Monday, October 29, 2012

Happy Campers?

The suicide rate in prisons is rising. The murder rate in prisons is rocketing. And the reoffending rate is shameful. And yet what the Minister for Prisons is most concerned about is the minutiae of the prison regime. Whilst the ineffective and expensive system rots from the core, Ministers roll out of bed with their main focus being the TV’s available to prisoners.

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said:  “I want to ensure that the public have confidence in the prison system. It is crucial that they are assured that any privileges earned in prison are gained through hard work and appropriate behaviour.  I am looking closely at the policy around the incentives scheme for prisoners, which has not been fully reviewed since 1999. There may be clear and important operational reasons for this policy but I want to be clear that these incentives are pitched at the right level and that they have credibility with the public”.

For the uninitiated, the regime of privileges that determines the minutiae of prisoners lives, from the number of hours they have on family visits to the amount of pennies to spend on stamps, is called the IEPS – Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme. It splits privileges into three levels. The lowest is Basic - often used as an unofficial punishment regime outside of the formal disciplinary system – which affords the prisoner little more than the Statutory minimum of facilities. It is a regime of perpetual bang up, the opportunity to spend only £2.50 per week, and one hour a month on visits. try holding your relationships together, your family, with that level of contact – and it being known that stable family life is a major factor in reoffending.
The level above is Standard. It is the level that all prisoners begin at and affords the ability to spend some £15 per week, two visits per month and in-cell TV with 9 channels. Poor behaviour results in being dropped to Basic. Good behaviour results in being elevated to the top level of privileges, Enhanced. Again, there is an increase in the amount of money to be spent (always if the prisoner has it, it doesn’t come from the prison), more visits, access to a wider range of jobs and so on.

The idea of this scheme is that poor behaviour is penalised, good behaviour is rewarded. On the face of it not a wholly outrageous plan…. Until you look at the mechanisms for allocating privileges. This is based on “wing reports”, that is comments written by staff. This is a very, very unjust system with staff liable to be variable in their views of certain behaviours and it is a scheme ripe for abuse. During my latter time in prison I found myself demoted from Enhanced for having a slice of bread on my locker (my supper) and for failing to attend a Healthcare appointment (which I had previously cancelled). This cost me my outside job and home leaves for three months in Open prison.

The loss in quality of life that lays in the hands of staff is immense and essentially unregulated. As such, the IEP Scheme is despised by prisoners and used as a simple way to harass prisoners by lazy staff. The formal disciplinary system, deeply flawed as it is, at least carries the patina of due process and judicial oversight. The IEP Scheme is merely a screws word against a cons. The inherent danger in this is obvious to any but Prisons Ministers.

As time has passed then the privileges variously permitted to various groups of prisoners has developed. Similarly, what was for the elite in society slowly becomes more commonplace then certain privileges within prison changes. The introduction of TV’s in the late 1990’s is the obvious change and lightening rod for most comment. Prior to this, prisoners were allowed only radio’s, and battery powered, Medium wave only at that.

The issue of TV’s blinds people to the reality of cell life. With work places for only around a third of the population, most prisoners will spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells. Most have a mental illness. Many have families to brood upon. Without TV’s, just how are these people meant to occupy themselves? Map the rates of suicide and self harm against the introduction of TV’s and the importance of this medium becomes more apparent and significant. TV’s have to be earned through good behaviour and rented from the prison at £1 per week, with only 9 channels permitted.

The gap in perceptions between the reality of prison life and the ideas of some commentators is revealed by the likes of Edward Boyd, from the think-tank Policy Exchange, who says that privileges such as “free gym use (how could prisoners pay, I wonder?) and televisions in cells should be made available only to those inmates who work”.  There isn’t enough work available in prisons, because investment has never been made in the infrastructure. How can a prisoner earn a privilege through work when there is no work? I hope that Boyd provides a quick solution to that conundrum. Like any Victorian reformer, Boys attributes miraculous powers of transformation to prisoners being used as slave labour – “The cornerstone of reform must be hard work. It will make prison not only a better deterrent for criminals but also a far more successful intervention to stop future criminal behaviour.’ This has never proven to be true in any nations prisons at any time in history, and signifies a desperate scrabble to interject into a conversation without actually having any grasp of the subject.

