Tuesday, December 30, 2014

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Home for Christmas (on ROTL)

Alex Cavendish with the third in a four part commentary on Christmas in prison. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

My previous seasonal blogs have been mainly about how Christmas impacts on prisoners in closed prisons. However, for some prisoners who are serving their sentences in a Cat-D (open) establishment there is the prospect of being granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) over the Christmas period so that they can spend up to four nights at home with their families.


HMP Ford: going out on ROTL
If getting recategorised to D-cat status – and then actually being transferred to an open prison – is a major milestone for lifers and those prisoners who are serving long sentences, then getting ROTL over Christmas is probably the jail equivalent of winning the lottery. In the months leading up to the festive season, some cons talk about little else than their chances of being out at that time of year.
 
Getting approved for overnight ROTL has never been an easy process. It’s highly bureaucratic and involves all kinds of risk assessments, internal reports, support from Probation, approval by the local police in the home area and often a face-to-face interview with a governor grade. Many apply, but few actually get approved. That doesn’t stop anyone who might be eligible from putting in an application in hope.
ROTL news: no ROTLs here!
In theory, ROTL used to be available to prisoners in Cat-B, Cat-C and Cat-D establishments, until recent changes to the rules in August. However, in practice, unescorted leave was always pretty much limited to Cat-Ds. I well remember one inner city Cat-B local prison that had a very large ROTL noticeboard on every wing. However, when you got close to it there was only one small typed notice pinned right in the middle. This read: “HMP ***** does NOT offer ROTL”. 

The existence of this totally pointless noticeboard with its negative message still makes me smile as it is a typical example of prison mentality, even pre-Chris Grayling. Regardless of what a Prison Service Order or Instruction (PSO or PSI) might permit in theory, what actually happens in practice is usually very different and this is a lesson every con needs to learn very quickly.
 
In a Cat-D, however, being granted ROTL is more than just a theoretical possibility and most cons will bang in a few applications by filling in a ROTL-1 form, although a sizeable number do need help to even complete the paperwork, particularly if their literacy skills aren’t very good. Also, the rules that surround ROTL can be very complex, even for members of staff to understand.
 
In the open prison where I spent nearly a year, it was part of what was called a “progressive process” ahead of eventual release. This means that you had to have been at the establishment for at least two months (more recently increased to three) without any disciplinary problems or negative reports before you could be considered for ROTL. 
 
ROTL-1: application form
Next you had to have had a minimum of three successive town visits for a few hours (Resettlement Day Release – or RDR) before being assessed for home leave on Resettlement Overnight Release (ROR). If you were granted overnight leave, then it usually started with two nights, before being increased to a maximum of four. The frequency also depends on which type of sentence a prisoner is serving. Lifers and those on Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) have much more restricted eligibility. Some cons will probably never be granted it.
 
Finally, in order to qualify for Christmas ROTL, you needed to have had at least one successful previous home leave, preferably two. Also, you couldn’t have had any overnight leave in at least the previous 28 days. I well recall the amount of careful calculations that we all had to do with printed calendars in order to make sure that we’d ticked all the boxes. A discrepancy of just one day could put an end to all your dreams of spending Christmas at home with your family.
 
Another key issue was that final decisions tended to be left until very close to the scheduled time of departure. Governors didn’t want to approve ROTL and then have to rescind it because of some security concern or because of a disciplinary complaint against a prisoner. Even if you’d passed the face-to-face interview – and quite intensive grilling – by a governor grade, then you probably wouldn’t get your magic ROTL-5 paper that confirmed whether or not you’d been approved until a few days before the actual date of departure. It’s now become even more complex as other paperwork, up to a ROTL-7, is required and since new, much more restrictive rules for ROTL were issued in August 2014.
 
But will mum or dad be home?
This means that it can be very difficult for prisoners’ families to make any plans because these could be (and often are) dashed at the last moment by a decision not to approve ROTL. This can be particularly hard on children who are hoping that a parent will finally be coming home for Christmas, sometimes after years of being away, only to be told a few days before that their daddy or mummy won’t be there with them after all. I’ve known a few terribly sad cases where tensions over last minute ROTL refusals can actually be the final straw that breaks up a relationship.
 
The handing out of the ROTL-5 by wing screws at evening roll-call just before Christmas was particularly nerve-wracking. The question that was on everyone’s lips was: “Did you get it?
 
If the magic words “ROTL approved in principle” had been circled on the paper, then the recipient skipped down the main corridor looking as if all his birthdays had come at once. On the other, hand, if “ROTL not approved” was the final answer, then there was deep depression and even tears – especially from some of the younger lads or those cons who had young kids at home. Being honest, the success of others can easily fuel resentment and bitterness at times like these.
 
