Prison reform is taking too long, say ex-Hollesley Bay IMB chairman and former inmate

Police officers outside HMP Birmingham where a riot took place in December. Photo: Richard Vernalls/

Police officers outside HMP Birmingham where a riot took place in December. Photo: Richard Vernalls/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Four prison riots in less than two months towards the end of 2016 highlighted a powderkeg of problems inside Britain’s jails.

Faith Spear

Faith Spear - Credit: Archant

Ironically, ex-Hollesley Bay Independent Monitoring Board Chairman Faith Spear spent most the last 12 months fighting efforts to dismiss her for speaking out about prison reform.

She is currently appealing her dismissal by the Ministry of Justice on the grounds of misconduct.

Below, in her own words, Mrs Spear, of Ipswich, has given her views on what needs to be done to help rehabilitate prisoners and save British prisons from descending further into anarchy.

“Had the authorities listened to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Birmingham the riot on December 16 maybe could have been prevented.

Ex-Hollesley Bay inmate, author and prison reform campaigner Jonathan Robinson

Ex-Hollesley Bay inmate, author and prison reform campaigner Jonathan Robinson - Credit: Archant

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“In their annual report the IMB wrote: ‘The increasingly difficult behaviour of individual prisoners coupled with staff resource constraints give the board cause for concern… Many staff are now concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of the prisoners…A solution is required urgently’.

“Instead what happened was described by the Prison Officers Association as the biggest prison riot since Strangeways in 1990.

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“So why have prisoners behaved in this way?

“Sentencing guidelines have placed more people in prison for longer periods of time and has, therefore, inflated the prison population to record numbers.

“This in turn has given rise to overcrowding, and together with under-staffing and the emergence of psychoactive substances also known as “legal highs”, our prisons have become places of deprivation on a record scale. It’s a toxic combination.

“Less well-publicised factors such as restricted access to education, to facilities, and the right of association with one another add to the frustration felt by those living inside.

“People being locked in their cell for 23 hours every day, or sometimes for days on end during “lock down” creates a volatile atmosphere.

“A high number of people in custody suffer from genuine mental health issues. They are imprisoned sometimes to protect society. But those are in the minority.

“Many people in prison with mental health issues are only there because the courts have no idea what else to do with them. For their sake and for the sake of society in which we all live, it is entirely the wrong place to send them.

“Others are in prison under the now defunct rules on Imprisonment for Public Protection, known simply as “IPP”. These people don’t have a release date.

“Many prisoners today under IPP have already served time far beyond the normal tariff. They are left to languish until the parole board decides it is safe to let them out.

“I’m not saying we should open the prison doors and let everyone walk out. That would be reckless and irresponsible.

“But I am saying it is time to speed up the process of evaluation to make sure that those who don’t pose any risk to the public be allowed to go home as soon as possible.

“What concerns me most is the utter boredom that so many people in custody must endure.

“They are invariably portrayed as having a low IQ, a high percentage with a reading age of an 11-year-old; many have been in care and come from seriously complex situations. What isn’t realised is that many people in custody are intelligent, well-educated and have skills that could benefit other prisoners and need something worthwhile to do.

“In other words, purposeful activity whilst in prison must be a priority. Lives are wasted here; I see it all the time.

“So many organisations are involved in the ‘prison industrial complex’. Big money is made from those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

“Everyone wants a slice of the profits, but too little is re-invested in the prisoners and in the conditions in which they are held.

“There are not enough links with the outside community, with colleges and universities. Too few businesses are willing to give prisoners another chance, but without a fresh start it is impossible for them to be reintegrated back into society.

“I have seen the crushing stigma that ex-prisoners live under on release; the failure of a system that is meant to be there for them beyond the gate, the lack of accommodation, the difficulties of finding work, the list goes on.

“It’s time for society to think differently towards people who find themselves in prison.

“Our prisons are in crisis and prison reform is taking too long.”

Former helicopter pilot, Hollesley Bay inmate, turned author and prison reformer Jonathan Robinson has never made any secret of the fact he fully deserved jail for stealing from his employer.

After finishing his sentence he wrote a book about his experiences entitled ‘In It’ and has continually spoken of the need to help rehabilitate prisoners by preparing them to return to society.

Mr Robinson said “The sum of my prison knowledge – before I rightly put myself in it – hovered somewhere between Porridge and The Shawshank Redemption.

“However, what I saw going on (or not) for the masses of inmates on the rehabilitation front was straight out of Monty Python.

“Our prison system is a national disgrace, said former Prime Minister David Cameron – whilst in

office – rather eloquently hitting the proverbial nail on the head by summarising a prison system that has the highest reoffending rates in the EU thus handing an uncompromising colossal £15billion bill to the tax-payers of the country – because that’s the long synonymous cost of our HMP failure.

“I remember vividly meeting a more than intelligent young man in prison in my first couple of days as a guest of Her Majesty.

“I was probably still white as a sheet as my fellow inmate asked after my welfare and enquired if this was my first time in prison?

“Confirming that indeed it was – and that I had already consummately concluded never to sail close to any illegal winds again, I tacitly delved into his jail tally. ‘This is my ninth sentence’, he said. He was 24 years old.

“In my early days doing time, pennies were dropping within me like hailstones on corrugated iron as to why our prison system so dismally fails its guests in irons, for we all sat around doing nothing.

“Actually, that’s not true – we all sat around watching television.

“I’m pretty sure that members of the public want individuals punished for digressing the law. But they also seem quite partial to the notion of offenders coming-off the prison conveyor belt rehabilitated.

“After all; 99% of prisoners will at some point be released and be our neighbours.

“Do you want them burgling your house whilst you’re down Tesco way? Probably not, methinks.

“Fundamentally, purposeful activity in prison has only risen 1% in the last 5 years.

“I am still somewhat bewildered as to why a prison sentence does not utilise every available second in attempt to grab the opportunity to rehabilitate its guests – be that through (effective) education or training.

“Maybe, just maybe, if the solemn prison system’s proprietors pulled their fingers out and altered their unfathomable prevailing mentality by doing more with inmates whilst they accommodate them – making them busy a priority – instead of routinely sitting around watching the inevitable revolving cycle of Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale – and on a really busy day The Jeremy Kyle Show, the fabled revolving door that is our irreverent complacent prison system would have markedly fewer promising 24 year olds who keep boomeranging back to our jails”

Following riots at prisons in Birmingham, Bedford, the Isle of Sheppey and Lewes in November and December, a Prison Service spokeswoman said:”The challenges in our prisons are long-standing and won’t be solved overnight, but the Justice Secretary is committed to making sure our prisons are stable while we deliver wholescale reforms to the prison estate to help offenders turn their lives around and reduce reoffending.”

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