What is the future of prison regimes?

Work with offenders on changes to the prison system

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons have published their latest report into the work going on behind the walls of our prisons. The inspection of HMP Manchester focused, like so many inspections this year, on the poor quality of the daily regime. The inspection which took place this September when we had not even heard of Omicron and it looked like we would be having a more normal Christmas found that “too many men were still locked in their cells for most of the day, with few jobs and limited access to education and training.”

In its recent Prisons White Paper which sets out the government’s penal strategy for the next 10 years (you can read our summary here), the Ministry of Justice talks about Building Back Better Prison Regimes after the (necessary) restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic. Alongside a commitment to better education, employment and resettlement opportunities and more governor autonomy to design their own regimes, there is a worrying discussion of how prisons were safer during the pandemic when everyone was locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day. It is not clear whether the government is signalling that it wants more structured activities in the day but everyone banged up with no association in the evenings and weekends.

A view from inside 

Certainly, prisoners are frustrated by the boredom and repetition of life inside. The latest fascinating report from the Prison Reform Trust’s Prisoner Policy Network (PPN) entitled “It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This: Prisoner Policy Network Perspectives on Future Prison Design”, presents the views of more than 600 people in 50 different prisons who were asked to help design a better prison regime. The report was deliberately launched at the start of this month to coincide with the White Paper.

Prisoners talked repeatedly about the deprivations that they have endured during the pandemic, and continue to endure. Importantly, they said that ambition to embed a new regime would be affected by the same structural and operational problems that frustrated efforts to reform before Covid-19 struck. Some key themes emerge.

The point of prison

Prisoners were perplexed and confused by the purpose of the regime and of the prison itself. Many contributions alluded to tensions between experiences of punishment and experiences of rehabilitation. Prisoners wanted to know that there was a purpose to their time inside. And they wanted the regime to make use of their time to deliver that purpose. Prisoners consistently identified the tensions in the system, between punishment, care, rehabilitation, personal growth and progression. The balance of the competing priorities and the differing weights given to them at different prisons, as well as by different staff contributed to either gratitude to have landed in a “good” prison that delivered on needs, or despair at being in a “bad” prison that did not.

“I get it’s punishment, but then if that is what it is, stop talking about rehabilitation. There isn’t much of that happening, and I am just getting wound up looking for it.”

“I have already been punished by being sent to prison, why I am also being punished whilst I’m here.”

Prisoners were keen to have some purpose to their time incarcerated.

Many people talked of wanting to have something to get up for in the morning, something to keep them motivated during their time in prison. Overwhelmingly there was a focus on self-development and change.

“A typical day in prison should provide a rehabilitative culture that offers meaningful activities that are progressive, inclusive, safe and give hope.”

One of the most prominent themes of the consultation was a wish for the prison environment to mirror the outside community as much as possible. People talked about how retaining some sense of normality inside can help personal growth in the criminal justice journey, and contribute to successful release.

“How is lying in bed all day normal? How is always having to ask for a toilet roll normal, how is being allocated work normal, like you don’t have to do an job application; because it isn’t normal, well then abnormal behaviours develop that only work in prison, but not outside; so in losing normality, we lose our ability to be normal again.”

Recommendations 

The report puts forward a series of recommendations which it hopes that prison leaders will consider as they plan “to build back better”. These include:

  • Meeting basic daily needs must be  a priority for recovery. These are the foundation of a stable and successful prison community.
  • The prison environment should mirror the outside community as much as possible. This includes a longer working day for prisoners; studying for qualifications which outside employers value; and being able to create and maintain more typical parental or familial relationships.
  • Prison management and staff should  encourage and cultivate a community between prisoners and the establishment they are living in—with more opportunities to get involved in decision making, activity planning, and sentence progression.
  • Safety must be built on trusting relationships, not punitive actions or fear of reprisal.

 Interested readers can find the PPN report in full here.