What is it really like to be behind bars in the UK? Current sentencing policies and rates of reoffending mean that British jails are overflowing. Prison overcrowding is damaging to the mental and physical safety of inmates. But the cause of such an increase in inmates has been overlooked.

At the age of 22, Joe is making the first steps back into society following a two-year jail sentence. Despite such a long time behind bars, he has little memories of the time due to the rigid routine set for inmates. “You do everything at a set time” he says, “even the fighting. There was a massive riot when I was in jail and it took something like that to break the mold.”

He sees overcrowding as the main problem, “When it’s crowded, everything is spread out, you can’t even breathe. But when it’s less crowded people get more care and attention and better rehabilitation.” During his own time in prison, a cell shortage forced him to share a single cell with another prisoner. Joe sees plans to build larger prisons as detrimental to the health of UK prisoners, “The bigger the prison, the more problems. Bullying is so much worse with more people. In a smaller group, it’s more like a family.”

Joe was sentenced to two years for GBH. Though a prison sentence was always a possibility, on hearing his sentence, Joe was upset. “When I was found guilty, it was the most rock bottom moment of my life. After, I didn’t wanna get out of bed.” Joe spent the first part of his sentence in a Young Offenders’ Institute (YOI) until he turned 20 and was moved to an adult prison.

In the UK, the prison population stands at 89,000, an all time high. France, a country with a population as large as ours, have almost half the number of prisoners at 52,000. Our number is even higher than Germany; despite the fact their population includes 20 million more people. Changes in the sentencing policy have been blamed for an increase in the numbers of people both in prison and on probation.

The government has promised to create another 10,500 prison places in the UK, a short-term solution to an increasing problem. The justice committee has criticized this decision as a failure to address the deeper issues. Should we not be questioning what it is about our society that has led to such a high concentration of prisoners? The threat of a jail sentence was once enough to shock people out of their criminality but it has lost its ability to shock. Joe agrees, “I think people say, ‘It’s not that bad’ and then they get through the door and they’re like, ‘Maybe it’s kinda worse than I thought it was gonna be’.

In recent inspections, Pentonville jail in London was found to contain some of the worst cases of overcrowding, which led to prisoners showering only once a week. In Doncaster jail, HM Inspectorate of Prisons found an extra bed placed in the toilet area of each cell to increase the number of prisoners per cell. It was named as one of the worst cases of overcrowding that the Chief inspector of prisons, Alison Owers had come across. Even the most basic living requirements were being overlooked, such as access to clean clothes, showers and telephones.

Staff shortages are cited as one of the main causes of this issue. Education has been disrupted leading to boredom amongst prisoners. In some prisons, only 20 percent of the inmates had access to classes, despite higher percentages of reading and writing difficulties amongst prisoners. A shortage of staff has led to an increase in violence, as boredom leads to frustration. Joe confirms this, explaining that it was not unusual for some inmates, if they had a bad day, to be pay other inmates in drugs to attack the guards.

The Commons justice committee has blamed the current sentencing policies for the overcrowding. While strict sentencing may appear to work, the majority of jail terms are not completed, as inmates are released early due to the need for cells. High rates of reoffending are also to blame, with two out of three young offenders going back to prison. Joe blames license restrictions, which mean the most minor offences can provoke a return to jail. “One of my friends got recalled for putting his feet on the seat on the tube. He didn’t pay his fine and got put back in prison for a month. Someone without a criminal record would never go to jail for that.” Of those that he met while in prison, Joe sees the majority of them reoffending, This is highly likely as many had already experienced life behind bars, “When I first went into YOI, there were five of us on the bus, and three were re-offenders.”

If the rate of reoffending were to reduce, the prison population would eventually fall also. Short custodial sentences can be more damaging than effective in preventing reoffending. They may even increase reoffending due to the ease at which the sentence is carried out. Targeting those that are most likely to reoffend would save a great deal of taxpayers’ money. In some cases, drug users have committed crime in order to enter a drug rehabilitation programme in prison. If such courses outside of prison were improved, addicts may not turn to crime in order to get off drugs.

