A View From The Inside

Mark Humphries is A life sentenced prisoner living in the community after spending over a decade in prison on his original sentence and then four years on a recall. He is a student with the Open University and regularly comments on prison matters. In these blogs he shares his views on the prison system.

What images do you see when you hear news of the prisons in this country? Recent media reporting has not been greatly in support of the Prison Service. You might not have given prisons much thought in the past. I want to change that. I want to share, in this blog, issues of prison life and some of the rehabilitative work that goes on inside these closed communities.

There are people who have chosen to keep going into prison. They have a job to do in looking after those sent to jail by the courts. In essence, although these people are employed by Her Majesty’s Prison andProbation Service, they work for you. They are charged with helping prisoners become changed people. Every prison across the country will be made up of a similar staff group to the one I describe here.; each of them will also have their own reasons for taking on this challenging role.

Uniformed prison officers, who today as I write this had to stage another mass work stoppage due to the unsafe working conditions, are the main body of the staff group. These are the people who unlock and lock up the prisoners every day; they are the ones that have direct day-to-day contact with the men and women in custody. It is these people that walk the landings and deal with the mood of the prison, and this mood can change very rapidly.

Front-line prison officers are supported in their task by a multi-disciplinary group that include GPS, nurses, mental health workers, teachers, librarians, workshop instructors and chaplains. All of these will have some day-to-day contact with the prisoners and their needs. Behind the scenes as it were there are there administrative and support staff who all help to keep the prisons around this country in working order. Each one has a role that is as vital as the prison officer.

Today the Prison Service has a greater programme of rehabilitation work than ever before. This is mainly carried out through the Offendi g Behaviour Programme (OBP). There are courses that come under this umbrella which the prisoners can participate in. Mire recently there has been some progression from the Prison Service in extending this work outside of the accredited programmes. Units have been set up whereby the prisoners can put into practice what they have learned elsewhere. These units encourage prisoners to work at making the changes in their lives that are needed to enable them to go on to lead a crime free life outside of custody.

Prison changes people, and there are staff who want to ensure that it changes the prisoners for the best. This is not always supported by the people in the Prison Service headquarters nor at government level. We have seen too many Secretary of State for Justice come and go. This has to stop if Great Britain is going to have a custodial system that is fit for purpose and can carry out its obligations to you, the public. You need a Justice Secretary that is going to work for you and put in place a robust programme that supports prison officers as well as the prisoners. Rewriting old regimes, as done by the current Prisons Minister is not going to work. It is, in fact, going to have the reverse effect.

As I mentioned earlier, today Prison Officers had to take action due to the unsafe working conditions. Recently the media has highlighted the Prison Inspectors report into HMP Birmingham, and how that was said to be the worst of conditions. The reported acted on today highlights issues at yet another prison establishment. It might surprise you to find that as an ex-prisoner I am writing in support of the prison staff, but I do so because we all need safe prisons. Without them men and women will be leaving prison with no help or changes made in their lives.

Study in Prison

Mark Humphries is reading his OU textbook.

Mark Humphries is A life sentenced prisoner now living and studying in the community. He studies with the Open University and also writes and comments on prison matters.

I was released on 14 February 2018 after spending four years behind the high walls, and razor-topped fences on a licence recall; I had committed no further offences and was only recalled due to an argument. But the issue for me was what I was going to do about it. I had to be there and did not want to waste time. I decided that this time it was time to concentrate on me, and so I studied.

I had studied in my original prison sentence, and I had realised that there was something special about kicking the cell door shut and reading the next chapter of the study book. Writing essays and complete assignments was always a challenge for me; my handwriting was never the best, no matter how hard I tried. I am not going to say that I have completely changed that because I have not. But the issue is that study changes a person, and I am not only talking about academically.

Studying behind bars changes people, as I am sure it changes people in the community. The real issue is that changing a person in prison if you have to change the community that they come from or the one that they are going to be released to. The prisoners that have spent time in the education classes, and maybe, if they are lucky, going on to Further or Higher Education will have a renewed outlook. There is evidence that says many prisoners come into the system with a poor education record, and with a negative outlook on life in general. For them there was no choice, crime was a job that brought in the money to feed the family; crime might have been what they parents were involved in, and it was an easy step to make.

The change of outlook means a change in prospects. Prisoners that have studied can see that there should be a future for them, and by this, I mean a future away from crime. To enhance prison education, the Prison Service (HMPPS) has to move forward. Recently I have been involved in a project that takes learning away from the traditional classroom and into the cells of the prisons. Prisoners have access to televisions in their cells and one education provider has launched a series of courses that are broadcast on the Prison TV channel. Wayout TV offers courses at various levels on the Way2Learn channel. The videos are broken down into episodes, and the prisoners watch each episode and then complete exercises and activities in a workbook. The participants are then awarded certificates that employers will accept as a show of commitment to change. This way of learning should go across the Prison estate. It should not, however, become the mainstream education, but remain an ‘add-on’ as an optional extra for prisoners to sign up to.

I believe that there should be a furtherance of this new way of learning, and that would be with internet access in a classroom. There must be a way that prisoners can be allowed access to secure educational sites via the education department’s IT system. HMPPS have started this with the Virtual Campus site, and that seems to be working well. The question has to be asked if some educational material can be sourced in this manner then why can’t more be done?

The education system in prison is already behind the rest of the world. Primary school-children now have controlled access to the internet at school, and at home where they are expected to submit their homework. Distance learning establishments, including the Open University, have been teaching using this method for many years. HMPPS are failing the tax-payers by not allowing prisoners to educate themselves in how to use the internet properly.

I understand that there will be a public reaction to this, after all, there are those who hold the outraged view of ‘lock them up and throw away the key’. The question that raises is who benefits from imprisonment if this was to happen? We need a prison system that is fit for purpose; prison system that employs all the rehabilitative programs available. My rehabilitation was progressed by my involvement in education through to the point where I am now able to study with the Open University and work towards my degree.

On a personal note I want to add a piece about my Distance Leraning journey. When I came into prison in 1993 I had a limited educational history, and was already involved with a vocational training course at Bible college. In prison I wanted to carry on that learning and enhance what I was studying. Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) funded me a Diploma in Clinical and Pastoral Counselling and this fulfilled my needs. Studying through Distance Learning was new to me, but it was an experience that made prison life easier to cope with, and aided my own personal progression. Since then PET have funded me a further course in Freelance Writing, which has furthered my career as a writer.

In 2016 I commenced an Open University degree course which is not PET funded, but it is still an important route for my progression. This time I am doing English Literature and Creative Writing which enhance the fictional and poetry writing that I am involved in. These course are my pathway to a crime free life outside of jail; they are the key to my rehabilitation and freedom. It has been said by others that freedom is a state of mind, and it is.

It is my hope that this simple words will encourage the decisions makers to act and work out the best way of moving forward with both the in-cell learning, and the secure internet access so that rehabilitation can be progressed and encouraged. Prisoners being released with o self-worth or confidence is not in the public interest.