Role of the Prison Officer - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 187-199)


21 APRIL 2009

  Q187 Chairman: Welcome to our second group of witnesses. We are very pleased to have the opportunity of hearing not only of your experience of the prison system but also life after the prison system. Indeed, you are living proof that there can be life after the prison system. Danny Afzal, Bobby Cummines, Charlie Ryder and Jason Grant, welcome to you all. What do you think makes a good prison officer and what would your ideal prison officer be like?

  Bobby Cummines: I actually had the ideal prison officer, two actually, one was a probation officer and one was an education officer. I served 13 years out of 20 in prison and I was a very disruptive prisoner, but I met two people in there who were humane and decent people and they steered me towards education. Education was my liberation from crime because they steered me towards Open University and that sort of thing. What made a good prison officer? My mother was dying of leukaemia and someone showed me compassion. The world I came from before that was one of brutality and there was no humanity. By that person showing me compassion, that person caring about me, I started caring about other people and a rapport built up between me and the prison officer and the education officer and the way I thought of prison officers changed. I did not see them as the enemy any more, I saw them as someone who was able to support me and lead me on to something very worthwhile, which is what I do today. I have been a specialist adviser to the Home Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords, even to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. People can change but you have got to give them the opportunity to change and also have officers who are not like the old ones who came out of military service which was the "bang `em up and bash `em up" brigade, lucky enough they have gone, and not give prison officers tick boxes as they call them, KPIs—key performance indicators—KPTs—key performance targets, designed by some KP nut up in the Home Office. It is really about managing the people, profiling the person you are dealing with and wanting to do it, making prison officers proud of being prison officers rather than them feeling they are excluded from society as well because they have got this job dealing with the terrible things in society that society does not want to deal with itself. When I was in South Africa, if I may tell you that, I visited the jails in South Africa as my job as Chief Exec of UNLOCK and the prison officers there were all of degree level so they felt competent, they had the training. They had the degrees before they went there and the life experience.

  Charlie Ryder: In Inside Time, which is the national newspaper for prisoners, ex-prisoner Paul Sullivan suggests: "I would have an officer warder who would act as a personal officer to up to 20 inmates. This would be at least 50% of his or her allotted time and inviolate time as every job would be audited and have a job description (not fitted in as and when). It would be the officer warder's job and responsibility. Too often failures by warders are blamed on inmates. The personal officer would be the only uniformed staff to write reports on his or her inmates. To cover other areas (workshop, education) he or she would liaise and then write a balanced report. At present most writing is based on ignorance and prejudice, but by professionalising the system, by ensuring more self-reflection and accountability, and updating skills with relevant qualifications, say equal to those of teachers and nurses, we begin to professionalise the system. I believe it is essential to encourage the use of creative interventions for prisoners. So the role of a prison officer should include art therapy, counselling and sport".

  Danny Afzal: My personal experience from being a young prisoner and an adult prisoner was that in the beginning in the YOI there was no encouragement for me to do any kind of education. I was quite illiterate at that point with no previous schooling. There was no emphasis on me doing any kind of education because I was at quite a low level. I was encouraged to do jobs working in prison, such as digging holes, building walls and stuff, doing basic level skills, and when I came out of prison as a young prisoner I had to start from the beginning because my skills were gained whilst in prison but they did not carry on once I got out of prison. It was only a matter of a year before I was back into crime, criminal behaviour, because I could not get a job, I did not have the basic skill levels of reading and writing.

  Q188  Chairman: Was that because it was not available in the prison or because you did not meet a prison officer at that stage who encouraged you to take advantage of what was there?

