Prison Regimes: Inside the Crisis

Alex Cavendish writes about the type of regimes used to manage British prisons. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.
For those who have never lived or worked in a prison, the term ‘regime’ might conjure up thoughts of North Korea or some other tinpot dictatorship. However, in a British prison context it just refers to the daily timetable that regulates pretty much every action or activity for all inmates.

Prison regimes: behind the razor wire
In UK establishments prison regimes generally come in three varieties: ‘normal’ regime, ‘restricted’ regime and emergency lockdown. The first is when things run according to the published timetable. Cell doors get unlocked at set times; prisoners can go outside for exercise as long as the weather isn’t ‘inclement’ (ie raining or snowing); cons can go to work or attend education classes morning and afternoon; social and legal visits take place as scheduled; medication is dispensed from healthcare and other weekly activities – such as library visits, gym sessions, kit change and religious services – are all run normally. This is the ideal situation. Things get done and most tensions can be managed.

However, as more and more of our prisons sink deeper into the artificially-created crisis caused by swingeing budget cuts that have left some establishments underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded due to a programme of prison closures and the imposition of longer sentences, ‘restricted’ regimes are becoming the new normal. What happens is that the daily timetable is amended to reflect the staffing resources available. 

Emergency lockdown, the most restrictive state, occurs after a suicide or serious disorder on the wing. Cells are only opened individually or in blocks of three or four. Other than meals and the issuing of medications at cell doors everything else is cancelled and cons stay locked behind their doors. 

Activities that are considered optional extras – particularly exercise, association on the wing (social free time), library visits and gym sessions – are usually the first to go whenever staff number are short. Of course, these items still remain on the official timetable, but are subject to enough members of staff being available to supervise them. In practice, cancellations are now so frequent in some nicks that serving prisoners tell me they have come to expect nothing will happen when library visits or gym sessions are scheduled. Cell doors will just remain locked.

Deserted prison wing during bang-up
In these situations, pretty much the only things that are set in stone are the two daily meals, dispensing of medications by healthcare and, usually, social visits from families. It would take a brave – or foolhardy – prison governor to mess around with these too much as the end results can prove to be explosive, not to mention very costly when entire wings have to be rebuilt after destructive mass uprisings.

Every experienced screw or governor is only too well aware that most violent riots in our recent prison history have been sparked off by grievances over food or cancelled visits – especially when this happens without notice at the last minute. I’ve never heard of a riot over the cancellation of education classes or library visits. The general policy seems to be to prioritise feeding the cons and getting them down to the visits hall if humanly possible.

However, regular cancellation of association on the wings can also gradually raise tensions, as can missing repeated gym sessions. Association is when cells are unlocked to allow prisoners to take showers, phone home and chat or play indoor games with their mates. These activities act like a valve on top of a pressure cooker. Screw things down too tightly and eventually even the most compliant and passive con may lose it. Serious trouble can result, particularly when wings are crammed with too many inmates for the reduced numbers of uniformed officers to manage safely. 

Just take a look at the list of grievances produced by the ‘High Down 11’ during a protest by prisoners over poor conditions at HMP High Down, a Cat-B establishment at Banstead in Surrey back in October 2013. Their complaints focused on claims of inadequate “food, exercise, showers or gym”. 

HMP High Down: no mutiny here!
When ordered to return to their cells for bang-up they refused before barricading themselves together into one cell. Charged with prison mutiny all eleven were acquitted by a jury at the end of their trial in November 2014. Having heard the evidence, including the governor’s admissions about the impact of the cuts on his ability to run a normal regime at the prison, the members of the jury clearly reached the conclusion that the men’s protests weren’t unreasonable in the circumstances (see my account of the case here). So much for Chris Grayling’s big idea of cracking down on prison protests.

More and more of our prisons are edging towards the brink of disorder owing to the tensions caused by long-term use of restricted regimes. Warnings over establishments that have inadequate staffing to operate safely have been appearing in recent reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

In cell up to 23 hours a day
To give readers an insight into what a restricted regime really means in a closed prison, I asked one of my friends – who is currently serving a lengthy stretch in a short-staffed inner city Cat-B nick – to send me a hand-written copy of the current timetable operating in a prison that recently made it into the top five overcrowded prisons in England and Wales. It arrived in this morning’s post, so I’m sharing the details in order to provide a rare glimpse of what is going on, or not going on, within those walls. 

