Thursday, April 9, 2015

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Can Prison Councils Ever Work?

Alex Cavendish casts doubt on the value of prison councils. 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.
I’ve been interested in the issue of prison councils for years – long before I ended up inside the slammer myself. The reason is that, as a kid, I watched the famous US prison movie Brubaker staring Robert Redford and it made quite an impression on me. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that I’ve always been keen on prison reform.

Brubaker: prison reformer
For those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the plot beyond observing that it is – loosely – based on the true story of a reforming warden of a notorious state prison in Arkansas in the late 1960s. One of the first things that his fictional counterpart did, after discouraging the torture, whipping, rape and murder of the inmates in his charge by the brutal trustees of course, was to create a prison council. 

A minor subplot in the movie is taken up by the electioneering among the cons who decided to stand for election to the new council. Whether this really reflected what actually happened in Arkansas, I’m not sure. 

I have read the memoirs of the real warden upon whom the character of Brubaker was based – Dr Thomas Murton – however, I honestly can’t recall that part of the historical story. In any case, it’s the fictional version that I’m interested in for this post.

In the movie, the actual inmate council meeting wasn’t a great success. To start with the new warden left the recently elected members to their own devices and the discussion soon degenerated into a near punch-up. Eventually, when things had calmed down, there was aimless debate about everything – and nothing. It seemed that the sceptical trustees had been proven right.

I’ve always been a little sceptical of ‘councils’ myself – whether of the school variety or those in prisons. I’ve also served on more than enough university committees to realise that the size of any group is often inversely proportional to the amount of actual output: the larger the body, the less that seems to get done. If you doubt that, take a look at the enormous UN General Assembly. It’s an object lesson in talking without really achieving much. Hence the existence of the much smaller Security Council which is where the real power lies.

Prisoners meetings... often a lot of talking and little action
In the case of prison councils I am even more doubtful of their practicality. Most prisons that I served in simply didn’t bother with them. No-one in the senior management really had the time to spare and the vast majority of cons regarded the very idea as laughable. Just standing for ‘election’ could have made a prisoner a target for abuse. After all, only ‘screw-boys’ and grasses volunteer for such roles, not ‘staunch’ cons.

A couple of jails did have ‘wing reps’, but these were appointed positions, rather than elected ones. These roles involved turning up for occasional meetings during which issues such as food and leaking showers would be raised – time and again – without anything ever really happening. Notes would be made, minutes photocopied and no actual action taken. It was all a complete waste of time. However, because there hadn’t been any elections beforehand, there was no pretence that this was a democratic process.

Funnily enough, most reps meetings took place shortly before a visit by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Call me cynical, but I suspect that these shows of inmate participation were designed to tick boxes with the visiting inspectors rather than improve conditions.

Only one prison in which I served actually attempted to run an advisory council. I was a member for about six months. Meetings were very infrequent. Occasionally a governor grade turned up, but more often than not it would be a bored custodial manager who sat in the chair. There were all the trappings of a democratic body: agendas, minutes, voting by show of hands. However, as with the reps’ meetings in other establishments, little or nothing really ever came of all the talking.

First-time voter?
Inevitably, the cons who got elected (or more usually selected by the management) tended to be the more articulate ones – white-collar fraudsters or bent professionals of various types. Most also liked to hear the sound of their own voices, so prison council meetings tended to be both long and tedious.

By the end of most sessions I’d lost the will to live and I wasn’t alone. And above all, deep down we knew that there just weren’t sufficient resources – budget or staff – to institute any much-needed changes or improvements. 

To give you just one simple example, a particular shower block was completely without any shower curtains for the entire year I was at this establishment. Other wings had them, but ours didn’t. The problem could have been sorted out by someone ordering four of the cheapest ones in the Argos catalogue – probably less than 30 quid the lot. However, because there was neither the money available, nor the political will to do anything about it, this item appeared on the council agenda at every meeting. 

No curtains
Each time it was agreed that something needed to be done. The residential manager would nod and make a note. Then we all went away and no shower curtains ever materialised. I challenge anyone to maintain a level of enthusiasm for such pointless discussions. Being in prison is quite tedious and stressful enough without having endless meetings about non-existent shower curtains, dodgy laundry machines, missing bog-brushes or chronic shortages of jail soap and toothpaste.

Frontline staff also tend to resent such meetings when they involve prisoners. Morale is rock-bottom and there is a general perception that managers just aren’t listening to their concerns. A forum where cons get to meet with senior managers, including governors, is never going to popular with screws even at the best of times. In the current atmosphere prison councils will be resented all the more.

Prisons in the UK are all about powerlessness by design. Prisoners are not expected to be making decisions about anything beyond their weekly meal choices and canteen purchases. At a time when many prisons are forced to run restricted regimes and are so short of staff that library visits, education sessions, exercise and gym are regularly cancelled, is it really likely that prison councils could ever actually function as intended?

Staff shortages mean cancelled activities
Of course, in an ideal world, such consultative bodies could provide prisoners with a rare opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to take responsibility; to discuss issues of concern at an adult level; to alert the prison management to serious problems or grievances before they erupt into disorder or violence – even to come up with innovative solutions to everyday glitches within specific establishments. Wing elections could also introduce cons to the concept of listening to candidates, asking questions and casting votes – possibly for the first time in their lives. 

The problem with grass-roots democracy is that it involves time and effort. It requires staff engagement and – if it is to maintain the confidence of both representatives and those they represent – the ability to deliver on issues of genuine importance. Given our current prison crisis, my own view is that where such councils or similar representative bodies do exist they are no more than window-dressing for the benefit of HM Inspectorate of Prison or official visitors. It’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the RMS Titanic after the iceberg has been hit: a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time. Sad, but true.