  Danny Afzal: A bit of both really. The numbers were very limited anyway on the education courses and because I was deemed as not needing it I could not get on to an education course even though I asked for it. The difference when I became an adult prisoner was it was more available because it was recognised that I had reading and writing problems. I met one prison officer who was actually an English teacher who encouraged me to start writing letters and stuff like that, corresponding with people, which got my writing up to a level where it was quite good. Then when I came out of prison it became a vicious circle. I ended up back in prison a year later. I had gone over 21 at that point and it was made available to me because on reception they said, "Can you read and write?" and I said "No", so they put me down. Instead of putting me in an industry doing piecework or just packing plastic bags in boxes for charities and stuff like that, which is quite honourable as well but never really gave me the skills I needed, the jobs I was encouraged to do were Level 2 City and Guilds or basic Level 2 which was not what I wanted really.

  Q189  Chairman: Can a prison officer be a role model or is a prison officer the enemy?

  Jason Grant: Just from my personal experience, the last prison I was in was Ford, which is a D Cat open prison, and as soon as you get to Ford they talk to you and say, "Hello, Jason". They called me by my first name and said, "What do you want here? Do you want to do education? What work do you want to do?" They treated you like a human being. For me, prison taught me a lot of discipline. I also spent time in Portland, which was a young offenders' institution, which was heavily run by the military, they had us running up and down and we had to make our things into bedpacks, scrub the floors, proper drill basically. That was in 1996 and taught me discipline. What was missing was compassion and treating me like a human as well. The ideal prison officer to me would be someone who shows you discipline but also in a compassionate way.

  Q190  Chairman: There is a role for both things?

  Jason Grant: Yes.

  Q191  Mrs James: Is consistency important as well, that people are consistent?

  Jason Grant: The consistency is a bit vague really. No-one in life is one person, we have different times when we have good days or bad days. For me, prison officers need to understand their role is to help people like me to rehabilitate and come back out into life. If that is their main focus then people will stop going to prison.

  Q192  Mrs James: So many young people tell you about people letting them down throughout their lives, everybody has let them down, and that continuity that you talked about that was not there when you left prison, it is really important we do provide continuous support.

  Charlie Ryder: It is important to see the person and not the crime.

  Bobby Cummines: It is 100% what you brought up. We are trying to define what the role of a prison officer is, but it does not matter how well that prison officer does his job, when you go outside if that is not there you will fail and go back to jail and it will be seen on the stats that prison officer failed. In the Mubarek inquiry—I was a specialist adviser into the death of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham—they had personal officers there, that was their role, and when Justice Keith investigated that it was in name only, it was not really happening in the prison, but they were ticking the boxes that it was. Inspection of prisons is right. We talk about prison officers as though they are something different from us, but they are human beings. They come into work with problems. They might have a family crisis, but we are expecting them to behave in this certain way every day. What they need in there is the flow of information between prison officers and the medical, because it would seem from the Mubarek inquiry information was not passed to each other so when it came to risk assessment of dangerousness and stuff like that no-one could do it because the information going from one prison to another prison was delayed and Robert Stewart, who killed Mubarek, who was a racist psychopath, was put in a cell with an Asian kid. It is about training and recognising that we are human beings, the officers are human beings, and we all have human failings and we must have a specialist involved in prisons if someone gets cut down. We were always on about how these prison officers neglected this young man because he got killed in a cell, but there were prison officers there who had probably cut down 20 people and who had sat in a cell overnight and talked someone out of suicide. What we need to do is recognise the good and promote the officers in some way who are doing good practice. It is called jail craft. Prison officers call it jail craft. You have got to highlight the ones who are doing it well and punish the ones who are doing it badly, even if it is some form of recognition in the way of money or they are given extra training. If we invested in rehabilitation and recognised the officers in a special way, whether it was a special award for good works that they have done in helping rehabilitate prisoners, I think more staff would go down that route than be despondent. I went in Wormwood Scrubs after officers were done for beating up prisoners. You were talking about a handful of officers there, not all of the prison officers were like that, but they all got tarred with the same brush. They were totally demoralised in that jail. We have to highlight the good that is being done and encourage that good practice.

