Prison- sweet smell or real stinker?

Posted: 31 January 2016 in Prisons
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Nick Hardwick

Nick Hardwick, retiring Chief Inspector

Category A prisoners talk of freedom – while still inside.  This morning, Radio 4 broadcast the morning worship service from HMP Long Lartin. You can find it on .  It was positive, and considering these are Cat A guys, who have done the very worst, it was quite something.  A fairly trad service, but listen to the prisoners. For instance, hear the prisoner who murdered a man, and after 20 years of substance misuse, in the last couple of years is turning his life around. A sweet aroma

However, much that comes up from prisons does not smell of roses.  Nick Hardwick, just retired Chief Inspector of Prisons had some shocking things to say this weekend about the prisons he’s been checking on.   When he took up his post in 2010, the incoming coalition government promised a “rehabilitation revolution”. I recall this being said even before. In his final annual report, Hardwick said he was “still waiting for this to happen”. The Report quoted a Wormwood Scrubs officer urging him to look at cells the officer “wouldn’t keep a dog in” – broken windows, filthy, inadequately screened toilets and cockroaches everywhere. Not so fragrant then.

“I’m surprised by how much I don’t like being in prison. Although I have keys and can get out at any time, and I regard myself as pretty resilient, it’s the noise, the echo, the clanging, the claustrophobia, the sense that even if you’ve got keys you’re shut in, and the unhappiness.”  I know this what makes Chapel services attractive.  Because they are often quiet and calming.

In his interview Hardwick added “I didn’t understand the degree to which, once you lock someone up, even in the best prisons for a short period of time, that is a very severe punishment indeed.” He laughs at the notion that prison is soft. “It’s as bad as you could possibly imagine and possibly more so, and don’t think a little flat-screen television in the corner is going to alleviate it, because it doesn’t.”  A couple of serial burglars in conversation with me not so long ago, real old timers, saying prison is so much easier than it used to be.  But then – they are so much older than most, for which modern day incarceration is a shock compared to modern expectations.

Hardwick says our prisons don’t prepare you to return to society. “What a good prison does is teach you to be a good prisoner, so it teaches you to be compliant, not to use your initiative, to do what you’re told, to rein in your emotions, and that isn’t necessarily what you need to do to be a good citizen, or a good parent.” Prisons are based on rigid rules, he says, and another problem is that most prisoners are no good at following rules – that’s why they ended up in prison in the first place.  This is an area that local churches, with guidance, can provide support

And then there’s the issue of who is in there in the first place. The more time he spent in prison, the more Hardwick wondered whether many of those locked up should have been. “It is striking the number of people in prison who are obviously ill, who have either got mental health problems or substance-abuse issues. At one end of the spectrum, you have people who are clearly ill who definitely shouldn’t be in prison, and we need to find ways of diverting them out of the criminal justice system.”

These are by no means the only prisoners he fears for. “Then there is a bigger group in the middle who may not be ill per se, but certainly struggle to cope. If we had better care in the community – not just in a sense delivered by the state, but actually if we all took a bit more care of each other – then some of those people could be managed much better in the community than prison.” He accepts such people can be difficult, that many are a “nuisance”, but he still insists that they should not be in prison for minor crimes.

Roughly how many of the 86,000 people locked up in England and Wales is he talking about? “I’m talking about a very large proportion of the prison population.”

In chapel we find all these people.  The able, the mentally ill, and then that bigger group in the middle who are struggling to cope.  Organised faith provides a framework for structuring disorganised lives, hope for the future, and purpose.  That could be said about any faith of course.  And as Christian, I would say that the message of profound forgiveness for the here and now, the Holy Spirit as encourager for the way ahead, and the prospect of Eternal Life, is really something on top.

Let’s recognise it’s tough inside. We aim to make it just a little sweeter smelling for those who want it.

Some material from (c) Guardian




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