Monday, 20 July 2009

WI samples life inside Wandsworth prison (Guest blog)

Living less than half a mile from Wandsworth prison I have always been curious about its inner workings. An austere, Victorian place, I walk past it often and my local pub, the County Arms, sits in its shadow and is a favourite with prison officers.

Through the NFWI’s Care Not Custody campaign I was offered the opportunity to visit the prison, alongside several WI ladies from other federations and a journalist from the Independent on Sunday.

After you hand over your mobile phone and passport, the first thing you notice upon arrival is the friendliness of the staff. We met the acting-Governor, who told us in glowing terms how happy she is to work for the prison service. She was joined by two staff from the vocational skills team and they were also friendly and very happy in their work.

Having half imagined an austere and forbidding atmosphere I was pleasantly surprised by the warm atmosphere of the place. Of course as guests we would be given somewhat special treatment, but the rapport between guards and inmates seemed jovial and there appeared to be a lot of trust invested in the inmates.

When you think of a prison you automatically think of Porridge and sitting on a bunk ticking off the days: But not here. Wandsworth Prison has some excellent vocational initiatives, especially designed to help the inmates get jobs “on the out”. Dave, a guard and our guide around part of the prison, said the prison tried to mimic the outside world, where people must be productive and not just go to the gym or sit around all day.

To that end prisoners can sign up to study brick-laying, plastering, sewing, computing and even motorbike maintenance. Everything is geared towards gaining skills that will make the inmates more employable once they are released, and hopefully break the cycle of re-offending. There is even a small garden and chickens in one corner of the complex, with plans to expand.

For me, the most fascinating part of the tour was E Wing, the original Victorian part of the prison. In E wing we went to the “first night” accommodation on the ground floor (alcoholics are housed one floor up and drug addicts separately – for good reason – on the floor above).

This is where new prisoners are brought to be assessed and monitored during their first night. The prison psychiatrist explained that this is when inmates are at their most vulnerable and likely to self harm or worse. This is a real risk in prison. Just the night before our visit, we were told, a Chinese man who spoke no English had been hospitalised after pouring a kettle full of boiling water over himself.

No one ever plans to go to prison and inmates will often arrive at Wandsworth after a whirlwind trip from the police station, to Court and on to the prison. Shock, resentment, stress and anxiety are then at their peak. The prison psychiatrist told us this is why she believes diversion schemes should be favoured over custodial sentences – a key goal of our Care Not Custody campaign.

The prison psychiatrist estimated 80% of inmates have at least one mental health issue. It seems logical that a prison environment is going to exacerbate these underlying problems and make not one iota of difference towards rehabilitation and treatment. There must be another way.

Despite this, my overriding impression from the prison visit – apart from resolving always to avoid a more permanent trip inside – is that there is a dedicated team of people working to do a tremendous job within a system they know is not perfect.

Jill Grieve, Wandsworth WI (Guest blogger)

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