BEST’s work in HMP Wandsworth “invaluable” – HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

On 6 January 2022 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons published their report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Wandsworth in September 2021. Although prison conditions were found to be “poor”, and much of the report focused specifically on the inadequate treatment of foreign nationals, BEST was praised for “staying on site during the pandemic” and its “invaluable work in supporting foreign national prisoners.”

The report highlights the extremely challenging environment within the prison – expressing particular concerns about the scheduled rise in prisoner numbers from April 2022. Wandsworth remains one of the most overcrowded prisons in England and Wales, with the resulting consequence that “there were not enough staff to make sure prisoners received even the most basic regime; for example they sometimes had to choose between exercise, ordering from the kiosk and having a shower.”

The report also draws attention to the high proportion of foreign nationals in the prison (nearly half) and “the prison, the education service and, in particular, Home Office staff, were not doing enough to support this group of prisoners.” It adds “Some foreign national prisons had even been told on the day of their release that they were to continue to be held in the jail.”

However, in its introduction the report says: A local charity, BEST, had stayed on site during the pandemic and were doing invaluable work in supporting foreign national prisoners while, inexplicably, Home Office staff had absented themselves from the prison for more than a year. In the meantime, prison officers and other staff had to deal with the consequences of their inaction. Even since Home Office staff had returned, working what appeared to be limited hours, they were not running surgeries on the wing and prisoners were lucky if they got a phone call.”

The Inspector concluded “Leaders in this crumbling, overcrowded, vermin-infested prison will need considerable ongoing support from the prison service, notably with the recruitment and retention of staff, improving the infrastructure of the jail and
making sure that external agencies such as the Home Office and the education
provider pull their weight. It is hard to see how HMP Wandsworth’s limited
progress can be sustained if prisoner numbers in this jail are allowed to
increase as they are scheduled to do next April.”

Download the full report

Read the related article in The Independent, 7 January 2022

January 2022

Why the prison system is fundamentally flawed and what can be done

Is a prison sentence a punishment or an opportunity to rehabilitate and reform a convicted felon? 

Most countries view a prison sentence as a punishment. With that philosophy, a prisoner will not only lose his freedom. But he will also be placed in an over-crowded prison, sitting two people in a prison cell built for only one. He will eat food of such poor nutritional quality that he lacks the most basic nutrition needed for essential human functioning. Only through adding supplements and vitamins from the prison commissary can he maintain some level of acceptable health. The prisoner will have limited access to health care such as a general physician, a mental health care worker or dentistry. He has access to various educational programs, yet only one out of ten prisoners will, in reality, have access to it. The gatekeepers into these programs are other prisoners, so access is never granted without bribing or befriending them. 

A convicted felon often lives in conditions not suitable for human occupation. My own experience includes sitting, taking a shit less than two feet away from your cellmate without any curtains, covers or privacy protection and only having a thin blanket during the winter months without any heating in the cell being able to see your breath at all times. Toilets are constantly overflowing, so I woke up to half an inch of water and faeces floating around in the cell. We had rats and mice running in and out of the cell through the ventilation system. The plumbing is so old you can taste the lead in the water, and the water had bugs in it. Most inmates would start to lose their hair after a few weeks of drinking it. You are not treated like a human being but rather treated as nothing more than a piece of criminal scum. 

The prison officers are underpaid and under-educated in handling anything other than main order. Most officers do not care about prisoners smoking weed or doing drugs. The harsh reality is that they prefer prisoners lying in the cell numbed up on drugs as they are then at least not causing trouble. If you are a non-user of illegal drugs and are in a cell with a user, there is nothing you can do. You can complain to the officers and asks for a transfer to another cell, which rarely happens. Staying in the cell makes you guilty by association. If your prison cell is subject to a search, your drug-using cellmate will point at you. This result in both of you receiving a punishment often in the form of seven to ten days in the Special Housing Unit “SHU”, also referred to as “The Box.”

