After the Ford Prison riot what now?

I am not a very regular prison visitor, but I have visited Ford Prison twice in the last couple of weeks. On the first occasion I was celebrating Mass with prisoners in the chapel on Christmas morning. The mood of the prison was 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 which saw accommodation and recreation facilities burned to the ground, finds everyone in a very different frame of mind.

Doors which 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 are forbidden to move. The men are frustrated at the restriction of their movement whilst the wreckage of burnt out billets and the gym are sealed off both as crime scenes and for safety.

I am escorted about the prison compound by the Church of England Chaplain, who introduced me to prison staff, to offenders and to the Governor, all of whom had something to say about what had 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. A prison officer laments the lack of investment in recent years such that potential for improved outcomes cannot be exploited.

Prisoners are angry about what happened. Facilities like the gym, which alleviate the monotony of prison life, were mindlessly destroyed. Tales are told of men in tears, having lost their possessions, uncertain of 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 not rioters. They are ordinary blokes who tried to use extinguishers where 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 men who know how to live in a society that relies upon mutual respect and good order.

Over mugs of 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 shouldn’t have been there. They simply weren’t ‘Category D’ prisoners – yes, of course they ‘were’ ‘Cat Ds', but they shouldn’t have been. Whilst 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. The trouble-makers are a different category of prisoner 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. It is, for the most part, a civilising institution where men treat each other with respect and prepare for the freedoms 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 only have an adverse effect upon prisoners and so upon the society into which they will soon be released.

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