Balancing Offenders' and Society's Needs; Life Hannah Davies Finds out How Prisons and Prisoners in the Region Are Helped and Monitored by Everyday People in the Region

Article excerpt

Byline: Hannah Davies

I HAVE dealt with people I've felt uncomfortable with. People whose files you've seen and know have done horrible things.

"But I remember I am there to do an important job," states Lucy Armstrong who clearly takes her work at Castington Young Offenders' Institution into her stride.

Lucy Armstrong a successful business owner and a member of the Independent Monitoring Board at Castington, Northumberland, is a sensible, level-headed woman.

She says that her work on the independent monitoring boards (IMBs) of prisons, over 12 years worth of experience now, has taught her more about life than anything else.

"You learn even people who regarded as monsters have a personable side, but you also learn of the truly dreadful things some human beings can do."

In her time observing prisons she has come into contact with some of the country's most notorious criminals including serial killer Harold Shipman.

Jesmond-based Lucy, 39, has worked in a number of prisons in the region during her stint on the boards.

Prison Independent Monitoring Boards are made up of members of the public to make sure prisons are run with proper standards of care and decency.

Lucy explains: "You have access to all areas of the prison. This is everything from eating the food to make sure it is suitable, to talking to prisoners about their concerns, to looking around the prison workshops.

"If something like a riot happens or a prisoner commits suicide we're are also involved observing how that is dealt with. It has been a hugely important experience for me," adds Lucy who was introduced into IMB by a friend. "I have had to deal with all kinds of people, it teaches you not to judge - to listen. At times it has been difficult but overall it has been a hugely beneficial experience."

Lucy says it is a delicate balancing act looking at the need for rehabilitation of prisoners alongside the needs for society to punish.

"Everything in prison is geared towards stopping people re-offend when they get out. That is how society gets the best benefits from the system."

Although their involvement is to watch, rather than change, the IMB board members can get actively involved if they feel the actions within the prison will have a negative effect.

Lucy cites the case of Ben, featured on this page, whose chances of rehabilitation looked like they were to get crushed when he was told he had to move to another prison at short notice, away from his NVQ course.

"Examples like Ben's case can really cost society," Lucy adds.

"However luckily the IMB was able to intervene and prevent him being moved.

"Had he been he would have been back at square one, angry his efforts at rehabilitation had failed and without a qualification which could ultimately lead to him becoming a productive member of society."

IMB, as they are now, came in to being as long ago as 1898. But, Lucy adds: "There is a history of members of the community going into prisons for hundreds of years.

"It can be a very closed system inside prisons so that outside observation is very important."

What does it take to be an IMB member?

IMB members come from all backgrounds and walks of life and are a wide range of ages, their youngest member is currently 20 and oldest 82.

The government don't look for any special qualifications as they provide all training needed.

But they look for individuals who are: open minded, caring, committed to diversity, equality and human rights, good listeners.

They should also have confidence, good teamwork skills and effective communication skills.

If you would like to receive an application pack, send your name and full postal address to imb@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk, or call (020) 7035-2261.

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