More than the bare minimum

Zoe Ellis
Wednesday, 20 August 2014

In a previous comment piece, I wrote about what took place at the one day event held by the Centre at HMP Grendon on 27 June. This event was held as part of the European Prison Observatory project.

The feedback we received during the event was very valuable, and having reviewed all the notes we took through the workshops, and identified the common themes from the day, what struck me most was that it seemed to be the simplest and easily avoidable issues that were causing significant frustration across the prison estate.

Residents of HMP Grendon talked about their experiences in other prisons across Britain. They expressed how most prisoners are keen to get involved in work, education and activities that would benefit them during their time in prison and upon their release. However, due to low resources, it is often difficult to complete these educational courses or work placements without severe disruptions.

In my experience, almost every discussion during this event boiled down the issue of insufficient resources, and especially the availability of staff time. It might be claimed that there is enough staff to keep everything ‘in order’ (ahem, well, recent disruptions may beg to differ...), yet it is essential to recognise that something as simple as escorting residents to and from their activities takes time and attention.

Currently, the low levels of staff in prisons across the UK, means it is often the case that general security has to be favoured over resident access to activities and education. Because of this, prisoners are being denied their basic human right to access education and improve upon their skills.

It is no secret that those suffering from mental health issues are over represented in the prison population. Why is it, then, that identification and subsequent treatment for these issues seems to be so lacking and uncoordinated?

At the event, residents spoke about feeling that the prison staff (at prisons they had attended prior to HMP Grendon) did not have appropriate training, and too often resorted to violence or oppresive behaviour when disputes arose. Alongside their other training, prison staff should be better trained in identifying mental health issues and be given a clear pathway to respond appropriately to individual needs.

The poor (or sheer lack of) information exchange between prisons means that prisoners are often transferred with no record of their previous medical history or educational achievements. Residents told of ‘always starting on square one’ and feeling let down by the brief medical check upon admission that did nothing to address their more deeply rooted problems.

Attendees at the workshop were passionate about the importance of implementing multidisciplinary models to improve information sharing and ensure that prisoners are always making progress, and never left behind because of an administration nightmare.

If there was endless money and resources every institution would be effective in its aims; no cuts or budgeting would mean that individuals would never be let down as a result. It is, of course, unrealistic to think that resourcing will never be a problem, but such a mammoth institution that is responsible for so many lives needs far more than the bare minimum provided at present.