  Q193  Mr Heath: Could I just follow on from the continuity bit? I want to ask Danny Afzal because I read carefully what you had to say about your story and from what you say it seemed to me the guy at Strangeways made a big difference to your life and went beyond what was his basic duty in keeping in contact when you were posted to other prisons, but that all stopped the moment you left prison, is that right?

  Danny Afzal: Yes. The problem was you could not really have a relationship with somebody who worked in a prison after you had just been released from prison because there were security issues there. Throughout my sentence he kept in contact with me and encouraged me to write and gave me subjects to do in different prisons, which he did not have to do.

  Q194  Mr Heath: Was that encouraged by the other prisons you were at as well? Were they happy with that? Were you continuing to have correspondence with this other guy?

  Danny Afzal: Yes, he was just a teacher, he was not actually a prison officer, so there was not that much of a security risk and the prison was quite happy for him to correspond with me. Through him I managed to get access to other parts of education and information he gave me. It was just by doing that gradually on another sentence that I took his advice and started doing basic English courses on my own and getting help from other inmates. It was easier for me to have a job in the prison and earn more money than it was to go to education and earn less money and educate myself basically. I did it that way. When I got released, because there was not the structure there when I got released either, I went back into crime. The only way I escaped that was four years ago when I did basic English and maths in Brixton for six weeks and from there I went to Goldsmiths College, University of London, for one day and I met somebody there at a project called Open Book, Joe Baden, who is a lovely guy, and he said to me, "Have you ever thought about going to university?" and I said, "No-one's ever asked me that before, ever. How can I go to university?" He said, "Have you ever thought of doing a degree" and I said, "How can I do a degree, my level of English and maths is quite basic?" For six months he actually showed me how to do essays, research, how to do stuff in an academic way, footnotes, bibliographies, reviews, and within six months they said, "We think you're ready to do a degree". I am now in the third year. Next month I am finishing my Bachelor's Degree in history. That is the first qualification I have ever got.

  Q195  Mr Heath: That is great.

  Danny Afzal: We have set up our own access course for prisoners and it is our idea that this access course is basically a six week course which is psychology, criminology, sociology and history and we think we can deliver this course in prisons, not just for prisoners but for prison officers as well. It is a rolling course so that once an inmate starts the course and is released he can continue it at any college in his area. What it needs is Government support. We have got the course set up and it is an accredited course, so it is an academic accredited course, and that is the thing that stopped me. I have not been arrested in three years and not had any problems with the police in three years since I started doing this degree. This has enabled me to be the person I always should have been to start with. It has shown me that I am capable of doing something at this level and actually giving something back to society. It is the first time in 20 years that I have stayed out of the prison system. I am not saying that after I finish this degree everything is going to be hunky-dory, I have still got mental issues and other issues going on and I deal with them on a daily basis, but this is what has helped me do that.

  Q196  Chairman: Is time an issue, the amount of time that prison officers have got? Do you notice a difference either in different prisons or different regimes as to whether officers have got time to engage?

  Bobby Cummines: If you are doing a short sentence there are no educational programmes, there is nothing they can really do with you. You have got to be doing four years really to get into education or any of the rehabilitation programmes. When you get to places like Pentonville Prison, where they have got the turnover and the guy is going in for 14 days and that sort of thing, there is not a lot the prison staff can do other than warehouse those human beings. When you are looking at longer sentences then you can do sentence plans, start profiling the people and steering them in the right direction. When you go into dispersal, it sounds terrible but I was lucky I was doing such a long sentence because then they could plan where I wanted to go, the Open University, do my degree. It is about officer movement as well because they are so short-staffed basically. You might have an officer who might be really caring about that prisoner and all of a sudden you are in a course, halfway through the course, and then you have got movement and they take that prison officer out of that room, out of that course, because they need him on the yard because there is prisoner movement. He has really got his work cut out to be able to focus on his prisoners and be able to say, "We are going to get this" because he does not know where he is going to be on the next shift. That is very disruptive to the life of the prisoner because you build up confidence with that prison officer and all of a sudden he is on duty over the other side or he is on escort and all that and when you need him he is not there and that reinforces all the people you needed before who were not there. That trust can be broken so easily, it is very fragile, but with a long sentence you can build up that trust.