The prison takes every ounce of dignity away from you. Sitting in this environment wears you down mentally as you are locked up more than 23 hours a day. During 2020 and due to COVID, the time spent out of the cell was at a laughable level. In Wandsworth Prison, we had on average 30 minutes a day out of the cell. In the US Federal prison, I was allowed out of my cell twice a week for no more than 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes were for a shower, talking to my lawyer, a quick chat with other prisoners and somehow locate a book to read. 

You have no access to family visits. You can hardly make phone calls as the in-cell prison phone systems are often old and non-functional. For most prisoners calling loved ones means standing in line on the prison wing waiting for your turn. Usually, 15 to 20 prisoners will stand in line waiting. As everyone only has limited time available, your call last no more than a few minutes. 

Once a prisoner walks out of the prison gate, he is out without any support. Often he has no place to go, no place to stay and no money in the bank account as, more than likely, the bank has closed the account due to the criminal conviction. Most guys walk out of prison being an angrier version of themselves from when they went into the prison. 

Now ask yourself. Why would anyone think a newly released ex-convict is rehabilitated and reformed? They are not. Their prison sentence was not only the loss of freedom. But it was a constant punishment wrapped up within a punishment from start to finish and with zero support from the day they arrived in prison until they got out.  

The lack of support leads to reoffending rates of anywhere between 50% to 75% in most western countries. The US and the UK have the unfortunate pleasure of leading the pack.

How come in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and especially Norway, the reoffending rate is some of the lowest in the world. Norway has the lowest reoffend rate in the world at around 20%.  

The answers are in the way these countries view prisons and prisoners. Prisons in Scandinavia is generally not a place for punishment. It is a place for reformation and rehabilitation. It is grounded in the philosophy that if a particular behavioural pattern brought you to prison. Then you have to break that behaviour for a prisoner to have a fighting chance to be a productive member of society again. The loss of freedom IS the punishment. In every other aspect, the prisoner is given a high degree of autonomy and is encouraged to engage in incentivized programs. The prison systems focus on prisoners taking ownership of their situation. 

The prison system encourages and helps a prisoner identify what behaviours lead them to prison. Provide tools and processes to avoid the prisoner get caught up in crime again after his release. The support continues on the outside; housing provided to those who do not have any, money provided to those who need it. A social worker network is there to help the released prisoner on his way and ensure a successful integration as a productive member of society. 

You pay your debt to society by serving your time. Once served, it is in the best interest of everyone that a platform is available for a released prisoner to use as a springboard back to an everyday, law-abiding life. 

In the US and UK, the prison hands you endless pamphlets and brochures about prison rules and all the various educational programs available. The first two days, a myriad of will come and talk to you. You fill out forms, take a test to identify your level of aptitude. But all this means nothing other than satisfying prison regulation. You can dump it all in the trash bin as, first of all, no one is ever going to come around and ask you what programs you want to sign up for. And if they do come around, it is only for show, as unless you are a part of your wing’s inner circle, there is no room for you in these programs as one-hundred people are ahead of you.

Outside a few successful pilot programs in a handful of prisons, there is no real support. Not in the US nor UK prisons. 

Most countries need prison reform. Almost every Ministry of Justice in Europe and North America sent representatives to Norway for weeks at a time to investigate and observe their prison model. Everyone knows and recognizes the Norway system is far more successful than any other prison system out there.  

But the harsh reality is that prison reform does not win elections. It is the total opposite; voters seem to want politicians to be harder on criminals and lock them up even longer and throw away the keys and forget all about them. Longer prison sentences are not a deterrent factor for criminals, and it does not lower the reoffending rates. That is statically proven over and over again. If it was true, then by logic, the US will have the lowest reoffending rate as they by far hand out the longest prison sentences of any western country. If it were the case, then both the US and the UK would lead the charts for successful rehabilitation and reform; they do not. They have the highest. Ergo, the system does not work as it is today. 

Scandinavia spends twice as much per prisoner compared to the US and the UK. The investment is saved many times over in a decreasing prison population to the point prisons are closing down. Whatever upfront investment is needed to reform the prison system is saved many times over in the long run. It will truly give released prisoners a new chance at life as well as create a safer society.

As Nelson Mandela so famously said, “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” 

Does a country want to rehabilitate and reform, or does it want to punish? Punishment never works, never has and never will. Norway has a prison population of around 50 per 100,000 people. The UK is at 150, and the US takes the gold medal with 700 prisoners per 100,000. 

