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Prison Segregation – the Limits of Law: Dr Ellie Brown launches her book



Anna Bennett, Senior Communications Officer

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Crest Advisory’s Head of Strategy and Insight, Dr Ellie Brown, has published a ground-breaking book on an important but little discussed part of the prison system - segregation. The book, Prison Segregation – the Limits of Law, draws on Ellie’s work as a researcher at HMP Whitemoor, a high-security prison in Cambridgeshire. There, she interviewed prisoners and staff to form a fuller picture of how segregation is used and experienced - and how it is affected by the law. Crest’s Senior Communications Officer, Anna Bennett, was at the launch of the book, at Blacks Club in London’s Soho.

Think of a segregation unit as a prison within a prison - a place where prisoners are isolated from the rest of a prison wing for up to 24 hours a day. Here, prisoners have a much reduced regime, only allowed out of their cells for between 30 to 60 minutes each day to use the shower, exercise or make phone calls.

Segregation isn’t a new concept. It’s been used in one form or another since 1778, but at present there are two broad powers in Rule 45 of the Prison Rules 1999 that permit someone to be put in ‘seg’. First, if a prisoner behaves in a way that puts other people in danger or threatens the safety and order of the prison; and second, for a prisoner’s own interests or protection.

Ellie Brown came to the subject while studying for her Masters in Criminology - she was initially curious to find out what segregation units were meant to achieve. That led her to write a PhD thesis and later her book.

At the launch, in front of more than 40 people from a cross-section of organisations involved in the prison system, Ellie set out the three main areas the book focuses on: the law and rules around segregation; the culture of segregation; and the application of the law in segregation. The work was the culmination of six months’ research at Whitemoor where she spent 12 hours a day in the prison, interviewing staff and prisoners, as well as attending segregation review meetings and use-of-force incidents.

Ellie reflected on the challenges she had faced which included conducting research during the Covid-19 pandemic and dealing with a personal tragedy. On 29 November 2019, Ellie was at a prisoner education event in Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, when a former terrorist prisoner, Usman Khan, stabbed to death two Cambridge University graduates, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt. They had been involved in the education scheme, Learning Together, on which Ellie had taught during her PhD studies. She had seen the programme as a fantastic initiative which brought university students and prisoners together, to learn a subject in a prison.

Ellie described how the murder of Saskia and Jack had left its mark on her and her work. She wrote in the Acknowledgments section of the book: “On that day, I lost my friends, but I also lost some faith. My previous optimism, hope and faith in my work, but also in others, was replaced by concern, self-doubt and distrust... I wished that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ could be binary: it would make it far easier to untangle my thoughts on the Fishmongers’ incident and the actions of Usman Khan.” Through pain and tragedy, Ellie has been incredibly brave and courageous to persevere with her work and publish the book, which she hopes will bring about change in the prison system.

After her talk, Ellie took part in a panel discussion alongside Dr Jamie Bennett, Chief Strategy Officer of the Youth Justice Board; Pia Sinha, Director of the Prison Reform Trust; and Ian Bickers, Prison Group Director for London. It was chaired by Crest’s Chief Executive, Harvey Redgrave.

The panel discussed the gap between prison policy on segregation and its use. Ian Bickers queried whether those working in prisons truly understood the purpose of the policy when it was written; Pia Sinha acknowledged that prevailing prison culture often trumps policy, which is then diluted when put into practice. Jamie Bennett asked whether it was possible for law and policy to fit within an entrenched culture, and if so, whether it enhances the original purpose of the policy. More broadly, the panel agreed that changes to the use of segregation units were needed, with Ian Bickers suggesting they be shut down and replaced with different types of units that address prisoners’ different needs. Jamie Bennett called for multi-disciplinary teams to be set up on the segregation wing. Ellie pointed out, however, that progress takes a long time and the problem doesn’t just sit within segregation units or the wings but is part of wider issues in the prison system.

Another topic the panel touched on was the impact on prisons of the pandemic. Ian Bickers said it had provided a greater understanding of the effects of isolation on people. Staff who were recruited during Covid, he said, had a very different experience of working in prisons and different perspectives on how a prison should be run. That had led to practices learned during lockdown conditions that had become commonplace on the wings.

Pia Sinha pointed out that for two years during the pandemic governors had been given instructions about what they must do as part of a prescriptive system that had reduced their autonomy and left them with little space for imaginative ideas. Pia said the appetite for risk was now much lower, with staff no longer feeling comfortable about unlocking a wing of 40 men from their cells without a significant number of prison officers present. Instead, they preferred to unlock prisoners in small groups. She suggested prison staff, managers and governors should adopt more of a ‘risk-tolerant’ approach - to take more of a chance, to appreciate that things might go wrong but that it could be an opportunity to learn.

The panel’s contributions gave us a rare and unvarnished glimpse into the state of prisons from those at the top and highlighted the clear need for change, in the use of segregation and in the entire system - a discussion sparked by Ellie’s book.

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy, visit the link here.


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