Post by Katherine Copperthwaite, MSc student

On the 21st February, 12 students from the Centre for Criminology visited HMP Spring Hill, in the village of Grendon Underwood. The visit was arranged as part of the MSc Prisons option run in the Centre for Criminology. The Centre has ties to HMP Springhill and Grendon via the Governor, Dr Jamie Bennett, who is a research associate of the Centre. Mary Bosworth also sits on their Race Equality Committee.

A Category D men’s prison, nestled in the Buckinghamshire countryside, Springhill more closely resembles an old Boarding School than the stereotypical image of a prison with grey walls and bars on the windows. Built in 1872, the history of the main building is rich, having been used as a wartime base for MI6, and later for the Special Operations Executive before becoming the first Open Prison for male prisoners in the country in 1953.

Spring Hill is not a typical prison. Housing just over 300 inmates, its population represents less than half a percent of the whole prison population. As a Category D Open Prison, it has a heavy focus on resettlement work, including providing services for education such as IT Courses, as well as involving the prisoners in work both inside and outside the prison in neighbouring towns.

Upon arriving, the first striking thing about the institution is its security systems, or lack thereof: there were no gates, no fences, no patrolling dogs. This was made even more apparent by the stark contrast that HMP Grendon provided, situated directly next door on the same site as Spring Hill, with 15 feet high fences, topped with barbed wire enclosing it. Its presence serves as a clear reminder, if not an ominous threat, to inmates at Spring Hill as to the potential consequences of their breaking the trust which they are given.

The fear of breaking this trust, and the potentially severe consequences which would follow, clearly are ever present in the inmates’ minds, with one inmate describing the environment as being one of “walking on eggshells”. The inmates here are provided with significantly more freedom than at other prisons, which relies upon a relationship of respect existing between the officers and the prisoner. This raises interesting questions about whether it is possible for such a relationship of respect to exist under the conditions of coercion and with the dramatic power differentials intrinsic to a penal institution. As one inmate commented, his relationships with the officers in Spring Hill were worse than in any of the other higher security prisons he had been in.

When the trust is broken, it can have severe consequences not only for the inmate who violated the rules, but for the institution as a whole. Last year, Ian McLoughlin, an inmate at Spring Hill was on day release, when he stabbed and killed Graham Buck, who intervened in an altercation between McLoughlin and Buck’s neighbour, a former prisoner. This murder prompted core changes to the regimes at Spring Hill, leading to a tightening up of the freedoms allowed to the prisoners, including shortening the number of hours they are allowed out for on day release. Such a reaction is understandable when something so shocking as a murder occurs, committed by an inmate who had been deemed not to be a public risk and who had been permitted by the authorities to be in public. However, as one of the officers stated, it is frustrating that the focus is upon that one failed case, albeit with tragic consequences, rather than the tens of thousands of times when prisoners are out on day release with no incidents.

The altering of regimes created some tension with the prisoners, who felt it was unfair that they have in effect been “punished” for another’s crime. However, it is clear also that they appreciate the freedom that they are provided at Spring Hill compared with the other prisons which they had been in. For example, despite the low wage of £9.50 per week, which as one inmate commented is in effect only £8.50 per week once you have paid for access to television, the inmates we spoke with agreed that it was better to be on this low wage and in Spring Hill, than on the higher wage of around £30 per week which is available by being in a higher security prison.

It is important to remember that Spring Hill, despite the freedom, despite the lack of uniform, despite the education and employment opportunities offered, still remains a prison. The inmates have committed crimes, and Spring Hill is attempting to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society. However, despite this ambitious goal, it is clear that the system is far from perfect. There is a high turnover of prisoners who are unable to cope with the demands and responsibilities of self-management: one officer commented that he could go away for a holiday, and when he returned he would not recognise the majority of the inmates now on the register.

Moreover, the prison is not free from self-harm, drug abuse and violence. Last year, an inmate sadly took his life, in an act which officers described as completely out of character and unforeseeable. An officer admitted that he was aware of the presence of drugs and knives onsite, but he was unable to do anything about this due to lack of resources and evidence. Furthermore reoffending does occur by those who are released from Spring Hill. This leads us to question whether the rehabilitative ideal has a place within a prison system, which by its nature, is punitive and coercive, even in a Category D, open, prison. If it does not, and yet we continue to maintain that the rehabilitative ideal has a place in preventing reoffending, should the responsibility for facilitating reformation be placed elsewhere, in a different, non-penal institution?