It is worth noting that recent figures from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) indicate that this particular jail has well over 300 more prisoners than its ‘normal certified accommodation’ figure and at the time the data was issued in December 2014 was just short of its absolute maximum capacity. Anything beyond that could be considered unsafe and potentially dangerous for members of staff and prisoners alike according to official guidelines.

So here is the current daily regime at this one establishment:

Monday – Thursday

08.00 – 08.30  Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or medication
08.30               Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
10.00 – 11.00  Showers and phone for non-workers
11.40               Return from labour or education
11.45 – 12.15  Lunch (usually controlled unlock – landing by landing)
12.15               Bang-up in cell
13.40               Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
16.40               Return from labour or education – evening medications
16.50               Evening meal
18.00               Locked up for the night (other than workers below)
18.30 – 19.05  Association for alternate landings for showers and phone (workers only)


08.00 – 08.30  Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or medication
08.30 – 11.40  Labour or education, otherwise locked in cell
10.00 – 11.00  Showers and phone for non-workers (Muslim worship)
11.40               Return from labour or education  
11.45 – 12.15  Lunch (usually controlled unlock – landing by landing)
12.15 – 14.00  Bang-up in cell
14.00 – 15.00  Kit change (landings 1 & 3, otherwise bang-up in cell)
15.00 – 16.00 Kit change (landings 2 & 4, otherwise bang-up in cell)
16.40 – 18.15  Evening meal (controlled unlock by landing)
18.15               Locked up for the night
18.30 – 19.05  Wing cleaners unlocked to do evening duties
Saturday & Sunday

09.00               Morning medication issued
10.00 – 11.00  Exercise (weather and staff permitting) or chapel (Sundays)
11.00               Bang-up in cell
11.45 – 12.15  Hot lunch
12.15 – 14.00  Bang-up in cell
14.00 – 15.00  Association for landings 1 & 2 for showers, phone, gym
14.30 – 15.30  Library (1st and 3rd Saturday of each month)
15.00 – 16.00  Association for landings 3 & 4 for showers, phone, gym 
16.00 – 16.30  Bang-up in cell and and roll check
16.30 – 17.00  Evening meal (controlled unlock by landing)
17.00               Locked up for the night

However, my correspondent also notes the following: “We have four staff on constant watch at the moment which has meant no gym this week and controlled unlock for meals on Fridays – your cell is unlocked, you go and collect your food and are immediately locked up again. We lost all exercise on Friday and on Saturday it was just 20 minutes because of staff shortages. Recently evening association has been cancelled a fair few times meaning that you come back from work and can’t even take a shower or phone your family.”

Exercise: walking round the yard
The ‘constant watch’ he refers to above is basically 24 hour a day intensive monitoring of prisoners who are deemed to be at high risk of suicide or serious acts of self-harm. This means that at present, on one wing alone, there are three shifts of four uniformed officers supervising four prisoners. Each constant watch cell will have a uniformed officer sitting outside a barred door observing the inmate at every moment of every day and night.

Since the prison is so vastly overcrowded he informs me that there are very few work placements or spaces on education courses available. What there is tends to go to prisoners who are serving long sentences of several years or over, so most prisoners who are on remand or serving shorter stretches tend to spend all day locked in their cells except for 30 minutes of exercise – if it takes place – and collecting their meals. Prisoners can go for days without the opportunity to even take a quick shower or to join the long queue to phone their families.  

Quite clearly, based on this ‘restricted’ regime, this prison is providing little or nothing by way of rehabilitation. This is costly human warehousing at its lowest level and the taxpayer – me, and probably you – is paying an average of £40,000 a year per prisoner for this public service that is failing to reform or rehabilitate. I’m reliably informed that drugs are easily available across this establishment and that violence is a constant risk and concern for many inmates. 

I’m not sure about you, but I’m absolutely convinced that I’m not getting value for money here. Now, what are we going to do about it?

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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