I’ve been to prison! But before you get excited, I wasn’t banged-up for anything salacious, l visited Lewes Prison because ever since I became an MP I’ve met many parents and family members of prisoners and been very moved by their stories of how difficult it is to maintain relationships with people sent to prison.
I’ve also met family members of prisoners that have been very badly let down by the system. You might remember my update describing how I took Alison Fackrell all the way to the Department of Justice to meet senior civil servants because I was so shocked by what her son, who had extreme mental health challenges, endured in prison and what Alison, his loving mother, went through to ensure that punishment for a crime was balanced with the dignity and care that every human has a right to expect.
Lewes Prison has also been in the news a lot in recent years for all the wrong reasons. Poor conditions, drug use by inmates and rioting have all been reported. I felt compelled to go and see it for myself and meet staff, inmates, and relatives to get a much better understanding of it all. After all, the vast majority of us will never see the inside of a prison and can’t imagine what the challenges look and feel like. If I’m to stand up in parliament and in the media talking about these issues, and passing laws that send people there, I feel I owe it to people to understand exactly what happens to the people who break the law and the strains on those who are working in our prison service.
I sat down with the new governor, Hannah, and talked through the problems that had been reported in the news, and learned about what life is like inside a prison for those running it, and what is being done to overcome the challenges. We also spoke about the issues raised with me by family members. To my shame I’d never thought of this kind of thing until I started meeting families of inmates, but many of them start to feel like criminals too simply because one of their family is in prison. When they come to visit they often report being spoken to disrespectfully, security searches are unnecessarily abrasive, and that some rules lack logic and aren’t understood by visitors.
This is really important for several reasons. Firstly, a mum or dad will always love their child even when they do wrong and they mustn’t be punished for being a loving parent. Secondly, maintaining loving relationships is an essential part of an offender’s rehabilitation from incarceration. If you break those links the likelihood of a return to harmful patterns of behaviour are much higher.
I’ve heard from parents and it was also good to speak with prison staff – all of whom that I met acknowledged the problem – about the balancing act of ensuring visitors can have meaningful and hassle-free visits but are also prevented from smuggling drugs or weapons into the prison.
I have to admit that is quite shocking being inside a prison, even as a visitor. Losing all control over your time, the space you use, your routine and diet and, to an extent, privacy, is so fundamental that when you experience the impact first hand it is very sobering. Whatever people might say, prison is not nice!
I visited the reception centre where prisoners arrive for the first time. There are special cells there that are separated from the main wings to allow new inmates to adjust to their new situation. I was told that it’s a similar process to grieving, often starting with shock as the realisation sets in. For people with long sentences this is a profound moment. I had never thought of this.
Then I visited the cell blocks. Every few metres you travel inside involves one door being unlocked, another slammed shut, and periods of time in ‘airlock’ type arrangements where doors open and close either side of you. Some feel very modern, others very, very old and traditional.
The cell blocks were mostly quiet as I was visiting mid afternoon. Small groups of inmates were being escorted past from time to time, they were allowed to attend the chapel to prey and worship. Others were allowed to work.
Different cell blocks house different categories of prisoners. Even though inmates were in their cells and not in the communal areas when I visited, you could tell the difference between the different blocks straight away. Some were slightly grubby and smelly, and you could smell cannabis. Others were immaculate and smelled of fresh laundry.
I went into several cells, on the main cell blocks and also in the isolation block. They were small, bright and often with a beautiful view of the countryside, but extremely basic. I shuddered at the thought of spending any more than a few moments in one.
The workshops and classrooms were really well equipped, which impressed me. The art room was a revelation. The quality of artwork that was being done was stunning, from sculpture to fine art. And the gym was bigger and better equipped than the one I go to in Brighton! I was pleased to see this, incentivising learning and healthy, educative activities.
Staff told me you never know what will happen at any second. And as if to prove the point moments later an alarm sounded as an inmate tried to set fire to his cell. There was a lot of activity and paramedics were there within moments. I had to move into another area as the restrained prisoner was moved passed us to the isolation block that I was just leaving.
I did meet and speak to some inmates. We passed one extremely vulnerable resident who had attempted suicide several times and was under constant 24/7 supervision. The cell door was transparent and a carer was seated close by and they were in conversation.
Another who I spent time with was serving a ten year sentence. I asked him about conditions inside. He told me that things had been very bad a few years ago, when the prison was making headlines, so much so that he’d been too intimidated to come out of his cell. When he did he would sometimes see blood on the walls. But he also said conditions had improved massively since that time. We were alone for this conversation, there wasn’t a guard staring at him as he talked about life inside to me.
Before Chris Grayling screwed up our rail service he was justice minister responsible for prison reform. The failed privatisation programme he undertook has now been reversed but many years and much money has been wasted. This is important because thousands of opportunities to turn around lives have been missed as a result. I really got a sense of this from being in a prison and talking to staff and residents there.
I then left the prison and went over the road to the family centre to meet volunteers at Spurgeons, a charity that supports children of prisoners. Wow! When you meet and talk to the volunteers, many of whom are themselves children of former inmates, their stories are incredibly tough to hear but also unbelievably inspiring. As children they had to cope with the shame and confusion of what their parent did, and the reaction of friends and other children at school, and sometimes media attention.
That young people could endure this and when they become adults want to give their time to supporting others was so moving to see. This great charity really deserves our support, here’s a link: https://www.spurgeons.org
There’s a lot for me to reflect on after this visit. If you’ve experienced any of the issues I’ve talked about here then I’d love to hear your thoughts too. Thanks for reading such another long post!