Wednesday, February 11, 2015

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Why We Need Our Open Prisons

Alex Cavendish on the need to maintain open prisons despite opposition by red tops and the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade. 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.

It sometimes seems that if there is one thing the tabloid newspapers hate more than actual prisoners, it is open prisons (Cat-Ds). As far as most Daily Mail hacks are concerned, being incarcerated in an open nick is similar to a stay at a Butlin’s holiday camp at the taxpayers’ expense. Having spent nearly a year in one of these open establishments, I beg to differ, but then I do have first-hand experience.

In England and Wales we currently have a total of 42 prisons for adult males and 13 for adult females. Of these, ten are open prisons for adult males and two for females.

HMP Kirkham: Cat-D in Preston
The more ill-informed elements in our media like to attack open prisons because they are seen as a soft option for disgraced professionals – especially shamed former politicians – as well as offering an opportunity for villains to do a runner. Back in June, for example, one national tabloid ran a story with the worrying headline: ‘One Prisoner Escapes from English and Welsh Open Prisons Every 43 hours’. 

However, the actual article did go on to make clear that these days the number of prisoners who abscond has fallen very significantly: “Between April 2012 and March 2013, 204 prisoners absconded from open prisons in England and Wales. While we shouldn’t dismiss this number as insignificant, it is still dwarfed by a peak of 1,301 absconds in the year 2003/04.” So maybe the headline should have read: ‘Massive decline in prisoners absconding from open prisons’, but that sort of positive story would never do, would it? Not when there is the welcome opportunity to give cons and open jails a good kicking at the same time.

HMI Annual Report
As well as attracting negative media coverage, open prisons are the poor relations of the custodial system. Routinely under-staffed and under-funded for years, the latest rounds of budget cuts have had a severe impact on resources available for education and resettlement – a point that was highlighted in the most recent annual report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

So what should be the role of our Cat-Ds? In my experience, while it’s difficult to see the difference between a Cat-B and a Cat-C prison (both have bars on windows, locked cells, high perimeter walls), an open prison is a very different sort of nick. For a start some don’t even have fences, while one even has a signposted public footpath winding right through the middle of it. Although occasional casual ‘visitors’ passing through can cause nightmares for the security screws, at least they get a chance to catch a glimpse of what goes on inside an open prison.

HMP North Sea Camp: a former Borstal
Some of our open prisons resemble old military camps because that is precisely what many of them previously were. A few others started life as Borstals for juvenile offenders, then later converted to detention centres prior to being re-roled as adult open prisons. 

A fair number are well past their sell-by dates in terms of physical structure and although some have been given a cosmetic make-over (mainly external cladding), there are various underlying structural problems – including the presence of asbestos – that are storing up serious trouble for the future. Due to the current overcrowding across the prison estate, some open prisons have also expanded the numbers they accommodate without having any additional facilities.

In fact, most of the day-to-day maintenance in Cat-Ds is done by prisoners who have the relevant skills, under the supervision of civilian staff. If it wasn’t for this group of skilled cons, it’s doubtful that many of our older open prisons would still be standing. Almost all adult prisons seem to have a significant pool of qualified builders, painters, mechanics or electricians, but only open prisons really seem to make use of their expertise in an appropriate manner. Some open nicks also have a group of drivers who ferry goods, equipment and other prisoners around the local area in vans and minibuses.

HMP Sudbury: ex-US Airforce base
Given the much lower staff to prison ratio – and the routine use of cons in maintenance and catering roles – it’s hardly surprising that Cat-D establishments cost far less to run than closed prisons. According to Ministry of Justice (MOJ) figures released in October 2013, it costs an average of £26,000 per year for a prisoner in open conditions, compared to £33,600 in a Cat-B, £30,600 in a Cat-C and over £60,000 in a high security prison (Cat-A). 

No prisoner arrives directly at a Cat-D straight from court. Every one will have done a stint in at least a Cat-B local prior to being categorised as a Cat-D. This process tends to be automatic for prisoners who are first time offenders and whose crimes, by and large, are non-violent. That’s why open nicks are full of bent solicitors, dodgy accountants, fraudsters, crooked journalists, ex-MPs caught fiddling their expenses and diverse other former professionals who have been convicted and sent down. According to the current rules, the longest period any prisoner should serve in open conditions is two years (with very occasional exceptions), but most short-termers will only be there for a matter of months or sometimes even a few weeks.

However, although large numbers of prisoners serving relatively short stretches for non-violent offences do end up in Cat-Ds, there is also a fairly high proportion of lifers, as well as cons who are coming to the end of long sentences and also prisoners who are still serving the now notorious Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) which was abolished in 2012, although not retrospectively. Most lifers are in for murder for other very serious offences, although some IPPs are serving indeterminate sentences with a short minimum tariff for much less heinous crimes, usually because there was a pattern of repeat offending.

HMP Leyhill: Gloucestershire
These two groups – lifers and short fixed-termers – often co-exist very uneasily together in open conditions. Lifers tend to dislike non-lifers (including IPPs) because they have a completely different mindset towards their sentences and often fail to appreciate the stresses and tensions lifers live with on a daily basis. 

For a life-sentenced prisoner the only chance of eventual release on a life licence is to jump through all the hoops set out in their sentence plan, including convincing psychologists that their risks are now manageable. A life sentence is divided up into ‘stages’ and progressing from a Cat-A high security prison (where most, although not all, lifers start serving their terms) to lower security category establishments is an essential part of a process that can take anything from eight years to well over 30, occasionally even longer.

