Magazine article The Spectator

Witnessing a Prison Crisis

Magazine article The Spectator

Witnessing a Prison Crisis

Article excerpt

In the past two years, our prisons have gone from places of rehabilitation to pits of despair

It used to be sewing mail bags, picking oakum and working the treadmill, now the government has come up with a wheeze to get convicts busy with sandbags, fence posts and kit for the armed forces. The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, says the ten-year deal will teach convicts 'the value of a hard day's work'.

This has been tried for six months with Coldingley prison in Surrey and Grayling reports savings of nearly £500,000. Although that figure must be offset by the £72,000 of taxpayers' money he has just spent trying to overturn a court ruling against his ban on inmates receiving books from visitors. He is also planning major reforms on rehabilitation of offenders.

'For too long we have released prisoners back onto the streets with £46 in their pockets and little else other than the hope that they would sort themselves out,' he says. 'Now all this will change. For the first time we will be giving all offenders a proper chance at rehabilitation, instead of just leaving them to wander the streets and get on with it.'

Anyone who has watched the destruction of our penal institutions over the past two years may wonder what happened to the idea of prison as a place of rehabilitation. What kind of men are now being released? When I taught in Wormwood Scrubs in 2007, it kept 1,355 men confined in a place built for 860. It was chronically underfunded even then.

But I first realised how good it was when we were visited in the art room by some redoubtable prison reformers from New Jersey. They gazed in wonder at a lot of messy acrylic paint tubes and wizened old brushes. The sinks were filthy and a group of Afro-Caribbean inmates hid behind tents made out of bedsheets and easels, smoking spliffs, listening to rap music and talking patois. To me it looked like a pit, but to the pious American ladies it was a revelation. They had seen nothing like it back home.

Once I'd got used to prison culture, with the constant intrusion of security, I found the Scrubs quite a cosy place. For many inmates it was the nearest thing to home they'd ever had. It was dirty, the food was lousy, the medical facilities were almost nil, but the men made friends and made the best of it. Many came up to education classes; these were full and had a waiting list to get in. Some men took an interest in art for the first time, while radical Muslims who couldn't look at human images enjoyed the work of flower painters such as Henri Fantin-Latour.

As we enjoyed our coffee and biscuits together, smuggled in by me, I used to fantasise about taking a party to the National Gallery or the National Theatre. I felt I could reach them through cultural experiences they hadn't had before. My other classes in English and history were great fun, although the foreign men, particularly the Africans, always outshone the British lads, who had had the worst education.

Britons often have a false picture of prison life from watching American films, which dwell on the terrible cult of prisoner rape, but there was none of that in the Scrubs and I didn't hear of it in other UK prisons. Perhaps that was because 32 per cent of inmates in the Scrubs were Caribbean and tended to be homophobic. When I made a request for Peter Tatchell to give a talk, the governor refused, saying it would 'cause a riot'.

I didn't hear about much bullying, though men got beaten for stealing from each other. The people I met in my classes were happy enough and some thrived. Boys who'd grown up in care appreciated the order and routine. …

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