What 2021 might hold for those in prison

Cell door open at HMP Shepton Mallet
Elliot Tyler

It’s apparent that nothing this year could prompt a serving prisoner to raise a toast with their blue jail-issue plastic mug. This bleak conclusion might be rooted in the fact that prisoners are dying from failures to protect against a deadly global virus, or that men suffering from depression are being punished for self-harming, or that indeterminate sentences (IPPs) are still causing widespread misery and suffering (there is an increased risk of suicide for any IPP prisoner).

The conditions have prompted a former prisons minister to speak out; he described our prisons as “the most shocking failure in British civilisation”. Dissatisfaction has also, within the last few weeks, been expressed by the newly appointed chief inspector of prisons, who called the Ministry of Justice a place of “tortuous bureaucracy”. Overall, it’s not a pretty picture and one that will not be celebrated by those affected.

Who cares?

But who cares? The truth is, not many people would put prisons and the people locked inside them on a priority list. The government certainly doesn’t care, with a highly regarded Conservative MP telling me that justice issues are not important at the moment. Why should the general public take note of the suffering that is currently happening in Britain’s prisons?

Well, first consider the best-case scenario post-coronavirus, which would probably involve a well-performing economy as well as healthy citizens who are, we hope, safely vaccinated. We will get through this together, says the prime minister, and like it or not, that does include the participation of prisoners; prisoners who are missing out on parole hearings and rehabilitation programmes which they will have wanted to attend. Granted, they haven’t made this sacrifice voluntarily, but these are notable enough sacrifices to make a top judge call for a ‘sentence discount’ across the board.

Meanwhile, most of the media has forgotten the role of prisoners in combating the PPE shortage, and it’s a disgrace that this is so easily disregarded. Prisoners are using their time inside to make visors, scrubs, and bags for our dedicated NHS staff, playing a big part in the response to this pandemic.

People aren’t born bad

The way society works is both the cause and the solution to the problem. I reject the notion that people are ‘born bad’ and are destined to land in prison and/or a Young Offenders’ Institute. It’s only a minority who commit crime for fun, with the majority turning to crime due to desperation or a vendetta resulting from childhood trauma (as well as adult trauma, which can be equally awful). In some regions, children who are expelled from school turn to drug-dealing activities.

Many offenders stuck in the criminal justice system are victims of child abuse, and other offenders are homeless and steal to pay for their next meal. Show these people some compassion and maybe they will do some good in this world, like Junior Smart, an ex-prisoner who was awarded an OBE for outstanding anti-crime campaigning. Or take Steven Gallant, who subdued a terrorist on London Bridge with a narwhal tusk, saving innocent lives. The Frank Longford Charitable Trust is leading the way on this, helping ex-prisoners to obtain a university degree and a career. The Trust’s incredible 85% success rate shows there is hope.

Hope for a better 2021?

There doesn’t seem to be any reason for any man or woman in prison to hope for a better 2021. The government’s new White Paper, expected to become law early in the year, will increase the length of custodial sentences. The prison population will, of course, rise as a result, with the Ministry of Justice announcing plans to build capacity for 10,000 extra prisoners. Currently the prison population – and you can multiply that by the £41,000 cost of imprisoning a person per year – is 78,700. And jobs for those who are newly released (yes, believe it or not, ex-prisoners do actually want to work) are vanishing by the hour with companies going bankrupt and mass redunancies. It’s a bad time for us all, and that includes those who are spending New Year behind bars.

I expect that many prisoners will be fast asleep when Big Ben strikes midnight on the 1 January. Others may be listening to the radio or, if they have demonstrated model behaviour, might watch their small television screen with limited channels. But this year, for the first time in nearly two decades, the BBC is not broadcasting a fireworks display, so you can reasonably expect that prisoners might take a moment to think about their future instead.

Maybe a couple of prisoners will think about ‘settling a score’ or their ‘next hit’. Let’s not unrealistically pretend that every single newly released prisoner immediately becomes a role model. However, what if they have good intentions like the aforementioned individuals? Do we continue to demonise them? I would argue no, we shouldn’t. It was Martin Luther King Jr who said that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”.

Let’s not abandon these people

Prisoners are known to enjoy sending letters to InsideTime, a newspaper for which I am proudly a columnist. Some choose to praise the hard work of prison officers and staff and even to commend the efforts of the police (though that is quite rare to see, as you would expect). Others are less happy, complaining about vastly different issues ranging from ‘a lack of flu jabs’, swarms of ‘giant rats’ terrorising some prisons, and children not being allowed to visit their incarcerated fathers. I expect the amount of letters sent to the prisons newspaper will rise in the New Year as conditions continue to decline.

Let’s not abandon these people and write them off. 69,622 people were released from prison in 2018, and I expect that some of these people, whether you like it or not, will eventually become your neighbours, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Featured image via Wikimedia/RodW

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