On Thursday 10th November my classmates and I went to Her Majesty Prison Bullingdon as part of the Prison course of the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice. This institution is a local Cat-B/C male prison that hosts around 1100 inmates. About 20-25% of the prisoners are on remand, awaiting trial. During our visit prison staff kindly answered our many questions, even those that were somewhat controversial. The staff were quite open, or at least that was my impression.  Although throughout the visit we were often in very close proximity to prisoners there was no direct interaction with them.

When entering HMP Bullingdon, the strict procedure we had to follow reminded me of an assembly line. Visitors go through different rooms, they are searched by staff and their property is checked. For each door to open, another one has to be closed first. It is a mechanical routine and, step by step, visitors leave the free world behind them. It was not my first time visiting a prison facility, thus the contradictory emotions of anxiety and excitement often experienced by visitors in a prison were not new to me. I usually feel embarrassment for my own freedom and often think that some of the prisoners are not so different from me — thus my mind often wonders: “Do I deserve my freedom?”, “Do I appreciate it enough?’. Despite emotional involvement, generally, we neither show our emotions nor express our thoughts. We want to be respectful towards the prisoners and we worry about what they might think of us. It is us in their world. As students, we want to understand this world, how prisons work and whether they work correctly. It is important that we do not become voyeurs of those who inhabit them. I wondered how the prisoners felt having a group of Oxford University students being shown around and observing them in their habitat.

Daily life at HMP Bullingdon resembles the “dull compulsion of prison rituals” that Eamonn Carrabine describes. Wake up is at 7 AM and by 7 PM all prisoners need to be in their cell. Cells are singles or doubles: due to a growing prison population, many single cells are now doubles. Overcrowding has been a problem at HMP Bullingdon for many years, staff told us, and the prison original capacity is of 700 inmates only. The administration tries to let prisoners out of their cells as much as possible.

The prison offers a variety of jobs and other activities. The weekly paycheck varies between 10 and 30 pounds for the most sought-after job, which at HMP Bullingdon is working for the DHL mail service. Some detainees work in the kitchen, others in the garden, others work with glass and others as painters. Money is usually spent in the canteen (the prison’s dispensary store) or on phone calls. All prisoners have access to the canteen once a week.

Family ties are an essential part of prisoners’ lives, as the staff that guided us through the facilities stressed. The administration puts a lot of effort into ensuring that prisoners can nourish ties with their families. Phone calls are unrestricted and visits run between one and three per week depending on the inmate. During each visit a kiss and a hug are allowed at the start and end. There are five extraordinary visits during the year where more physical contact is permissible. However, conjugal visits are not allowed — ‘please no babies’, our guide said ironically.

My impression was that HMP Bullingdon is an institution that offers a variety of activities and that cares for the rehabilitation of the inmate. An interesting example in this sense can be found in Wing-E, where Vulnerable Prisoners (VP) are housed. These are mostly sex offenders and people thought to be in danger due to the nature of their offense or their personal identity (transgender, homosexuals…). Many outstanding projects are run on this wing under the category of Sex Offenders Treatment Programmes. These programmes aim to help detainees deal with their sexual impulses and thus reduce the risk of reoffending. Examples are Becoming New Me, designed for sex offenders with social and learning difficulties, and Healthy Sex Programme (a revised version of the earlier Healthy Sexual Functioning Programme) aimed at providing the offenders with preventive strategies for healthier sexual interests (HMPS 2014). Prisoners cannot be forced to participate; however, if they want to progress through their sentences and gain privileges they must attend their treatment programmes. With that in mind, it is difficult to ascertain whether prisoners on this wing participate in these projects to get privileges or because they invest energy in the aims of the programs.

Two facts struck me about this wing. First, staff consider VP prisoners to be the most trustworthy inmates, in stark contrast with the general public, who often see sex offenders as a major threat to society. Second, the programmes that run in this wing are more successful than those provided for the general prison population. Unfortunately, lack of time did not allow us to get to the crux of this issue and we were left unaware of why sexual offenders’ treatment works better than programmes for other prisoners.

Regardless of the overall good conditions in the institution and its decent atmosphere, HMP Bullingdon is still a prison. The staff pointed out several problems during our visit. Drug smuggling is a major issue — “we cannot lie about it” said one of the officers on this subject. Some prisoners do whatever they can to have visitors bring them what they need and other times corrupt members of the prison staff engage in illicit activities. Legal-highs such as ‘spice’ and ‘black mamba’ are the most popular drugs circulating at HMP Bullingdon. The prison is covered with signs and posters that discourage the use of such substances. In a Q&A session, the deputy governor, Ms Helen Clayton-Hoar, told us that among the effects of these new psychoactive substances are violent outbursts, self-injury and attempted suicide. It is hard for the staff to prevent such behavior — whilst the prison population is constantly growing, staff is decreasing due to budget cuts. Moreover, many senior officers are leaving HMP Bullingdon to work in other facilities and so there is now a high rate of inexperienced personnel.

Over the following weeks I often thought of this visit and the things we saw and heard there. It is easy to forget that prisoners are human beings bearing rights, but it is equally easy to forget how hard it is to work in prisons. The truth is that prisons are complex institutions that bring together people with different backgrounds and different responsibilities. Whereas we found staff to be attentive to prisoners concerns and needs, it often came across that cost-effective perspectives coming from above frustrate many of their attempts to facilitate rehabilitation and improve the conditions of imprisonment. Probably the greatest challenge when governing a prison lies in the compromises that must be taken between the needs of prisoners and those of managerialist approaches to punitiveness. The solution should never be one or the other. Instead of focusing on what does and does not work, I would finally suggest that researchers should work on finding practical means to safeguard prisoners’ rights, taking in mind that the current climate is hardly going to change anytime soon.