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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Grendon: a prison in danger

Grendon: a prison in danger

David Wilson urges that one incident must not be allowed to undermine Grendon prison’s radical methodology

by David Wilson

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

The murder of Robert Coello in August at HMP Grendon should not be allowed to undermine the incredible work done there since its foundation in 1960 – it is still the only prison in Europe to operate wholly as a therapeutic community – or prevent us from celebrating the 50th anniversary of this extraordinary institution.

Grendon has always had its detractors, and lately those who are less inclined to support a prison that works psycho-dynamically with serious and violent offenders have pointed to the costs involved. Grendon does cost approximately £48,000 per prisoner place per annum, which is roughly £10,000 more per annum more than other Category B prisons.

But is this a fair comparison? Given the type of prisoner that Grendon accepts – recently described as “damaged, dangerous and disturbed”, with elevated psychopathy scores, perhaps a fairer cost comparison would be with Rampton, Ashworth and Broadmoor, or with the dangerous and severe personality disorder units within the high security estate. Compared with these, Grendon’s costs are insignificant. A place at Rampton, for example, costs £250,000 a year. One in the DSPD unit at Whitemoor costs £200,000 a year.

But what should we make of the murder of Robert Coello? Perhaps the first thing to say is that violence within prisons is endemic. Only last month, the Howard League for Penal Reform published evidence that assaults in prison had increased by 61 per cent between 2000-2009 and that in 2009 there were 15,180 acts of violence – that’s about 40 per day. So, too, murder in prison is more common than the Ministry of Justice would care to admit. In 1999, for example, the murder rate in prison was six times higher than the murder rate in the community.

Historically, Grendon has had the lowest rate of violence within the entire penal system. It does not even have a segregation unit. Assaults on staff, on prisoners, rooftop demonstrations, riots, hostage taking incidents and escapes are so rare as to be virtually non-existent. All this makes the murder of Robert Coello all the more worrying. Perhaps, though, this has less to do with any underlying problem with the therapeutic regime at Grendon and rather more to do with the reality that the prison regime keeps being cut in order to save money. This process is only likely get worse, given the financial cuts being required at the Ministry of Justice. There is now no therapy at Grendon between Friday afternoons and Monday mornings and it is becoming rare for therapy groups to be facilitated by the same staff member. The small charity that supports the prison – the Friends of Grendon – is trying to raise £60,000 to restore therapy sessions to Friday afternoons.

What is worse is that all this should have been foreseen. It is not as if there haven’t been plenty of people warning the government that Grendon was in danger of suffering death by a thousand cuts. Anne Owers, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, said it was “of enormous concern that cumulative financial efficiencies had begun to erode Grendon’s capacity to deliver a therapeutic regime”. The prison’s independent monitoring board has been similarly worried and at pains to point out what financial cuts are doing to Grendon.

There is an old Chinese curse that damns you to “live in interesting times”. That is what is going to happen as far Grendon is concerned in the coming months. First, there will be the various investigations into the circumstances surrounding the murder of Robert Coello. Then we will have to see if the Ministry of Justice continues to support the specialist work of the prison. There are some signs that it might. Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt stated in July that he was “impressed” by the work of Grendon. He recognised that what happens there is “no soft option – it is hard work”. The minister even wanted to see how the therapeutic work of Grendon could be transferred into the rest of the prison estate. He now needs to make good on those words.

Having alluded to a Chinese curse, it can also be pointed out that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a mixture of two other symbols: danger and opportunity. The dangers for Grendon in this crisis are all too obvious, but there are also opportunities that could come out of tragedy. There is the opportunity above all for the Ministry of Justice to give the proper resources to Grendon to do the job it is meant to do, which it has been doing for the past 50 years with precious little support.

David Wilson is professor of criminology and criminal justice at Birmingham City University and chair of the Commission on English Prisons

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