I don’t buy into the widely held view that prison is like a holiday camp. Almost all prisons, but especially Young Offender Institutions, are scary, violent places where for many of the inmates rehabilitation is the last thing on their minds. Just staying safe is much more of a priority for most.
This is why I welcomed the news this week that a further £10m, funded by additional money allocated to prisons in the budget, will be used to increase the number of prisons with phones in cells to 50 by March 2020. I would like to go further and see phones in every cell – but it is a positive start.Many prisoners queue for public phones on the landings, which can act as a trigger for violence and fuel demand for illicit mobile phones. The Ministry of Justice hopes the expansion of in-cell phones will also reduce the rates of reoffending, which is estimated to cost £15bn a year.
Of course, many oppose the initiative. They argue it will lead to the intimidation of witnesses and allow criminals to continue their business from the inside. I don’t buy this at all. Frankly, certain prisoners do this anyway and for that small group of prisoners they will always find a way to do so whilst our prisons remain so overcrowded and understaffed. Measures will be put in place to lessen this risk, with all calls on the in-cell phones recorded and calls can only be made to a small number of preapproved numbers. Governors have the power to remove phones from those who misuse them.
Then as expected, there is the usual negative response from those who believe that we should not be giving prisoners any perks as they are there for punishment. This argument boils down to how we view the purpose of jail. For me, it is rehabilitation as opposed to punishment, but for those who take the opposing view, any attempt to improve conditions are always going to be criticised.And for rehabilitation to work, I think the importance of feeling safe and cared for by staying in contact with friends and family cannot be underestimated. Prisoners need to know that there is hope on release or else they are more likely to be tempted by the criminal gangs during their time locked up which will only lead to future re-offending.
The phone in the cell is especially vital for those suffering from mental illness where the isolation and lack of support can be frightening and lead to their condition escalating. For some of these people, access to a phone in their cell could literally save their life. It will enable them not to just contact their families and friends, but also support organisations like The Samaritans and MIND. And if you don’t think mental health is a huge issue in prisons, take a look at the following stats published by the Prison Reform Trues in 2018:
- 26% of women and 16% of men said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody;
- 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis. The rate among the general public is about 4%;
- Self-inflicted deaths are 8.6 times more likely in prison than in the general population;
- 40% of prisons inspected in 2016–17 had inadequate or no training for prison officers to know when to refer a person for mental health support.
Announcing this initiative, Justice Secretary David Gauke said, “In-cell telephones provide a crucial means of allowing prisoners to build and maintain family relationships, something we know is key to their rehabilitation. Introducing them to more prisons is a recognition of the contribution I believe in-cell telephones make to turning prisons into places of decency where offenders have a real chance to transform their lives”.
I absolutely agree. Do you?