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05 January 2011

Open prisons are not to blame for Ford riot

In this article, originally published in the Guardian, PRT director Juliet Lyon argues that the recent riot at HMP Ford shows that warnings over alcohol have been ignored – but we should not question open prisons’ role in rehabilitation.

Following a prison disturbance, everyone stands to lose. Lives could easily have been lost in the blaze that swept through Ford open prison in the early hours of the new year. Long after the riots at Lincoln prison, and after the earlier well-remembered disturbances at Strangeways, both prisoners and staff spoke of their recurring nightmares about what had happened: a large, usually disciplined, institution spinning out of control into violent disorder. Those few on duty who were endangered on Friday night will have been brought face to face with how quickly things can escalate when relations between staff and prisoners break down.

Many prisoners, including some not directly involved, will now lose hard-won responsibilities and privileges. Families on the outside, and out of contact, will have been worried sick. And, at a time of searing budget cuts, the Prison Service faces a bill of up to £3m.

What, if anything, can be learned from this disaster? The police investigation should establish those primarily responsible for criminal damage. The internal inquiry must address questions of staffing levels and decisions taken that night that led to disorder on such a scale. Stepping back it will want to explore how people were assessed and prepared for a place at Ford and their suitability for an environment that runs on the principle of consent.

Importantly, the inquiry will need to examine the apparent failure of the Prison Service to heed explicit warnings issued by the then chief inspector of prisons. In her report published in 2009, Anne Owers was critical of lack of resources and “inadequate” focus on resettlement and, in particular, warned about the dangers of “large amounts of alcohol” being smuggled in to the prison.

Time and again we see how binge drinking fuels public disorder. According to the Home Office, almost half of violent crime is drink-related. Alcohol use is a key risk factor in predicting violent reoffending on release. Yet, despite high levels of expenditure on drug rehabilitation in custody, little, or nothing, has been done to address alcohol misuse or an addiction to drink. No one has suggested that Ford prison would have been torched had its inmates been sober.

As is often the case with a high-profile event, spurious links are being made and hasty conclusions drawn. At the time of the incident, the Prison Officers Association was sure-footed in its defence of members’ safety and interests. Now, less responsibly, it is predicting a spate of prison riots. Parts of the popular press are only too keen to use tragic events at Ford to have another go at Ken Clarke’s moderate proposals for sensible justice reform currently out for consultation. Confidence in the open prison estate, a vital element in the rehabilitation of long-term prisoners, is being called into question.

Open prisons were established specifically to enable people who have served long-term or life sentences to prepare for life outside. They are best used as a kind of decompression chamber after a deep dive into the closed world of prison. A thorough-going review of the open prison estate could lead to useful questions about the size and location of such establishments and a reconsideration of recommendations in the sentencing review to set up “intermediate” supervised housing for those needing proper time to resettle. Arguably, inflation in sentencing over the last decade makes such opportunities more important than ever.

Constructive, yet testing, time in an open prison is spent finding paid or voluntary employment and safe housing and re-establishing links with family and friends. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Lord Brocket, himself a former prisoner at Ford, said: “Open prisons play a vital role in acclimatising and preparing inmates for the outside world. If we increase staff and beef up security, society will play a heavy price. An inmate given sudden freedom from an institution where everything is done for them is far more likely to fall foul of society’s rules, especially when they have been behind bars for decades.”

We are left with a wider question of what are our prisons for. The answer seems straightforward. Imprisonment is a punishment of last resort in the justice system. It should be reserved for those whose offending is so serious or violent that a community sentence cannot be imposed. Given the cost and role of custody, it is reasonable to expect that people will serve a proportionate time in jail and then be released less, not more, likely to offend again. Open prisons are needed to prepare people for a law-abiding life on release.