Prisons: The good, the bad and the ugly

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Murals bring a wing to life

Walls at The Mount prison have a brighter look – thanks to the work of wing artist Dobrica Shkelzen (above right). His colourful murals of wildlife and landscapes are appreciated by the residents of Nash wing, whilst the self-taught artist says he finds that painting them makes him smile.

In a letter to Inside Time, Dobrica wrote: “This was the first time I actually felt like I was taking part in something rehabilitative. Sometimes here you don’t feel normal – it feels like staff don’t care apart from a certain few who are helpful. This project made me feel more like a human than a prison number. It has made the space more open for people to live in with more sanity. There should be more projects like this to get involved in.

“I enjoy all the different colours and materials I use. This is the first time I have done art in my life; I have learnt how to draw, and practised my skills. Normally I get my food from the servery and take it back to my cell, but yesterday I actually took the time to eat next to my work, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So do the other prisoners on my wing.

“My son loves art and is very good at it, which fills my heart with joy. Art also helps me to build a rapport with other prisoners, as they always talk to me about my work and they enjoy it being displayed on the wing.

“I hope to get something out of my art skills when I get released. It brings passion and energy, makes me feel a better person, and makes me more conscious of my decision-making. It makes this place more welcoming – it’s not a wing full of nothing any more. It has been therapeutic to me also, and makes me smile a lot.

“I would like to thank my peers and staff at The Mount for helping with my journey, especially officer Rose who has been the ‘front man’ with helping get my work recognized.”

Prisoner bites governor

A Berwyn prisoner has been given an extra 38-month sentence for assaulting staff at the prison. In two separate incidents in 2022, the 32-year-old man smashed his glass door panel and threatened staff, on one occasion when armed with a shard of glass. In one of the incidents, the man enticed officers into his cell by claiming he was going to harm himself, but when they entered, he attacked them, including by biting and spitting at them. He also punched prison governor Thomas Brodie, and bit him on the arm as he tried to assist. He pleaded guilty to four counts of assaulting an emergency worker and two counts of assault occasioning Actual Bodily Harm (ABH). 

Training centre becomes an adult prison

Prisons Minister Damian Hinds has announced that the former Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre is to be refurbished and will open as a Category C men’s prison, as an annexe of neighbouring Onley. The scheme will create up to 131 new prison places and a hundred local jobs. Rainsbrook was a secure unit for children aged between 12 and 17 until it closed in 2021. Hinds said: “Alongside vital taxpayer savings and creating more jobs for the local economy, we are making sure that every acre of the prison estate is being used effectively to rehabilitate offenders and help them turn their backs on crime for good.”

Edinburgh Fringe comes to prison

A comedy collective called Wholesome Prison Blues performed eight shows at HMP Edinburgh last month as part of the city’s Fringe festival. The group have previously put on shows at other Scottish jails. One member, Tattoo Dave – so-called because he is also a tattoo artist – told a local newspaper that organising the shows had opened his eyes to prison life, and said the performers got as much out of it as the prisoners did. He said: “For us as comedians, it is really good to test ourselves and perform in what might be seen as a more extreme environment compared to if we were to perform in a pub or a club on a Wednesday night.”

Prisoners’ art on display

A spectacular piece of handcrafted wooden art by prisoners from Channings Wood is to go on display at Exeter Custom House. The giant artwork took four months to make – a total of 200-man hours. It was made from offcuts of poplar wood from the prison’s Wood Mill workshops, hand-sanded and coated with tinted wax. It has also been entered into the 2023 Koestler Awards.

Man rows 1,000km for charity

A prisoner (above right) at Stocken completed 1,000km on a rowing machine to raise £416.30 for a hospital ward which cared for his wife when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The prison publicised the man’s achievement on social media, stating: “He showed great determination and commitment to the cause, rowing 1,013,000 metres (which is equal to 24 marathons) – and it took 73 hours.”

Prisoners’ donation

Every day, around 750 seriously ill children and young people from all over the UK are seen at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. To prove prisoners do care, the men on D Wing at Wormwood Scrubs made a donation to the hospital last month. A cheque was presented to the Chief Nurse at an event in the prison chapel.

