It’s July 20th and as I write this, yesterday – July 19 - was Freedom (from covid restrictions) Day.
Though not if you were serving time inside.
And while I recognise that our system of justice would be somewhat undermined if we just threw the odd Freedom Day in there for everyone periodically my point is this:
July 19 2021 was just another normal day under extraordinary conditions that are now some 16 months old:
In-cell for more than 20 hours a day
Education reduced to in-cell learning packs
Work-based training reduced to essential on-site tasks
Family visits limited
And while there are exceptions – because each prison has to make a case for a progressive relaxation of its operating restrictions - it would appear that this generalization holds for most of the 80,000 people we have behind bars.
I’ve read the reports* and I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Reasons & Restrictions
Outbreak of infection in a closed environment remains the main reason why restrictions persist. Prisons are charged with safeguarding the welfare of their staff and of those sentenced by the courts.
Another reality is that a policy of restriction and confinement in prison has been very successful in containing infections in what is a highly vulnerable population – general health levels would not be described as robust or resilient, for example.
Such a policy has kept the death rate down and way below the levels modelled by Public Health England at the start of the pandemic.
Remember back in Feb-March last year when cruise ships became a petri-dish writ large?
Forced to anchor off-shore?
That was a stark early example of infection in a closed environment and a prison is just a land-based version of that nightmare.
Despite the push to vaccinate we are seeing infection spikes and virus variants in specific places around the country. The path out of Covid is not linear or finite - prisons are no exception to this – and the Prison Service has made it very clear very recently that the path it prefers to take will be a careful (and ultimately reversable) one.
Regular readers will know that Chris and I - former trouble-shooter with Shell turned Run For Your Life CIC advisory group member – have been coaching prison governors during the pandemic.
This was in part because the in-prison work I was doing all stopped in March 2020 as prisons went into lockdown and well, I felt I had to find a way to continue to contribute.
We’ve learned some stuff, had our eyes opened and refined our methods – and all our 9 governors tell us that however stark the last 16 months have been the real fun stuff is just beginning:
• Leading their people and institution safely out of covid restrictions
• Designing-in the lessons from the pandemic into a new operational normal
So in the interests of making this post even more meaningful I’ve decided to make it interactive by putting you in the shoes of a prison governor.
Pop quiz, Hotshot: What would you do?
Leadership Dilemma Number 1: Control Infection v Relax Restrictions
Phone a friend?
Ask the audience?
Not That Simple
This is not a binary position or an either/or – prison governors are charged with both and more besides. What might look like a black and white administrative position is also a moral one as well. Here’s an insight into the blurred space between what is actually multiple stakeholders – it’s just that for the purposes of simplicity I’ve given you two poles.
In the blue corner we have the Safety lobby: This is the ‘More restrictions are good for staff and prisoners’ view – and this is pressure to have more men spending more time in-cell as part of a so-called ‘new normal.’
Key advocates: Staff, officers, unions.
In the red corner we have what I will call the Sanity lobby: This is the ‘In what universe where rehabilitation is the goal does locking more people up for longer make any kind of sense?’ view.
Key advocates: Families, Humanitarian & Prison Reform groups.
In the middle: The prison governor.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
There is data to back this up: Violence in male prisons** (prisoner-prisoner / prisoner-staff) has gone way down during the pandemic, and there is plenty of documented anecdotal evidence that staff and many prisoners do feel safer and relationships between staff and men have been strengthened. Therefore, goes the argument, this is a good outcome and we need to do it more.
SANITY: ‘Well, what do you expect?’ ’comes the counter. ‘If you put people in boxes for longer and stop them mixing when they’re not then of course person-on-person violence is going to drop.’
Here the Sanity lobby goes Big Picture to the human health cost of confinement – only now starting to become clear as inspections resume – and that Safety should actually be a starting point not an outcome to be sought somewhere in the future.
Meanwhile the MoJ is consulting prison officers on this very question – The Prison Reform Trust has stepped in to do the prisoner-ask bit – while restrictions continue to lift in society in general and stay in place for prisons.
In the middle: The prison governor – and once again this Safety-Sanity is not an either/or.
So what would you do, Hotshot?
Hang on ‘cos I’m going to muddy the waters some more…
GIVE A S***
This is the bit that requires you dear reader, to park what you think what you believe about crime and punishment and just recognise that people in prison during a pandemic have little/no agency: They rely almost totally on other people to keep them free of infection and informed.
They’re inside and not going anywhere – people are coming to them (from outside)
They’re not generally in great health
Their living conditions are not exactly 5-star
Their ability to stay objectively informed and think clearly under pressure is somewhat compromised
Their safety and sanity need other people who have power and capacity to Give A Sh**.
I’ve been privileged to visit some prisons in the last few months and I can tell you that there are good people on staff teams and from the voluntary sector who continue to do their best to humanize this awful experience for the people in their care.
That’s what you can see on the ground.
From above? Here’s a perspective on what could be possible within current resource levels – once you decide that the key features that defines the quality of life these people experience add up to ‘Vulnerable.’
If we work our way up from there here’s what that could look like given a shift in priorities within current vaccination resource levels:
On July 1st 345, 591 vaccinations were given in the UK as either a first or second dose.
That’s around 14, 400 per hour.
At that rate you’d need less than half a day to get round all our prison population once.
Our prison population were not included in the ‘Vulnerable Population’ category when the vaccination program first rolled out. And while all people serving sentences and prison staff have now been offered the vaccine and been given information about their choice, the issue – just as in wider society – is not availability.
It’s take-up: Less than half the prison population have had a covid jab compared to the 90% of the general population who have had a first dose and 70% or so who have had a second.
Once again: It’s Not That Simple – and in the middle? The prison governor.
Supporting Prison Governors
Our work with governors has been on pause for various reasons and I’ve been casting about for ways to get it un-paused.
And hitting way too many brick walls / blind alleys way too often while trying to maintain the momentum of the work even if I have to hold it together with my own spit.
And then someone who also gives a sh** threw me a lifeline.
The PwC Foundation will from September step in with some ££ that will allow us to continue the work and put senior leaders from PwC alongside some of our governors in reciprocal mentoring relationships that will complement the online group work from Chris and I.
And the origin of that gift? Playing the long game in a professional relationship that began some 5 years ago.
*The discipline is to remember that reports are written retrospectively from a certain point of view and that events and the situation on the ground may well have moved on.
** By contrast self-harm in women’s prisons has gone up.
Sources & Further Reading
Just because I do my homework doesn’t mean this is an objective piece of writing.
For the sake of transparency this is where I’m coming from and where I’m going:
• As an educated middle-aged white bloke with economic means I am operating at the least level of difficulty in this (my) society.
• I’ve never served time – I’ve just walked in this world and have been moved to act.
• My writing is designed to get more people to give a sh** about this subject so public opinion shifts and politicians pay attention.
For the sake of clarity this is what you should know:
• With very few exceptions, the purpose of prison is to return men and women who have committed a crime back to society ready and able to contribute and participate.
• With very few exceptions, those people deserve that chance.
• Our system of justice is broken, consistently neglected by our elected leaders and in need of wholesale reform.
• And yet there are good people doing good great work in almost impossible circumstances.