On Wednesday, the Government announced that they would put the money for building new women’s prisons into rehabilitation instead. Far fewer women than men go to prison, and around 80% of them serve sentences of less than 1 year. But the majority who are there have been in before and, like the men, many go between prison and the outside like a revolving door. We could ask whether all the money that would have been spent on the prisons will actually be spent on rehabilitation. And why the rehabilitation wasn’t better in the first place. And whether the existing women’s prisons are fit for purpose. All these are good questions, but let’s not knock the Government’s sensible approach.
Unfortunately, it contrasts markedly with the attitude to men’s prisons. Many men’s prisons are definitely not fit for purpose, and nowhere is this more true than Norwich. On Tuesday, the Independent Monitoring Board published its report into HMP Norwich, and it makes pretty grim reading. The state of Norwich Prison makes a very real difference to the lives of Ipswich people, because it is the prison where most Ipswich criminals serve their custodial sentences.
The report shows that some aspects of the prison at HMP Norwich are unacceptable in the 21st Century. This is mainly due to funding cuts, inadequate staffing levels and lack of capital investment – in other words, it is the Government’s funding which is at fault, not the Prison Officers.
The report states that the lack of staff makes the prison unsafe for both the convicts and the officers. Activity sessions are regularly cancelled, prisoner on prisoner violence is widespread, and staff are unable to form any sort of relationship with the prisoners with the result that they show a lack of respect for staff, property and each other. There are not enough Prison Officers to operate the drug prevention policy effectively. The Board notes that experienced staff continue to maintain the best possible atmosphere in difficult circumstances, but there are just not enough of them.
The prison also desperately needs refurbishment – cells and showers have mould on the walls, prisoners have had no washing machines for over three months, and space for purposeful activity is inadequate.
Because of the shortage of experienced staff and lack of suitable space, the number of prisoners who attend work or education is unsatisfactory, despite many attempts to improve the figures.
Most damning of all, the Government’s “Through the Gate” resettlement policy which was meant to help prisoners go straight “lacks effectiveness and continuity of support.” Prisoners are regularly released into the community with no fixed abode due to the lack of available approved accommodation, and the likelihood of getting work – which is already tough enough for an ex-offender – is made almost impossible by being also homeless. Without approved accommodation, the released prisoner is very likely to go back to living with whoever it was that encouraged them to get involved in crime in the first place.
Whether or not readers are concerned about the future lives of prisoners – and for my part I care about all Ipswich residents, whether they have made sensible choices or gone astray – we all have a vested interest in reducing crime in our town, especially violent crime. Young criminals – and Norwich is also a Young Offenders Institution – need to be steered away from re-offending. To do that, they need education and training to build worthwhile lives. They need counselling so they can understand the consequences of their actions. They need to believe that abiding by the rules will give them a better life, but they won’t believe that if the prison itself is lawless and the rules are mostly made by the older convicts. They need to be weaned off drugs – but far too many of our prisons, including Norwich, appear to have higher levels of drug-taking than the outside world. And they need to be given the opportunity to reform when they are released – if we ensure all our ex-offenders are homeless and jobless, we will also be ensuring that most of them will re-offend.
What do we want our prisons to do? Surely, whether we believe in stricter punishment or not, we all want to reduce crime, but prisons like HMP Norwich do not do that. We are already reaping the harvest of our inadequate prisons and failing probation service – if we want to live in a safe law-abiding society we have got to prioritise rehabilitation for men as well as for women.