Prisoner rehabilitation suffering due to understaffing
3 min read
Writing for PoliticsHome after her visit to Aylesbury prison, shadow prisons minister Jenny Chapman reports on the overstretched prison officers struggling to provide rehabilitation to inmates.
It’s known as the UK’s toughest youth prison. HMP Aylesbury has been the subject of a hard hitting fly-on-the-wall documentary and even harder hitting reports from prison inspectors. In June the latest report told of failings in safety, lack of decency and inadequate purposeful activity. So when I visited HMP Aylesbury on 17th November I expected to find a demoralised workforce, defensive prison managers and disengaged inmates. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have visited dozens of prisons since becoming Shadow Prisons Minister in 2011 and accompanied as I was by the doughty penal reform campaigner, Frances Crook from The Howard League, expectations were not high. But from the welcome at the prison gate, a Grade 1 listed operationally inefficient structure, to the conversations with inmates in the segregation and induction units, I saw Governors and Prison Officers struggling determinedly to provide a rehabilitative regime against all the odds.
The odds are stacked against HMP Aylesbury. The population of around 400 18-21 year old men serve among the longest sentences for this age group in the country. Over 80% of those held are serving more than 4 years and 30% are serving more than 10 years to life. Levels of violence are high, long periods of lock-up and inactivity cause frustration making violence more likely and 30-40% of prisoners are locked up during the working day. The prison does not have enough staff to do its job properly.
Understaffing is causing problems throughout the Prison Service with costly temporary staffing schemes used to shore up inadequate staff quotas. But at Aylesbury I met motivated, experienced and savvy staff committed to challenging and inspiring young men in custody. These staff are vital to the task of making sure prisoners don’t leave the system more likely to commit crime than when they entered the prison gate. Their job is becoming harder.
Prison Officers no longer have enough time to talk to inmates, to listen, to explain or to show how to communicate maturely. Prison Officers with only just enough time to unlock or fulfil the most straightforward security functions are not using their often impressive interpersonal skills, and are missing countless opportunities every day to show inmates how to behave well. Costly prison sentences would provide better value for money, and help prevent more than half of those released from committing further crimes, if we used our most precious resource, our staff, more effectively. Working in prisons is tough but it should be rewarding too. Prison staff want their hard work to be worthwhile. They want to use their skills to make an impact so that the threats or actual violence, the insanitary conditions and the anti-social hours they endure are not in vain. For a Prison Officer, the knowledge that you are contributing to preventing reoffending and helping prisoners turn away from crime is a powerful motivator. If, as now, we deny our prison staff the opportunity to fulfil their potential we will reap little meaningful reward from our investment in prisons.
Prisons such as Aylesbury hold inmates who are young and will be incarcerated for a long time. These establishments are uniquely well placed to do the work needed on mental ill-health, drug misuse, bad attitudes and skills to prevent future crime. The Government is missing a trick in failing to take advantage of this opportunity. Aylesbury Prison and its staff deserve better.
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