The big day for Xmas ROTL
Assuming that your application had been successful and you’d finally received your eagerly awaited ROTL-5 (the ROTL-7 is usually issued on the day of departure), then you still faced a couple of tense days hoping and praying that nothing would go wrong. A fellow con absconding or some other major security alert could also lead to a blanket ban on prisoners walking out of the gate on 23 December.
 
I’d estimate that at Christmas 2013, only around one in ten prisoners at my Cat-D nick actually got granted ROTL, although around half of the inmate population of several hundred might have applied. Some were judged to be too high risk, especially if their offences had been linked to consumption of alcohol – always considered to be a risky issue around Christmas and New Year. Others failed to qualify for other reasons: a negative report from a wing screw, a veto from security or Probation or even a bureaucratic miscalculation by the Offender Management Unit (OMU) of how many days it had been since the prisoner’s last overnight leave. You also weren’t eligible for ROTL if you only had a month or less before your final release date.
 
Holdall packed and ready to go
As departure day – 23 December – approached, the atmosphere in the nick was a curious mixture of eager anticipation and misery. Those who were definitely going home were busy packing their holdalls and getting ready to walk out of the gate. However, for those left behind, it was going to be a long and grim few days without much to do other than watch TV. Even the prospect of a decent Christmas lunch (since the prison had its own farm) couldn’t lift the spirits of the lads who would be going nowhere that year.
 
I was one of the lucky ones. It was my fourth overnight ROTL and I’d made sure that all my previous dates were in order. On previous home leaves I’d always made an effort to be back two hours ahead of the deadline just in case of any travel delays, so I’d never had what is technically known as a ‘ROTL failure’ (arriving back late). And I don’t drink alcohol, having been teetotal for over 20 years, so that wasn’t a concern either.
 
My poor room-mate (no cells or barred windows in a Cat-D nick) hadn’t been so lucky. He had two young kids at home and they were desperate to see their dad as he had been their principal carer before he ended up in the nick. However, his previous home leave had only ended 27 days earlier and, despite initial indications that he might be granted a special concession by the governor, in the end the system was absolutely inflexible. He was staying behind in the slammer and I really felt for him. He was so crushed that if I could have given him my own ROTL-5, I probably would have done so since I don’t have a young family. However, like MPs’ speeding points, ROTLs just aren’t transferrable.
 
Catching a train: a citizen again
So it was me who walked out of the prison gate at around 09.00 am on 23 December along with about 30 other lads. Temporary home leave is always a strange halfway house for any prisoner. You suddenly go from being an inmate in a jail to being a normal human again. You get collected by car or catch a train from the local station and no-one knows that you are a serving con. It is the first real step towards reintegration and for a prisoner who has done a long stretch, ROTL is an essential part of preparing for eventual release back into the community. That’s why I believe recent moves to restrict temporary leave, as a knee-jerk reaction to a small percentage of serious ROTL failures, are so shortsighted.
 
Being back home for Christmas on ROTL was very odd. Everything was just as it always had been and the decorations were already up, although we’d decided to forego presents that year since the new Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme meant that I wouldn’t be allowed to take back anything whatsoever with me, not even a new pair of socks. Of course, in practice, most people out on overnight leave did take the opportunity to switch their old worn-out underwear with new items and as far as I’m aware no-one in Reception ever really bothered to check.
 
For a few wonderful days you get to sleep in your own bed again, on clean sheets that don’t stink of the prison laundry and other men. You eat normal food with your family and there are no roll-checks, searches or curfews. And no prison ID card hanging round your neck like a dog’s name-tag that marks you out as the property of HMPS. You feel almost human once more. 
 
Your own front door
Of course, like any other type of ROTL, being home for Christmas will always be overshadowed by the fact that you will have to return to prison on 27 December. The night before leaving you pack your holdall, make sure there’s nothing in there that you didn’t bring out of the nick (clean underwear excepted) and the following morning you say your fond goodbyes as you take a last quick glance at the tree and the decorations. Then you pet the dog who can’t believe you’re leaving again so soon. I won’t deny that it is a very hard thing to do.
 
Finally you catch the train back to prison where you cease to be a citizen again. You’ll be body-searched, have your holdall turned inside out and then go back to being an inmate with a number and an ID card hanging round your neck once more.
 
The key thing is that you do have the self-discipline to return to jail under your own steam and voluntarily submit to your further punishment, whether it’s deserved or not. After Christmas 2013, every single one of us on ROTL at our nick did come back on time. And that’s really what ROTL is all about, particularly at Christmas: testing an inmate’s compliance, self-control and ability to observe the rules. No matter how much Chris Grayling would like to please readers of the Daily Mail, I believe we’d be absolutely daft to abandon such an important tool for rehabilitation and resettlement.

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