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Howard League blog · 11 May 2018

Making a difference in prison

I have visited seven prisons in the last few weeks and have seen some good things going on. These have included private and public sector, locals and long-termers and women’s prisons.

These thoughts are not a comprehensive plan, nor do my visits in any way resemble inspections. But, I have been visiting prisons for 30 years and have also spent time looking at other institutions, so it is possible to pick up the atmosphere and every time I learn something.

Of course I saw a lot to be concerned about: the overcrowding, shabby buildings, people who clearly were too ill or elderly to be in prison, lack of facilities – the list goes on and on. This blog is about the good stuff, the things that can be replicated and could make a difference.

I spent a few hours yesterday in a busy local outside London that is somehow managing to give prisoners three hot meals a day during the week.

When men had been shipped in from a prison that had a disturbance, men had been transported hundreds of miles, they arrived angry, tired and resentful. The offer of a cooked breakfast in the morning had a significant calming effect.

It was bringing people together and making them feel valued

It had been a prison in trouble, but was turning a corner due to a combination of significantly reduced numbers of prisoners and investment in staff morale.

Monday to Friday staff were offered breakfast (tea and toast) free of charge between 6am and 8am which brought them together and showed them they were valued. The cost was minimal, the impact was huge.

The deputy governor assured me that this had led directly to a reduction in conflict with prisoners and consequently less use of physical restraints.

One of the biggest city prisons in the country has installed phones inside men’s cells, a programme that is slowly being rolled out across the country.

The benefit of this was illustrated when a prisoner told me he had been unable to phone his children or wife because the kids were in school and his wife was in work during the only times he was let out of his cell to use the communal and very public phones on the landings. Now, he said, he could call in the evenings calmly and in private.

Food was definitely a theme. In another big city local the governor had organised lunch once a week for staff, held in the chapel, cooked and served by prisoners as part of a training programme. Staff made donations to cover the cost and this usually goes to a nominated charity.

Again, it was bringing people together and making them feel valued and seemed to be appreciated – I joined them for lunch, pie and mash.

Release on temporary licence is being used more and it has eased the pressure on prisons

The population of older prisoners is increasing and I saw a prison wing designated for palliative care that was indeed very caring, possibly a more supportive and kindly set-up than many care homes in the community.

The physical environment was pretty Spartan and only a few of the cells were adapted to fit a wheelchair, but the staff were committed and the men had established a community among themselves that worked and had been enabled by managers.

Now that release on temporary licence is being used more, it has eased the pressure on prisons and they are feeling it. The recruitment of new staff is also making a difference, so that prisons under pressure are no longer being asked to relinquish staff to prisons under even more pressure.

New staff who stay the course (and lots do not) are starting to learn the craft and be useful. It’s still early days and experienced staff are still being asked to do two jobs – their own and mentoring new recruits – but there are green shoots.


  • Christine says:

    you are an Angel Frances Crook 💛

    • Trevor Ellis says:

      I totally agree with you, Christine.

      Frances Crook is a real breath of fresh air and is like an oasis in a vast desert-like environment and I am of course referring to UK prisons in which many inmates are wasting away for want of consideration and compassion.

      Don’t get me wrong, I know that prison is a punishment but it is as if the government forgets that inmates are human and that they need to be helped and cared for so that by the time they are released
      they are more likely to come out with a new and better attitude.

      I say that Frances Crook’s attitude towards prisoners is so much better than that from government ministers.

  • Del Hunter says:

    This is very encouraging and IMHO demonstrates the willingness of Prison Management to effect change in the most difficult of times. Encouragement, sharing best practice and supprting change is vital.

    Thanks for this glimpse.

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