An insight into work of prison monitors

Left to right: Michael Gaunt, Barry Swan and speaker Andrew Shepherd.
Left to right: Michael Gaunt, Barry Swan and speaker Andrew Shepherd.

Morpeth Rotary Club

The prison at Acklington is now an adult Category C prison called HMP Northumberland and run by the private company Sodexo.

Categories relate to how likely prisoners are to escape, with Category A being the most likely. Each category has a different regime, for example Category A does not allow prisoners to mix and they are regularly moved.

Andrew Shepherd, an Army officer for 37 years, works for the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) as a volunteer prison monitor.

Every prison must have an IMB. Mr Shepherd helps to recruit to the Board, as well as serving as a monitor. He became involved when a man he knew as a good soldier found it hard to settle to civilian life and spent time in prison.

There are 82,000 people in prison in England and Wales. It costs £32,000 a year for each of them.

Mr Shepherd said that we do not use the opportunity to reform prisoners as the re-offending rate is 60 per cent, and prisons could do much more to help people to do something meaningful.

Prison officers are given six weeks training. Norway has a two-year training course and re-offending is at ten per cent, although it is a different type of society.

IMB members are not on the side of the prisoner or the authorities. They look for where the system is failing or where an individual is being unfairly treated and work to stop it. Their findings go into an annual report to the Secretary of State and feed into the Prison Inspectorate.

IMB members are not specialists, but volunteers who use common sense and a sense of justice. The work takes half a day a week.

There is a panel to review prisoner complaints after they have been taken through the prison system.

There is a Care and Segregation Unit, where those who have broken the rules go for punishment. A Governor hears the offence and adjudicates. A monitor may sit in to ensure fair play. Each person in the unit must be visited each week by a monitor to check they are safe, free from abuse and in good health.

Mr Shepherd said there are never enough resources to sort out all of the mental health problems that come to light.

While in segregation, there are times when the prisoner’s case must be reviewed and monitors sit in. In addition, each monitor is responsible for one or two house blocks. Often prisoners will ask for help, but sometimes their evidence is not reliable.

Anyone interested in becoming a monitor must fill in a form and a prison visit is arranged. They are taken to the less attractive parts so they know what they may be letting themselves in for. Mr Shepherd has never felt threatened, but has felt intimidated.

Recently two prisoners used their first aid knowledge to save an 80-year-old monitor who had a heart attack.

It is easy to forget about people in prison, but they are part of our society, even though it is their punishment to be temporarily excluded. They will eventually come out so while they are there, let us help to make them better people.

Mr Shepherd answered controversial questions on drugs, privatisation and priorities for Governors. He was thanked for his thoughtful insights by the speaker’s host Barry Swan.