“It doesn’t matter what you think. You’re just a criminal.” My conversation with the press agency photographer wasn’t going well. Newly released from custody after two and a half years, time ostensibly served, even as, my (Press Complaints Commission backed) persuasion failed to dissuade him from selling a photograph of me taken three years earlier, immediately after I had attempted suicide while entering Southwark Crown Court to receive a five year sentence for fraud, I realised that prison had been the easy part. Welcome to rehabilitation.
This is reality. Offenders don’t exist beyond incarceration. Unsurprisingly, from consultation to targeted implementation in April 2014, the government’s £800m self styled transformative revolution transferring the supervision of the UK’s former offenders from 35 probation trusts to 21 private companies headlines in tax payer palatable language of cost cutting, profit by results and competition.
Big on economics, the government’s recently published consultation response is vague on tangible benefit for the consumer, the offender: unions debate the legality and risks to public safety, pundits question the ethics of penal privatization and reliance on the voluntary sectors, commentary focuses on the publicized transgressions of the tendering companies such as G4S and Serco, from failure to deliver Olympic security to tagging dead people and charging the state for the privilege. Discussion omits the track record of these entities in providing probation services.
For such record exists. “Transforming Rehabilitation” has already quietly entered the UK criminal justice system in March 2012, when the government authorized its Contracted -Out Establishments to manage probation as an in house function, independent of Probation Trusts. As a resident at HMP Bronzefield, the high security private female remand facility opened in 2004, I experienced this transformation first hand.
Familiar with the bureaucratic machine of government- managed prisons, from the outset and in any event, I encountered HMP Bronzefield as another country symbolically - built to US design, run by a Sodexo, the £1bio a year French catering and cleaning conglomerate, (then) managed by a Dutch national - and literally.
From my arrival at HMP Bronzefield, after two years in custody elsewhere –transfer reasons undisclosed to this day - my prison and medical records and private funds were “lost”. Used to 40 hour prisoner working week, I was “banged up” for eighteen hours daily, required to undertake a Sodexo in-house literacy and numeracy (government billed) tests to qualify for a basic prison cleaning job, notwithstanding a record of employment and legal advisory work within the prison system.
Unable to access funds, subject to court directions with regard to my only child and providing emotional support to my recently widowed mother, I couldn’t finance telephone calls or stamps for eight weeks. Even my educational materials were deemed unsuitable – previous state managed establishments had encouraged me to embark on courses in Human Rights and Prison Law – since compromised of prison orders and instructions forming the statutory basis of prisoners’ rights: contrary to national regulations, HMP Bronzefield withholds such materials from inmates.
Putting “transformed” probation services into this context, my situation veered from unfortunate to catastrophic. Approaching release, my rehabilitation issues were evident. I was bankrupt, without accommodation, possessions subject to confiscation proceedings; even access to my only child was subject to my release on temporary licence. I urgently needed internal probation assistance in order to plan an existence.
In the event, it was three months before I met my probation “supervisor” (not “officers” in the new regime), on a career direction from the financial services industry, who provided minimal practical assistance, concentrating on reassessing my offender risk by reference to Google – an assessment that was subsequently destroyed by my local probation trust on my eventual release because of its partisan irrelevance.
Formerly a 50% tax payer without experience of state benefits, I was told – and believed – that I was ineligible for income support and housing benefit. Assisting me in opening a bank account was “too difficult.”
Others fared no better. The progress of offenders, during and after custody is traditionally reflected by a risk profile is generated in collaboration with internal probation, specifying what goals need to achieved by the prisoner to reform. While at HMP Bronzefield I met life sentence prisoners, years into tariff, subject to no sentence planning goals, completion of which would have allowed demonstration of progress. These prisoners are big “earners”; the continued residence of “lifers” is economically desirable to a corporate with shareholder accountability.
It’s back to economics. My problems, from reclaiming my lost prison identity to resettlement, stemmed from staff incompetence. Since success in the bidding process for any private potential provider is about financial competitiveness - and paying staff less. Lower pay impacts on recruitment, including internal probation staff who do not have (or need) the qualifications required for probation National Offender Management Service (NOMS) staff –mandatorily funded for post graduate qualifications while undergoing on the job training.
The detrimental impact of “transformation” on my own sentence was significantly mitigated by the counter balancing support of NOMS, coupled short term nature of my exposure to the stealth experiment. Facts remain that if and as the government proposals take effect beyond the prison walls such accumulated knowledge and expertise as has benefitted generations of consumers, offenders, will be ultimately lost, in the interests of corporate profit: more a case of goodbye rehabilitation.