The author of this article is a life-sentenced prisoner serving a minimum tariff of 13 years, who communicates with Urban Times via letters which are transcribed to be published online. He describes Notes From The Other Side of The Wall as a kind of ‘Blogumentary’, offering a unique and topical insight into prison as a microcosm of society. Danny Cash is a pseudonym.
HMP New Way is a thoroughly modern prison; so much so in fact, that the term prison is something of a misnomer. New Way is more a rehabilitation centre than a prison. It’s no holiday camp, but trust me, every prisoner in the country wants to get there.
The criminals you are locking up today are the legacy you are leaving your children with tomorrow.
With its razor-lined walls, New Way looks much the same as any other prison from the outside. Once inside however, it would be easy to forget you were in a prison at all. The first thing a prisoner notices is the natural beauty of the grounds. There are well-tended gardens, trees, and even a small lake replete with fish and ducks. Next to the lake is a playground along with a small confectionary kiosk where the prisoners of New Way can buy their children sweets and pop as they play on the swings and slides.
The Governor of New Way was once quoted as saying, “We’re not here to rehabilitate men. We’re here to teach them how to take responsibility, first for their crimes, then for themselves, then for their families, and finally for their communities. Teach a man to take such responsibilities and he will rehabilitate himself.”
At first, the Governor’s comments were derided as liberal tosh, but it seems time has proven himself right. Less than twenty percent of those who have thus far passed through New Way have gone on to re-offend.
In the mainstream prison estate, prisons are categorized from A to D, with A being the highest security category and D the lowest. Traditionally, a convicted prisoner, depending on his crime and perceived risk, starts as either an A-category or B-category prisoner and then works his way down to the low security estate in anticipation of his eventual release. Not so with New Way. Thanks to the government’s new focus on rehabilitation, New Way is officially exempt from categorization. Instead of accepting only certain categories of prisoners, each applicant for New Way is judged on his or her individual merits. (You have to actually apply to go there.)
Instead of ersatz rehabilitation initiatives such as the so-called Offending Behavior Programmes, a small army of counsellors work on a strictly one-to-one basis with the men there, together exploring how and why the “tenants” life took a wrong turn. (Prisoners at New Way are referred to as “tenants” in an effort to promote social inclusion.) Unlinke mainstream prison psychologists, the counsellors at New Way work to develop a “Life Plan” with tenants, which basically consists of an exploration of the tenant’s hopes and dreams for the future. The counsellors then invoke the help of various other agencies, both inside and outside New Way, to assist with the first steps towards the realization of the tenant’s Life Plan. Such proactive counseling is designed to reinforce the tenant’s sense of self-worth as he gradually works towards his eventual reintegration into society.
Perhaps the most controversial part of New Way, however, is the unit known simply as The Hut–a small hotel within the prison grounds. The Ministry of Justice has always paid lip service to the importance of prisoners maintaining familial relationships, but at the same time has hitherto blocked any attempts by English and Welsh prisoners to claim conjugal visits. This is not so at New Way, where each tenant is entitled to spend one night per month at The Hut with his partner. The Hut is almost entirely run and maintained by the tenants of New Way, providing a number of them with valuable work experience.
Those not working at The Hut are either in vocational training or employed in one of New Way’s community partnership businesses, which fulfill Kenneth Clarke’s pledge to offer prisoners real work for real pay instead of the token employment available in the mainstream prison service.
As many of my more astute readers will have by now begun to suspect, New Way doesn’t actually exist. It is just a figment of my overactive imagination, some would argue that it is the product of my own wishful thinking. That may be, but I really New Way is the only viable way forward. Michael Howard was wrong: prison, in its present form, rarely works. Prisoner numbers increase every year, and recidivism rates remain stubbornly high. How exactly does that suggest that prison works?
The reasons prison doesn’t work are not complicated. When you really think about it, it’s perfectly obvious: if you exclude people from society, if you lock them up, continually denigrate them, deprive them of the chance to maintain their familial relationships and the chance to work and give back to society, then you cannot expect them to come out and be model citizens. That is just not realistic.
There is an old Chinese proverb that says if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got. Rehabilitation centers such as New Way may be too much for the stomaches of the rightwing, “lock ‘em and throw away the key” brigade, but I would leave such queasy stomaches with one final thought: In their present form, prisons today are little more than social warehouses. You can’t rehabilitate people by enforcing social exclusion. That is nonsensical.