The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) are slow to respond when there is any mention of a crisis but swift to punish those that do.
Ignoring the crisis…
Accurate and up-tp-date information on prisons is hard to get by. Most tends to come from those that work or have worked within the system or those that have been in the system, such as ex-offenders. Try finding prisons information on the MoJ website, it’s all too often out of date by years.
The article I wrote for the Prisons Handbook 2016 received a lot of attention both from the media and the MoJ. It was only after I stuck my neck out and agreed to be interviewed by my local newspaper that problems started. I spoke with the East Anglian Daily Times and the InsideTimes prison newspaper. Then, the MoJ suspended me from my duties. Writing the article didn’t suspend me – sharing it with the media did. But in my opinion, there are too many issues that are hidden.
I believe there is a sudden thirst for information where Justice is concerned, and this is mainly true for negative news. Most days now, you can find an article in the media on some aspect of the Criminal Justice System. These are not new issues, the crisis in our prisons hasn’t suddenly appeared. Many have been brewing over a period of years.
Don’t shoot the messenger
I have written extensively and spoken out on every opportunity I have been given to try and get the message out: “Our prisons are in crisis and reform is taking too long”. This thirst can be seen with the online BBC article (12th July) by Laurence Cawley. “The prison monitor sacked after voicing her concerns” a true representation of my story.
On the first day, there were 690,000 unique views with on average readers spending 2 minutes on the article. I have received messages from people all over the world after they read the article calling me brave, heroic, encouraging me to continue etc. However, there has also been backlash from those who think they know me but clearly don’t. Some that feel I am a threat or that somehow, I am putting myself in the limelight. Well, tough: I have no intention on being silent on such important matters. Daily, I receive messages from those that have loved ones in prison or from those that work within the justice system. My shoulders aren’t big enough for me to take on board everyone’s issues. I wish I could.
My priority has always been raising the issues – not raising my profile. I’ve never intentionally done that.
The media’s ambivalent approach
Up to now, I have been careful what I have shared with the media. There is so much more to my story I could write a book. For now, that is not important; but what is important is that society comes to realise the full picture of prisons.
They are not holiday camps, many are so dangerous that suicide, self-harm, and violence occur and the prisons are starved of the resources to properly deal with these incidents. People’s lives are at stake.
My experience of the media has been positive to be honest, so far so good you may add. I feel privileged to have appeared on the BBC News, online, and live on the BBC News channel, Press Gazette, and Buzzfeed.
I have also been interviewed by many prominent journalists. Whoever I talk to, my message is the same. Our prisons are in crisis and reform is taking too long. I know too much, have seen too much and care too much. I can’t ignore what has now become a humanitarian issue any longer – and neither should you.
The urgent need for reform
The crisis cannot be ignored. The media have an important role to play in getting the facts out in the open for the public to then scrutinise. We are a punitive society, where many still have an attitude of: ‘lock em up and throw away the key’.
This isn’t helpful. One day the majority will be back in the very same society with those attitudes and must somehow reintegrate.
I want to see a balance: there are many positive initiatives within the prison estate but they don’t sell papers. They are often lost behind the fog of unrest, riots, and violence. There are caring, diligent staff in every prison that are often overlooked and overworked. They are fearful of what may happen as the temperature rises. There are two sides to every coin, and it’s the same in prison where some staff humiliate, bully and drive prisoners to despair. But one thing all these prisons have in common is that they are paid for through tax payers money.
So instead of switching over the tv, skipping pages in the newspapers we all need to start paying attention.
Because whether we like it or not we are involved.
This guest blog was written by Faith Spear, whose blog you can read here. It is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.