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Preventing violence in prisons – Creating a safer and more peaceful rehabilitative environment

In recent years, we have confronted developing trends in challenging behaviour across our different sectors with care, collaboration and innovation. For our custodial operations, it has become a priority focus area.

The Coronavirus pandemic has had a distorting effect on many dimensions of the different services we deliver, including the level of violence in prisons. While significantly reduced prison regimes, imposed per government guidelines, have had a suppressing impact, the contributing factors have not gone away and individuals newly committed by the courts have continued to be transferred into custody.

Perry Chambers has served the UK justice system in prison operations for 35 years. Today, he is Head of Safer Prisons at the Serco-designed, built and operated HMP Thameside. He is also a member of the Serco Safer Prisons Group, launched in 2020 to enable more effective collaboration between all our prison teams. His role at Thameside is multi-faceted, including responsibility for the new prisoner ‘first night centre’, the protection of vulnerable prisoners, inpatient healthcare, violence reduction and ‘use of force’ – such as might be required to restrain prisoners from violence or self-harm.

For Perry, his role is to keep the prison, and everyone in it, safe and peaceful – which he admits is ‘not always glamorous, but often rewarding’.

“I don't like to see people hurt, bullied or victimised in anyway – none of us do. We want to make sure that any prisoner with an issue or vulnerability has the support they need.”

Perry is keen to stress that violence in prison is the exception, not the rule:

“It's not as bad as it’s made out to be. We have nearly 1,300 prisoners in Thameside, of whom about 20 give us trouble.”

He does acknowledge that levels of violence have been rising, however:

“Society has become more demanding and ‘entitled’, and that worms its way into prison. There’s less respect; less acceptance of needing to earn privileges. It creates friction. And consequences have been softened, making them less effective as a deterrent.”

The nature of the violence is also changing, becoming more spontaneous and severe.

“Strange as it may sound,” says Perry, “it’s more purposeless and immoral than it used to be. Meanwhile, society is becoming desensitised to it, which doesn’t help us.”

Back inside, the majority remain very sensitive to the issue:

“Prisoners prefer feeling safe and protected. Many are victims of circumstance, not ‘bad’ people. The prison is their world – they need it to be stable and tension-free. They don’t want violence on their doorstep.”

The nature of the prison environment can change ‘in a heartbeat’, depending on arrivals and departures.

“New receptions and the nature of their crimes can change the dynamics overnight,” explains Perry.

Stage of sentence and age are also important factors:

“Prisoners on remand exist in a state of turmoil, which can make them hostile. Once they receive their sentence, they tend to calm down and become more accepting. Older prisoners are much less disposed to violence. They’ve seen it, done it, got fed up with it. Younger prisoners often think they’re invulnerable; they’re less mindful of the consequences.”

Maintaining an even keel depends on cooperation and collaboration between everyone inside:

“You can’t run a prison by ruling over the inmates. Prisoner goodwill is critical. The key to our success is the trust and respect we work to build between both sides. We don’t tell them how it’s going to be; we consult and involve them in decisions.”

A key component in the Safer Prisons strategy was born of that approach, the Violence Reduction Representatives:

“Our VR Reps are prisoners – trusted by us and their peers – who work with us to prevent violence proactively. They champion our vision and support our interventions whilst engaging with and mentoring their peers, advising us of any risks.”

Gang rivalry is another factor requiring very careful management:

“There are more than 100 gangs represented here,” says Perry. “They’re not all enemies but that doesn’t make them friends. Our VR Reps work closely with our Butler Trust-commended Gangs Service to identify and monitor gang-related risks. We all work together to reduce the grip of gang culture on the prisoners whilst mitigating the risks as best we can.”

Throughout the pandemic, our custodial teams have wrestled with huge challenges to safeguard the immediate health and safety of prisoners while not losing sight of their mental, emotional and social wellbeing.

“From a violence reduction perspective,” says Perry, “many of the rehabilitative programmes help to support the vulnerable and channel prisoner energies in constructive ways.”

Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to pause and reflect. However, the risks are lower in open regimes because there is less pent-up frustration and hostility and more opportunity to resolve issues in a positive way.

“Our VR Reps and Gang Service colleagues have been invaluable in this time. We also introduced ‘daily disruption meetings’ – reviewing high-risk individuals on a daily basis and re-locating them if necessary.”

The evolution of the Safer Prisons strategy at Thameside is set to continue as society recovers from Covid-19:

“We’re implementing a new system of incident categorisation that will help us respond more strategically to certain issues. More broadly, we’re working hard to promote our vision among the prisoners and the wider community – to secure their buy-in and their commitment to making it work. We’re nearly there. I’m confident that we’ll become known as the place to ‘do your time’ because it’s safe and peaceful; a place to live not in fear, but in hope.”

Letter from an HMP Thameside inmate in the second year of an 8-year sentence:

“I have been here at Thameside for the past 13 months. The first time I was sent to prison was in the late 1980s and since then I have served a few sentences.

Due to my observations and experience of prison, and of prison staff, I had built up a very cynical view and upon beginning my current sentence thought that I was in for much of the same.

Since being here at Thameside I have been pleasantly surprised, and at times touched, by the care and consideration I have witnessed. Acts of care and compassion towards inmates I did rarely see during my earlier days of incarceration.

Things such as money deposited on all inmates’ phone accounts when an unfortunate act of suicide here at Thameside was widely reported on social media and the prison management gave all the ability to call home to reassure family and loved ones. At times of celebration, Christmas and the like, extra food and thoughtful inclusions to give us the feeling of being involved in the seasonal events.

These acts of care and consideration I did rarely see on previous sentences.

True, I have seen failings of professional behaviour since I have been here. But when then failings were discovered I too saw swift, decisive action both from wing level management then through career-ending intervention from senior management.

For me, and I know for other inmates, this gives us a very real sense of security and thus generates belief in the integrity of those charged with our care whilst here at Thameside.

I myself have been treated with much care and consideration from wing staff, who all gave me help and support from my initial arrival and, during the stressful build up to my sentencing, help I will never forget – help I had previously not come to expect from prison officers.

So, with this in mind, and coupled with all that I have witnessed from wing staff, right up to senior management, has started in me a change of mindset, a mindset built up from earlier prison experience.

This change has inspired hope, dare I write belief, that the rhetoric from Serco is to be true.

Humane, decency, secure and responsible seem to be not just words anymore but action, action that allowed in me the ability to write this letter, a letter giving praise.

So please, please let me thank all the people I have met here at Thameside… They are officers but they are people too – a distinction I would not have made before.  Thank you.”