Keys jangle. Door 1 is unlocked. Door 2 is unlocked. We take a few steps. More key jangling. As the doors, gates and barriers repeatedly shut behind us there is no mistaking this for anything else – this is life behind bars.
As part of our engagement with G4S, a company that has been dogged by scandals in relation to its running of youth detention centres and prisons in the UK and in South Africa, we recently paid a visit to two of its jails – HMP Birmingham and HMP Oakwood in the West Midlands.
While the visits were carefully planned and executed by the company, they still gave us a great insight into prison life. Although category B Birmingham is home to 1,450 inmates and category C Oakwood houses 1,605 individuals, we were able to walk among the prisoners with little concern. The former was the first publicly run prison to be transferred to a private provider, while the latter is the country’s newest and has ambitious plans to become one of the biggest in the UK, with another 500 prisoners set to move there by the end of 2016.
Most striking was that the relationship between inmates and prison officers appeared to be firmly built on trust. While easily outnumbered, with a ratio of approximately 1 to 22 between custodial officers to inmates, officers do not carry weapons on them but insisted they were able to contain any incidents through dialogue and with appropriate restraining techniques.
Prisoners are addressed by their first names and appeared engaged, while staff seemed approachable. The community-like approach to prison management is most impressively reflected in peer mentoring programmes. Inmates on long or life sentences mentor difficult inmates on a one-to-one basis, with – according to the mentors we spoke to – good results. Prisoners are also given a voice in the form of detainee-led councils to address with the prison’s management team issues important to them.
But life behind bars is not a holiday. And violence is a threat that can never be completely ruled out. HMP Birmingham, for example, deals with an average of six to seven prisoner incidents per week and in the morning of our arrival one had just taken place at Oakwood. Safety needs to work both ways, as inmates, as well as custodial officers, can be at risk, particularly as violence among the country’s prison population is on the up due to legal highs such as Black Mamba. In fact, drugs together with mobile phones being smuggled into prisons or thrown over prison walls continue to be the biggest challenge to prison life.
Despite having to give up its rehabilitation services and transfer these to government institutions, G4S continues to believe equipping its prisoners with skills – be it educational or vocational – is the best way to providing inmates with a pathway out of crime. Whether painting and decorating, brick-laying, barbering, assembly and manufacturing workshops are actually able to lead to a job on the other side of the fence remains to be seen.
The abuse that was filmed at G4S-run youth detention centre in Medway, Kent, was regarded as abhorrent and an isolated failure of leadership that, we were told, brought shame to the rest of G4S. The company's whistleblowing system has been strengthened as a result of the incident and G4S has announced the sale of all of its juvenile detention businesses as part of a wider programme of review and divestment.
All in all, we found the visit reassuring and G4S stressed it would welcome more investors to take a look. We also welcomed the corporate social responsibility data the company provided us with upon our request, particularly information on the key performance indicators used in monthly performance reviews beyond those contractually required, to evidence its progress.
Of course conflict and human error can never be ruled out in a business that is built on people walking on two different sides of an – albeit often invisible – fence. The challenges in managing a prison are somewhat greater than the average workplace, with incidents having the potential to escalate quickly and with significant human and reputational risk. G4S demonstrated to us that running a prison as a community, based on trust and with the rehabilitation of prisoners in mind, gives the greatest chance to address the very evident risk.
Beyond quotas – Part 2 of the Alastair Ross Goobey Debate