So you think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in.
This is what it takes for a new social enterprise with One Big Idea to get going in our Justice sector – as lived by Andy Mouncey of Run For Your Life CIC www.runforyourlife.org.uk
Timeline To Date
2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start
2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison
2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££
2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected
2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids (sad face)
2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££
2019 March: Second ‘Proof Of Concept’ pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid)
2019 June: First business sponsorship (very surprised smiley face)
2019 Dec-2020 Feb: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Lancs.
2020 March: Corona virus pandemic hits and prisons go into isolation. All work stops
Funding Bids Written & Rejected: 28
Times I’ve Honestly Thought About Quitting: 4
Times My Wife Has Given Me Permission To Quit: 2
Times My Wife Has Really Meant It: 1
Something v Nothing
Doors slam, corona virus parks a tank on the front lawn and prisons go into semi-lockdown. Staff are still coming and going and the courts are still operating albeit at a much reduced level – so it’s not total isolation but that means no guarantees keeping CV-19 at bay.
The trick is to contain infection when it does happen – and over half the UK’s 121 jails now have cases* with around 350 staff and the same number of prisoners testing positive with the death tally at 19 – and ensure those about to be released are healthy. The latter means testing – and we all know where we are on that one – and then separating the ‘confirmed healthy and ready to be released’ people from everyone else.
(* Many in the sector believe the figures are currently being under-reported a la care homes – and the actual figures are much higher).
That could well mean physically reconfiguring parts of a prison – and that means contractors on site unless you can get all creative and go for an inside job. And the stakes are high because this IS part of government strategy to relieve pressure on the prisons: 4000 people out of the 82,000 currently behind bars who are within 2 months of their end of sentence are to be released.
Assuming of course that they are healthy, have a place to be released in to and can be supported/support themselves on the outside.
To make this happen in normal times is a huge ask for many – and for the strapped-for-resources organizations in this sector whose mission it is to help.
In semi-lockdown and a rapidly shrinking economy?
(Government did start the early release scheme a couple of weeks ago – then stopped it almost immediately when it turned out that some of the wrong people had been released- and had to be recalled: successfully it turned out. As I write this 33 people have been released. 33. The cynics – or those who know our system well – may put this down to two factors: Fear of our tabloid press and a government’s seeming inability to successfully administer anything wide-ranging, life-changing and on time).
The good news from Public Health England whose job it is to advise and keep an eye on this stuff is that the various Containment measures taken by prisons has/is working to control the spread of the virus. Practically this means that those behind bars are now mostly alone and mostly locked up - in a room you probably wouldn’t want to keep your dog in for long - for even more of the time: No education programmes, job training, gym time, family visits or religious worship.
So bloody what? Is the cry from the Daily Mail-reading masses.
Well, think about it this way – because what passes for ‘Justice’ in this country can be described as this:
We lock people up in what amounts to little more than a toilet for more hours a day than we unlock them.
We deprive them of fresh air and sunlight.
We remove their autonomy – and their children if they’re a mother – and the people best placed to help them.
We keep them there long enough for them to lose their job, home and close relationships.
We release them with £46.00, nowhere to sleep that night and a criminal record that stops them getting work (to earn money to afford somewhere to live).
And we expect them to be better people for the experience.
If you want to get an inkling of an idea about what people on the inside are experiencing now you should take this description and turn it up to Number 11 – and then remember that those being released are being pushed straight into a world sliding into economic recession anticipated to be even worse than 2008-9.
Now it’s also true that prison and probation management and staff are moving heaven and earth to provide a humane and compassionate experience as possible for the people in their care while wrestling with the same logistical, personnel and equipment nightmares as the NHS.
The NHS has been getting the headlines and kudos and rightly so.
But the need is as acute and is still building in the prison system – but it’s happening under the national radar. It has taken the threat of a Judicial Review from two prison reform organisations before government went public with the full range of measures it has in place and it’s future plans to safeguard those 82,000 people behind bars.
Back to the good news.
Movement of people within the prison is down to absolute minimum – this is where the biggest risk of ‘trouble’ is normally – and therefore the operation is much simpler with less moving parts (and way less stressful) to manage. As my cleaning team used to say in my swimming pool management days: ‘The water would be perfect if we could just keep the bloody people out of it!’
The result is that while the stakes are high and the risks are clearly there many staff feel in a good place with an enhanced sense of mission: Their job is operationally simpler and the containment measures are working. Success is in stark hard stats. They are doing their bit – and it’s a significant one.
The big concern is how to keep control as the restrictive measures start to lift in the wider world and movement of people starts to return to normal. Lots of people with very big brains who are paid to plan for Really Bad Shit Happening are very very worried about this…
‘See you on the other side’ or words to that effect was the parting shot between me and my prison contacts. I mean, my stuff www.runforyourlife.org.uk had been all about working intensively and intimately with a group of people for an extended period of time – not exactly consistent with the wonderfully woolly concept of ‘social distancing.’
So prospects of future work?
None. At. All.
I downed tools and raged silently at the sick humor of the forces of darkness who clearly thought it was not enough to make me go through 7 years of trying to get my first contracted work – so they threw in an ALL STOP in the form of a global pandemic just to f*** with me some more.
So in the last seven weeks I’ve been forced to experience some of what normal usually is for the men I’ve been working with on the inside:
Stay in your box.
Come out for exercise and essential items only.
And your release date is some way off and could change depending…
Except it became soberly clear very quickly that what I thought was ‘enduring hardship’ was actually no more than middle class inconvenience.
As my appreciation of the real situation on the inside became clearer, ‘See you on the other side’ began increasingly to sound like a cop-out – especially when I started to ask the right questions of myself instead of settling for lazy assertions.
So ‘how could I still deliver some of my stuff within the current restrictions?’ replaced ‘I can’t deliver my stuff now (sigh).’
All of which rather forced me to come up with Something rather than settle for Nothing.
It’s not been a swift process – not least because I’ve had to settle my own shit down first - and it’s fair to say that I’ve been round the houses a few times. Meanwhile government have been increasingly clear that they desperately need help in the form of Something Else from the sector – because Containment is only part of the solution and containment is all they’ve really got.
LATEST: On May 1st Andy formally submitted his ‘Frontline Lifeline’ support package proposal to Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service. Contact him directly and find out more firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources & Further Reading
Clinks overview of the sector and CV-19
Public Health England assessment of Containment & other government strategies in prisons
Unlocking Potential on a new normal in the Justice sector post-pandemic
Government space creating measures for prison population
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