Our Prisons: Dirty, Dispiriting and Dehumanising

Alex Cavendish looks at the antiquated prison regimes that strew the UK penal system. Alex Cavendish blogs @ Prison UK: An Insider's View.

Anyone who has ever been inside a UK prison – at least on the actual wings and landings where prisoners live – will be familiar with the raw, rank smell of captive humanity. You can’t cover it up by sloshing heavily diluted disinfectant over the lino floors or giving the railings yet another coat of green paint. The stench is always there and newly released prisoners often speak about “washing off the stink of prison” as soon as they possibly can.

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Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Justice, seems to have finally acknowledged the urgent need for change in our prison system, although whether that will turn out to be merely a calculated pretext for more privatisation of penal institutions and outsourcing of services remains to be seen. However, he could do worse than make some unannounced visits to the worst of our failing establishments: Pentonville, Winchester, Holme House and Lincoln for a start. 

Once he has walked through the wings and smelt the stink emanating from a couple of these choice nicks, he might be motivated to starting sorting out the very real problems that have been inherited from his unlamented predecessor ‘Calamity’ Chris Grayling. I’m more than happy to provide him with some practical pointers.

Back in September 2013 all new male prisoners (including those previously held on remand and subsequently convicted) have been put into prison uniform – although in reality there is little ‘uniform’ about some of the filthy, tatty rags provided to new cons as they pass through reception and thereby cease to be human beings. This is the state of existence now known as ‘Entry Level’ within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. It is supposed to last for a minimum of two weeks, but can be much longer.
Prison 'uniform'
Perhaps it is intended to be part of the psychological ‘shock and awe’ of capture, although I suspect that the stripping of male prisoners and redressing them in ill-fitting, stained jogging bottoms and tops, t-shirts and underwear is more to do with chronic shortages of just about everything in the average prison stores. When Mr Grayling’s ill-thought out plans to ‘get tough’ on male prisoners (female inmates are exempt from compulsory wearing of prison kit) was launched, it seemed that no-one actually bothered to check whether thousands of men could be clothed by the Cat-B reception prisons or if prison governors had sufficient budget to procure stocks. By and large they didn’t – and still don’t.

At the same time, Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 also delivered a double-whammy since prisoners could no longer ask families or friends to send in new underwear or other clothing. Some prisons do allow for a single ‘reception parcel’ of basic clothing for issue as soon as the prisoner has completed his time on Entry Level and been promoted to Standard (although a fair number of prisons still won’t allow the use of civilian clothing until inmates have reached Enhanced, the top tier of privileges).

The alternative is to purchase civilian clothes – that make a prisoner feel half-human – from one of the approved catalogues available from the wing office. Some of these offer such gems as designer t-shirts (£25+) and trainers (staring at around  £40). Absolutely ideal for inmates who earn – if they are lucky enough to find a prison job or education course – around  £8-12 per week. Most of the cons purchasing such luxuries have private cash being sent in to their prison account weekly or monthly by their families, whereas the vast majority are stuck with whatever the prison happens to have in the stores or, more likely, doesn’t have. 

Victorian-era prison cell: built for one, houses two
I recently received a letter from a friend of mine who is serving a long stretch in a notorious Victorian-era inner city Cat-B jail while he waits for his appeal against conviction to be heard – something that could take a couple more years at this rate since he’s had trouble finding a decent solicitor willing to take his case for the peanuts Legal Aid pays these days. He tries to stay upbeat, although I can sense the rising desperation in his letters.

This particular prison – which regularly gets shockingly critical reports whenever HM Inspectorate of Prisons visits – seems to be plumbing the depths at various levels. However, it’s only when you get this sort of inside information from someone you know and trust that you start to understand just how grim and grubby everyday life can be inside our prisons these days. It has definitely got worse over the last two years.

I’ll share some of the highlights of his daily existence at the moment. For the past year, the maximum number of prison boxer shorts and socks that can be exchanged at his prison each week is three pairs (occasionally two). Three years ago we used to be issued five or six pairs per week.

Now add the usual stains...
Now these intimate garments are almost always well stained and soiled, despite having supposedly been laundered before being exchanged on a Friday afternoon. Size is potluck. At least oversize boxers can be secured with a piece of shoelace or a knot… smaller sizes can be – understandably – agony to wear for bigger men. 

This means that at least one pair of underwear must be worn for three days (or handwashed in the cell sink and left to dry over the heating pipe, assuming that is still working). Drying clothing in the cell is officially against the rules, but most screws seem to turn a blind eye. However, that is why the atmosphere is often so humid and unhealthy.

According to his letter, he’s only been issued with one laundered towel a week (it used to be two or three). These aren’t large, of course… about the same size as a standard hand towel in your bathroom at home.

