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Interviews from HMP; why is the system failing?

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

In 1779 the British government passed the Penitentiary Act which made the purpose of prison rehabilitation, as opposed to merely punitive. With over 300 years to put this into practice why are our prisons still massively missing the mark?

The prisons mainly blame overcrowding and a lack of funding for their almost non-existent rehabilitation schemes. It’s a bit like Catch 22. The prisons can’t lower the reoffending rates with rehabilitation when none is taking place due to their being too many prisoners. In this piece I interview prisoners from all over Scotland to try and understand the problems they face and any potential improvements that could be made.

Prior to COVID the daily routine of a Scottish prisoner would depend on their sentence and whether or not they had sought out opportunities for themselves. With not enough jobs to go round and no enforced structure other than meal times, the majority of inmates would take refuge in their cells, drumming their fingers and wasting precious, potentially life changing, time. The situation during and immediately after COVID is even worse. Prisoners have been locked inside their tiny rooms for 23 hours a day with less than one hour allocated for exercise (45 minutes of mindless pacing around a concrete yard). There is no motivation from staff or from outside agencies to reform or improve. Prisoners taking classes do so from their cell, alone and without access to tutors to help with any questions. Work parties are offered to those serving longer sentences but there are almost no rehabilitation opportunities given to short term inmates.

The reoffending rates in this country are shocking and are getting worse year after year. Those released from prison have a reoffending rate of 38.6 %, a 7.7% increase on last year. It is clear our system is failing, however, Parliament is reluctant to authorise change. MP Meg Hilliar was quoted saying, “The prison service has allowed a staggering backlog of maintenance work to build up that will cost more than 900 million to address”.

In 2016 the prison system launched the Prison Estate Transformation Program which promised to create 10,000 new prisoner places by building 5 new prisons and two new residential blocks. This should have been completed by 2020, so far they have created just 206, 0.02% of what had been promised. It’s clear that prisoners have been placed at the bottom of the priority list, however, improving the life of some of the most damaged people in society would benefit everyone, making our communities safer and our economy stronger. How can we expect prisoners to improve themselves when the system gives them almost no opportunities to do so?

The Norwegian Rehabilitation System which started in the late 1990’s and is now fully functioning, is often regarded as a model and the results are outstanding. BBC journalist Emma Kirby examined the new ‘state of the art’ prison. Upon arriving at the rehabilitation centre Emma noticed that the prisoners and guards were in groups. After questioning it was revealed that they favour a buddy system whereby the prison officers work alongside the inmates to create a bond, they call it Dynamic Security. Prisoners and Prison Officers have meals and classes together “that allows us to really interact with prisoners, to talk to them and motivate them” Are Hoidal Prison Officer from Norway. In the two years this prison has been fully functional recidivism rates have fallen below 20%, the system is clearly working.

Prisoners who had previously been locked in their cells all day are now offered daily training and educational programmes. Prisoners leave their cells at 7:30am each day for a full day’s work to prepare them for the outside world and are not locked up till 8:30pm. It should be common sense that instilling this kind of routine would be more effective than locking our prisoners up for 23 hours a day with only 45 minutes to pace around a concrete square, so why are we not doing it?

Swedish Prison Cell
Swedish prison cell

Barlinie Cell due to overpopulation
Barlinie Cell due to overpopulation

The most common argument used to excuse the lack of services within British prisons is a lack of funding. However evidence from Norway has demonstrated that their regime has a positive impact on the economy. A research paper published in 2019 showed that by reducing the number of prisoners re-incarcerated, more individuals were able to contribute to Norway’s economy once their sentence was complete. In addition, among the prison population that was unemployed prior to being imprisoned there was a 34% increase in this group partaking in job training courses and a 40% increase in employment rates. Norway’s prison system equips its prisoners with knowledge-based and practical skills that have long-term benefits to the individuals themselves and to the country.

As someone with no personal experience of prison myself, I saw it necessary to interview those currently incarcerated for a more realistic idea of what’s going on and of the possible changes that would make a difference. (Prisoners have opted to change names for confidentiality).

Jon Doe an LTI (long term Imprisonment) currently serving in Castle Huntley

“Conditions in prison are a breeding ground for addictions and poor mental health. I feel the prison could do more. For example more groups, discussing issues such as mental health and addictions, allowing people to deal with their issues in a calm and supported manner, instead of everything bubbling up inside.

I believe due to the lack of support and productive outputs for energy, it results in violence, this has prisoners downgraded and their rehabilitation opportunities are taken away. I had to go out on my own to get the opportunities I have now, I was given no support with regards to education, securing my driver’s licence and bank account, all of these things are essential to my progression. Not enough spaces for everyone to have employment and the wages are insulting.

When leaving after serving a short term sentence you are immediately thrown back into the community with no practical or financial support and no work program, many simply return to crime.

Some Officers are not interested in rehabilitation, only there for their 9-5. We feel that if prison officers were more encouraging then prisoners would be more willing to take up opportunities given. The few things that the prison offers aren’t openly discussed and prisoners only find out by doing their own investigation, there aren’t enough spaces for everyone, it’s impossible to progress. There is no tutor for our classes, it’s all distance learning, our course is printed out, there’s no help or guidance”.

Hand written letter
Hand written letter

A Letter written to myself from a Prisoner within Perth HMP currently on remand. Discussing unfair opportunities between short and longer term prisoners. He also touches on the lack of support and the self-help methods adopted by the prisons, which encourages no one.

At Castle Furniture we have been working on rehabilitation with prisoners since 2017, working with those repaying community service hours, and helping those serving long term sentences learn new skills, and have an easier transition into working life. Our work with them has demonstrated that rehabilitation is possible, not for 100% of cases but the great majority.

It is clear that although rehabilitation can be viewed by some as a ‘holiday camp’ the results are excellent, regardless of our personal opinion whether we should punish or rehabilitate, the statistics don’t lie and it’s about time the UK caught up.

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