Having been invited on the WIs visit to Wandsworth Prison in July as part of the Care Not Custody campaign, I’d have been lying if I hadn’t admitted to feeling even the slightest pang of trepidation on first hearing that Wandsworth was in fact a men’s prison. Described as one of the largest in Western Europe, it is also one of the oldest, built in 1851 and with a holding capacity close to 2000. Infamous past prisoners have included some of the country’s most notorious criminals with the likes of Ronnie Kray, Charles Bronsen and even the great train robber himself, Ronnie Biggs all spending time there at her majesty’s pleasure, with Biggs even managing to successfully escape in 1965.
So you can only imagine the thoughts that were running through my head as I went to join the small group of fellow WI members, including the NFWI’s newly appointed chairwoman, the lovely Ruth Bond (pictured) outside on the front steps. The exterior of the prison itself was nothing short of Dickensian, however after passing through all the usual security checks and as we crossed the threshold behind the bars so to speak, we entered upon an entirely different world. Walking past inmates tending neatly manicured flowerbeds, it was surprisingly pleasant as we were ushered up into the wardens officers to be given a personal address by the new female acting governor.
The campaign resolution for Care Not Custody that was passed in June last year, aims to call an end to the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems within the prison system. As part of this ongoing campaign Marianne Sladowsky, the WIs head of public affairs has been taking small groups of WI members on prison visits across the country to see first hand how the system works and what services are available.
The statistics show that two-thirds of all prison inmates suffer from two or more mental health problems, and although the wide spectrum of illnesses range from the more mild cases such as depression and anxiety, it also includes the more severe psychotic disorders such as psychosis and schizophrenia. These disorders if not properly treated often lead to incidents of self harm, and in some cases even suicide. My own family has unfortunately experienced this situation first hand, as my uncle a diagnosed schizophrenic, was temporarily detained at Brixton prison in the absence of finding a space in a secure mental health unit which tragically resulted in him committing suicide at the age of 23. This, it seems is not an uncommon set of circumstances as a recent report confirms that offenders with mental health issues are continuing to be failed by the criminal justice system. One of the campaigns key aims is in making sure that the criminal justice sector works closely alongside the health sector, in diverting people toward the most appropriate care and not just the most convenient.
The acting governor spoke to us about Wandsworths chequered history, and particularly of their aim to change the image of the prison within the local community. Known previously for its history of high suicide rates, this was clearly an image they were keen to shake, as the introduction of new training schemes and programs that had an emphasis on rehabilitation has seen the prison flourish within the last year. As we took the tour around the facilities meeting prisoners and wardens along the way, it was obvious the changes being made were extremely positive. Teaching trades such as bricklaying, plastering and motorbike maintenance seemed to enhance the inmates sense of self-esteem, as well as offering them a sense of future. There was also even a sewing group, who were employed in fine cell work – a needlework in prisons program that were even contributing to a quilt project for the V and A next year.
Finally we briefly met with the psychiatric team whose responsibility it was to evaluate the inmates on entrance before assigning them to the appropriate wings. Although clearly dedicated, this small team rather hesitantly admitted to the lack of resources as well as space and funding in order to successfully care for all those indeed. With just 12 beds available for the most severe cases, this often left many of those still suffering at high risk. The rehabilitation programs at Wandsworth are undeniably applaudable, however without funding or appropriate diversion schemes in place, these prisons will continue to struggle to cope with all the vulnerable and at-risk prisoners in crisis that inhabit them.
We are planning on organising a visit to Holloway prison through the Prison Reforms Trust, so if you are interested in attending please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.