Prison gym kit (compulsory wear in this particular prison’s gymnasium) now doesn’t get changed for five weeks. Since some cons also sleep in these light blue vests or wear them as underwear when it gets cold, the stench of stale sweat is easy to imagine.

Same dirty sheets for weeks
When it comes to cell bedding the situation is much worse. Sometimes sheets can’t be changed for weeks – he writes that the worst so far has been three months with no changes. 

A surprising number of adult prisoners, especially those who are taking heavy medication, including those who are given a daily ‘chemical cosh’ because they are living with mental illnesses, wet their beds regularly due to deep sleep or nightmares. Again, just imagine the smell of ammonia wafting across the landings each morning. My correspondent hasn’t even managed to change his single pillowcase for the past four months since the stores are constantly out of stock.

It doesn’t get much better when it comes to obtaining cleaning supplies and basic toiletries. It’s now impossible to get any kind of sanitising tablets for the in-cell toilets, so these breed germs and stinks, especially when two or three adult men share a Victorian cell originally designed for one. It’s a similar story when it comes to getting cleaning cloths or scouring pads. 

A real prison toilet
It’s probably only a matter of time before one or more of our overcrowded prisons is hit by an epidemic of dysentery or worse, especially in the hot summer weather. Of course, the knockout blow is that there are times when no toilet paper is available to be issued.

Prisoner communications are also being hit by shortages, particularly for the poorest inmates who rely on the free weekly sheet of lined paper and an envelope. According to the Prison Rules these are supposed to be issued weekly, however my friend informs me that they recently went for over a month with none available. 

For inmates who have no external financial support from family of friends and no work, these free 2nd class letters are a lifeline to enable them to maintain ties with the outside world. Prior to September 2013 most prisons permitted prisoners to receive either writing materials and stamps from family or friends, or at least stamped addressed envelopes. Of course, Mr Grayling put a stop to that even though it is widely recognised that family support does play a vital role in resettlement and reducing reoffending after release.

So is all this deprivation really necessary? Unless you are a sad, sadistic punishment freak of the sort that gets a grubby thrill out of the gratuitous suffering of others, then the short answer is no. 

In the past the Prison Service saved taxpayers’ money by permitting many essential items – such as underwear and writing materials – to be posted in to prisoners by family members or friends. Many prisons also permitted occasional parcels of clothing and towels as long as maximum limits on most items were respected. This meant that many inmates actually consumed less of the available budget. In effect, prisoners and their families were subsidising the overall cost of their imprisonment.

Moreover, it was also recognised that allowing well-behaved inmates to wear their own clothing had a genuinely positive impact on key issues such as self-esteem. In the more progressive regimes, prison uniform was pretty much restricted to those inmates undergoing punishment or on the Basic regime because of a pattern of poor behaviour. Since Mr Grayling’s ‘reforms’ as one prisoner remarked to me recently: “We are all now on Basic”. Hardly a positive mindset conducive to reform.

'Calamity Chris'
So what can be done to sort out the mess left by ‘Calamity’ Chris? Scrapping the revised IEP system would be a good start. Prior to 2013 it had been tried and tested for years before Mr Grayling and his ideologically-motivated minions caused havoc with it – to the horror of many prison governors and experienced officers. The former system essentially rewarded good behaviour while penalising misconduct, while the current one just seems to be dedicated to punishing everyone just for the sake of it.

The former IEP scheme also gave individual prison governors a reasonable degree of local autonomy over what they permitted in the prisons under their charge. This was effectively removed when PSI 30/2013 was implemented.

Mr Gove has already shown that he is willing to be more flexible and pragmatic than his benighted predecessor by ditching the incomprehensible restrictions on prisoners’  access to books sent in by friends and family. It would be an even better start to his period in office if he has the courage to scrap PSI 30/2013 completely and turn the clock back. By abolishing the pointless and demeaning Entry level and by getting as many male prisoners as possible back into their own clothing, shoes and bedding Mr Gove would be able to reduce unnecessary expenditure on procuring items that play no real part in rehabilitation. 

Newly arrived prisoners are often particularly vulnerable, especially if in custody for the first time. Stripping them (literally) of their clothing and identity before forcing them into what are often dirty, worn and ill-fitting garments really isn’t a good start, especially at time when too many are feeling suicidal or tempted to self-harm.

While Mr Gove is at it, he might also review the Enhanced level of the IEP scheme to make it really worth gaining – and keeping. Having already raised the idea of ‘earned early release’ he might consider adding some real incentives to the IEP system so that in the future it could offer an effective means of rewarding prisoners’ hard work, educational attainment and volunteering activities. Now that really would be a radical reform.

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Anthony McIntyre

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

1 comment to ''Our Prisons: Dirty, Dispiriting and Dehumanising"

  1. Great to see Alex back writing. This is such an important blog


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