Safety in Prison

Safety in Prison

  • Jessica Stubbs
  • 20 June 2017
  • Posted in: Education, Planning & Development

Thinking about safety in prison requires shifting from a culture which emphasises punishment, where individuals are merely contained and seen asunworthy of care to one where the whole estate seeks to understand vulnerability and trauma and work towards rehabilitation.

2016 saw unprecedented numbers of suicide in prison as well as increased levels of assault and self-harm. Reoffending rates remain remarkably high. Rather than being rehabilitative, prison exacerbates poor mental health and traps people in cycles of offending.

Many people in prison have experienced multiple traumas in their life, e.g. seeing a family member die, witnessing violence, rape and the current system fails to recognise this. Prisons, which focus primarily on punishment can retraumatise and exacerbate vulnerability, as one individual explained:

“You are not being heard on issues that matter like childcare, immigration, mental healththere was a lot of issues going on for the individual who took their own life, which werent being addressed, there needs to be access to things like childcare, mental health issues, rape…”

Being locked in cells for increasingly long times (due to staffing shortages) results in spending more time being isolated, thinking and reliving traumas.

Staff discuss becoming “brutalised” by “underlying prison cultures”, which affects the quality of care, for example seeing self-harm as manipulative: “The brutalisation of the system affects the clinicianyou forget that this is a human beingsomebodys son…” 

This prison culture means that it is not safe to express vulnerability (for both prisoners and staff) – even when you need help you can’t ask because its met with “you need to toughen up”, becoming as “easy target for bullying from staff and inmates”, not being believed or you’re worried about who else might found out. Young women described fears of discussing their mental health incase their babies were taken away. Young men discussed experiences of telling officers that they felt unsafe because there were young people from postcode rivalries on the same wing. However rather than being supported, young people described how officers told the rivals.

Staff reflect on the impact of working in a prison on their own wellbeing. Research has demonstrated high levels of poor mental health amongst prison staff, which is largely undetected and unsupported. This is vital when thinking about safety because as a prison officer explained:

“If were not functioning then the people we look after dont stand a chance.

Prisoners described the importance of the relationship with staff and how fostering good relationships had helped to keep them safe. However, the cuts to staffing was seen to be making this more and more difficult. Staff discussed how a reliance on procedures and tick-box assessments were taking the place of clinical skills.  Unlike in prison, in secure settings, mental health practitioners have more control and can make decisions based on what would help an individual’s mental health.

To make prison safe, wellbeing has to be prioritised and this needs to be seen as the responsibility of the whole prison, which will require better collaboration and a psychologically informed workforce.

We need to recognise the key role that partners such as peer mentors, education and gym staff, chaplaincy and officers play in supporting wellbeing and therefore provide relevant training and support. All staff need to be trained in mental health – and not so much A-Z of psychiatric diagnoses but more about trauma, understanding challenging behaviour as communicating distress and vulnerability. All staff have to be better supported, with reflective spaces to consider the impact of the work on their own wellbeing. Safety in prison will only happen when we recognise the traumatising and re-traumatising impact that prison can have.

Ultimately making prison safe will require a profound culture shift, from a primarily punitive one to one centred around recovery, wellbeing and rehabilitation.

This piece has been based on research exploring the perspectives of people who have experience of being in prison as well as staff, primarily from healthcare, working in prisons. All quotes are taken from Centre for Mental Health and Howard League for Penal Reform reports published in 2016 and 2017.

  • prison
  • prison reform
  • Article Author

About Jessica Stubbs

Jessica Stubbs is a researcher at the Centre for Mental Health and has primarily been involved in exploring issues that affect the mental health and wellbeing of people in the Criminal Justice System. Over the past three and a half years, she has been evaluating the INTEGRATE model, an innovative psychological approach of working with young people …