A Change of Perspective

by Ruth Haynes on 28 February 2018

Ruth HaynesRuth Haynes
Matriculated 1981
M.Phil Criminology 1982

I became an alumna of Lucy Cavendish College when I graduated as M.Phil in Criminology in 1982 and spent the following years moving from a traditionally caring profession to sitting on tribunals where control and public safety were more of an issue.

Initially trained as a Medical Social Worker, I spent many years working in the Caribbean and in the UK, the focus of my work being on the needs of patients and their families faced with serious physical or mental disabilities and with other disadvantages. After my M.Phil I returned to social work for a few years, completed a further degree examining the working of the Mental Health Act of 1983 and published work on suicide. In 1989 I was recruited onto the National Parole Board of England and Wales from the Local Review Committee of Highpoint Prison, and from there was appointed to three other tribunals, the Mental Health Review Service, Disability Appeal Service and the local Bench. On three of these, issues of public safety were important as well as the welfare of individuals.

In 1989 The Parole Board was served by 72 members comprising judges, psychiatrists, criminologists and others like myself. Predominantly white and middle class, membership included only a few people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Prisoners serving sentences of four years up to life could appeal for parole. Most tribunals were held in Home Office buildings before panels of three or four members, lifer panels being chaired by a judge. From 1992 formal hearings were held in the prisons for discretionary lifers, convicted of very serious offences other than murder where prisoners were present, represented by Counsel and with access to most of their records, except where former victims or families could have been at risk.

In assessing the safety of releasing long term prisoners we needed to examine the prisoner’s response to programmes carried out within the prison, for example on sex offences, violent behaviour or addictions. Some prisoners could move down the system towards open prison, where they might return to work experience. Questions of remorse were always difficult to judge. We were also expected to consider carefully plans for release and the views of victims and their families and we were not always successful in this. This remains a topical issue. People out on licence can be recalled at any time if their behaviour appears to pose a risk to the public or to individuals.

From 1989 to 1994, when I was on the Board, prisons were already overcrowded. Under the best regimes prisoners had a chance of education and of training as well as working on individual problems and there were some very committed officers, therapists and teachers working there. Many prisoners were extremely vulnerable and required protection in violent regimes with their own internal hierarchies. Control was often maintained by keeping prisoners locked in their cells for most of the day, thus limiting their rehabilitation. Today the existence of mobile phones, drones and other devices makes control even more difficult. With the threats of terrorism, prisons are seen as recruiting centres for other disaffected people. Needless to say, today there is a vast variety of new crimes based on the existence of the Internet - not even considered in our time! Members of ethnic minorities are still over-represented in prison and mental hospitals, often having had a poor education, poor family support or unrealistic release plans; many prisoners have grown up in care. In all prisons there are a number of inmates who might more appropriately be treated in psychiatric units, their symptoms being made worse by the availability of illegal drugs.

On Mental Health Tribunals, detained patients have the right to request discharge based on the type of Section under which they are detained. Most patients are detained for their own safety and rehabilitation. Those whose behaviour poses a threat to others may be detained in a secure hospital such as Broadmoor or Rampton or in secure units of local hospitals. Some serious offenders may be placed under a hospital order or transferred from prison. The problem for some who are judged safe to discharge, is in finding a suitable home or hostel in the community, especially where fire-setting or violent behaviour has been part of the history. Much depends on services in the community for prisoners and patients, by Probation Officers and Psychiatric Social Workers. The purpose of all hospitals is to cure or alleviate problems and not to confine people for long periods.

In reading the case histories of prisoners and patients and in interviewing many, it seems only a matter of chance into which category a person falls: mad, bad or simply sad. Many come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, have grown up in care or have been poorly represented in court. There are some tragic histories.

Magistrates Courts have the power to remand in custody those facing charges of major offences, while awaiting Crown Court. For lighter offences they have the power to imprison for up to six months. Generally short sentences are regarded as ineffective or even damaging, but are resorted to for repeat offenders who have been convicted of driving, public order or property offences, when community measures have failed.

As for myself, I do not know how far my life experiences have helped me to judge. I was lucky enough to be married for 59 years to Patrick, a Barbadian student I met at university. Working in many countries gave me some insight into what it is like to be from another ethnic background, especially in former colonial territories. For most of life this was an enriching experience and working as a social worker as well as doing research on suicide in different countries gave me the privilege of seeing how others cope with life.

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