Life at the Mount

Oakum Picking

Oakum Picking

Life at the Mount

Bill Hartley returns to prison

A recent edition of TheĀ Sun carried a story about a group of prisoners who were pictured enjoying a ‘party’ that apparently involved illicit drink and drugs taken on an (also illegal) mobile phone. Superficially there was nothing new about this story, it is of a kind which has become a staple of the tabloids. There was though one significant difference. In the past the location has always been an open prison, where it’s not too difficult to smuggle in contraband.

This time the prisoners featured in the Sun story are not inmates of some lightly staffed open prison, they were serving time in HMP The Mount, which is a modern Category ‘C’ jail in Hertfordshire. There was a time when such prisons were modest in size and might have been described as being of medium capacity. Not any more; with the growth in the prison population The Mount now holds nearly eight hundred prisoners, a figure never contemplated by those who created the concept of a jail where the population could be considered low risk and unlikely to cause much trouble. Originally such jails were designed to contain three to four hundred prisoners but there has been much infilling with space found for the construction of additional wings. Some Category ‘C’ prisons are now of a size to rival the huge urban jails built by the Victorians.

According to a recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, security at The Mount was ‘rigorous’. Those familiar with the methodology of an inspection wouldn’t read too much into that. The Inspectorate doesn’t really do security and is more concerned with what it calls ‘outcomes’ and how prisoners feel about being locked up. Presumably given the recreational activities portrayed in the Sun the prisoners felt pretty good about being in The Mount. It’s likely that security got little more than a cursory once over for forms sake, before the inspection team concentrated on the really important stuff. The Chief Inspector was also reported as saying, ‘there is much other prisons could learn from The Mount’. Presumably he wasn’t thinking of how to throw a good party.

Although politicians like to talk about prisoners being required to do a full working week, for most this is and will remain an unattainable target. It is safe to say that the only prisoners doing this are those working in the kitchens. The fact is that much of the infrastructure to support a full working week, as the term is generally understood, was done away with years ago. Most industrial workshops, farms and market gardens were sold off or closed to pave the way for the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. On one occasion when a dairy farm was being disposed of the excuse given was that few prisoners in the Greater Manchester area were likely to seek that sort of employment. The fact is they never did. Making such a remark illustrates how such people have accepted the idea that prisoners can be rehabilitated in the classroom via approved courses. The point of prison farms as the people who created them would tell you, was to help reduce the cost of feeding prisoners and to give those working on them a sense of self worth by taking responsibility for livestock. Plus of course a full working week. What counts now is putting people through the likes of offending behaviour and enhanced thinking skills courses. Or as someone once said: ‘he’s still thieving, only now he knows why he does it’.

Such courses aren’t a bad thing but as a means of instilling work discipline into prisoners they are a miserable failure. And there is no overarching examination of their efficacy. A whole bureaucracy exists to evaluate these courses and ensure the correct outcomes, generally based on how many prisoners complete them. One would think that with this particular regime having been running for many years, a real evaluation would take into account that it has done nothing to reduce the prison population, which remains stubbornly in excess of 80,000.

Without enough meaningful work the effect is a sort of institutional lassitude where prisoners shuffle from their accommodation into classrooms and sit through courses, the completion of which increases their prospects of early release on license. Veterans of this describe themselves as being ‘all programmed out’.

Prisoners are mainly young men with limited outlets for their energies, held under a lax regime in which staff have little incentive to challenge bad behaviour. Further, it may come as a surprise to discover that with the exception of a select few prisons (the likes of HMP Belmarsh for example) security is the Cinderella function, regularly robbed of staff by the detail office to keep programmes and other activities running. Being Head of Security in a Category ‘C’ prison is a thankless task. Scheduled searching and mandatory drugs testing are routinely abandoned to ensure that other activities are properly staffed, meaning that the security department is constantly playing catch up. Programmes are expensive to run and failure to deliver them will get a governor into trouble.

The Sun story represents a worrying escalation in such behaviour. To see it going on in a closed prison, presumably during an association period, tells us that either the prison was understaffed at the time or despite the presence of CCTV those on duty had effectively withdrawn from supervision and were allowing prisoners to get on with it. Presumably the prisoners were aware of this and saw no reason to remain anonymous. Once prisoners are confident enough to publicly misbehave in this way then the next step is serious disorder. The recent history of our prisons is littered with cautionary tales; the existence of ‘no go’ areas for example. From there it is a small step for prisoners realising there is no control, to taking control themselves. What went on at The Mount is unlikely to be an isolated incident.

William Hartley is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service

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