HMP Pentonville, London. Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images
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Lessons learned far too late: Inside the prison system with the Conservative justice minister Andrew Selous

Following rumours of overcrowding and poor morale, Ashley Cowburn visits Onley Prison - and asks why the system is in such a state.

Around a dozen male inmates are gathered in a warehouse at Onley Prison in Warwickshire, taking part in a bricklaying course. The lessons are among the many “multi-skill” workshops offered by the institution to prepare prisoners for their release. Every inmate wears identical clothing: green trousers and a red T-shirt, caked in cement. Their tools have tags on them.

Chris, a 34-year-old, is holding a buttering trowel as I approach him. He has been in and out of prison for over 17 years and expects to be released in just two months’ time.

“This place is all right, compared to other prisons,” he says. I ask him what he means. “Well, put it this way, Pentonville is a lot worse . . .” But, before Chris can explain, a Ministry of Justice press officer interrupts and asks us not to discuss “other prisons”.

Built as a borstal in the late 1960s, Onley held young offenders for more than three decades. Many of the original buildings still stand. At the turn of the century, the facility was transformed into an adult prison for “category C” prisoners – those who cannot be trusted in open conditions but are unlikely to make a determined effort to escape. Today, one of its main functions is to act as a resettlement institution for the Greater London area. Many of the inmates are approaching the end of their sentences.

The prison governor, Stephen Ruddy, is a plump, middle-aged man with a trimmed, white moustache and a northern accent: the perfect image of a prison governor. He tells me that Onley has 742 inmates, which means that it is operating at maximum capacity, but is quick to add: “There’s no overcrowding.”

“What we should have, we’ve got,” he says.

The Howard League for Penal Reform claims that prison overcrowding is at a “crisis” point in England and Wales. The charity reports that, over a two-year period (January 2013 to January 2015), 12 prisons were closed down, cutting the number of places available from 78,935 to 75,374, despite an increase in the number of prisoners. It stresses that overcrowding has coincided with “deep staff cuts and a rise in the number of suicides, self-harm incidents and violent attacks behind bars”.

Yet Andrew Selous, minister for prisons and the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, claims that overcrowding is lower than it was under the previous government. We meet at the Onley visitors’ centre on the day he arrives to trumpet the achievements of a pilot scheme, “Inside Out”, which looks after the well-being of both prisoners and prisoners’ families. He says that prison crowding peaked in 2007-2008 and is “actually coming down”. “We have crowding but we’re building more capacity,” he tells me. “We’ll end this parliament with more adult male capacity than when we started it.”

I ask about the alarming increase in suicides in British prisons. Selous acknowledges that the number is high. Last year, it was reported that 125 prisoners in England and Wales had killed themselves over a 20-month period – an average of more than six a month.

“We try and learn lessons from every single incident,” Selous says. “Essentially, it’s about giving people hope. Why do people take their own life? It’s because things look bleak.

“The number of suicides is going up in society . . . and prison reflects what’s going on in society. The area I would like to concentrate on is trying to give the vision of a positive future at the end of the sentence.”

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear