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Who we lock up and why: from the dangerous and difficult to the innocent, from a lecture by John Podmore



We attended this lecture organised by the organisation ‘Prisoners Maintaining Innocence’ because we wanted to learn more about the plight of those maintaining their innocence in prison. The speaker, John Podmore, warned us that if we were depressed about the state of prisons in this country we would feel worse by the end of the evening. He started with a quick review of incarceration throughout the world. About 10 million people are locked up globally, 2.2 million in the USA alone. We have the highest prison population in the EU, at 85,000.

This begs the question as to why we think it is necessary to imprison so many people in the UK. The prison population includes a wide spectrum of people, from Stephen Gough, who has served a total of more than nine years because he refuses to wear clothes (the difficult), to those on ‘natural life sentences’, (the dangerous) and those on remand who are not convicted when they come to trial (the legally innocent). He made the important point that the vast majority of prisoners will be released eventually, they are members of the public who are passing through the justice system. They should be treated humanely and since they will be free one day it makes sense to aim to rehabilitate them.

Our prisoners range in age from children (the under 18s) to the very elderly. The UK has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world at 10 years, and we recently imprisoned a man aged over 100. Prison officers have to deal with people who would normally be in residential care or in a nursing home, the doubly incontinent and the demented. By contrast, Argentina has a policy of releasing anyone who reaches 70 and placing them on house arrest.

Around 11% of prisoners were on remand last year; of these 10,000 were not convicted, and another 15,000 were convicted but received non-custodial sentences, so 25,000 spent time behind bars without ever being sentenced to prison.

It may be too easy to get into prison in the UK, but it is certainly very difficult to get out again. There are many barriers to being released from prison (other than the prison walls). One such barrier is that that those responsible for deciding when to release inmates, both governors and parole boards, have become too risk averse. Use of early release under HDC (home detention curfew or tagging) enables prisoners to settle into regular employment and life in the community and they are less likely to re-offend. However governors are reluctant to grant HDC in case the prisoner commits a serious offence and they are criticised in the media. Unfortunately this attitude leads to missed opportunities to rehabilitate offenders.

Of the 4,500 people serving IPP (imprisonment for public protection) sentences 82% have served more than their tariff, but prisoners find it difficult to prove that they are no longer a risk to the public. Often they need to go on courses designed to rehabilitate them but the courses are not available. It’s also likely that overworked prison staff no longer know their inmates well enough to provide an adequate report to the parole board.

People convicted of sex offences need to complete the recently discredited sex offender treatment programme (SOTP) before they can be considered for parole. Those who are ‘in denial’, (meaning they are maintaining their innocence) are not allowed to take part in this programme so have to accept a longer time in jail.

Once a prisoner is released on licence their troubles are far from over. The conditions of their licence can be so restrictive that it is very difficult for them to avoid breaking them and being recalled back to prison. In fact some have found it so disheartening that they prefer to stay behind bars.

What about those maintaining their innocence? They need to have a ‘voice’. Communication with the outside world is essential so that they can pursue their case. Yet most prisons won’t allow access to the internet even though it ought to be possible to design software to reduce the potential risk to the public.

The evening left us knowing more about the state of prisons in the UK. John Podmore had been a prison governor for 25 years so spoke with authority. We would like to have heard more about the treatment of those maintaining their innocence while incarcerated. FACT members with relatives maintaining innocence in prison have often spoken about the difficulties they face such as refusal of parole and being unable to progress to a less restrictive regime. We can only hope that the new Lord Chancellor David Lidington will carry forward the prison reform agenda with more energy than his predecessor. Meanwhile we should remind our Parliamentary representatives of Dostoyevsky’s statement ‘the degree of civilisation of a society is revealed by entering its prisons’.

John Podmore was a prison governor for 25 years; he has also served as a prison inspector. He published “Out of sight, out of mind, why Britain’s prisons are failing” in 2012. He is an International Criminal Justice consultant whose current work involves the US Military Commissions, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; anti-corruption policy for the Argentine Prison Service and work with the ALCU (American Civil Liberties Union) on measures to reduce the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico, USA.

He has written a handbook on anti-corruption measures in prisons for UNODC and delivered human rights and prison management training in India and Africa for Penal Reform International. He writes widely on criminal justice matters.