A Reflection on Prison, Life and Change

So, it’s the end of an era for me. This week marks my final week working for the civil service, specifically Her Majesty’s Prison Service. I started working at HMP Grendon and Springhill (http://www.insidetime.org/info-regimes2.asp?nameofprison=HMP_GRENDON) in May 2007 as a woman of 21. It was a job I took pre-marriage and pre-motherhood. Suffice to say a lot has changed in 6 years and I’d like to reflect on some of that; the changes that have occurred as a result of my experiences at work. This will be rather a self-indulgant post, so please forgive me!

I was made redundant in early January from a job I had working in customer services for a failing company that made and sold equipment to assist the less able-bodied. I struggled to find work and so when my mum came across an advert for a job as an Administrative Officer at a prison in Buckinghamshire at a lower salary than I was used to I was not overly enthusiastic about the prospect of this job. I didn’t even know what the job was and the interviewers couldn’t tell me. I have since learned that due to the way finances are procured it is not unusual for recruitment to occur in batches; rather than having a single job in need of filling they advertise and recruit a bulk of new staff at a time. This does slow the process down, so I had my interview at the end of March, got my acceptance phone call in April and then spent the next few weeks occasionally phoning for an update on a start date. Needless to say that by the time my first day rolled around I was pretty eager to start working, never mind the low salary.

So, I was 21 years old and I was suffering from a very specific kind of disease that you might have heard of: pomposity. I was a grown up. I could vote and drink and get married without my parents permission and I was so darn adult that I was living with my boyfriend. We were paying rent and council tax and all sorts, and ok so I was still taking the odd load of washing home to my parents, but we only had room in our kitchen for a washing machine and I tended to leave my laundry to the last minute, leaving no time to wait for my clothes to dry on the airer before I needed them. But to all intents and purposes I was a grown up. I had opinions and I was not afraid to use them!

It does pain me now to admit to a leaning towards the right wing of politics. I didn’t tend to question what I was being told by the media so I felt I had no reason to doubt that naturally all of our problems stemmed from the government being too soft on immigrants, that pregnant teenagers automatically got given a council house and of course that prisoners had it too easy. By that age I had been educated to a high standard and likewise had experience in the world of work, yet I was rather naïve and somewhat ignorant.

Perhaps it was the nature of the prison I was at, or perhaps I was just open to having my mind changed, but change I did. My first role at Grendon was in a department responsible for screening prisoners who have put in for a transfer to the establishment. This may sound strange, but it is all to do with the fact that Grendon is a very unique prison; one that is known as a Therapeutic Community and it is geared towards helping inmates address their psychological issues, why they have offended and how they can change themselves to become better members of society. It was a very eye-opening and humbling job, involving collating letters and forms together from the prisoners at other establishments, some of them begging to be considered for a place in the TC. For many it was thought of as a last chance to get their heads sorted, even if they were years and years away from being considered for parole.

Once upon a time I believed that “life should mean life”. I now know that life does indeed mean life, just not in the way that many people understand. If you commit a crime that is so serious that you receive a life sentence (such as murder, which is an automatic life sentence) you will be then given a tariff to work on. For arguments sake lets invent an armed robber who is given an indeterminate sentence, but the papers report that they are given a sentence of 10 years. In fact that is the tariff they are referring to; Mr Armed Robber will have to remain in prison for the minimum of 10 years at which time he will be risk assessed for the potential of release to society, which is a lengthy process of reports and interviews and building a dossier to present to the Parole Board, who have the final say. After that we refer to the inmate as being “over tariff” as they work towards goals set by the Parole Board and work towards their release. In addition to this, Mr Armed Robber receives a category based on their level of security risk. These are neatly known as A, B, C and D, with A being the highest security and D pertaining to open prisons in which the inmates can get jobs in the community and go out on monthly home visits, subject to behaviour. In order to progress through the categories, Mr Armed Robber requires these risk boards (and all the detailed work involved in them) for each request for re-categorization. In short, it takes a long time to work through an indeterminate sentence and to eventually be released back into the world. And even then they are never truly free. A life sentenced prisoner will be forever involved with the probation service and can be recalled to prison with no notice for the merest toe out of line. This is known as license recall, because the Lifer is not free, he is purely out on license. Until the end of his life. http://www.justice.gov.uk/offenders/types-of-offender/life

So, how did I change and why? I cannot attribute it totally to working in the prison, but I do believe that my working life had a great impact on the way I saw the world. I stopped thinking of the inmates as criminals and started to remember that they are actually people firstly. Yes, they had done terrible things, sometimes very, very horrible things, but they had already been convicted for that. Now they were serving their time. They had their freedom revoked and their every moves were questioned constantly. This was justice happening before my very eyes. And it was not the justice I heard about on the news. I think it was my experience of the prison service mixed with the incorrect assumptions of some members of the public based on sensationalist reporting by some areas of the media that finally woke me up to what I know now: news is a business like any other and to never take anything at face value. I started to question things I had assumed as fact and research news stories to form my own, educated opinions. I slowly but surely stopped leaning right, teetered upright for a moment, and then practically fell to the left. I learned to question, to seek out information and I learned to listen and see with ears and eyes wide open. This is what I learned working for HMP Grendon and Springhill.

That and the habit of shaking every locked door to check that it’s properly locked. Lock it, prove it!

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