The Governor of Belmarsh Prison gave an enlightening address at Beckenham Halls, Bromley Road to the AGM of the Copers Cope Area Residents’ Association and other members of the general public, and stimulated interesting and thoughtful exchanges both during and after his talk.
Belmarsh deals with a wide cross-section of the criminal fraternity of about 925 prisoners of whom fluctuating numbers are the most serious Category “A”. To look after them requires about 1000 staff and costs the taxpayer an average of around £45,000 per annum per prisoner. Readers may not know that Belmarsh is the remand prison for the Old Bailey, many high profile case in England and Wales goes through their gates (either before court, on remand or after court if they are sentenced).
The Governor put into perspective how destabilising the prison experience is, the loss of all the norms of everyday living that the public take for granted which the prisoner suffers as soon as he enters the establishment. He will often lose his job, his home and even his wife and family – those ingredients that identify him as a member of the community and have the potential to anchor him on release. If the prisoner lives in Housing Association accommodation, it is inevitable he will lose it as well as any possessions he had left there. Therefore, a prisoner coming out of prison after just three months may find he has no home, all of his possessions are gone, he has no job, and perhaps is estranged from his family. “They should have thought about that before” people will say. That may be true, but equally, that former prisoner after losing everything may find himself on the path to reoffending.
Phil Wragg talked about work undertaken towards the prevention of offending and the training of prisoners with worthwhile activity so that they had something tangible to offer the community on release. Family Man Courses lasting 12 weeks go some way to eliminating selfishness and establishing a more rational and balanced outlook on life that will hopefully deter the criminal from reoffending. Emphasis is given to teach a trade and to injecting some learning into the prisoners’ lives to increase levels of literacy and numeracy, which better prepares them for life on the outside on release. He also referred to the mentoring and tracking of prisoners’ lives after release extending to two years, some of which involves prison officers not in uniform within the community working to help former prisoners become better citizens and to forego their former criminogenic behaviour.
Dispelling a well-established myth held by public opinion and regularly publicised in the media that drug taking is rife in Belmarsh the Governor explained that less than 5% of prisoners sampled test positive to drugs from the regular mandatory testing – remarkable considering that over 85% of new inmates are drug users on arrival.
The turnover of prisoners at Belmarsh is high, up to 85 prisoners a day. Regardless of when they arrive each new arrival goes through the same regime; a search, health check, and risk assessment. Currently England and Wales has the largest prison population in its history. Capacity problems are a constant headache and more accommodation needs to be built to cope with current demand. That is why reducing reoffending is such an important issue.
The Chairman of the Association thanked Mr Wragg for the time that he had sacrificed out of his busy schedule to address the meeting and for producing such a thought provoking and interesting talk.