Perhaps the biggest problem I’ve seen with the British prison system over the past twelve years is the way it defines change. It seems to be the case that unless the system can claim responsibility for a prisoner’s change in attitude and thinking, by putting it down to the courses they’ve provided, then they won’t recognise that change at all.
I’ve seen it not just in my own case, but in many other cases too. Some people want to change and do courses which help them achieve this. Others don’t care about changing at all but they still do the courses just to tick the boxes. And then there are those who want to change but, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t get onto the right courses. Some of these people will change anyway, because they genuinely want to, and others won’t. The problem is, the prison service will happily say that the majority of those who have done the courses have changed successfully, because they did so with the prison service’s help. But they won’t recognise any of the changes made by prisoners under their own volition.
This can be extremely problematic since many of those prisoners who do the courses merely to tick boxes receive positive reports, and are therefore considered eligible for release, whilst many of those prisoners who genuinely change their attitudes for themselves end up with negative reports and so are considered to still be too high a risk to set free.
In fact, sometimes this problem is irreversible. Take my own case as an example. The way the prison system seems to measure the success of a course is to assess the prisoner at the start of the course and then compare that against an assessment at the end of the course. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at the start, the course will only be deemed a success if you do considerably better at the end. But in my case I didn’t get access to any real courses until well into my sentence, years after I’d already started changing under my own motivation. Therefore, when I was assessed at the beginning of the courses, I had already made most of the relevant changes. This inhibited how much more change I could demonstrate between the beginning of the course and the end of it and meant that the prison service were not as ready to recognise the changes I had achieved.
Compare this to another prisoner I knew a few years ago. He was doing a similar sentence to me, but he had a far worse record. He had had fights and adjudications throughout the first year of his sentence, but then slowly began to cut this down to once a month or so as he started the courses, until he had just one or two in the year after he completed his courses. One of these later fights was with me. He and two of his mates entered my cell and attacked me. I didn’t have a chance.
When one of my own friends saw the state they had left me in, he decided to catch one of them on his own and pay back the favour. I didn’t ask him to and, if I’d known what he was going to do, I would have told him not to. But the next time I saw the guy who had attacked me, he had a slash right down his cheek.
The following day I was called into the office where all three lads were sitting with the senior officer. The S.O. said that they had told him what they had done and what had happened since and that he had a choice. He could either put us all on report or draw a line under it and put none of us on. And it was my choice. I pointed out to him that I wasn’t the one who had come to him, they were, and they had only done that because they were scared that I had arranged for someone else to deal with them for me. I told him that wasn’t the case, I had no interest in continuing the violence and I didn’t approve of what had already been done, but I understood why it had been. I therefore opted to draw a line under it and move on. And that’s fine by me. It’s how I’d rather a lot of things were handled. Revenge is no good for anybody. But I certainly didn’t think any of the three lads in question should have been rewarded for their efforts.
Just two months later, having cut down his fighting from a weekly occurrence to one assault in six months, the prison service gave him glowing reports and he got his parole. He went home while I stayed in prison recovering from the injuries he and his mates had given me.
And that’s just the point. The way the prison service is set up at the moment, if a prisoner starts his sentence by intentionally acting dumb, picking arguments and starting fights with both prisoners and staff, and then slowly reduces this as he does offending behaviour programs and educational courses, until he behaves himself completely, he will be rewarded with a ticket home. But if a prisoner behaves himself from the day his sentence begins and never puts a foot wrong, helps prisoners and staff, goes out of his way to do the right thing, and maintains this throughout his time in prison, they will claim that he hasn’t shown any signs of change and therefore he must still pose the same risk he did on the day he was sentenced. He will never be released. This might sound extreme, but it’s true. I haven’t been perfect myself, but I haven’t been all that bad either. I have seen others who have been perfect though. Prisoners who have never had a single warning or adjudication and who the wing staff will tell you should never have been in prison in the first place. But they’re all still here. Rotting away because the system won’t recognise any change that it cannot take responsibility for itself. It’s personal change. Internal change. Change for the sake of a better life, rather than change for the sake of ticking boxes. The change that isn’t seen.