Officer guilty of assault

A Thameside prison officer who kicked a prisoner in the head has pleaded guilty to assault for using excessive force in his self-defence. The officer was punched as he delivered dinner to the man, and was bleeding from his mouth. He defended himself with punches before other staff helped restrain his attacker. Whilst the prisoner was restrained, the officer kicked him twice, causing cuts to his head. The officer was given a 12-month community order.

Sex abuse counselling for women

Survivors of sexual violence at Low Newton women’s prison will be offered 20 weeks of confidential support by a specialist counsellor, in a project commissioned by the County Durham and Darlington Police and Crime Commissioner and run by the Rape & Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre. According to research by the campaign group Women in Prison, 79 per cent of female prisoners have experienced sexual violence and abuse as adults, with 53 per cent having experienced abuse as children.

Game with Mum and Dad

Children were invited in to Grampian prison to play football with their jailed fathers, mothers or caregivers. The event at the jail – which holds both men and women – was organised by the charity Families Outside as part of an international campaign called ‘Game with Mum and Dad’, led by Children of Prisoners Europe. Families also took part in activities including races and ‘beat the goalie’. Kirsten Law of Families Outside said: “Playing games with your parents is a formative and normal thing in most childhoods. Sadly, when a parent goes to prison, these moments no longer exist, and visiting in prison can be scary for children. This is why ‘Game with Mum and Dad’ is so important.”

You’re not borrowing that!

Two memoirs by criminals have been kept off the library shelves at Five Wells. A Freedom of Information request has disclosed the prison’s library owns copies of “I Am a Hitman: The Real-Life Confessions of a Contract Killer” and “I Am a Drug Lord: The Last Confessions of a Real-Life Underworld Kingpin”. They were donated to the library, but have been placed in storage and not made available for men to borrow. The library has around 6,400 books. 

No guide dog in prison

A blind man has failed in his attempt to have his sentence reduced because he is not allowed a guide dog in Norwich prison. The 72-year-old, who is serving 18 years, claimed the sentencing judge failed to take account of his failing eyesight and his need for a guide dog to find his way around. A panel of three judges dismissed his claim. Electric fans, immersion heaters and condoms are on a list of allowed items – guide dogs are not.

Urgent Notification for troubled jail

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has issued an ‘Urgent Notification’ for Bristol prison. He said the jail, over its five most recent inspections, “continues to be a prison with apparently chronic and intractable problems.” He describes Bristol as one of the most unsafe prisons in the country. There had been six self-inflicted deaths in 10 months, and a prisoner had been charged with murdering his cellmate. Prisoners were not motivated and poor behaviour went unchallenged. The majority of prisoners were locked up for almost 22 hours a day, while health provision was not sufficient to meet the needs of prisoners, many of whom were struggling with mental health problems.

Officer jailed for phone sex with prisoner

A female prison officer at Oakwood who had phone sex with a prisoner has been jailed for 12 months for misconduct in a public office and transmitting an electronic message from a prison. The man entered the 27-year-old woman onto his approved contact list under a fake name and called her 3,451 times over six months in 2021 and 2022, at a cost of £798. They spoke for 380 hours and police said they performed sexual acts during the calls.  

Delays to new jail ‘could lead to catastrophe’

The governor of Scotland’s biggest prison has warned of the danger of a “catastrophic failure” if the building of a replacement jail is delayed any further. Barlinnie, in Glasgow, was designed for 1,000 men but now holds 1,400. A brand-new jail called HMP Glasgow was meant to open in 2025, but the date has been pushed back to 2027 while the Scottish government is investigating a £300 million overspend. Governor Michael Stoney told the BBC last month: “This prison can’t last that much longer. The infrastructure fails constantly. At some point, it may be a catastrophic failure, by then it’s too late. We know that day is coming. A lot of my time is just trying to keep the prison functional. If dates like building and completion stretch further, then the risk gets greater year on year.”

Prisoners join charity cycle ride

A group of 12 prison staff have completed a ‘Tour de Prisons’ – a 586-mile bike ride calling at all 17 Scottish jails. The sponsored challenge raised £6,300 for Macmillan Cancer Support and Erskine Veterans Charity. Prisoners at Inverness jail held their own event on static bikes, raising a further £500 for the good causes.

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