The Importance of the Open Prison for the Prisoner Maintaining Innocence

This is an article written for an organisation, Progressing Proisoners Maintaining Innocence (PPMI), of which I am a committee member.

The “Open” or “D Cat” prison offers prisoners the possibility to leave prison temporarily on licence (ROTL) to work or for restricted social reasons, as a matter of course. I say ‘matter of course’ because even in higher security prisons ROTL is available under exceptional circumstances. D Cat is seen as a stepping stone to release and is usually available to prisoners with less than 24 months sentence remaining. It is a fundamental stepping stone to rehabilitation, for suitable candidates, whereby the prisoner can familiarise himself with normal life prior release. For the purpose of this article, ROTL is not the most important element of the D Cat regime, but the general freedom of movement that “Open” conditions can provide is much more important. If one is locked in one’s cell for 23 hours a day with another prisoner who is addicted, amongst other things to the television, that is hardly conducive to preparing an appeal, for example.

For the prisoner maintaining innocence (PMI), D Cat offers the ability to spend much longer periods of time with visitors in conditions that are, during the ROTL period, similar to those experienced by people outside the prison system. Assuming the PMI is involved in the appeal process, this is facilitated in terms of research, access to computers and printing facilities, documents and books, discussion with the prisoner’s entourage and keeping a balanced view of matters pertaining to his incarceration and casework. Indeed, in closed these conditions are often limited, unavailable or extremely rare.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the PMI may well find progressing though the prison system to D Cat much more difficult than the career criminal. In order to attain D Cat status, a Sentence Plan of some sort must be respected, some of which the PMI may find hard to accept. All prisoners have to complete a form of Victim Awareness course, for example. It is part of prison mythology that this course cannot be passed without admitting guilt, but it is nevertheless clear that, for the PMI, trying to understand the problems of a victim of his ‘crime’ which he maintains he did not commit can be somewhat difficult. Without going into detail, for which my memory might in any case be out of date, depending on the ‘offence’ committed, there can be various courses that are deemed necessary to attain D Cat status yet impossible to pass without admitting culpability. These can range from Anger Management to Behavioural Analysis to formal Educational or Trade Qualifications.

Moreover, the relationship between Prisoners and Staff in open conditions is, by definition, much more relaxed and sympathetic (in part because only ‘safe’ prisoners will be granted D Cat status) which facilitates discussion and assistance to the prisoner from those more knowledgeable than he. In closed conditions it is often said that “All Prisoners Claim Innocence”. In my experience this is totally false, at least between prisoners! But lack of available staff time certainly mitigates against a long and complicated discussion about why a PMI was convicted yet maintains his innocence. Getting as many prisoners as possible, even PMIs, into Open conditions should be a fundamental priority.