Volunteer visitors keep a watchful eye on British prison system

WHEN Judy Veale knocks on the door at Her Majesty's Prison Channings Wood, she is admitted - any day of the year, anytime of the day or night, anywhere she wants to go. She is part of a nationwide citizens group here called Boards of Visitors. Made up of volunteers, these boards - which date from the Victorian era - fulfill both a pastoral and watchdog role in British corrections.

Every prison and detention center for youth has such a board. The boards consist of five members, who are authorized by law to inspect the physical conditions of these facilities.

Each board files an annual report directly to the home secretary of the national government. (All prisons are national in Britain; they are either state or federal in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of convicted felons are held in state prisons.)

``Often we see conditions we don't approve of,'' says Mrs. Veale, who is chairman of the coordinating committee for the Boards of Visitors, ``like three inmates in one cell designed for one, no plumbing, with infrequent bathing.'' ``We can press for changes and improvements that a governor [British equivalent of a warden in the US] is not making much headway on,'' Veale says. ``We are in a way an insurance policy to governors, staff, and inmates.''

In addition, a member of a prison's visiting board is required by law to sit on the local parole review committee. This is the first stage of the parole process in Britain. The board member will have firsthand knowledge about any parole applicant, making what can easily be an impersonal, bureaucratic process much less so, says Lord Windlesham, chairman of the Parole Board for the national government.

``One of the members will have interviewed the applicant in private,'' he says. Great weight is placed on the Board of Visitors' recommendation in granting or not granting parole.

Members of Boards of Visitors ``are quite ordinary people, often with no prior experience in criminal justice,'' says Christopher Stone of the London office of the Vera Institute of Justice, an international organization committed to criminal-justice reform, with headquarters in New York City.

``They are appointed by the government of the day. You don't get appointed unless you fall within certain respectable parameters, but it is a fairly broad band [of citizens],'' says Mr. Stone. You can't help but notice the interest and public knowledge about prisons in Briton compared with interest in the US, Stone says. One important reason for the difference, he says, is the social network of the Board of Visitors.

``What it clearly does is increase the public consciousness and the public nature of the debate about corrections. In that respect there is nothing quite like it in the US,'' says Stone. These individuals are very likely to discuss their prison experiences with their friends and neighbors. And when you speak with them they are very animated, he says. In the US, the courts tend to be the public conscience, ``our impersonal conscience,'' he adds.

In case of a prison riot, allegations may be made by either inmates or prison administrators about conditions that were the cause of the riot in the first place. Boards of Visitors stand ready to verify the truth or untruth of either side's explanation of the causes.

``The press know where they can reach us,'' Veale says. ``Indeed, we would already have sounded the alert about conditions deteriorating to the point where a riot might occur.''

There are some drawbacks to the current system though, says University of Southampton professor Andrew Rutherford, a leading scholar and commentator on corrections issues in Britain, as well as a critic of many government policies. One responsibility the boards have is to submit a written report on the facility they have visited during the year. But the full text of this report ``is bound by the Official Secrets Act,'' he says. Only part of the report may be released. He does not see the boards having the effect they could have. Instead, he says, they are a hangover from Victorian times when the local magistrates appointed the members.

Another problem with the system is the location of prisons, says Dr. Rutherford. Many are old, built in the Victorian era, and therefore sit in the center of cities. It is possible for a broad range of citizens to be on a board and get to the prison easily and at all hours. The newer, more secure prison facilities now being built in Britain are placed far from metropolitan areas. As this trend continues it will complicate access to prisons.

With the dust still settling on the recent prison uprisings and hostage takings in Louisiana and Georgia by Cuban detainees, US corrections could probably benefit from similar, state-appointed watchdog groups, say both Ken Schoen, director of criminal-justice programs at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, and the Vera Institute's Stone.

With such citizen involvement, they say, poor living conditions would be known to the public sooner and on a regular basis. Organized-crime rings or protection rackets would be more likely to have the whistle blown on them.

Inmates doing hard time for long sentences would have some sense of isolation removed. They would know there was an independent voice they could address. They would not feel utterly forgotten with the sometimes desperate acts this causes. This would also greatly ease the minds of the families of those locked up.

(For example, in Britain, if an inmate breaks prison rules and is to be put in isolation, after the third day of solitary confinement the local governor is required to have a member of the Board of Visitors meet with that inmate and see how he or she is.)

In addition, corrections officers and prison officials would have an informed third-party voice to support claims of inadequate resources, understaffing, and potentially violent problems caused by overcrowding.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.