May 10 2022

Is prison too soft? PAS/ JusticeGap debate

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Is prison too soft? PAS/ JusticeGap debate

‘Prison is a society. It felt at times like we were prisoners of war and that there was an enemy outside. Perhaps that enemy was the media.’ Lord Hanningfield speaking this week about his experience of a nine-week spell inside at a fundraising event for the Prisoners Advice Service.

The debate was called Is prison really too soft? and was part of the JusticeGap series.

Erwin James, Guardian journalist and PAS patron, chaired and the panelists were (from left to right):

  • Lord Hanningfield, the Conservative peer who was jailed last year for claiming overnight expenses to stay in London when he was not in the capital;
  • Dr Ben Crewe, deputy director of Prisons Research Centre, Cambridge University;
  • Leroy Skeete, ex-client of PAS;
  • Rachel Halford, director of Women in Prison; and
  • Deborah Coles, co-director, INQUEST;

Closing speech: Judge John Samuels, chairman of the Prisoners’ Education Trust and vice-president of UNLOCK.

Thanks to the City law firm Hogan Lovells for hosting the event for a second year – and to the panelists.

The evening was a fundraiser for the Prisoners Advice Service, the charity that provides legal advice and information to prisoners in England and Wales regarding their rights. If you want to support PAS, then you can donate HERE.

‘The fact that the prison population today is 88,500 is, in my language, obscene. For practical purposes nothing effective can be achieved with a prison population that is bursting at the seams.’
Judge Samuels


Take him down
Lord Hanningfield spoke of the ‘trauma’ of being sent to prison following the expenses scandal. He was one of six MPs and peers jailed for fraud. ‘I did not expect to go to prison,’ the peer told the audience. ‘I’m 71 years old. All my professional advisers – probation officers, psychiatrists, doctor… – thought I wouldn’t.’ He said that he ‘virtually had a nervous breakdown’ as a result of the pressure of the scandal (‘…the media were camping outside my house…’). ‘When the judge said: “Take him down” – I thought that was terrible. I think he was playacting,’ he said.

Hanningfield recounted being taken from the court to spend his first night in the cells. ‘Someone shouted out as they put me in the back of the van: “We have a Lord here”. To which I shouted back: “I am a farmer actually, and I went to grammar school”.’

The peer, born Paul White and a former pig farmer, described himself as ‘quite a friendly guy’ who knew little about the realities of prison life other than what he read in the media. He spent his first weekend in prison ‘banged up’ with an old lag who had been inside most of his adult life (‘… he had 10 years not in prison’) who prepared him for what to expect. ‘He was imprisoned for violence, and now for growing cannabis. We were in the cell 23 hours a day.’ He called his cellmate ‘a pretty good guy’. ‘We talked the whole weekend. He saved me in a way because without that I would have gone deeper into my depression.’

Village life
Lord Hanningfield served his time at Standford Hill prison on the Isle of Sheppey on the same landing as former Labour MP Jim Devine and Tory Lord Taylor of Warwick (also invited to the debate but who pulled out because he was still in his probation period).

Hanningfield’s experience was not all negative. ‘I met a lot of nice people in prison,’ he said. ‘I live in a village. I found the open prison a bit like a village.’ However his experience has made the peer want to devote some of his energies to being a prison reformer. He blamed the media for failing to portray the realities of prison life and for his own vilification. ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of parliamentary expenses, the media have got a lot to answer for. A lot of what we are talking about tonight is caused by the media.’

‘I hope I can use some of that knowledge in the future in helping rehabilitate other people,’ the peer said. ‘What is the point of banging people up in prison if they just come out and commit another crime?’

Deborah Coles of INQUEST argued that it was wrong to ‘just blame the press’ for a misrepresentation of the issues. ‘They do sometimes take a lead from politicians. I find it depressing that people in positions of power are not more willing to take account for some of the real abuses.’

