I hope that my new novel Diary of a Prison Officer – informed by my time working as a prison officer – will shine a light on a failing prison system that is in desperate need of reform. We have seen violence in prisons skyrocket and prisons like Birmingham are reported to be unfit for human habitation. Successive governments have tried everything: privatisation, bringing in the third sector, a drive to reduce short-term sentences. Yet re-offending is still stubbornly high and prisons are still failing. All these new initiatives cannot offset the cuts that the prison service has had to endure. In these uncertain times, given Brexit and the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, are things about to get even worse?
I believe that the prison system has always failed women. My years in service showed me the many complex reasons why women end up in prison. There was an overwhelming theme: the women were victims themselves struggling to get the support they needed.
There are three areas that would make a significant difference to the outcome of women on the verge of getting sent to prison.
1. Mental health
I remember my first day at Holloway prison like it was yesterday. That morning, a prisoner emerged from her cell with a full-to-the-brim bucket of excrement that she had hidden under her bed for two weeks. The wing descended into chaos. The siren rang throughout the prison. She stood by the wing door waiting for the officers that would answer the call. The first officer through the door was met by a full bucket of excrement on her face. The prisoner had covered herself in her own mess and stood goading officers to dare take her down.
My first experience as a new prison officer is an example of how the prison service still responds to women with mental health problems. After weeks of displaying unusual behaviour the prisoner finally came to a crisis point and was then taken by force to the segregation unit. The prisoner was transferred to the healthcare unit however, I soon discovered that there was little support for staff and prisoners from the healthcare unit.
Mental health provision in our prisons needs to be completely overhauled. Ongoing training for prison officers on mental health is vital. Although prison staff workalongside mental health professionals, prison officers still do not receive any specialist training. Investment in community mental health to support women before they reach crisis point and commit an offence cannot be put off any longer.
2. Drug rehabilitation
It was sad to see the many prisoners whose lives had been stolen by drugs. They tended to be in their mid-20s but looked like they were in their mid-70s with missing teeth and the skin hanging off their bones. The system had given up on them and they only cared for what drug substitution medication they would be given while they waited in line. It was a shock when I met an 18-year-old girl in prison who had already been given up on because she was so addicted to drugs. She was constantly in and out of Holloway – six months here, three months there. That time it was for shoplifting. A year later I was holding her hand in the labour unit at the Whittington Hospital during the birth of her first child. Two years later I held her hand again. Both children were removed from her care by social services immediately.
No government seems to be willing to fix the broken link between prison, drug rehabilitation services and probation. This should be treated as a public health issue first and foremost. It is clear that something bold is needed to cut the link between repeat re-offending and drug abuse. For people with drug misuse problems prison needs to be cut out altogether and replaced with secure drug rehabilitation centres.
3. Education, employment and skills
I have tried to think of an example that could illustrate how education, employment and skills training can transform the life of a person in prison. Unfortunately, I was not able to think of a single example – not because there are none but because such support is currently the exception not the rule. Employment and skills training are seen as the role of probation. It is as if women are expected to come out of prison and remain dependant, instead of being given the tools they need to find work.
Employment and skills training need to be just as important in women’s prisons as it is in male prisons. The focus on finding work is also not just for the probation service but the job hunt needs to start in prison. We need to consider the full cost of re-offending not just the cost of imprisonment but the cost to the community and to the victims. The state has a duty to do all it can to end the cycle of crime that many offenders feel trapped in by providing all the assistance they need to stand on their own two feet when they leave prison.