Offering more to prisoners who want to engage and less to those who do not is right and necessary, according to the governor of High Down prison.

Following concerns raised about the prison with the Epsom Guardian in the last month, the newspaper was invited to spend the day at High Down last Friday, March 28.

The Government has repeatedly denied there is a crisis at the prison, on the border between Banstead and Sutton, caused by staff shortages and prisoners staying locked in their cells - something its governor Ian Bickers also refuted.

"To have a proper clean-up, you have to make a good mess", he said, adding that the changes introduced to the prison estate by the Government in the past year have been a huge culture shock for staff who were set in their ways.

"Time for change"

"Time for change" is the prison’s motto and it is certainly living up to this at the moment.

The Independent Monitoring Board’s (IMB) report for 2013, published on March 18, said it had been a "dreadful year" for the prison and asked the minster whether he had "truly taken on board the effects that these cuts will inevitably make on the avowed policy of rehabilitation?"

Mr Bickers, who took over as governor last January, said: "It was a balanced report which demonstrates the prison has gone through significant change.

"But it’s fair to say the majority of criticisms have been dealt with."   

The 46-year-old left school at 16 with no qualifications and started "hanging round on street corners".  After 20 years in the private sector and having completed a Psychology degree at the Open University in his 30s, he jumped ship to the prison service 10 years ago.

He has worked as a prison officer, as a head of security and operations, learning and skills and resettlement, and as a policy advisor to the Home Office.  As well as posts at Bullingdon, Woodhill, Spring Hill, Grendon and Aylesbury prisons, he served as deputy governor at Wandsworth.

Mr Bickers, a dynamic and enthusiastic governor, well known around the prison, clearly knows the prison system inside-out and spoke at length about what the changes have involved.

On a two-hour tour of the prison, he emphasised his transparent and honest approach, but did add that, as a civil servant, he would not share his personal views.

Up until November 2012, a governor allocated a prison’s budget.  Now, it is determined based on a model for each type of prison, formulated by the Government - a practice known as bench-marking.

"It was certainly no crisis"

Last February, High Down was told it had to lose 30 prison officers from its 185.  At the same time, 30 prison officers applied for the Government’s voluntary redundancy scheme, and left - achieving the staffing cuts required.

But with 13 other officers being promoted and another 12 leaving through retirement or dismissal subsequently, Mr Bickers explained that there is currently a shortfall of 25 posts waiting to be filled. 

Now with 130 prison officers, the prisoner-to-prison officer ratio is 1:30.

Mr Bickers said the changes have meant that prison officers now have to work much harder "and think" - something he said a minority had not welcomed with open arms.

He said: "My aim is to keep the prison in the public sector, but times will change. 

"In some ways we have to lock people up for longer and not offer as many things and there is less staff because that’s what’s being asked of us.

"There have been problems with the right staff being in the right place at the right time.  Within a month we got the issues sorted. 

"In September the prison wasn’t quite getting it right, but it was certainly no crisis and things have now started to settle and bed-in."

"We should be giving more to people who want to engage"

As part of the changes, a new core day for each type of prison was introduced last September and ‘association’ during the afternoons was axed.

All prisoners are still given a "domestic period" of at least four hours out of their cells, spread throughout the day - something Mr Bickers said the prisoners at High Down receive, though he admitted that operational pressures may mean this is not always possible. 

But the "free-for-all" socialising - which saw cell doors unlocked all afternoon and prisoners playing games - has gone. 

The change means that those prisoners who do not want to go to classes or work within the prison will spend longer behind bars.

Should the prison service be motivating these men into rehabilitation?  "That’s a question about the role of prisons, a debate for society as a whole," said Mr Bickers.

"We are doing a good job in what the Government wants us to deliver. 

"Yes, we close the gym from time to time and sometimes classes are empty.  But I have no significant concerns and feel in absolute control of it," he said.

"The changes are right.  We should be giving more to the people who want to engage."

"Things get more stretched but the basics are there"

Mr Bickers asked all the prison staff and prisoners this newspaper was allowed to meet to rate the safety of the prison out of 10.  Not one gave an answer below eight.

One prisoner, in the substance misuse wing, who has been inside for 15 months and works in High Down, said: "When I first came here there was a bit of bang-up.  Everyone knows about the staff shortages. 

"I have had every opportunity to get out of my cell and do education and work every day.  I don’t know where the criticisms have come from."

But he added: "Access to the gym has been quite bad.  We know staff cut backs have affected things but it’s getting better.

"There’s quite a lot on offer.  If you don’t want to engage with it you stay banged up all day.  If you want to work you can."

Another prisoner, who works in the reception and has been in High Down for 10 months, said: "With the staff shortages more things get stretched, but the basics are there.

"Some are not using their initiative themselves.  But some people are like that on the out too."

The governor said the period covered by the IMB’s 2013 report saw the implementation of the changes and raised difficulties, but that things have now improved.

No radical measures have been introduced, he said, but the system is now starting to adjust properly to the changes. 

In December, High Down was asked to take another 60 prisoners from London and will be receiving 22 extra staff members on April 6 to manage this, while the lengthy public sector recruitment for 25 permanent posts continues.

While rehabilitation is a personal passion of the governor’s, Mr Bickers believes the public at large "does not care" but still want to see reoffending figures fall.

"Instilling a real world attitude about what life is"

Following lunch in the prison’s pioneering restaurant The Clink - which is run by High Down’s prisoners - Mr Bickers responded to concerns raised by relatives of inmates and ex-prison officers with this newspaper over the last month.

He said educational classes are available to prisoners every day and 81 per cent of spaces had been full the day before - compared to a 30 per cent average in January 2013.

All convicted prisoners at High Down must attend work or education, while those on remand can choose whether to do so. 

The courses on offer - ranging from dog ownership and industrial cleaning, textiles and recycling, to Maths and English, personal hygiene and Open University degrees - are a shift away from the cognitive behavioural therapy programmes run by prisons 10 years ago when it was about "bums on seats".

The governor said every prisoner is entitled to one hour in the gym a week, but, beyond this, it is a privilege, and sometimes outweighed by other operational difficulties which are part and parcel of prison life.

He said: "It’s tight and efficient and when things happen, for example when staff get assaulted or take days off, it will impact on the running of the regime."

"It’s about weighing the priorities," he added.

"It’s also about instilling a real world attitude about what life is."

He said an example of this approach was the introduction of packed lunches instead of hot lunches in the prison last year.

One of the serious concerns raised by the IMB’s report was that prisoners missed hospital appointments because staff shortages were so severe.  

The governor said that, at one point last year, eight prisoners needed admitting to hospital and required prison guards by their hospital beds.  This took a significant number of officers out of the prison. 

"We work damn hard to provide safe prisons"

Mr Bickers said problems with the visitors’ booking system had been fixed and so many visits are now being requested that the prison will start running an extra session.

He said prisoners eating in their cells has always been normal, that the showers may be old but were clean, and the problem of mice in the visitors’ hall had been solved.

He also dismissed as "absolutely ridiculous" claims he has sanctioned unlawful force to be used against prisoners, saying anyone who did so would be dismissed.

One prison officer told the Epsom Guardian: "As a prison service we have to change and things move on. 

"I felt very frustrated reading your article because we work damn hard to supply a safe regime for prisons.

"It’s about working smarter.  Utilising and making sure staff are used to their best abilities. 

"It’s been a massive culture change, but the Government said they wanted the change made."