Alisdair, whose son Blair is serving time for a number of drug related offences is complimentary of the courses his son has been through in order to overcome his addictions. “He really needed to be incarcerated to save his life. If you buy crack off the streets, and tick it, you’ll get yourself in trouble.” Blair was given an Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence as he is considered a risk to the public. Being given an IPP sentence means that you will be released once the Parole Board considers you ‘safe’. “Blair was supposed to serve two years and I think he’s served five so basically when they deem him to not be a threat to society, he will be released. If they believe him to be a threat, he’ll go back up to a 99-year tariff. The government had to react to what society was saying about people being a danger to the public, but people have been given some terrible sentences.” IPP sentences have been heavily criticised by the press and the government with more than one IPP sentence being reported as illegal. Alisdair is unsure when Blair will be released. “He’s there until they think he’s safe to leave. They’ve basically locked these people up and thrown the key away.“

Re-offenders should be studied to reduce the frequency of their bids and create jail spaces. Those that have spent a large number of years in jail over several sentences will undoubtedly feel a sense of comfort in prison. Many inmates are happy to serve a prison sentence, as it has become an opportunity to make money. Drugs have become a profitable trade for prisoners, as they are able to charge up to ten times more than street prices. Similarly mobile phones are readily available. “There was a point in 2008 when two out of three of the people on my wing had a phone” Joe admits. “Phones get sold for £200 plus for a £5 Tesco’s phone. I know someone that made £10,000 in a year. It’s such a lucrative market, people aren’t as upset about going to prison these days.”

Joe is able to see both good and bad sides to his time in prison. “It’s a polar place; you go to a lot of extremes while you’re there. Throughout the day, you get pulled across the emotional spectrum quite fast.” Six weeks after his release, Joe is able to see long-term effects of prison life, both mental and physical. “My immune system is fucked, I’ve had a cold ever since I left jail because of living in such a clean environment. You think it’s dirty but it gets cleaned every day.” He finds it difficult to concentrate, as his concept of time has been distorted, “I’ve wanted to be out for so long that everything feels like a waste of time, even watching TV. From the day I came into jail, all I could think was time to go, and I’ve still got that mentality. It scares me because I want to hold on to time.” Joe finds relationships difficult.  He regrets the time that he missed out on and not being there for people.

His biggest regret is that he will never have the opportunity to see where his life was headed without this experience. But he admits, things may not have been that different from how they are now. His overall outlook is positive, “I’m gonna have a criminal record for the rest of my life, maybe I’ll never be able to go America. But it made me a much stronger worker.” It also acted as a confidence booster in some areas of his life. “I’m pretty confident when I go out with the boys, even with women. But then with work, I find it a bit, like I don’t know what to say.”

Aylesbury, the YOI in which Joe spent the first half of his sentence, is home to young offenders with a long-term sentence. Young offenders that commit serious crimes within London will usually end up in Aylesbury. Joe describes it as “a fucking crazy place, so many of the people in there have such high profile cases, I could name a dozen from the papers.” He lists several murders that shocked the public, still familiar years after they took place. “I was in with them guys. There were so many crazy murderers in there.”

Grouping young offenders together means that minor criminals are often locked up with far more serious criminals. When so many contacts can be made in jail, surely we should be more cautious about putting people convicted of minor crimes alongside murderers. When asked how he felt being placed alongside such cases when charged for a minor assault, Joe seems unfazed by his former neighbours. He admits that prison is a school in crime, which may explain the high rates of reoffending. But he explains that they are separated to a certain extent, “They’ve got a wing for vulnerable people and a wing for the lifers. That’s something you have to have. When you mix lifers with the general population, it’s a problem. A lifer generally doesn’t wanna see people going home all the time.” He questions why there are not different categories of YOI’s as adult prisons have.

In terms of rehabilitation, there are several projects and courses in place. Joe is critical of some of the rehabilitation on offer, but he is complimentary of the drug courses. R.A.P.T is a drug course encouraging prisoners to use rapping as a way to cut drugs out of their lives. “They’ve changed a lot of people, turned them away from some real hard drugs. I did the victim awareness course which was good. I think everyone that goes into jail longer than two months should be forced to do a victim awareness course and R.A.P.T.”

Reflecting on his own experience, Joe questions the long-term damage of the prison system. “It takes the drive out of you. I think institutionalisation fucks with people so much more than they think it does. People that do ten or fifteen years must be fucked, because I did two years and I felt like I was there forever.” With a new job and a return to the party scene, he is committed to his life on the outside. “There’s nothing that stops me doing crime, apart from the license. If I get caught doing anything, I’ll be straight back to prison without passing go. But other than that, the experience alone is enough to stop you going back. It is for me, I don’t ever want to go back. I never thought I’d understand the word freedom. Now I have the choice to buy this beer or another type of beer or go to another pub. In prison you can only buy one beer, and you can’t even go outside for a cigarette.” Despite the inevitable moments of reflection after a long stretch in prison, Joe is clearly on a high following his release, “Whenever I talk about it, I get excited because I feel like I’m about to get out of prison. But I’m actually out; I’m not sitting in a cell.

By Lily Mercer.

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