What are they hiding in there?

In recent years successive governments have blocked requests by journalists to report on prisons. In article for Proof magazine, issue 2 Alex Cavendish writes about the media lockdown. You can order Proof magazine here.

The Ministry of Justice, and the Home Office before it, has never been particularly warm and welcoming to journalists. From the brutalist architecture of its headquarters down in London’s Petty France to the dysfunctional prisons it oversees, the Ministry has hardly been a bastion of openness and free speech.

During Chris Grayling’s tenure as Secretary of State for Justice between 2012 and 2015 what amounted to an information lockdown was imposed. Journalists, academics and prison reform campaigners were routinely thwarted in their efforts to get behind prison walls. A Byzantine system of applications, committees and official approvals served more to bar access than to facilitate it. The process was made so slow and cumbersome that it was simply not worth making a request if there was a news or current affairs focus.

As the journalist Amelia Gentleman, writing for The Guardian, observed in February 2015, it was easier to get access to a military prison in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than to enter any run of the mill jail in England and Wales. She posed the all-important question that many more journalists really needed to be asking: ‘What do they have to hide’?

Controlled access to prisons remains vitally important in any democratic society. Our prisons are, by their very nature, closed institutions (even, ironically, the so-called ‘open estate’). Isolated and shielded from public scrutiny, it is the proper job of the fourth estate to ask difficult questions and to flag up concerns about abuses or mistreatment of those who very often have no voice or those who are confined to institutions that effectively gag them.

This was well understood by Grayling’s successor, Michael Gove, himself a former Times journalist. When he was appointed to the MoJ in May 2015 the ministry embarked on something of a charm offensive. Campaigning organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform suddenly found that Mr Gove’s door was open. He engaged and he listened, unlike his highly defensive predecessor. He also agreed to speak at public events and was candid in his views about the urgent need for reform.

Journalists, including documentary film-makers, also discovered that access to some of our most troubled prisons could be granted. In May this year a BBC film crew were given permission to spend a week in HMP Wandsworth, a London Cat-B local jail that has been designated a ‘reform prison’.

The resulting TV documentary provided a brief glimpse of just how bad our dysfunctional, overcrowded prison system has become. Violence and drug abuse were seen and recorded, then broadcast to the nation. Prison staff and prisoners spoke as openly as can be expected when the cameras were running in the presence of minders. It was a remarkable documentary that raised some very awkward questions about how our prison system operates in what is often a day-to-day state of crisis.

Soon after the BBC broadcast was aired the tantalisingly brief period of MoJ glasnost was effectively over. By July, in the aftermath of the EU referendum and the political machinations within the Conservative Party that followed, Michael Gove was ousted and Liz Truss was in office. Prison reform was off the agenda and the iron curtain descended again in Petty France. Doors that had been opened were unceremoniously slammed shut. Would it be possible to make a warts and all television documentary about the prison crisis now? I very much doubt it.

Into the vacuum…
However, the mainstream media is not the only challenge that the MoJ is facing. It cannot be denied that the environment inside our prisons has changed beyond all recognition in recent years due to the fact that almost every prison wing is now flooded with illicit mobile phones, some of them smart phones with video and camera capabilities.

Nature abhors a vacuum and despite the efforts of the MoJ and the National Offender Management Service to impose media silence some prisoners are turning into citizen journalists. We have seen raw footage filmed by prisoners being posted on YouTube and other social media sites. A handful of serving inmates have taken to posting on their own Twitter accounts. Others have established contact with journalists outside the walls and are willing to take risks to protest about conditions behind bars by leaking video images of violence and virtual anarchy on the landings, as well drug distribution and use.

At times, prison activists and social media users are aware of serious incidents inside our jails as they happen, including suspected homicides or suicides. There is now a constant trickle of leaks facilitated by the availability of contraband mobile phones in both publicly run prisons and private sector establishments. It can only be a matter of time before there is a major riot in one or other prison which will be streamed live on social media.

Of course, prisoners communicating via unauthorised channels do risk severe punishment if caught. Just being found in possession of a mobile phone when a serving inmate can now lead to a criminal prosecution and up to two years’ of additional jail time. Yet it is a gamble that many prisoners are willing to take.

It also needs to be recognised that while some mobile phones are used to contact the media or an inmate’s family and friends, many handsets are misused to facilitate the smuggling of contraband, to threaten witnesses or victims or to keep criminal enterprises active. By clamping down on all illicit mobile use, the prison authorities attempt to regain an element of control over communications.

A few prisoners have sought – and occasionally obtained – official permission to contribute to online blogs or even to write regular newspaper columns. However, the numbers are tiny and the process slow and time consuming. More write letters to monthly prison newspapers such as Inside Time, Converse or Jail Mail. Most inmate authors have to write their copy out in longhand and then submit each piece to the prison censor. Only after it has been checked and approved will the article or blog post be posted out for publication.

Inevitably, this leads to a degree of self-censorship over what can be written. Some particularly sensitive subjects, such as alleged corruption or brutality by members of staff, are highly unlikely to make it past the censor’s pen and individual prisoners have complained of subsequent victimisation by members of staff.

Prison can also be a particularly difficult environment for convicted prisoners who are maintaining their innocence. In addition to facing possible sanctions for being unable to participate in certain offending behaviour programmes, especially those designed for people convicted of sexual offences or homicide, controls on communications often prevent prisoners from seeking support from journalists and researchers who might be able to investigate their claims of innocence.

Without a particularly dogged solicitor or investigator on the case, few prisoners maintaining innocence are likely to be able to negotiate the many hurdles back to the Criminal Cases Review Commission or the Court of Appeal. Access to a contraband mobile phone – unmonitored by prison censors – can open up opportunities for those protesting that they have been the victims of wrongful convictions, assuming that the individual concerned is willing to risk a second criminal conviction for the crime of possessing the phone itself.

Information lockdown
In many ways the Prison Service is a 19th century institution facing 21st century challenges, while it struggles even to make it into the late 20th century. As the iron curtain descends again at the MoJ, Liz Truss would do well to reflect on the legend of King Cnut on the seashore. Modern communication technology has already revolutionised everyday life for billions of people around the globe. Trying desperately to keep our prisons isolated from the outside world and prisoners disconnected from the Internet and social media is already a battle that has been lost.

The real challenge will be how to balance issues such as prison security and the need to protect victims of crime with the reality that our jails are already awash with mobile phones. Imposing a news and information lockdown from the top floors of the MoJ fortress in Petty France, isn’t really a viable strategy. It remains to be seen how long it takes for the new secretary of state to realise this.

Profile photo of Alex Cavendish About Alex Cavendish
Alex writes a blog called Prison UK: An insider's view which he set up to provide information for people who may face being sent to prison. Until 2014 he was a serving prisoner where he supported other prisoners, particularly those new to the prison system. Alex also trained as a peer mentor and worked in prison education departments  to help other prisoners improve their literacy skills

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