I’ve shared cells and rooms with ‘real’ lifers – people who have already done 20+ years inside – and I’ve learned a fair amount about the perils and pitfalls they face from them. My pad-mates have explained just how hard it is to make any progress, yet how easy it can be to see years of effort and good behaviour wiped out because of a careless word, a minor behavioural slip-up or a thoughtless argument with another con or a member of staff. These set backs can add years onto a sentence, even when the con has already served far longer than the minimum tariff that was handed down in court. 

It’s very common these days for a lifer whose minimum tariff was – say – ten years to end up serving 15 or even longer. An approximate rule-of-thumb would be take the minimum and then add on an extra five years or so, assuming nothing disastrous occurs during the sentence. Of course, in some cases, particularly notorious cons can end up serving decades beyond their tariffs. 

HMP Ford, Sussex: ex-Fleet Air Arm base 
It is easy to see why those prisoners who don’t have any release date often despise and detest their fellow cons who are doing a matter of months inside. The latter group all have a fixed release date and can make plans for their lives after prison. Just listening to these cons talking about what they will be doing in a matter of weeks or months must be mental torture for lifers.

Moreover, it is also true that some short fixed-termers can be real pains in the backside for everyone, staff and cons alike. They often have only a few months to serve by the time they get transferred to a Cat-D, so they don’t really have much to lose if they are caught drinking, taking drugs, smuggling contraband, bullying or fighting. In most cases, the worst that will happen is that they get sent back to the Cat-B local (‘being shipped out’) for the rest of their sentence. This happens pretty much every week in most open nicks. Even doing a runner by absconding from an open prison just might get them a few extra weeks on top of their current sentences.

If a lifer or an IPP sentenced con behaved like that (and it must be noted that a few do) they could easily add an extra five years inside – the equivalent of a ten year fixed term sentence – to their stretch. It’s also getting much more difficult to get back to a Cat-D for a prisoner who has previously ‘failed in open conditions’ through misbehaviour or absconding. For some lifers, there really isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel.

HMP Kennet: Liverpool
Under revised rules for Cat-Ds introduced earlier this year by the MOJ, any prisoner who already has a history of escaping or absconding can only be transferred to an open prison in exceptional circumstances. This has the potential to turn some life sentences into true whole-life tariffs, although the government claims that other arrangements will be made, such as making use of what are sometimes called ‘semi-open’ conditions (often a designated wing in an existing Cat-C prison). Prisoners in these conditions are still kept behind walls and fences.

This raises the key question of what should we be using scarce Cat-D places to achieve? Should open conditions be mainly used to test lifers and other indeterminate sentenced prisoners in more relaxed conditions as part of a progressive process leading towards their eventual release or should these nicks be filled up with non-violent bent lawyers, crooked ex-MPs, ex-magistrates in for drunk driving and journalists who’ve been caught hacking phones?
Clearly, the government position is that Cat-Ds should be mainly focused on the lifers, as part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous made clear when he answered a Parliamentary Question on 4 September 2014: 

Open prisons have been used since 1936, because they are the most effective means of ensuring that prisoners are suitably risk-assessed before they are released into the community under appropriate licence conditions. When a prisoner moves to the less rigid structure of open conditions an assessment can be made in a relatively safe environment of how the prisoner will adapt to increasing responsibility. For many prisoners, in particular those such as life sentence prisoners, who have spent a considerable amount of time in custody; these are essential components for successful reintegration in the community and therefore an important factor in protecting the public.

Of course, there is an argument to be made that it is waste of taxpayers’ money to keep non-violent offenders or those who pose minimal risk to the public in closed prisons. I would broadly agree with this. However, my own question would be whether there is any real point in sending non-violent, low-risk people to prison in the first place, especially first-time offenders? 

HMP Blantyre House: Kent
If these individuals are considered safe enough to be transferred to open conditions in the first place, particularly just a few weeks into their short sentences, why not simply release them on a longer licence period with recall to closed conditions should that prove necessary? This would then free up much needed Cat-D places for prisoners who really do have a need to be tested in open conditions in order to provide evidence to the Parole Board that they are ready for release on life licence. In addition this could save a significant amount of public money.

There is also the reality that many of our current Cat-Ds are close to the end of their useful lives – or in certain cases even well beyond them – since a proper programme of renovation would cost millions and the cash simply isn’t available. Sooner or later, some wings and units will be condemned as unfit for human occupation or just simply fall to pieces.

HMP Lindholme: Cat-D closed
Perhaps one solution will be the use of ‘cluster’ prisons, where various security categories can be housed in different units within a single prison perimeter. Some nicks, notably HMP Brixton – a Cat-C – already offers Cat-D facilities that allow prisoners to have release on temporary licence (ROTL), do voluntary work in the local community or even take approved paid work, subject to a 40 percent victims’ surcharge on weekly net earnings over £20.  

However, a similar experiment at HMP Lindholme, a Cat-C near Doncaster, ended in catastrophe when it was closed after having been savaged by HM Inspectorate in 2013. According to the report the Cat-D wing at the prison was “the worst establishment seen for many years” and had been awash with drugs and alcohol during the inspection. Perhaps the real problem was a lack of budget to actually make the open wing function properly.

On the other hand, since the present government has effectively abandoned all real pretence of delivering rehabilitation in the rest of our prison system, it can hardly be expected that our existing open prisons will be given sufficient resources to enable them to focus on resettlement and preparation of prisoners for release. And that’s a tragic waste of potential opportunities to achieve positive change and support prisoners’ reintegration back into society.