There are dangers to this Ministerial meddling. If he attempts to remove privileges which prisoners have earned under the current system, he will inevitably face a wave of discontent for moving the goalposts. The idea of marching into 80,000 cells and removing the televisions is risible, purely because there are insufficient riot squads available.

The point of this ministerial policy burp is a mystery, unless it is pure “get tough” politics. Fine, that’s what politicians do. But when this threatens to overlook the real issues of reoffending and suicide then it reveals a Minister desperate for a soundbite but lacking any coherent vision.


  1. My entry to the prison system in 1987 as a first-timer coincided with the politically induced overcrowding that led to prisoners disastrously rioting. As a response the Prison Service, over years, abolished bucket sanitation. In the course of my imprisonment I saw the rules stretched to allow prisoners to keep an FM radio (previously, as blog says, we had AM only because it was feared that inmates would modify their FM receivers to monitor prison officers' communications). There was a tale that hundreds of b/white TV's were in store somewhere but never released. There were no electrical outlets in cells. Censorship of our letters was removed, but prison staff were solidly against an alien notion coming from Europe -- conjugal visits. There was usually work or education except during my nightmare months remanded in custody in Brixton F-wing.

    Those were the privileges for which I should be grateful. However, for years something like a conscience nagged at me relentlessly and pointlessly inside my head, nothing to do with my offence but a result of being locked up, until I came to regard it as normal. I was habitually depressed, and I suffered ten years punishment of the bowels in the form of constipation. In Category B the days just went round and round, every one the same, and years slipped away with nothing inside them.

    Politics is about numbers, numbers of votes and, as everyone knows, the majority of voters are merciless authoritarians who never did anything wrong in their lives. The answer to this weary dilemma is to take prison right out of politics. Failing this, politicians should spend a good long time inside so that they learn what they are talking about. Humanitarian principles may not make every criminal better, but hatred and vengeance will turn all but the innocent against society. I wonder, after all, if this polarisation is what voters and their political representatives really desire.

    1. YagiBird, and Ben, you speak most wisly on this! What is wrong in the outside world, is that the "Us", is totally pissed off with all politicians, and with a bit of luck, none of us shall vote for any of them.
      With the local police, trying to go all democratic, I find it odd, that many top policemen, are freemasons, and that is not democratic, because it is a secret society! Will any of these secret freemason police, get my vote? Not for an Eternity!

  2. The reasons for TVs being placed in cells is pure laziness on the part of the prison service. Laziness and (believe it or not), cost. It is cheaper and easier to stick TVs in cells than to bother with more expensive educational/training opportunities or even finding realistic working opportunities in prisons. More bang up time also means less staff to supervise prisoners during unlocking times which also means less cost. On a more sober note, there is (I believe) a direct link between TVs in cells and lower suicide rates in prisons.

    The US cottoned on to this many many years ago (there were televisions in cells in US prisons long before we had them here - they were never considered a 'privilige' - more a method of control).

    The Prisons Minister can take TVs out of cells if he must but he should be prepared to be held responsible for every prison riot and every cell suicide which results.

    1. Michael Howard as Home Secretary tried to reduce drugs use, but the received wisdom of the day was that cannabis kept the lid on the prison system. It is interesting to read your parallel reasoning about in-cell TV. Long before this innovation, prisoners had access to some communal TV during association periods.

    2. There were also more of those association times. Now people are locked up for longer and longer periods with very little meaningful activity. Now one might say 'well they can read' but given the illiteracy rate, hardly a particularly useful suggestion.

      The person who put TVs in cells was Jack Straw and no-one could accuse him of being 'soft'. They were placed there for the benefit of the prison service rather than the prisoners. The fact that they became part of the IEPS was just an additional 'bonus'.


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