Pentonville prison. Photo by Anthony Devlin / PA Wire
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech in England saw David Cameron’s much-publicized prison reforms take an interesting and, at least on the face of it, surprisingly liberal turn. It was revealed that in the future, selected prisoners would be released on new satellite tags during the week, so that they could continue to work in their current jobs, before returning to jail on the weekends for the duration of their sentence. The satellite tags are able to pinpoint where a prisoner is at all times. They are an improvement on the rudimentary tags that are currently in use and are only able to confirm whether or not the tagged individual is at their home address during their curfew. The ideas behind this seem to be lowering reoffending rates and creating a more positive vibe in prisons. David Cameron stated that he wanted to stop prisons being “warehouses for criminals,” and that “they will now be places where lives are changed.”
As a teacher in a prison, I often hear of prisoners complaining about losing their jobs, their homes (rented and owned), and even pets due to being given often fairly short custodial sentences. I’m covering a motivational class this week and it’s a decent group; despite none of the prisoners having actually signed up for the course, they’re mostly pretty affable. Once we finish the group work, I ask them about Cameron’s prison plans.
Jamie, 29, is due to be released next week after serving the full six months of his sentence. Due to his past record of violent crimes, and a previous record of breaking license conditions, he was denied the opportunity of being released on tag. He used to play soccer semi-professionally, and although he now works as a builder he has not given up on returning to the game at this level—which would mean he’d not be able to play in the majority of fixtures under the new satellite tagging rules.
I ask Jamie whether he would have any objection to seeing prisoners potentially returning to the wing on weekends having spent the rest of the week outside. “Wouldn’t bother me really. I’ll do my days, they can do theirs. I see it being more a problem for the governors and the screws.” I ask Jamie to expand. “For one, imagine the amount of shit people will be smuggling in on a Friday evening or whenever. More than now, guaranteed, all those comings and goings. If they can’t stop it as it is, how they fuck are they going to cope with it then?”
This seems like a valid point; even though more steps are being taken to reduce the amount of drugs being illegally smuggled into prison, recent headlines focusing on the increased use of synthetic cannabis in jails suggest that it’s an uphill battle. But what of the prison officers’ objections to weekend prisoners? “Creases me—it would mean they’d be doing more time in here than most of the inmates. The cunts would be absolutely fuming!”
THE RELUCTANT OFFENDER
Wes, 35, has previously served a three-year sentence for a commercial robbery and is currently waiting to go on trial for another crime of a similar nature. He assures me that he will be found not guilty, stating that “none of these new laws are relevant to me now, but…”
Wes explains that he’s committed offenses in the past out of desperation, having served custodial sentences and been released he’s found himself homeless and with no access to money for food. “What I mean is, if a prisoner is allowed to keep his job then it’ll go a long way to keeping him from reoffending once he’s done his bird. If you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from then yeah, you probably will do something fucking stupid—and get caught doing it. I literally lost everything. The council kicked me out, fucking robbed my TV as well. If I’d been allowed to keep on working then none of this would have happened. I don’t like that Cameron, but it’s an alright idea if he sticks to it.”
LIVING FOR THE WEEKEND
Danny, 20, tells me that he has broken his license conditions on every single one of his six sentences. Having been returned to jail for being five hours late for his nightly curfew, Danny is currently serving the remainder of a three-month sentence for assaulting his partner behind prison walls.
I ask Danny what he thinks of the prison reforms. “It’s fucking the wrong way round, bro. Do the time in the week and let us out for the weekend, innit.” But the whole point is to let prisoners keep their jobs, I say. “Yeah, I don’t have a fucking job though. Get fed, watch a bit of TV in the week in my cell, and then party on road every weekend. Banging.”
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It’s quite typical for younger prisoners to have a blasé attitude towards their license and tag conditions; Danny has spent the last three Christmases in jail, and missed the vast majority of each summer since his late teens. It’s hard to imagine that being released on tag would help unless he gets the relevant professional help. I ask Danny whether he’s bothered about being in jail, about missing more Christmases and summers. “Couldn’t give a fuck, mate,” he says.
THE MANUAL WORKER
Andy, 33, has been in prison a few times. Like a lot of the prisoners I meet, he works in a manual trade and is often able to walk back into work after sentences. He’s got a couple of months left of this sentence and has already lined up three months’ work on a new development of luxury apartments.
Andy says that if he’s ever inside again, he would happily accept coming back to prison every weekend if it meant that he could carry on working and providing for his wife and two young daughters. “The way I see it, the weekend is the optional extra, a luxury. Life to me is Monday to Friday, grafting, and putting food on the table. There’ll always be idiots who fuck up their tag, but most of us just want a simple life with the Mrs. and kids. I’d polish the tag every fucking night if they let me stay at home during the week.”
It’s difficult to not be cynical when assessing any reforms that this Conservative government rolls out. It may be the case that this particular reform is less about prisoner welfare and more about easing the burden on already overpopulated prisons; equally, it could be about keeping employment levels up and ensuring that convicted prisoners keep putting money into an economy desperate for any cash it can get. That said, if it’s a policy that helps prisoners see their families, keep their jobs, and feel like worthwhile human beings, then it’s probably a good thing.