Dr Deborah H. Drake, The Open University
On 27 September, 2018 Safe Ground held their annual Symposium. For those who don’t know, Safe Ground is a charity that designs and delivers therapeutic arts programmes in prisons and the community. Their annual symposiums are always amazing events – lively and interesting and aimed at having hard conversations about prisons and punishment. This year, the programme included performances and panel discussions. The format and tone of the day invited a wide range of perspectives, ideas and experiences that stimulated all manner of discussion, emotion, inspiration and reflection.
Safe Ground’s symposium title this year was: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and, as might be expected, many of the discussions focused on deaths in custody. One of the key issues that kept emerging again and again from the panels, performers and presenters was the voluminous recommendations that have emerged out the inquiries that have followed deaths in custody over the last twenty-five or so years and the fact that many of the recommendations have failed to be implemented. This is interesting…and scandalous. It calls to mind questions on what prison policy makers, prison managers and senior-level prison officials must really value and what they don’t.
After every death in custody, there is a coroner’s inquest (for some compelling research that explores this, see: Deaths After Police Contact, by David Baker). Often it is also the case that the charity Inquest will become involved to help bereaved families and friends to investigate the circumstances of their loved one’s death. In addition, there have been individual cases of deaths in prison custody where a special investigation was launched. For example, after the murder of Zahid Mubarek in 2000, his family and others pressurised the Home and Justice Secretaries to launch an inquiry and the House of Lords finally launched a Public Inquiry; the report on which, was published in 2006.
So why is it that so many recommendations after deaths in custody are ever fully implemented or that attempts at implementation are not universal across the whole of the prison estate? The most charitable of possible explanations of why this might be the case, could be that prisons are just hopeless at implementing change quickly and that they are working hard to address their operational shortcomings so that it is very difficult to get every establishment to comply with detailed changes of practice at the ground level. However, is that really what is behind the failure to address the practices that seem to lead to deaths in custody?
Could it be the case that the reason inquiry recommendations that follow deaths in custody are rarely fully implemented across the prison estate is simply that the prison system has an underlying indifference and disregard for the lives of those it holds in custody? Of course, the official statement of purpose of the Prison Service says that it has a duty to look after people in custody with humanity. However, their track record demonstrates that prisons pose a serious threat to human life and that they do not take this duty as seriously as they take other aspects of their work, such as security and control. It seems to me that, on the basis of the evidence, no matter how high the death count rises, no matter how many recommendations come out of death in custody inquiries, no serious change is likely to follow. The reason for this is, quite simply, that the changes that would be required to reduce the death count are just not seen as important, necessary or vital enough to the order, control and security of prisons. It is also probably true that a death or even numerous deaths in custody are not perceived as embarrassing enough to the Prison Service. Whichever way you look at it, though, there is a repeated lack of due care and attention given to the recommendations that follow a death in custody inquiry by the Prison Service and, as a result, this must surely mean that these lives do not matter enough for the Prison Service to make significant changes to their working practices. This is a bold claim. But looking at the Prison Service’s relatively recent history, it becomes clear that the Prison Service just does not value the lives it has in its care as much as it values other aspects of prison practice.
On Friday 9 September 1994, six prisoners in Whitemoor’s Special Security Unit escaped. All six prisoners were immediately recaptured. On Tuesday 3 January 1995 three prisoners escaped from Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight. They were all recaptured five days later, still on the Isle of Wight. Two inquiries were immediately launched to examine the events that led up to the escapes. The swiftness with which these inquiries were launched is, in itself, worth noting because it demonstrates an immediate willingness for responsibility-taking on the part of prisons officials. No matter where the chips fell (and fall they did, but that’s another story), there was an immediate and widespread understanding throughout government and the Prison Service that something needed to be done and that practices needed to change (see this article for example).
Together the Woodcock and the Learmont inquiries produced 191 recommendations. A substantial number of these recommendations related to security and control measures. Almost all of these recommendations were implemented – not just in maximum-security prisons (from which the two escapes occurred), but across all parts of the prison estate. The implemented recommendations resulted, within a few short years, in a huge range of new practices, policies and procedures that significantly altered the working and lived experiences of staff and prisoners and they remain much of the basis for security and control measures in practice in prisons to this very day.
Of course, security and control matter in prisons. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of having a prison system, then prisons should, at the very least, be secure and controlled. No argument there. However, what is important to take from the Woodcock and Learmont inquiries is just how efficient, swift and complete the Prison Service can be in implementing recommendations when it really wants to.
So, why might the Prison Service have been so proficient in implementing these recommendations and yet so woefully inadequate at successfully implementing the many recommendations that follow deaths in custody or, even, just creating prison practices that result in less frequent losses of life? The answer seems obvious. The lives of prisoners just don’t matter as much as an embarrassing high-profile escape and, by association, as much as security and control measures. That’s really what it comes down to. Someone from the Prison Service might argue back at me and say: ‘yes, but these were escapes from maximum-security prisons and no one would want dangerous people out on the loose, posing a threat to the general public. These escapes caused a real depth of fear in the communities where these prisons are located and the shock waves reverberated around the whole of the country.’ All of this is true. However, what about the threat that prisons themselves pose to the general public – to those men and women who find themselves behind bars (i.e. they’re members of the general public too) and who subsequently wind up dead? Let’s try and look at this from the perspective of the threat to human life that escapes pose versus the threat to human life that prisons themselves pose.
Since the Woodcock and Learmont recommendations have been implemented – to the best of our knowledge – no one has been killed by an escaped prisoner. In fact, I found no recorded evidence of an escaped prisoner in the UK having killed someone. However, between 1994 (when the Whitemoor escape took place) to 2018, there have been 4,278 deaths in custody. These can be broken down as follows: 1898 self-inflicted deaths; 2290 non-self-inflicted deaths; 82 other, non-natural causes; 8 restraints (source: https://www.inquest.org.uk/deaths-in-prison).
The danger and risk to human life that prisons pose, certainly seems to warrant a significant re-thinking of the way prisons are organised and managed. The question, however, remains whether the Prison Service can begin to value the lives it has in its care at the very least as much as it values security and control.