Scanners in Prisons

I listened this morning on @BBCr4today to a discussion which involved the presenter John Humphrys, a member of the Prison Officers Association (POA) and an ex-prisoner which requires some commentary. The subject was the use of body scanner technology to detect illicit items in prison. I do not have a transcript so I will be paraphrasing throughout. Hopefully my points will still make sense.

John Humphrys played almost no constructive role in this broadcast except to push the other two to get on with it in the allotted time, which was, of course, far too short to discuss such a serious subject. I do think, however, that he could have tried much harder to make something interesting and useful out of the short broadcast. I am concerned, as usual, that the general public will receive a perverted view of prison life. To be fair to him, however, I have become disenchanted with his approach for a few years, so I will say no more except to point out what he might have discussed.

Predictably the member of the POA said they needed more resources to do the job properly. The plan is for one scanner per prison to search prisoners. Now, given that we know that there are massive amounts of contraband being brought into prisons by prison workers of all descriptions, that is lamentable. If there is to be one scanner then it should be used, as you would at customs, on everyone passing through the prison. If that causes a blockage then let some people through at random so that the potential smuggler can never be sure whether he or she will be scanned. It’s true that that might require more staff but, if contraband could be stopped before it gets into the prison system, less staff would ultimately be needed elsewhere.

The ex-long-term prisoner took an equally predictable stance. He said things were better when prisoners were smoking cannabis and staff turned a blind eye. He ignored the debt problem caused by drug dependency which leads to violence. He ignored the problems of psychologically vulnerable prisoners for whom the combination of high strength cannabis and prison conditions causes severe psychotic incidents, which can lead to violence and long-term mental health problems. He ignored the fact that smoking bans are in place that are a good thing for non-smoking inmates and staff and have been very successful. It gives the impression to the general public that the majority of prisoners are smoking dope which is false!

None of these issues were discussed by Humphreys. Moreover, the problem of overcrowding was not even mentioned even though that could release staff for this kind of work immediately because of prisoner/officer ratio requirements. And no mention was made of the effect all of this might have on compliant inmates about whom no-one ever bothers to talk. By compliant I mean the silent majority who get on with their sentence, cooperate with staff, obey the rules (where possible) do their underpaid work (where possible) help other inmates (where possible) and reluctantly accept the appalling conditions in which they are forced to endure and without whom the prison system could not function.

Finally let me give an example of how these scanners will probably be used. When a prison bus arrives at a receiving prison it is likely that the new arrivals will go through the scanner even though they have been searched or scanned on leaving the sending prison. Prisoners are handcuffed on their way into the bus, isolated in appallingly uncomfortable and unsafe conditions on the bus and handcuffed on their way from the bus into the receiving prison. What an abject waste of resources searching them again is, which is symptomatic of the mistrust between prisons. A demonstration that not all solutions require more resources!!!