The only way countries such as the US and the UK can lower their incarceration and reoffending rates is to fundamentally change their perspective on what a prison sentence should be all about. 

Move away from the ideology that a prison sentence is a punishment as it will never break new ground. It will only ever keep a majority of convicted felons come back again and again, as evident by the statistics. Once and for all, make the prison reforms needed to change the entire prison system into one focused on reform and rehabilitation. Yes, it will cost a fortune the first many years. But the money is saved many times over once the first prisoners enter into their newfound freedom as hopefully a better person than the one entering the prison system. 

I spent time in prison in the US and the UK. Of everyone I met along my journey, 100% was innocent. No one took ownership of the actions that lead to their prison sentence. Everyone blamed everyone else but themselves. Few had any remorse or compassion for their victims. Most people sat in prison planning their next criminal enterprise as they have no help or prospect to turn their lives around.  

As long as the prison system offers no alternative to what is familiar to the released prisoners, society should not expect a different outcome. 50%-75% will be back, and so it will continue until doomsday unless you break the vicious cycle. Do as the Norwegians – bring humanity back into the prison system. Reform and rehabilitate instead of punishing. Treat the prisoners like human beings and give them a real chance to be better people. Provide the opportunity, and most of them will grab that opportunity and run with it. But the opportunity has to be there for them to grab. And the opportunity has to be provided from within the prison system. And for that to happen, someone has to push Control-Alt-Delete and reboot the collective thinking on a government level. Do not make prison reform or lack of same a key election topic. Look at the prison system as preventative health care. What can be done to prevent disease, or if a patient is sick, what preventive medicine is needed to keep the patient from coming back to the hospital. What preventive measures should be implemented in prison to keep a prisoner from coming back. It is not a riddle that only Batman can solve. Adopt the Norwegian model and turn criminals into good neighbours. That strategy has statistically proven to be a better plan than the kick-in-the-groin approach used by the US and the UK. 

Ulrik Debo

Reflection – John McAteer

it is the less than noble truths
like the ones you see 
in mirrors
that reveal the duplicity
the defiance and delight
admonishment and disparity of imagination

so strange the alchemy
the unconscious hierarchy of thought
the memories that brew on the outer edge
illogical yet silently obtuse

crooked branches like gnarled fingers
accused the evening sky
and in a muddy puddle their reflection shakes
signals that unreality
is real
upon reflection 
signals that
upon reflection
unreality is real

This time – John McAteer

the sadness is
that I have grown weary
of the snow
the buses
the endless signs
in Arabic
and the woman who keeps phoning
to inform me of her commitment to suicide
and how this time
this time
she is serious because how dare they treat her this way
her of all people and by the way she could well
be having a seizure
the pain
and the train is beckoning and this time
this time
she is just so serious

the sadness is
that I have grown weary of the world
the noise
everything else


This reality – John McAteer

the road not taken
is the one most travelled

the clouds are full of children
but this reality
is difficult to bear

what might have been
or used to be
are echoes
buried in the present

landscapes and flowers unseen
own the look
of being looked at

the shadow at the funeral dance

only time
can conquer time 

Unwritten song – John McAteer

the end of June a crooked wind
worrying the yard
with ghosts
unwritten songs

across the wall the traffic hums
evading obstacles
and life
below a varnished moon

another war soon ending 
to a silence rich
with dust
and the blood of children

and in the metal light
beyond the door
slow death
and slower days

the furious 


Undrunk – John McAteer

online in another world
esoteric depictions

the separation of being
from becoming

learning dreams
instead of lessons

clichés of sacrifice


as centerefolds park in garages
and foyers
inscribed with the fullness 
of slime-rich caverns

prepared incorrectly
for the coming
of war
the afterness of copulation 


Tinsel – John McAteer

cluttered days and 
hollow years
remnants burned
scattered with the dreams
the demons
the death that hurt
that didn’t

just beyond the door
the moon
trapped inside a puddle
like a trophy

now must be the time
to be old
when difficulties are pinned to walls
as decorations