When punishment trumps rehabilitation, prisoners suffer

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 4 May 2021

One of my abiding pleasures in recounting past accounts of my probation career is to read writers whose accessible scholarship offer fresh insights on the workings of the criminal justice system.

Most recently on how comparative prison regimes operate to maintain order, David Skarbek's latest book achieves this aim admirably.

When reading Skarbek on correctional practices in England, I was sharply reminded of a past encounter meeting a serving prisoner, due to be released having served a lengthy custodial sentence. It was to prove an unusual week when I arranged to visit Lucas (not his real name) at a low security prison in preparation for his release on licence supervision.

At the start of the week I had driven to another Category C/D prison, noted for its well-considered rehabilitative regime, within the leafy outer suburbs of London. But on arrival, I had been frustratingly informed that the prisoner I was hoping to interview had been transferred to closed conditions and that, 'I should take this matter up with Governor'.

Primed for another potential disappointment I had specifically contacted the prison the day before to ensure that Lucas was still being held at the institution. This was to be our initial throughcare meeting (his former probation officer had left the office) and as such I was mildly apprehensive that a sudden change of probation officer would prove unsettling for him.

In the event, he greeted me with expansive bonhomie, 'I was expecting to see you , but ******* hardly ever contacted me'. Lucas was approaching his release date with some nervousness. He had completed several years in closed conditions and part of the purpose of the meeting was to frame the terms of his licence supervision and anticipate any potential pitfalls to its successful completion. 'I ain't coming back, if that's what you think,' he opined.

Lucas - whose index offence had been drug importation - had completed the full range of offending behaviour programmes whilst serving his sentence and was keen to resume employment at a family firm that had generously kept open an offer of work over this extended period. He appeared remarkably sanguine about his prospects and his stated intention to distance himself from his past criminal associations. '******** losers' was one of his milder epithets in our interview.

As I returned to the probation office, having lost my way on the narrow country roads radiating from the prison, I reflected on what appeared to be a positive beginning to his transition to release. After all, I mused the prison was noted as having a high trust regime and one of the prison system's lowest re-offending rates.

So I was left in a state of considerable shock a day or so later when a probation colleague at the office asked if I had seen the latest news headlines which featured the prison. A well-publicised prison-led operation had been launched, ostensibly based on reports of widespread corruption and wrongdoing at the prison, which had led to a controversial 'Rambo-style' raid. As a result, Lucas and other prisoners were transferred to closed conditions without any apparent redress, which then left his release plans in turmoil.

At the time I had been an active member of the probation union, Napo, and recall speaking to the union's national press officer when he asked my opinion of the prison and the raid. Harry Fletcher (now sadly deceased), was later quoted as saying to the press that every official he met agreed that, 'The hard line of the Home Office was being challenged by a jail that actually worked. They couldn't tolerate its success'.

It so happened that later in the year the minister responsible for prisons and probation was addressing the union's AGM, in what turned out to be a combative and over-heated address to a professionally critical audience of union activists. During the speech he had loudly declaimed that the, 'Probation Service is now a law-enforcement agency'.

I and others sought unsuccessfully to speak to him as he hurriedly left the building, mindful of Lucas' release plans now in abeyance as he languished in a closed inner city prison. My exasperation got the better of me, 'I'll not be voting for you again,' I muttered.

He turned around and with a dismissive tone haughtily stated, 'Thousands will'. I opted to keep these sentiments to myself when I next contacted Lucas . He was now in a segregation unit, having protested too volubly (he had thrown his meal against a cell wall!) his fervent denial of any wrongdoing. His amended release plans meant that his supervision on licence was allocated to another area.

I later pondered how, after nearly ten years inside, his progress and prospects for resettlement had been undermined by what appeared an ill-judged and 'brutal' politically motivated clampdown on a model prison. 'Unfounded' security concerns trampled over the much-praised and high-trust rehabilitative regime introduced by a reform-minded governor.

As for the minister and the then-Director General of the Prison Service (no segregation unit for them!)*, they appeared before a Home Affairs Select Committee looking at the controversial raid at a prison once described as all that was best about the prison service. The committee's verdict was damning: 'We are dissatisfied at the attempts made to mislead the committee and the public over the significance of what was found in the raid.'

* At a subsequent AGM conference the Director General was 'disinvited' whilst en route to the venue to address Napo members after an emergency vote! I mischievously put up both hands (one was for Lucas!).

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation worker