Penal critic warns of lockdown in progress

Prison Service is stopping critics from accessing UK jails, scholar claims

February 5, 2015

Source: Getty

Limited visiting hours: not all would-be researchers can be admitted, says Prison Service, if prisons are to operate normally

A senior academic has accused the Prison Service of stopping researchers critical of government policy from working in UK jails.

David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, said he “would not be allowed in” to research the state of prisons “because I write stuff that’s critical of what is going on”.

But the Prison Service branded the suggestion “nonsense”.

Professor Wilson recalled that research for a 2003 paper he wrote on the life of black men in prison – “‘Keeping Quiet’ or ‘Going Nuts’” – had been carefully managed, with interviewees and institutions pre-screened by the service. But it was still allowed to go ahead, despite criticisms from senior prison officers.

Suggesting that this would not be the case today, he said: “I meet prison governors every single week. I meet prison staff every single week. It is quite clear to me that I would not be given access to the kind of research that I wanted to do. I think the people who are allowed access are those who have a less critical viewpoint.”

His comments come as scrutiny of the prison system grows in light of a series of damning investigations.

Last month, Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, published a report into HM Prison and Young Offender Institution Feltham, which found that daily life there was dominated by “unpredictable and reckless” violence.

Professor Wilson described the report as “the worst I have read”.

“The chief inspector actually says that if you had a child in Feltham, you would be terrified,” he said. “And yet no scandal seems to be created by that.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the current system for vetting researchers and allowing them access to prisons was “good”, but was sometimes undermined by ministerial interference.

“A lot of people want to do research in prisons, [but] these [are] people’s homes, they’re a work environment. You cannot have people trampling round doing research all the time,” she added.

However, she referred to a recent research proposal looking at sex in prisons that had been turned down. Ms Crook said the bid was “very robust” but “we were given to understand” it had been rejected “as a result of political interference”.

A former prison governor, Professor Wilson said research into the system was more vital than ever because of its current problems.

The Howard League published research in 2014 showing that prison suicide levels had reached a six-year high, with Ministry of Justice data revealing that incidents of violence and self-harm were also on the rise.

Professor Wilson added that reoffending rates were “scandalous…if a school failed to teach four out of five of its children to read, we wouldn’t be trying to work at piecemeal programmes…we’d be saying there’s something fundamentally wrong”.

A Prison Service spokesman said: “It is nonsense to suggest that those critical of the Prison Service are prevented from accessing prisons. Independent inspectors and legitimate campaigners have full access and report on their findings regularly.

“We have to balance openness with ensuring prisons continue to operate normally. Sometimes it will not be possible to give everyone access.”

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