Why the neglect of Britain's prisons needs to end: An ex-chaplain speaks out

Bedford prison hit the headlines in September for all the wrong reasons. An inspection found it was dirty, rat-infested and violent. Prison officers were frequently assaulted and had ceded control of the jail to the inmates. Drugs were everywhere, with the inspectors noting their 'pervasive' smell.

This prison, at least, wasn't working. Just last week, the secretary of state for justice, David Gauke, wrote to the chief inspector of prisons saying what he was doing about it. More experienced officers would be drafted in and newer ones given more training. Another 56 inmates would be transferred to other prisons. There would be more patrols and new windows to try to keep drugs out. Bedford would also become a national pilot site for a project aimed at teaching prisoners to keep their cells clean.

WikipediaBedford prison has been criticised for violence and drugs.

And a sentence buried in the 'action plan' – though not mentioned in the government press release – is revealing. It says: 'Specific work will be undertaken to ensure that the regime is constructive and fully engages prisoners in activity and provides staff with sufficient time and space to undertake their core duties.'

It's a sentence that might ring fairly hollow to Sharon Grenham-Thompson. She's an Anglican vicar who who until two years ago was Bedford's prison chaplain. Interviewed by Christian Today, she drew a picture of fundamental problems that were setting a whole system up to fail. Of the appalling conditions revealed there, she said: 'It didn't surprise me at all.'

Grenham-Thompson – who has written about her experiences in Jail Bird – said the conditions under which she had to work had made her ministry there increasingly difficult.

She was there, she says to provide pastoral care for 'every individual in the establishment, whether of faith or of no faith'. Chaplains aim to improve the prospects for prisoners to be rehabilitated. They bring a different perspective to the men's lives and 'open them up to the possibility of life being different because of how God views them'.

In practical terms, this meant holding services and Bible studies, putting on special events with speakers, holding workshops and discussion groups and spending time with individuals. All of this involved movement – either getting the prisoners to the chapel or for the chaplains to be out on the wings. However, staff shortages made all all of this problematic.

'It got to the point where it was almost impossible for prisoners to be moved,' Grenham-Thompson says. 'When I first got the prison we could have 70 people in the chapel for Sunday worship out of a population of 500. 

'As staffing was more restricted, there were fewer prison officers and they couldn't safely be moved or supervised. And that caused aggro among the prisoners who wanted to come, it was frustrating for us because we couldn't plan. It got worse and worse.'

There were problems even at the level of finding somewhere quiet to talk. 

'I would try and find a room for our counsellors, for bereavement counsellors to go and visit individiual prisoners, and there wouldn't be rooms available for them. They'd be sitting with a prisoner in a gym changing room and it was entirely inappropriate.

'It was not the fault of the officers concerned – there were not enough of them, and when the experienced ones retired, inexperienced staff were brought in. They were very difficult circumstances all round.'

Shortages of staff and resources increased over time.

ReutersRazor wire is seen on the walls of Leicester prison.

'When I first started, we weren't awash with money, but we could provide things – people were properly paid for their time and their pains. By the end of my time there was no budget to recruit or pay for the chaplains that were needed. The expectation was that community faith leaders would have the time, the will to come in unpaid and see people. And many did – the goodness of people's hearts – Christian chaplains and all other faiths as well.'

It reached the point, she says, when they couldn't even offer visitors a cup of coffee without paying for it out of their own pockets.

And she believes it was because chaplaincy was seen as a soft target.

But, she says: 'I would sit around the senior management table and the argument I would come up with was, look at the impact we can have on reducing reoffending. But when that's becoming more and more constrained, what can you do?'

'To my mind that comes down to lack of investment, lack of money, lack of will to look at these soft skills and to see them as important.'

She stresses that she's not soft on crime.

'Of course a prison's first duty is to keep prisoners securely confined, to keep the public safe. But the other part of the Prison Service's own mission is to reduce the risk of reoffending. And I just feel that the agenda was about being more and more punitive, security based, and less on reducing reoffending.'

Neither is her argument just that chaplaincy should be better funded – the whole system is under-resourced.

'If you've got two or three prison officers looking after an 80-strong wing, how can those officers possibly have time to give a young man whose life is a mess? And I saw officers buckling under the strain because they wanted to do that. Contrary to popular opinion, they're not just uniformed thugs. It's demoralising for them as well.'

Governors, senior staff and prison officers, she says, are 'good people, trying to do the best they can with ridiculous levels of resourcing'.

ReutersPrison officers stand outside Wandsworth prison during an unofficial strike to protest against staffing levels and health and safety issues, in London, November 15, 2016.

And behind this is a lack of support for the 'rehabilitation agenda'.

'It's not a vote-winner. The average joe in the street is really not interested in what happens when someone's been locked up. You've got the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key brigade which is quite a large proportion of society.'

She is not remotely naive about this. 'I've been a victim of crime, I completely get that anger,' she says. Furthermore, 'Some of the men I've worked with have done dreadful things and hurt people unbelievably. So I'm not soft on crime, of course I'm not. But if you don't concentrate on changing the lives of these people, you're not actually solving the problem.'

And sometimes, she says, an 'overdose of love' is the only thing that will turn people around. What has led them to the point where they've done what they've done? And you can't do that without time, energy and support.

'And if the general consensus of society is that they shouldn't even be eating porridge or having a TV to watch, then you've got a really big agenda to overturn.'

Aside from campaigning for more resources so that prisons like Bedford can function as they were meant to do, Grenham-Thompson believes churches have a role to play.

'People are afraid of prison, they're afraid of prisoners – it is a sort of shame, isn't it? But how many people sitting in our congregations, in one way or another, have a connection with someone who've served time? Which makes it so difficult to deal with the issue.'

She praises Prisons Week, which begun yesterday, when churches deliberately focus on prisons, pray for them and think of how they can help. 'Quietly up and down the country there are people who go and volunteer.

'There is a Christian chaplain in every prison, doing absolutely fabulous front-line mission and pastoral work.

'People are asking big questions about themselves, about life and about faith. But it is just not high on the church's agenda.'

And, she says, investing in prisons – financially and spiritually – makes sense at every level.

'It is a point of principle about valuing the individual. But even as a secular argument – apart from about 50-odd prisoners who are serving whole-life tariffs, every single person serving time in prison today is going to be back out in society.

'We have a logical reason to invest in their rehabilitation.'

According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the UK's prison system is 'broken'. The number of men, women and children sent to prison has more than doubled over the last two decades, with most of them spending less than a year inside. It says: 'While the prison population continues to grow, the money and resources available to manage that population growth is simply not there. More and more we see prisoners lying on their bunks with little positive to do. There are problems of prison suicides, rising violence and drug abuse behind bars.'

And, it says: 'We can never imprison our way to a safer society.'

Rory Stewart MP, the UK's minister for prisons, declared in August that he would resign in a year if he did not succeed in reducing drug use and violence levels in 10 of Britain's worst prisons. With all its problems, Bedford didn't even make the list.

In an article on the Ten Prisons Project he details how he plans to make it happen. But in an age when every government department is crying out for money so that the end of austerity can be proclaimed, the jury's still out on whether prisons really matter enough to claim a fair share of it. And the clock is ticking.

Sharon Grenham-Thompson's book 'Jail Bird: The inside story of the Glam Vicar' is published by Lion