by Bill Hartley
The governor of a women’s prison once confided that she preferred middle aged men for her senior management team and that she was prepared to fly in the face of Equal Opportunities to get them. In her view, most women are in jail because they mix with the wrong men. She even provided a mini bus to take discharged prisoners to the local railway station. But not from altruism. Rather, she had become tired of watching forlorn women waiting for the promised lift home from men who didn’t show up. She realised that what most women prisoners lack in their lives is a positive male role model and she set about providing them. ‘After all’, as one of her team told me, ‘handle them wrongly and some are quite capable of barricading in a cell and feeding bits of themselves under the door’. Self-harm is one of the principal ways by which distraught women express their distress.
All of this came to mind, on reading that the Prison Service is planning to provide in-cell phones for prisoners. A predictable storm of outrage ensued in the press, together with comments about making jail ‘soft’. Equally predictably, the Prison Service responded that the scheme would be carefully controlled; only approved numbers could be dialled and the idea was to reduce the sense of isolation and incidents of self-harm. This hostile response was inevitable. The Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice have never sought to get the public onside when it comes to rehabilitation. The Service lacks a coherent, overarching approach. Instead, we see add-on proposals which are badly received when they go public.
The governor mentioned above was a rare example of a person who knew the kind of people she was dealing with and who shaped the prison regime accordingly. Unfortunately, working parties which come up with proposals like in-cell phones seldom include such people. The origins of this idea are to be found in a report by Lord Farmer, the latest in a long line of politicians, businessmen, admirals and judges who have written about the Prison Service. Those who assisted him in this work with insight at the operational level were slight, at best. This is a familiar theme: a working party detached from operational reality makes recommendations with no idea into how they might be implemented. Any organisation can take only so much stress and the Prison Service has had more to handle than most. Dovetailing new initiatives into the existing structure means something will have to give and it can be safely predicted that the hoped for improvements will be uneven at best.
The argument underpinning the idea is superficially sound. Statistics show the percentage of sons who follow their fathers into jail and that reoffending among ex-prisoners falls when family ties are maintained. However, such statistics should be treated with caution. It is likely that the son is mired in the midst of many lures into criminality and since prisoners generally lack self-discipline, it is hard to see how most can change from criminal to role model.
Ultimately, in-cell phones are about taking the pain from imprisonment. But therein lies a paradox. Governors in whose prisons the scheme is being piloted will be expected to make it work. Dissent down the operational line is not tolerated these days. The everyday problems associated with running this scheme will be dealt with by those whose reservations are routinely ignored. If intelligence reveals misuse of the phone, as is likely to be the case, then this will be a job for the local security committee to deal with, whilst those at headquarters can pat themselves on the back for implementing a new way to ‘assist rehabilitation’. At operational level, it will be a further burden, open to external audit with record keeping having to be word perfect. The Prisons Inspectorate will only be interested in how ‘well’ the scheme is working. Unserviceable telephones and pressure on budgets are matters for local management. Ease of access by prisoners or the lack of it are things which shape an inspection report.
Lord Farmer’s report acknowledges that in the main they are not dealing with families in the traditional sense. He uses words like ‘fractured’ and ‘chaotic’, accordingly. This is something of an understatement. The report notes the sheer complexity of making prisoners into good parental role models, particularly when factoring in all the modern essentials such as gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, the sort of variables which would make a social anthropologist blanch. In the midst of this population, shifting relationships are unlikely to stabilise or improve just because a prisoner can make phone calls from his cell. Indeed, this open ended contact can arguably do more harm than good.
Back in the day when all outgoing mail was censored prison officers had a good idea what they were dealing with. Never mind that the spouse or partner was having to maintain a home and look after children alone. Two things dominated the thinking of prisoners – what they wanted and what the woman was up to. The list of demands on women, some living near subsistence level, could be quite astonishing: requests for cash, toiletries, radios etc. and if the prisoner had got into debt in jail the woman might be under pressure to get him out of it. Little regard was paid to her domestic or financial circumstances. Interspersed with these demands was the other prisoner preoccupation: where she has been and with who. Officers regularly stopped mail containing threats and governors then had the job of returning it to the prisoner and telling him why it couldn’t be sent out. Often it had to be explained that threats of violence weren’t an acceptable means of communication to those who saw this as routine dialogue.
Prison is about separation from society. The introduction of in-cell phones and other amenities designed to reduce this serves only to accentuate it. Giving prisoners things to reduce the sense of isolation only reminds them what they are missing. Before any of these amenities were introduced it was human relationships inside the institution which helped prisoners do their time. Of course, prisoners have been able to use wing based telephones for many years but having one in-cell adds a whole new dimension. Exercising control remotely via letters or the odd few minutes on a wing telephone with a queue behind isn’t that easy. The same type of men who routinely abandon their women at the gate of that prison are the ones who will have greater opportunities to exercise coercive control over females. Now they can do it at any hour of the day or night. Maintaining contact may have a different meaning to what Lord Farmer and his colleagues had in mind.