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Open prisons – a failing holiday camp?


By Bill on 24/10/14

Open prisons – a failing holiday camp?
There is currently a crisis in the open prison system. This much we know from reading our daily papers. But for those individuals personally involved in the workings and machinations of the prison system there is a worrying and growing realisation that the wrong crisis is the one being highlighted.   

The recent ‘wave’ of absconders from open prisons was undoubtedly a story that ticked tabloid boxes. The ticking of enough red rag, or red-top, boxes will usually be enough to get a story splashed across front pages. The fact that a totally different picture is often going on behind the headlines is disregarded even when inaccuracies are suspected by readers. Delving deeper for reality or answers is often sidelined in a rush for hysteria.      

It is certainly true that the difficult process of gradual and temporarily licensed release from open prisons is undergoing a period of major upheaval, and many families and inmates trying to restart lives are becoming collateral damage in these changes.

These issues are not just being raised by the odd lone voice. A consensus is growing from those frequently exposed to the system, who have the ‘inside’ knowledge, and who recognise the real flaws occurring in open prisons. Unfortunately these are voices that lack any power as they usually come from the disenfranchised; the ignored; the sidelined; those who have experienced the process themselves and witnessed first hand its inadequacies in preparing an individual either for a temporary release or for a life in the outside world. Ex-prisoners and their circles don’t form a strong lobby when it comes to getting a message across to a mainstream, but it is this mainstream that will have to bear much of the cost of failed transitions. 

The debate on the exact purpose of prisons is a long and ongoing one. It is highly divisive and emotive, and as a society we have not really reached satisfactory conclusions. Whether prisons are for retribution and punishment; taking people off the streets; or forming part of a rehabilitation process, the one issue there can be little doubt on is that if prisons create inmates ill-prepared for release the consequences will be vast.  

There have undoubtedly been incidents of absconding in recent times which are alarming and these have raised issues that need addressing. But a misleading picture, where hordes of dangerous criminals appear to be wandering our streets coming and going as they please from open prisons, has been portrayed to the public and led to a depressingly standard knee jerk reaction to the problem. This kind of deception normally occurs because politicians are predominantly big fans of a tough on crime rhetoric: it understandably plays well with the media and large sections of the electorate. And part of that tough on crime message is to be seen to be particularly tough on perpetrators of crime, even if this may lead to some counter-productive measures. This is often achieved in partnership with a compliant media keen to provide the requisite level of outrage for change. Without an accurate analysis being put forward by the media or government, the changes in regulation don’t reflect any current reality so the kind of problems the system is now experiencing become inevitable. 

In fact over the last decade the number of prisoners absconding while on temporary license has gone down from 1300 a year to 204. Yet this fact is not reflected in the press. If we look behind the numbers there are also other factors hidden in these statistics which reveal more layers beneath the one-sided coverage. The main cause of ‘absconding’ is not an uncontrollable urge to go on a crime spree, but where inmates have received bad news from home. Little or no account is taken of inmates not returning due to bullying and many of the cases include late returns where time spent travelling has formed a part of release time, and with more prisons closing many inmates have found themselves residing in prisons far from their homes. 

In the eyes of many people the finger of blame, and the apparent bogeyman in this scenario, seems to point squarely at Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice – a man whose actions and words scream denial of any crisis. Searching for one sole scapegoat is rarely productive or helpful but there does seem to be a direct line from most of Grayling’s ideas and policies to the situation that can now be found. The unknown factor is whether it is down to a lack of strategic thinking on his part, or whether he is, in fact, with the assistance of the newspapers, achieving his own pre-defined set of objectives.      
The changes implemented by Chris Grayling in the wake of the high-profile absconders include dramatically cutting down on ‘town visits’; a freeze on any day/weekend release applications to stay with family; psychological risk assessments before any license can be granted which adds yet more delay and another level of bureaucracy into the system; and all prisoners to be tagged for day release when this option is eventually reintroduced. While some of these, on the surface, may seem reasonable the result is a dramatic slowing down of what was hardly a seamless process even before the recent press coverage had shone a grossly biased light on the proceedings. 

We are now consequently witnessing a reality where large numbers of arbitrary decisions are made to return prisoners to closed conditions with little or no evidence to back up decisions and after Mr Grayling’s recent changes to legal aid they only have a slight chance of challenging such decisions; increased overcrowding, frustration and anger in a closed prison system already at crisis point; and the effective breakdown of this most crucial stage prior to release. This is a time when inmates often have to rebuild relationships with family, shake off the effects of being institutionalised, and hopefully begin to undergo this necessary staggered introduction to freedom and increased responsibility. 

There is immense pressure on inmates during this stage with so much at stake; a lot of progress has already been made just to reach this point. It has often been accompanied by a sense of anticipation over an arrival in open conditions which can then lead to resentment and anger when things don’t work out; when they discover there is little or no constructive or meaningful activity to fill the day or contribute towards rehabilitation; where they see other inmates shipped out daily to closed conditions without explanation and their day becomes one spent worrying if they will be next to meet this fate. In the current climate it has become the easy option to just send someone back into the closed system, to abstain any responsibility for making decisions on allowing a temporary release, especially with lifers.  

Whatever people’s views are on crime and punishment, prisons have a duty to prepare inmates for life in the outside world. Bearing this in mind we have to ask ourselves whether stopping town visits or banning inmates from ‘walking the streets’, in any way, helps prepare them for engaging in these exact same activities when they are released?   

An open prison system that works should surely be a stepping stone between the almost artificial environment of a closed prison and the often daunting prospect of life outside. It should be a place to pick up extra life skills to aid in this transition, research employment or training options to avoid landing back in society with no prospect of earning money other than from crime, and to find accommodation when the social housing crisis means that in most cases they will have little or no priority until their release. With such challenges ahead this period should be used as constructively as possible.  

The prison service has been subjected to some of the severest cutbacks of any sector, and it is not only in open prisons where shortfalls are being felt. But as open prisons are usually the last stage of the incarceration process, and with much of the anecdotal evidence suggesting some, quite frankly, baffling decision making, it is here where mistakes or inadequacies threaten to totally unravel any positive work that may have been previously achieved with inmates.     

While none of us wants another ‘skull cracker’ on the loose, the spiral of damage this man caused may have spread beyond the crimes he committed when on the run. The simmering frustration of inmates, who have often served their time in the way society demands, now finding themselves unable to prove their suitability for release may not only prove a contributory factor in rising suicide rates within prisons, already up a scandalous 64%, but the continued stalling of prisoner progression will also surely hinder chances of achieving successful outcomes on re-offending rates. 

Although the aims and purposes of our prisons will always involve some degree of retribution, even attempts at revenge in a number of cases, setting prisoners up to fail in this way is not only an inhumane way of dealing with the problem of crime, it is also catastrophically short-sighted. This seems particularly true if these aims are to ever include rehabilitation and creating end-products of individuals being released as free of bitterness and aggression as possible, and ready to function in society.