Prisons: The Humanity Factors

In the news earlier this year it was announced that HMP Berwyn, the largest prison in England and Wales, had introduced measures to “improve the privacy of prisoners” but true to form, this was mostly met with media derision.

However, unlike much of the prevalent opinion within our society, which is mostly thanks to media engineering, I’ve always believed a prison sentence is, or should be, about rehabilitation of offenders, NOT their systematic humiliation.

Media Response

Prisoners at HMP Berwyn can lock and unlock cells to improve privacy: Prison officers are reportedly expected to knock before entering the cells under the rehabilitation scheme. (Sky News)

Somewhat surprisingly The Daily Mail, that prominent doyen of gutter journalism, actually excelled itself with some factual reporting, for a change. Even if (as I suspect) it came from a tongue-in-cheek perspective, given the headline (read more).

The prison that gives inmates the KEYS to their cells: ‘Knock-first’ policy is aimed at creating a ‘respectful’ environment for offenders. Prisoners have been given more privacy, with the ability to come and go from their cells as they please! (The Mail)

Prison Security Issues

Berwyn’s approach is laid out in a report by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Ministry of Justice – Wellbeing in Prison Design – that examines the design and operation of new prisons in the UK.

Officers have the ability to override the freedom granted to prisoners, through a dual lock system, which means inmates cannot leave their cells during the night. A prison official said the “knock first” policy was part of creating a respectful environment but was overruled for searches and incidents.

(Most) Prisoners are Humans

What the media (and society) often forget is, in all respects and mostly irrespective of their past misdemeanours, the prison population contains human beings. Yes I can agree that some of those individuals may be somewhat unsavoury, even dangerous to other humans however, can it ever be right that any human should be treated as less than human? Does this not compound the problems that are clearly evident within their psyche?

Does our society treat those individuals in the way that it does out of ignorance, fear or embarrassment? Could it be that in part, perhaps our society is responsible for having driven these individuals towards their ultimate incarceration? Have we failed to support the less fortunate and/or vulnerable? Have we failed to provide guidance and support for those less able to fend for themselves? Or, as the media would often have us believe, is there actually a tranche of individuals who a riven with avarice and disdain for the remainder of our society? So much so that they will stop at almost nothing to obtain what it is they want in life… bugger everyone else and fuck the consequences? In my experience there is more of the former than the latter.

The Rehabilitation Process

Yes prison is a punishment for wrongdoing, a consequence of failing to adhere to the rules the remainder of us abide by however; incarceration of ‘offender’ must always be about rehabilitation and not simply, seen as a dump for our failed human detritus.

The system at HMP Berwyn leans on proven Scandinavian prison policy, which takes the view that taking away an offender’s liberty is enough of a punishment without adding harsh conditions to that process. Something that is usually counterproductive and can also be dangerous. Creating a pressure cooker of anger and violence, with a mostly ineffective safety valve system of control.

The Wellbeing report (above) pointed to the overall benefits of prisoners being afforded an opportunity to “personalise their own environments.” Something that is known to provide wide ranging benefits for the “health and well-being of people in custody.” The process helps to develop a sense of identity, personal space and ‘ownership’ which are all important aspects of the rehabilitation process.

We can’t keep building prisons, to simply lock away our problems or social embarrassment. Those who have been failed by family, our social structures or the public service systems of our country deserve to be supported and guided back into society, almost irrespective of their past failings… with a few exceptions.

Today’s prison inmate should not be constantly obliged to endure the labels and stigma of their offending past… people can and do change!

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