  Q197  Chairman: In practice, to what extent do you see the same officers on the wing or landing continuously over a period or is there too much movement even for that?

  Bobby Cummines: You do see the prison officers, you have your own wing staff. First off, it takes years to build up that mutual understanding. Basically, there is not a lot of difference between prison officers and prisoners, we are all in the same boat and it only works if we work together. I was involved in riots and all that sort of thing and I found out it was not in my interest to do that because it would have got me into segregation units. The perfect role of a prison officer would be to understand multiculturalism because one of the things that came up in the Mubarek inquiry was Muslim prisoners felt that their religious artefacts were not being treated respectfully in a cell search. It would be about a wider understanding of education. The public all want retribution, so the ethos that goes into a jail is revenge when we should be looking at rehabilitation because that stops the next victim of crime happening and education is the way to that for the staff and the prisoner. If you have got a prison officer doing the same education course as a prisoner, so if they were both doing Open University and the same course, they have got something they can talk about, they are not alone, because distance learning and learning in prison is very hard. What Danny said is right. When I went on education, instead of being rewarded with proper pay for my education and encouraged in that way I was actually penalised for going to do a university degree by lower wages. It was education that turned me round.

  Q198  Mrs James: Do you want to clarify what "wages" means because it is not a great deal of money, is it?

  Bobby Cummines: You are talking about basic money, it is a fiver. In an industrial prison you can earn 30 quid. If they said, for instance, "We'll put you on half that", I would sacrifice half the wages to go on education because when you get that education buzz, and Danny knows what I am talking about, they all know what I am talking about here, it is addictive and you become a better person because you start understanding about yourself, where you went wrong in society. Now all I want to do is good, that is why I am chief executive of a charity, in fact I started the charity with a couple of other people. It is about putting it back now. I feel empowered and totally honoured at the positions I have been asked to sit on and go in. I feel like a whole person. I would not have done that without education. If we could give that to prison officers as well you would get quality. I can never forget the South African experience because I went to where Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I went to Robben Island and I also went to the main prison where he was released from and sat on his bed and it was a highlight for me. Those prison officers were so highly trained. You could see they were helping the prisoners because they were teaching them reading and writing, they were not just bringing in outside sources, someone who is making a few quid. What we have got to watch in prison is that there are organisations that make a lot of money out of what they do in prison and they go home at the end of the day but you have got prison officers who are there all the time who can continue that education and that is why education is so heavy for prison officers, I think.

  Charlie Ryder: Can I just talk about arts projects as well because I work for the Anne Peaker Centre which promotes and supports the use of arts in prisons. Arts projects allow prisoners to explore other aspects of themselves, to be more than an offender/prisoner, but to develop and experiment with other roles, behaviours, ways of being. This can be a massively eye-opening experience for prison officers seeing prisoners as people, not just prisoners. Equally, this can work the other way. In the use of arts, prison officers might gain more knowledge about individual prisoners who are working with visiting artists and be able to provide support and advice on working with particular individuals.

  Q199  Chairman: You have given us some copies of the A Word.

  Charlie Ryder: The A Word is an arts magazine that I edit for prisoners and ex-prisoners and the first theme that was done was on forgiveness and it has got really moving stories from the Forgiveness Project. For example, from Marion Partington whose sister, Lucy, was murdered by Fred and Rosemary West. She has forgiven them for what happened. She went and shared her story at a prison in Bristol and someone who had been a burglar was so moved by what she said he then went to the police and said, "This is where the stuff that I have stolen is" and then started to write poetry. There is also a person in there called Sunny Jacobs who spent 16 years in America for a crime she did not commit. Her husband was executed on Death Row. She speaks about forgiveness and she has written a really beautiful piece on the art of forgiveness. I feel we can learn a lot from people who have forgiven.

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