can be shut up in a shared cell, it’s a fact.

So prisoners who misbehave and lose their TV – in a shared cell – how’s that going to operate?

I just cannot understand how the above actions are going to reduce offending?  Surely it’s just another round of chest thumping to make the Ministry of Justice sound like they are being “tough on crime”, but they still don’t appear to be actively engaged encouraging rehabilitation.  The above changes are further punishments for those already being punished.

And a footnote: I was interested to see that HMP Maidstone had a riot last night – is this being reported on to give the impression that prisoners are already “rebelling” against these introductions?  Question the media – how long would it take for a prisoner to lose the right to a TV?  They’d have to have an interview with a prison officer and given that these actions only came into being as of Friday 1 November, there really hasn’t been time to link these actions to the riot.  I would imagine that the riot was about something else entirely, but it suits our media to start sniffing around to see if they can perpetuate the myth of lounging prisoners cutting up rough at the withdrawal of their treats.  Please, please question what you read in the media.

Actions speak louder than words (tell that to the Government)

Out of deference to my husband, and strangely more so to his business partner who has no sway over my blogging, I have not detailed the tortuous machinations required when attempting to set up a business that involves our Government.

And I am beginning to regret that decision.

Brace yourself, this is going to be a long blog without pictures.  This is what, in brief, they are trying to do:

  • Offer training, funded by their company, to serving offenders, inside the prison estate.
  • Once training is successfully completed, offer employment to serving offenders once they are eligible to start working in the community but are still serving their sentence.
  • Once an offender has been released on licence, continue to offer employment to the offender.

What’s not to like?

Just in case you are thinking “why should criminals be offered special treatment” consider the following:

  • If an offender earns money whilst serving a sentence 40% of their earning goes into the Government’s “Victim’s Support” Fund.
  • If an offender leaves prison without a job, they are highly likely to re-offend to earn money.
  • If an offender returns to prison – WE – the taxpayer, get to fund the extra stay.
  • If an offender leaves without a job, but relies on State Benefits – WE – the taxpayer, get to fund their lives until they (a) find a job or (b) reoffend.

It’s a no brainer as they do say.

At the heart of the problem, I believe is the Government’s stance on what to do with those who break the law.  I’m am afraid to say I now believe that prison is there solely to punish, rehabilitation is down to the individual, or in rare cases, a handful of Prison Officer’s who genuinely want to help an offender turn their life around.

Why does the Government not want to assist in the rehabilitation of offenders?  Put simply, it’s a political hot potato.  What Government wants to be seen handing money over to Offenders?  Well, my husband and his partner had outside funding to support his business, so no embarrassment was on offer there.  They did (or, let’s try to be positive) “do” need written permission from the Government to operate inside prisons – and you’d think this a relatively easy piece of documentation to obtain.  It’s taken them 12 months and still they have nothing in writing from a Government Minister, however the following “words” have been said but “actions” are still lacking:

  • Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling) meeting in March 2013.  Following this meeting, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Braintree (Brooks Newmark)  advised that Mr G “liked” the idea but had suggested they needed to work via their Member of Parliament.
  • Conservative Member of Parliament for Shipley  (Phil Davies) confirmed, following a meeting,  that Mr G had told him “providing no state money was needed” he (Mr G) was “happy to see the scheme progress” and would see what practical help could be supplied by the Prisons Minister.  Mr Davies was impressed with the concept asking why it was not already in operation.  My husband pointed out that the lack of progression was purely down to Government bureaucracy and “red tape”.  This was back in July 2013.
  • Sir Richard Branson – extract from his blog “I would like to encourage more companies to proactively recruit ex-offenders. Our experience of this within Virgin has been wholly positive……”   Richard, my husband’s company would employ ex-offenders to work within the rail industry, something that should “tick” so many boxes we could run out of ticks.  So it is curious the company you operate to deal specifically with requests for business funding, has still to return my husband’s calls and emails.  All he wants is a simple response of “yes we are interested” or “no we are not interested”.  He first made contact in January 2013 and to this day still tries to get a response.
  • Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Oliver Letwin) briefly met after being invited to 9 Downing Street (“briefly” was approx 20 mins in which to discuss huge savings to the Government).   Again, after eventually understanding  the concept, the fledgling business was advised to send in drafts of three key documents  – a letter of intent (to confirm their funding), permission to access prison estates and most importantly, a letter confirming they were an official Government supplier and as such, were entitled to be part of the procurement list.  This meeting took place in July and after such enthusiasm it was deflating to suddenly hear that…..
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright) requested to meet with Member of Parliament for the Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency in Kent (Gordon Henderson) to discuss the project WITHOUT the two directors of the company.  The two people who had gestated and nurtured the idea.  I am still at a loss to understand why they were not invited to this meeting and can only draw my own conclusions.  The result of this, the latest in a long line of fatuous promises from Government is the offer of a letter of introduction to Prisons of their choice so they can enter and offer employment.  The concept and their requirements were not correctly put to the Minister by the Member of Parliament for Sittingbourne.

