Sunday, 4 February 2018

Prisons - A Broken System?

In January Alan Brine spoke to us in Stockport on "Prisons - A Broken System?" Alan has been working as the humanist Chaplain for one day a week in Manchester prison for two years. Prisons are not the holiday camps so beloved of the Daily Mail. They are overcrowded with many prisoners sharing cells for up to 23 hours a day, eating their meals there and with a toilet in the same room. Every day prisoners are bussed around the country to extraordinary locations to make sure every last bed space is filled.  Prison reform is desperately needed and historically Humanists have been at the forefront of this cause.  Many prisoners are victims – of their upbringing or drugs. They are our prisons and we are all responsible.

England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe and the prison population has risen 80% in the last 30 years although there has been no significant increase in crime. Why?

There has been an increase in sentencing and there are new offences. We use prison for petty and persistent crime. In 2016 68,000 people were sent to prison, 71% of whom had committed non-violent offences, and 47% were sentenced to six months or less. The use of Community Sentencing has nearly halved since 2006 in spite of the fact that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentencing; and the numbers released on temporary licence (ROTL) have been dramatically reduced (40% in the last three years) in spite of the consistently high success rate.

Current challenges include: aging estate and overcrowding; recruitment, retention and training of staff; drugs and their associated problems; rise in violence against staff and prisoners; self-harm, suicide and mental health problems; and boredom and lack of purposeful activity. Young inexperience officers suffer and many older ones have old-fashioned attitudes. Poor health care in prisons puts further strain on the NHS. In the year to March 2017 344 people died in prison. A third were self-inflicted and nearly three in five were due to natural causes. Only 5% of the prison population are women but they contribute half of all self-harming cases. Serious assaults on staff have more than doubled over the last three years.

A wide variety of prisoners are in the same prison. Manchester prison has a large number of remand also has Category A offenders, kept in isolation, sex offenders and those with a price on their heads due to gang activity. First time offenders struggle to make sense of the system and many recidivists fear freedom. IPP (Imprisoned for public protection) prisoners are considered so dangerous that they cannot be allowed out until they demonstrate they are fit to be released – something that is difficult to do. The parole board system is broken, and even if released a minor offence results in immediate recall.

10% of people sent to prison are women even though only 5% of the prison population are women, so most must serve sentences of less than twelve months. 50% have experience domestic abuse and 30% were in care as children. 60% leave without a home and only 10% have a job to go to. 90% of the children leaving the family home are as a result of the mother’s imprisonment. Because there are few women’s prisons many are far away from home making visiting difficult or impossible.

Alan’s personal view of prison culture is: there is no such thing as a typical prison; the regime is confused and contradictory, unsafe and unstable; an alien environment for most - harsh, tense and raw; a place of hierarchy power and authority in which security comes first.

There are statutory obligations on the prison service regarding the provision of Chaplains. All prisoners must be able to practice their religion, have religious artifacts, celebrate festivals, have the opportunity for weekly religious services or meditation and request a Chaplain. A Chaplain from each denomination must be provided on request and the Chaplaincy Team have a duty to provide pastoral support for all prisoners in times of bereavement, serious illness, self-harm or suicide intent, or following a death in custody.

Humanist Chaplains are popular because they get things done. However there is some resistance to non-religious Chaplains and being a part-timer can be problematic when there are serious on-going situations.

Many prisoners find comfort in religion and there are advantages for some in being religious e.g. being allowed out of one’s cell to attend prayer meetings.

There is a need to work out protocols for Humanists working with religious colleagues.

Humanists UK trains and accredits humanist Pastoral Support Volunteers to work in hospitals, prisons, schools and the armed forces. Humanist PSV’s come from all walks of life, but share these qualities in common: a personable disposition, a profound sense of empathy, a non-judgmental attitude, a keen commitment to helping others, patience and a strenuous ethic of professionalism.

If you are interested in becoming a humanist pastoral care volunteer please contact:
Simon O’Donoghue 
Useful links: 
Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile Autumn 2017 
Howard League for Penal Reform: 
Prison Reform Trust 
The Bromley Trust 
Clinks – support for offenders and families 
Prisoners Education Trust 
Grendon Prison 
Prison UK: an insider's view 
@PrisonUK – Twitter page for Alex Cavendish – excellent

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