She said that, whilst Lord Hanningfield spoke powerfully about his experiences, INQUEST had just been dealing with the case of a 17-year-old with ADHD and the mental age of a 14-year-old who ended up at Hindley, a young offenders’ institution with ‘a reputation for problems with bullying not just by prisoners but by staff’. The young man was too scared to come out of the cell and couldn’t sleep because of a mix up over the medication. ‘He hung himself from the cell bars. To me that is a real outrage.’

Profit motive
The increasing privatization of the prison service was a theme of the PAS debate. There are currently 13 private prisons run by G4S, Serco and Kalyx and the UK now has a higher proportion of prisoners in private hands than even the US. Matt Evans, PAS’s solicitor-manager considers the issue HERE.

‘The continued expansion of the prison system, the numbers of people we lock up and the types of crimes we lock them up for, and the continued and increasing incarceration of children and vulnerable adults especially, is a national disgrace. However if we do need to lock people up then there are certain functions which are the undiluted responsibility of the State.’
Matt Evans

Dr Ben Crewe was involved in a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of public and private prisons. ‘The best prisons in our evaluation were in the private sector but so were the worst,’ he said; adding that the research results were ‘not at all neat’. ‘You cannot generalise about the quality of life in prisons in the private sector,’ he said; adding, however, that some results were ‘unambiguous even though I have reservations about the involvement of the private sector’. The data indicated ‘in almost every respect, the degree to which they were treated fairly, humanely and the degree to which they felt safe’ private prisons were better than the public prisons.’ Why? In relation to one private prison, he replied that it was simply run under an expensive contract. ‘There is just more money to spend. Staff might get paid less money but there might be employment programs, offending behaviour programmes’.

‘I’ve always been very fundamentally opposed to the private prisons,’ Deborah Coles said. She approved of what she called ‘the lack of militarization’ of the private prison culture. Coles spoke of INQUEST’s work into restraints-related deaths in privately-run establishments – for example, Adam Rickwood, a 14-year-old who was found hanging in his room at Hassockfield secure training centre where he was on remand in 2004. Rickwood was reckoned to be the youngest person to die in custody in Britain in recent times.

‘We’re talking about some of the most vulnerable and damaged children in society. Many of them have quite significant mental health issues. If you run an institution for profit then the motivation is around the security of the establishment rather than the well being of the individuals.’
Deborah Coles

Erwin James asked why there wasn’t greater outrage about such deaths. Coles said that there was a ‘dehumanisation of people behind the walls of institutions. Somehow they are seen as “other”. I think that is particularly true of children.’

After a second inquest following Adam Rickwood’s death, Coles recalled being approached by two jurors outside the courtroom. ‘They said: “Why don’t we know about what is going on in these institutions?” What can you say to that? People don’t want to know. We have campaigned for years into a public inquiry into the way that we treat children in conflict with the law. One of the reasons why we have been denied that is because it would expose to public scrutiny exactly what we are doing to these children. They would rather pretend it was not happening.’

Punishment of rehabilitation
Rachel Halford said that another prisoner group treated as ‘other’ were women prisoners who she called ‘one of the most marginalised groups in society and one that has been historically let down by society’. She claimed some eight out of 10 women prisoners had mental health issues.

‘You really have to ask what prison is about? Is it about punishment or rehabilitation? It should be about rehabilitation and dealing with those people who pose a risk to society – 80% of women in prison do not pose a risk to people in society. Why are they there? They are extremely damaged human beings who actually come out of prison far worse than when they went in – and then they join a never-ending cycle of reoffending; what they need is proper support in the community.’
Rachel Halford

The impact on families when a woman goes to prison was ‘absolutely huge’. Some 17,000 children a year are separated from their mothers, Halford said.

A cushy number?
Leroy Skeete was asked about the media’s preoccupation with the apparent availability of flat screen TVs and PlayStations for prisoners. Four years ago Skeete was in HM Prison Dartmoor at the end of his sentence and having completed a 10-year tariff for GBH and wounding. The prisoner was told he wouldn’t be released but instead faced a further seven years inside – not because he had caused any trouble during his time but because he had to complete an offending behaviour course. That wasn’t possible because there were only a couple of prisons where the ‘cognitive self-change behaviour programme’ course was available and a five-year waiting list for places.

