PCC Blog 151

What is happening to our prison population?

I imagine that for most of us, if we think about prisons at all, we doubt whether there is much change as the years go by. The same sorts of people are being locked away now for the same sorts of crimes as they were ten years ago. We might have realised that numbers are rising, at least among the adult (over 18) population – which is true – but that may be as far as our understanding goes.

In fact, quite a lot of change is happening, but what struck me most about the latest statistics I have seen is the age of those now in our prisons.  Prisoners are getting older, including the much smaller numbers of female prisoners. The over 50s are, in fact, the fastest growing group in the prison population.

There are two main reasons for this. First, prison sentences are getting longer. This is something the public generally want to see. I am often told at some of the rowdier public meetings I go to that certain people should be locked up and never be readmitted to society again – ‘throw away the key’ is how it is generally put. One consequence of giving longer sentences is that offenders reach older age while in custody.

A second reason is the nature of the offences. An increasing number of older people are being sentenced for sexual offences, including offences that go back many years.

What the public may not stop to think about is that all of this has consequences. They can be summarised as: health, purposeful activity and support.

People in prison age significantly faster than the population as a whole – by about ten years – so it is not surprising that some of the older offenders have complex health needs. This can be a challenge for prisons.  It is a challenge in the prison – issues such as the menopause, poor mobility, dietary needs. It is a challenge for prisons and probation as the prisoners come to the end of their sentence and need to be settled back into the community.

Purposeful activities may also need to be different for the older prisoner, activities that the prison has not traditionally been geared up to meet. And general support can create real headaches. Older prisoners may be a long way from home and those family members who seek to visit and keep in touch. They may not be digitally literate, yet the digital world they will have to return to is moving at an ever faster rate and they will need to be able to access many of their needs after prison online – including benefits such as pensions. Having to deal with this falls largely on prison officers who are already under great pressure.

When people tell me to press for longer sentences, I understand the sentiment and the emotion, but I also think about the consequences, the consequences for prisoners but also for prison staff.

(We have four male prisons – all in Doncaster – and our nearest female prison is New Hall, near Flockton in West Yorkshire.)

Trust and confidence

Many important organisations, nationally and locally, are currently struggling to maintain, or perhaps more accurately, regain, public trust and confidence. Nationally, for example, there is the Confederation of British Industry (the CBI), representing business, accused of misogyny, and the Metropolitan police, found guilty of institutional racism, sexism and homophobia by Baroness Louise Casey. Locally, there is Sheffield City Council (SCC) which has been lambasted for its behaviour during the renewal of the city’s roads and pavements which involved the felling of trees.

What we are witnessing in each case is the sheer difficulty these organisations have in being able to draw any kind of line and move on. In the case of the police and the council, this is a very serious matter. The CBI could, if it became necessary, wind up and be replaced by another representative organisation; but the Met or Sheffield City Council could hardly be disbanded.

I briefly looked in – remotely – on part of the special council meeting called by SCC to debate what to do next with Sir Mark Lowcock’s report following his Independent Inquiry into the Sheffield Trees Dispute. It was not a happy meeting. The intention was to take forward the recommendations in the report, beginning with a full apology not only to those who had protested at the tree felling but to citizens more generally, and to begin a process of ‘reconciliation’. Sir Mark hoped that the protestors would also be willing to acknowledge their own mistakes.

But it soon became apparent that some in the public gallery were in no mood for reconciliation and perhaps never will be. Some councillors could not resist the opportunity to remind other councillors of their past conduct despite the fact that they had all admitted and apologised for the council’s mistakes. It was also noticeable that some councillors had simply absented themselves from the meeting – an action that could only have been interpreted by the protestors as disrespectful. Hardly a good start.

One thing was abundantly clear, that while an apology was necessary it was never going to be sufficient in and of itself to effect anything approaching a restoration of trust and confidence. Sir Mark had, in fact, given the reason for this in his introduction to the meeting. He said that identifying a lesson was not the same as learning it. What he meant was that while apologising for mistakes had to be made, the sign that a lesson had been truly learnt was when behaviour changed. This is true, but that is all about the future and takes time. There is no short cut. And for a long time, while that change is being demonstrated, trust and confidence will remain fragile.

South Yorkshire police understand this process very well. They were rightly criticised by Professor Alexis Jay for their failure to safeguard girls and young women who were sexually exploited by grooming gangs in the period 1997-2013. Trust and confidence in the Force was seriously damaged. They apologised. But they had to go on to demonstrate that they had learnt lessons by changing their attitudes and practices. Gradually, we saw confidence in the force start to return. But it took time. Part of my job was to ensure, on behalf of the public, that this change was happening and being embedded and maintained. Last year His Majesty’s Inspectors gave their verdict that this was so.

But it was, perhaps still is, fragile. Crucially it depended on the force being transparent, showing how things are different. This is in part why I have a Public Accountability Board – where the force can set out and be questioned on what it is doing. It is why I have an Independent Ethics Panel – where members who are independent of both me and the police can probe those areas where public trust and confidence is most likely to be adversely affected if things go wrong. (I would commend the idea of an Independent Ethics Panel to the council as a means of reassuring the public. The key is, of course, that word independent. The public will not be reassured by a committee of councillors saying progress has been made.)

We must be able to have trust and confidence in our public services, but when that is lost, the road back – changing mindsets and culture – is long and never easy. That is the first lesson to be learnt.

Trust and confidence in the countryside

This is something that we are having to do with some of our rural communities – farmers, landowners and people who live and work in villages. They have been saying for some time that they are not convinced that South Yorkshire Police (SYP) has been hearing what they are facing by way of crime and anti-social behaviour as much as they might have been.

So an initiative is under way to give fresh energy to SYP’s response to rural crime, starting with a series of meetings in each district across the county to introduce the police team to local people and to hear what people in more rural places have to say to the police – the first steps in re-enforcing trust and confidence.

Stay safe