In the run up to the Queen’s Speech, you could have been mistaken for thinking that prisons had become a national past-time. The BBC was invited into HMP Wandsworth by its Governor (and with the blessing of the Justice Minister) to show how near from losing control we are in some of our prisons. The result is extraordinary.
Earlier in May the inspector of prisons warned of the “devastating” impact that ‘spice’ and other new psychoactive substances are having on the lives of people inside (both staff and prisoners). This was all followed by what seemed like blanket coverage of the new reform measures announced, from piloting ‘reform prisons’ and giving governors’ more of a say on how they run their establishments, to allowing technology in to support learning when inside. Even the Archers got in on the act.
Having served at Her Majesty’s pleasure on more than one occasion in the past, watching the Queen put prison reform at the centre of her speech, and listening to prison officers and prisoners talking about the dangers they face and the need for change, bizarrely gave me hope that we are recognising the depth of change needed. Hearing it come from the top, the agreement amongst staff and prisoners, it feels like there is some consensus for change that brings progress and promotes rehabilitation. We are at the tipping point.
Amongst all this, I find myself on the Advisory Group of the Future Prison, a project continuing RSA’s work on prisons, working with Transitions Spaces, a community interest company that I have seen develop from its early days working with HMP Humber. Sat in a posh room in a posh building in a very posh part of London with some very knowledgeable and experienced people (including a former governor, former prison inspector, an education reformer, business leads and prison philanthropists) it does not feel like ‘us and them’. It feels like the future, like a collaboration where my input – and others with my experience – will help to create better outcomes.
So how did I get here? When I was inside, I co-designed a prisoner-led service that aimed to upskill those prisoners providing support to their peers. I was able to do this because a governor dared to be different; he supported this innovation, linked me to the RSA’s work and to the prison management team. I was given internet access, a printer and the support of a couple of officers. This was unheard of in the prison and the scheme still operates today; having been driven forward by one of my fellow prisoners, or rather, a colleague.
That governors’ foresight got me where I am today. The lads got decent jobs with better pay and training and the prison got a workforce that supported their peers who are vulnerable and exposed to mind-bending drugs. The officers, who are already stretched, saved time. Collaboration, hard work and persistence got the RSA’s prison work to where it is today. We may or may not make have the impact we strive for but we will not spend our time focused just on how drastic the situation is in some prisons. That won’t make the difference we want to see and can ignore people like the governor I worked with or the hundreds of good officers and fellow prisoners I have met who make that difference every day. Our job is to look at how the reform agenda can support this.
We could spend the next 10 years griping. There are those who simply do not care about the rise in suicides and self-harm (although even they should be concerned, surely, by the plight of prison staff who find themselves in the firing line). An ‘us and them’ attitude is not going to help. There are others who are desperate to see change but are full of doubt, have their own agendas or think the way to engage the public is to only focus on the pitfalls and hurdles.
Don’t get me wrong, I know this journey will be a long one, that money is tight and that the issues are complex (this is reflected in the Future Prison work that will look at health, employment, education, risk in the context of greater freedoms for governors). I know this is not ‘a one size fits all’ challenge and not a just a prison problem; most of the people I spent time with in prison were those who have been failed by society and massively struggle to, as we say inside, get down with the program. Alcohol and drugs play a large part in most prisoners’ lives both in and out of prison. Prison can be respite from chaos and a home for others. But it can also become a place where they can learn skills and learn to hope. ‘Doing it’ right can save taxpayers money and create safer communities.
So, how can governors’ use their freedoms to support rehabilitation when their jurisdiction stops at the gate? How could greater local decision-making help to develop a coordinated, seamless system that supports people beyond prison walls? What is rehabilitation beyond waiting for people to tire of walking around in circles?
The Future Prison is helping to address these questions and more. Surely, if even the Queen has given us permission to think radically about how we create a system that drives better conditions and outcomes, we have a duty to collaborate, work hard and persist in taking practical action that can further this cause? While we should not get ahead of ourselves, we do need to start celebrating the possibilities. I serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Read the scoping paper online - The Future Prison (via Medium)
Download the Future Prison scoping paper (PDF, 320KB)
Find out more about the Future Prison project
Paul Tye has served a total of 5 years inside prison since he was in his 20s. He has worked in substance misuse services and sits on the Future Prison Advisory Group.
Rachel O’Brien reflects on the call for a focus on rehabilitation by the new Secretary of State for Justice as RSA Radio launches their Rebuilding Life After Prison podcast series