Skeete was represented by PAS’s Matt Evans, and successfully challenged the decision at a parole board hearing. Skeete was released on licence three years ago.

Is life too cushy for prisoners? Erwin James asked him. ’If you think the prisoners have a better life than you then you must be truly miserable,’ Skeete replied. TVs and PlayStations were not there to provide prisoners with ‘fun and entertainment, they are there as pacifiers’. ‘If they weren’t there, prisoners would smash the prison up. There’d be a riot and then people would read about it more in the newspapers.’ If prisoners are angry they go back to their cell. ‘Then EastEnders comes on. It’s electronic valium.’

So was prison too soft? ‘Talk to the families,’ Skeete suggested; adding that the figures for prisoner suicides suggested otherwise. Erwin James reckoned that were on average about two suicides a week. James, a convicted murderer, reckoned that some 1247 people ‘took their own lives in my 20 years in jail’.

‘If there was any other organisation that was responsible for two deaths a week, people would say that was an outrage,’ said Skeete. ‘But because they are in prison, it doesn’t matter.’

‘We have become very blasé about what it means to deprive someone of their liberty,’ said Ben Crewe. He believed that Hanningfield might have been ‘quite lucky’ in his experience. ‘Many prisoners find the experience terrifying. We shouldn’t think that isn’t a very severe punishment. The fact that prisoners have TV and occasionally a PlayStation doesn’t make up for that basic deprivation.’


The perfect prison?
Barrister Felicity Gerry, of 36 Bedford Row, asked panelists ‘what would the perfect prison be’ in their view. Panelists mentioned Norway’s Halden prison which according to a recent profile in the Guardian ‘has won an award for its interior design’ (see, ‘Inside Halden, the most humane prison in the world’). ‘Every cell has a flatscreen TV, an en-suite shower and fluffy, white towels. At first glance you might think you were inside a Scandinavian boutique hotel rather than a class A prison housing murderers and rapists.

‘Prisons do not exist without the cultures and political systems that surround them,’ answered Ben Crewe.  He pointed to, amongst other things, Norway’s much stronger welfare system in Norway. ‘You cannot answer that question without answering a slightly different question about society at large.’

Felicity Gerry did have an – courtesy of Twitter. ‘One that was empty and didn’t need to be filled.’

An obscenity
Judge Samuels wound up the session.

‘The fact that the prison population today is 88,500 is, in my language, obscene. For practical purposes nothing effective can be achieved with a prison population that is bursting at the seams.’
Judge Samuels

He said ‘everybody in this audience’ ought to be able to recognise that the community sentences weren’t ‘a soft option’. ‘We need to ensure that those in the community – particularly politicians and the media – are aware of the fact that it is actually much easier to get through a short custodial sentence that is to cope with a constructive community sentence.’

‘There are far too many prisoners who I see day after day without any legal representation at all. Legal aid is becoming more and more difficult. PAS shines like a beacon.’
Judge John Samuels


One response to “Is prison too soft? PAS/ JusticeGap debate”

  1. Hpinchen says:

    The Official Secrets Act is a much to blame for the secrecy and appaulling scandal of huge numbers of women being inprisoned as the rather ignorant Red Top media.

    Prison Officers are obliged to sign the OSA but are privately only to happy to admit that “women are being sent to jail so that we have a job”

    Truly Scandalous stories like the former Governor of HMP Downviewn Russel Thorne being found guilty at Guildford Crown of inpregnating a vulneable female prisoner and sentence to Five years for Wilfull Misconduct in Public Office are all to quickly hushed up.

    I asked Eric Macgraw editor of Inside Time the highly regarded national newspaper for prisoners why the Queen doesn’t intervene in the travesty of jusice that is being daily perpetuated in her name.

    “She probably doesn’t know and even if she did the Ministry of Justice probably wouldn’t let her ” he said.

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