Inside (HMP) Isis

Disclaimer: I visited HMP Isis lately and these are my findings. I have asked permission to publish this and it was granted.

HMP Isis is a relatively new Category C male prison opened in 2010 in Woolwich. Formerly a Young Offenders Institute it now takes prisoners between the ages of 18 and 40, with this set to increase slowly over the following years as the increased age has helped to reduce the number of gangs in situ from approximately 80 to approximately 40. Care is taken to keep gang members apart and Trident play an active role in getting prisoners to shun gangs altogether.

There are still provisions for young offenders; prisoners do not join the ‘adult’ populous until they are 21 years and an amount of days old. Until then they are kept separately.

The Prison has two ‘houses’ Thames and Meridian. One houses the younger offenders, and the other everyone else. Despite it being a newer prison, in style it is similar to Pentonville, with the high hexagonal ceilings and ‘spurs’ coming off making up cell block wings. There is a capacity of around 600 inmates.

The Prison has basic medical facilities but no on-site hospital. For medical treatment prisoners go elsewhere.

HMP Isis only takes sentenced prisoners as it is not a remand or ‘holding’ prison. Prisoners must have an under ten year sentence, but most likely they are there for under six years. Technically, someone can end up in Isis for any offence, as they may serve the tail end of their sentence there for a serious crime or be sent there for less serious offences. Although sex offenders can be sent to this prison, it is not common because they do not run an SOP programme.

As the prison is on the grounds of HMP Belmarsh and Woolwich Crown Court it is more secure than perhaps the average Category C Prison, and has had no escapes and no instances of drone use to drop off prohibited items to inmates.

As with any prison there is an underground currency of drug smuggling and dealing. Every care is taken to search incoming prisoners. Facilities include drug searches, testing, dogs, and a special chair that can detect electrical devices concealed within the person. As most prisoners have come from holding prisons, it is also hoped they were searched thoroughly before being transported. Staff are also searched to make sure that the risk of ‘bent prison officers’ is minimal. The popularity of ‘spice’ has presented problems in that it is not picked up by traditional drug testing methods. Drug dogs can now smell spice but previously it was being sent in on books and envelopes in spray form. The prisoner could then lick, or run a lighter along and sniff the adhesive on the envelope or book pages. HMP Isis is still a smoking prison, but this is likely to change.

The Prison operates with a ratio of 24 prisoners to one member of staff. This is lower than prisons such as Wandsworth, ideally they would like to have more staff. This is not allowed due to prison reforms and cutbacks as it cannot be ‘justified’ enough to secure the extra funding. The prisoners and staff have a good and respectful relationship.

Because Isis is a ‘working prison’ there is a high focus on rehabilitation and reform of prisoners, who can book classes and library visits through the biometric machines in the cell wings. Being a ‘working prison’, inmates have to do courses in Maths and English if they do not already hold qualifications. These are delivered in small classroom-style lessons. These basic skills can be delivered alongside a skill such as woodwork or catering.

Fred Sirieix of First Dates fame comes in and trains a select few inmates to run a silver-service pop up restaurant for the prison staff. Other catering companies do similar and may even promise inmates jobs when they are released.

The Prison offers careers fairs, allowing inmates to seek guidance about options to take on their release. This also acts as a motivator to learn more, behave, and get out as quick as possible. Timpsons, the high street store, has a fantastic record of offering jobs to ex convicts and guarantees them an interview upon release if they are up to the required threshold.

Prisoners can also work whilst inside, earning £9 a week for various catering and cleaning jobs. There are two ‘shifts’ of workers, one 9am until lunch time, and the other after lunch time until 4pm. They are free to spend their money via their biometrics machine on cigarettes, toiletries, and phone credit. Interestingly, a packet of cigarettes via the biometric ordering system is £12, so there can sometimes be debts owed to other prisoners because of a trade in this.

There is also some mild discontent that with wages so low, only prisoners whose families send them in money through their prison account, can afford luxuries such as smoking.

As to be expected visits are very important to prisoners, and are used as leverage for poor behaviour. At Isis there are three categories of prisoner: basic (gets one visit per month), normal (gets three visits per month) and enhanced (gets four visits per month). Each visit allows a maximum of three adults and three children at a time. There are facilities for child visitors to make the visit pleasant for them, as it is important for the inmate and the child to share happy memories and strengthen their bond, with the hope this will make the inmate less likely to reoffend.

There are some instances of criminal damage within the prison and one cell in the segregation wing has been out of action for over six months. The police are not very interested in this damage. Most things are dealt with inside the prison unless someone is severely hurt in which case it will go to court. Until recently spitting was not an offence, but now inmates who spit at prison officers may find themselves in court charged with assault.

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