They need more than a letter of intent.  They already operated (since June 2011) a pilot scheme from inside HMP Standford Hill.  You might find what they actually need very interesting, I certainly did:

  • A letter of intent from the Government, to show to their potential backers to guarantee their private funding.
  • Permission to access prison estates – this has been “offered” by Jeremy Wright – however the Governor at HMP Sheppey Cluster is already in communication with them and is extremely keen for them to get in and get this project up and running.  This is not a brick wall for them.
  • A letter confirming they are an Official Government Supplier.

This last item is key.  They want  to offer Rail Track training.  Once they have qualified workers on their books, they can approach rail networks who, as they operate on contracts supplied by the Government have a duty to employ a percentage of workers that fit certain categories – one of those being people with high barriers to work – that’s the long term unemployed and ex-offenders.  A circle completed.

They are struggling on until December of this year.  They earn no money whilst trying to set this business up, they are not claiming any state benefits.   They are finding it increasingly difficult to attend meetings which are never in our neighbourhood.  I am currently funding my husband – willingly.  But I too am a taxpayer and would really appreciate the savings they would make to the Government by encouraging offenders to leave crime behind.  I don’t want to keep reading in newspapers how we are pandering to our criminals, I want the Government to do what they say “make criminals work”.  I desperately want this enterprise to succeed because if it does, they want to roll the idea out to be able to help female prisoners and eventually to assist in the employment of the ordinary long term unemployed.   Our brush with the law has changed us forever and it would be sad to lose this momentum, to give up and turn our backs on those that need more help than we do.  Sadder still though is our Government’s complete lack of action when presented with an innovative concept that would cost them nothing, but save them much, but more so would potentially save us from the blight of criminal activity.

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”
― Thomas MoreUtopia

Make prisoners work hard (oh, but not too hard)

I think there’s something wrong with me.  Either I read too much BBC news or else I’m just plain out of step with the world.  On the basis of what I read (on the BBC news) all those convicted of a crime, any crime, large or small, I’m not in a discriminating mood, should be sentenced to death.  I mean, what’s the point of living following a criminal conviction if you are barred from working.

Yes, I’ve just read Viewpoints: Should Prisoners Have Jobs?  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23781988 not to be confused with Prisoners “must work harder” for TVs also on the BBC site.  In a contradictory conundrum, Prisoners must only work hard enough to earn the right to watch telly, but not too hard to help pay a mortgage.  The article repeated Ken Clarke’s statement that “prisoners should work 40-hour weeks while serving time” so just how does this latest argument stack up.

Paul Nowak, assistant general secretary of the Trades Union Congress hauls out the nice shiny chestnuts:  “We cannot have a situation where young people are unable to find a job because work is being done in a nearby prison for a fraction of the cost”.  Brenda, punch me in the face.  Fraction of the cost.  Don’t know how good at maths you are, but have a little think.  How much do you think it would cost to construct a working, call centre, within prison grounds?  How much to police it – I mean putting in safeguards to ensure those working in it are not abusing the system.  How much to guard the facility, to bus in those in charge.  How many hours do you think a serving offender is actually allowed to work in one day – I’m telling you, it’s not 9am to 5.30.  And can I just remind you (again) that 40% of a prisoner’s wages go to the Victim’s Support fund.  What a lazy, lazy argument.

No, you are right, Paul, “Unscrupulous employers must not be allowed to exploit prison labour and transfer employment from our communities into prisons”.  But heck, Paul, do you know how long it takes to establish an employment opportunity inside a prison, what hoops you have to jump through, the time spent waiting for government ministers to approve the idea – that’s before you’ve even invested in a structure safe enough to house your equipment.  And how brave of the TUC for not signing up to the government’s Code of Practice on Work in Prisons – what a fearless bunch they are.

Frances Crook gives us a much more balanced argument citing the importance of ex-offenders (especially those who have committed less serious crimes) being given “community sentences and free up resources to ensure those left inside get the support they need to turn their lives around”.

Oh Peter, Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Centre for Crime Prevention, you naughty boy you.  How could you word your thoughts so sloppily “for too long prisoners have spent a lot of their time in cushy idleness….”  and, here’s a bit of icing on your cake of platitude “a lot of people will find it creepy that the cold-calls they receive could be coming from a prison”.  I can imagine it now, sat in the comfort of my front room.  The phone rings.

Me:  “hello”.

Caller: “I’d like to sell you double glazing”.

Me: “Are you calling from inside a prison or inside a call centre?”

