Last week saw the publication of the Harris Review, Changing Prisons, Saving Lives. It was prompted by the large number of young adults and children who take their own lives in our prisons – there were 101 such deaths over the seven-year period that the report covers – but its scope extended to also examine such things as the purpose of prison, the nature of rehabilitation and the treatment of all people within the prison estate.
I read it, as I imagine most people with at least a passing acquaintance with our prison system did, with recognition, and with a mixture of anger and frustration. Anger, because, as the report states, our “prisons and young offender institutions are grim environments: bleak and demoralising to the spirit”. Frustrated, because this report could have been published, pretty much word for word, at any point in the past thirty years.
Lord Harris describes a prison system populated by young people with high rates of mental ill-health. They are often disturbed by their experiences of childhood, with many having backgrounds of abuse and/or of living in the care system. Healthcare services in prison are too stretched and inadequate to treat any but the most severely ill and, even when accepted for treatment, appointments are often missed. This is in no small part due to the staff shortages that also mean that many prisoners, especially in local prisons such as Birmingham, spend most of their days locked behind the doors of their cells.
There are some good people working in our prisons, but they are restricted by the system they work in. It’s one that contains a dispiriting work culture with a fatalistic approach towards its failure to create positive change for the people within it. In fact, we think so little of the work that prison staff do that they are provided with just eight weeks of initial training. We seriously undervalue the profession of prison officer and we get the results you might expect from this.
There are also many third sector organisations who work inside prisons and with people on release. Samaritans is one such organisation. It trains and supports prisoner Listener Schemes – where serving prisoners are the equivalent of Samaritans inside. These Listeners deliver much needed emotional support to their peers in the most difficult of circumstances. They do it in a prison system where distress and mental ill-health are prevalent and where far too many people are incarcerated, for too long and often with scant attempts at rehabilitation.
To have a child go into prison is an awful experience for any parent. For them to die while inside causes the sort of heartbreak that most of us can only begin to imagine. The Harris Review tells us, in detail, of the circumstances that lead to many young adults taking their lives in prison. Many of the recommendations it makes would lead to significant improvements in the lives of people inside our prisons.
There are a lot of recommendations in the Review. If any of them are going to be implemented successfully then the fundamental recommendation in the chapter on the purpose of prison will need to be addressed. It states that:
A prison should provide to those in custody a regime whose primary goal is rehabilitation. The penalty of imprisonment is the removal of liberty; all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for their human rights (including the European Convention on Human Rights) and their individual protected characteristics (as defined by the Equality Act 2010). Restrictions placed on persons deprived of their liberty shall be the minimum necessary and proportionate to the legitimate objective for which those restrictions are imposed. Life in prison should approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community.
Once we’ve decided to send somebody to prison we should then do the best we can to help them lead a crime-free life upon release. A prison system that was truly focused on rehabilitation would undoubtedly lose fewer prisoners to suicide.
It’s really worth writing to your MP if you feel strongly about this and ask them how they are going to support the review. It is an issue that seldom gets much publicity and politicians often have to be especially convinced that prison reform is something their constituents want to see them involved in.
I’ll post both my letter and the response it gets on here.