Don’t let the riot stop the good

12 January 2011

The destruction at Ford Prison should not close down its civilising work, says Mark Sowerby.

I AM not a very regular prison visitor, but I have been to Ford Prison twice in the past couple of weeks.

On the first occasion, I celebrate mass with prisoners in the chapel on Christmas morning. The mood of the prison is relaxed, despite the usual roll-calls that mark a day in this Category-D open prison. My second visit, two days after the riotous unrest in which accom­modation and recrea­tion facilities have been burned to the ground, finds everyone in a very different frame of mind.

Doors that had been open during my Christmas visit are now firmly locked, and everything seems very quiet and subdued. Prisoners, usually exercising in the grounds or other­wise about their business, are confined to their billets, visible only at the doorways beyond which they were forbidden to move. The men are frustrated at the restriction of their movement, while the wreckage of burnt-out billets and the gym are sealed off, both as crime scenes and for safety.

The Church of England Chaplain escorts me about the prison com­pound, and introduces me to prison staff, to offenders, and to the Governor — all of whom have some­thing to say about what happened.

The Governor, understandably careful about what she says, points out that the staffing levels, which have come under a deal of criticism, have long been considered appro­priate to the size and category of the prison. An extra member of staff on duty as the rioting began was un­likely to have made much difference.

One prison officer laments the lack of investment in recent years, recognising that any opportunities for improvements in the prison service will not be achievable.

PRISONERS are angry about what happened. Facilities such as the gym, which alleviate the monotony of prison life, were mindlessly de­stroyed. Tales are told of men in tears, having lost their possessions, un­certain where they would be re-housed within the prison system, and under which less-liberal regime.

By the time I arrive, nearly all the miscreant rioters have been rooted out and exiled; it is to their victims that I am talking. These are men who have earned their privileges within the prison system through consistent good behaviour — men considered to represent no risk to the public.

They have no interest in ab­sconding or prolonging their sen­tences; they want to do their time, get out, and return to their families. Some are “white-collar criminals”; others, having served long sentences for serious offences, are readjusting to a degree of freedom and re­sponsibility before being released into the community.

The men I talk to are ordinary blokes who tried to use extinguishers when fire engines were needed; men who rescued what they could from the burning buildings, whether it belonged to prisoners or to the prison service.

The men still at Ford — and many of those who had to be shipped out to habitable accommo­dation — are the success stories of the prison service, civilised people who know how to live in a society that relies on mutual respect and good order.

Over tea made in a surviving wing (I am honoured with the ceramic mug), the men tell me what they believe has gone wrong. Some of the prisoners simply should not have been there. They were not “Category D” prisoners — yes, of course they were officially “Cat Ds”, but they shouldn’t have been.

While the Governor might ac­knowledge that “human error” could lead to mistaken re-categorisation, prisoners are clear that it is a delib­erate move to allevi­ate conges­tion in the secure prison units, and Ford is not designed for them, any more than a food processor is designed to mix con­crete.

FEW human lives are unqualified success stories, and no one will claim perfection among those held at Ford, but the prison is, on the whole, a success story. It is a place where men who can cope with an appro­priate level of trust and self-determination are enabled to exer­cise them. For the most part, it is a civilising institution, where men treat each other with respect, and pre­pare for the freedoms that they will regain and enjoy when released into the community.

It is a place where men who have had next-to-no choices learn to live with choice and how to cope with a degree of freedom. Without such institutions and regimes, prisoners will be released with little skill or experience of exercising the liberty they will regain upon release.

If recent events provoke a punitive knee-jerk reaction against one of prison’s more civilising tools, it can have only an adverse effect on prisoners, and so on the society into which they will soon be released.

The Rt Revd Mark Sowerby is Bishop of Horsham.

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