Caller: “what’s the difference”

Me: “i need to know your background as I’m not sure if i’m feeling threatened”.

Caller: “well, i’m a youngster, I go out at weekends and get totally rat-arsed and smoke cannabis, I’m paid a pittance and am unreasonable targeted to make a certain quantity of calls an hour, I exceed the speed limit and could one day mow someone down in a tragic accident, but thankfully that hasn’t yet happened.  I can’t afford to insure my car on my pay, but no worries, I think i get away with that.  I recently went on my holidays and smuggled too many fags back into the country and sometimes I work cash in hand but don’t tell the tax man”.

Me: “phew, I’d hate to think I was speaking to someone who had been caught defrauding the Inland Revenue.  Now where were we with the double glazing offer?”

But finally, after I’d almost given up reading, Karen Steadman, researcher at The Work Foundation comes up with some hard statistics:

Research on ex-prisoners showed half were claiming an out-of-work benefit at 12 months after release, with nearly three quarters claiming within two years of leaving prison. Ex-offenders are often also unemployed for a longer period of time than other claimants.

Though the reasons for this are multiple, including social exclusion, stigma, lower levels of education and work experience, and gaps in work history, the result is too often the same – a return to criminality.

Karen raises an extremely important point that the majority on the ill-informed commentators on the story fail to pick up on.  If Karen is correct, and, believe me she is, who do you think pays to support those on out-of-work benefit?  You do you eejut.  You might not like the idea, but surely it is better to get offenders – and also any long term unemployed person – into jobs to save us all money?

Tell us something new Mr Grayling

Seeing the headline on the BBC News website, I had to take a peak to see what Mr Grayling, our Justice Secretary, had to say when interviewed for The Mail Online:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2272572/Criminals-face-new-spartan-prisons-Justice-Secretary-s-tough-regime-uniforms-Sky-TV-pocket-money.html#ixzz2JqjvQurU

With headline grabbing gusto, Mr G says “Criminals face new ‘spartan prisons’……plans tough regime with uniforms, no Sky TV and less pocket money”.  Oh.  Is that all?  What about the new mentoring scheme that was being discussed a couple of weeks ago in order to stop reoffending, where’s that policy gone?  Instead, The Daily Mail is happy to air it’s old chestnuts again describing Britain’s prisons as “holiday camp jails” and banging on about banning Sky TV.   Mr Grayling, unlike the vast majority of us, believes that “prisoners do not deserve the kind of lifestyle and “frills” that are beyond the reach of families on low wages”.  Sorry, just refresh my memory, you did say that Mr Grayling was Justice Secretary – is this England’s Justice Secretary or some other planet?

Prisoners are in prison, and just to enlighten anyone who does not realise it, in prison you have your freedom removed (yes, you deserve it, but that’s not what’s being discussed here).  I have been to a holiday camp and I have a husband who has been to prison.  When discussing both outings, we could not find a single thing that was the same, except the poor quality food.  I tend to find holiday camps allow you to come and go as you please, to allow you to bring whatever you want in with you and to leave with whatever you want.  You can stay in and use the amenities, or go out.  You’re only there for a brief time.  If you’ve been to a holiday camp that is like a prison, it is highly likely to be shut down as no one else would go on holiday there.

We do allow our prisoners to have television whilst inside – given that a lot of offenders can spend the majority of their time in their shared cells with nothing else to do, how about, rather than banning TV, we ensure prisoners are otherwise occupied.  How about, and this is a radical thought, instead of locking them up most of the day, we make them embark upon rehabilitating educational schemes, or maybe as part of their sentence, we make them train for work so that when they leave, rather than complain that they can’t keep up with their much loved Sky TV programmes, they can go and get jobs.

The Daily Mail describes “….. the biggest prison regime shake up for 60 years” as stopping Sky TV, enforcing the wearing of drab grey prison overalls, the use of “pocket money” to buy toiletries and sweets to be curbed and not allowing gay prisoners to share cells.  Oh please, is that all you can come up with.  Do you really think your average criminal is going to be quaking in his/her boots at the thought of having to do time wearing an overall?  And how exactly is that going to dissuade someone who has done time from reoffending?  Isn’t it better to rehabilitate?  To concentrate on why they leave and reoffend?  Prisons don’t work, but they don’t not work because of the outfit you wear or the tv programme you watch.  These people, and, I might say, the long term unemployed, need jobs.  They need to be out grafting, providing for their families.  They need a better training scheme that currently exists inside.  Don’t keep piffling away at the edges Mr Grayling, get in there and do something to make a difference – making Daily Mail readers red faced and angry at the thought of a prisoner watching Sky TV whilst floating on a lilo in the prison spa is not going to stop an ex-prisoner from committing another crime because they need money.