Big Debate: Should male prisoners work harder for privileges such as TVs in cells?

Alan Craig, former leader of the Christian People's Alliance and pro-life campaigner in east London.

Alan Craig, former leader of the Christian People's Alliance and pro-life campaigner in east London. - Credit: Archant

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has announced that male prisoners in England and Wales must work harder for privileges such as TVs in cells. Under the government’s prison reforms, inmates will be also made to wear a uniform during their first two weeks in jail and their access to private cash to call home will be restricted.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform - Credit: submitted

Visits to the gym could also be restricted. Mr Grayling has described the environment prisoners will arrive at as “pretty basic” and said inmates could start to gain extras depending on behaviour and engagement with rehabilitation. Here Alan Craig, a former Newham councillor for the Christian Peoples Alliance, and a former warden of an after-care home for young offenders, explains why he thinks Mr Grayling is on the right track. But Frances Crook, chief executive of national charity, The Howard League for Penal Reform, says not many perks exists in the first place and that television can literally be a life-saver.

Alan Craig said: “I don’t know whether it is right or wrong to reduce specific prison perks such as watching subscription channels or spending time in the gym. But I do know that Chris Grayling is right to want to create a more challenging and stimulating atmosphere inside prisons, especially for young offenders who are in the formative years of their lives.

Old lags and repeat offenders may or may not respond to a more vitalising regime. But young offenders have their lives ahead of them and cannot be allowed to simply survive their time in jail through dossing around.

During many hours of visiting young offenders in prison I was constantly struck by how many were inside because of inadequate home lives. Fickle mothers and absent fathers, unstable and changing family membership, a lack of love and affirmation, a dearth of personal and domestic routines – the stories of most of the inmates had a constant theme of inadequacy and incompetence.

As a result most arrive at prison without motivation, confidence and basic life skills.

Admittedly a few begin to flourish. Prison routine puts some basic scaffolding and support into their disorganised lives.

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A roof over their heads, three meals a day, and a clear timetable all provide some basic order to young lives that is not found on the streets and stairwells outside. They may even start to learn some work skills and undertake some education.

But many just get their heads down, close their minds down and simply survive their time while they wait for their all-important release date.

They learn little.

These are the inmates who would benefit from more incentives and challenges with associated perks and penalties.

Apathy is a killer, and some inmates have to be both encouraged and provoked into usefully using their time inside. Chris Grayling is on the right track.”

Frances Crook said: “No-one wants prisoners to spend all day in their cells, doing nothing. That this is happening now has nothing to do with privileges such as televisions and everything to do with the pitiful lack of education, training and employment in prisons across the country.

As the prison population has doubled in the past two decades, so jail wings have become more and more overcrowded to the point where staff are so overstretched that they must lock up inmates for longer periods, often up to 20 hours a day.

Every month the Howard League encounters inspectors’ reports bemoaning a lack of purposeful activity in prisons; the absence of real work for prisoners to do makes a mockery of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s pledge to toughen up jail regimes.

Mr Grayling wants to make prisoners “work harder” for their privileges and “perks” such as satellite television are to be withdrawn, it seems. But I have visited more than 100 prisons, and I have only ever seen Sky Sports in the private ones which this government champions.

On uniforms, wearing one’s own clothes is a perk that’s only offered in private institutions.

State jails hand out uniforms comprising sloppy track bottoms, underpants and worn-out sweatshirts – all previously worn by many other men.

At least 60 prisoners took their own lives last year.

This is a shocking statistic, but the suicide rate has halved in the last 10 years and the provision of televisions is one of several factors which have contributed to the fall in the number of self-inflicted deaths.

Most suicides happen very quickly and at night, when help may be out of reach. If crisis strikes at 2am and you’re all alone, you need an outlet for your thoughts and emotions.

You can’t phone a friend. You are stuck in a small cell with only your thoughts for company, and the television can literally be a life-saver in that moment of confusion.”