Jail Break

I would imagine when you think of coming to work at a ‘corporate’ law firm the last thing on your mind is going to visit a prison – well think again!

For the last 4 months, I have been working in the SBS Projects team representing the Ministry of Justice in its privatisation of 8 prisons in the UK.  This has involved hard graft at times but all was rewarded with a unique opportunity to go on a site visit to an all male prison holding inmates being detained from two years to life sentence.

Pinsent Masons’ involvement in the privatisation has been as external legal advisors to the Ministry of Justice throughout the procurement process.  This is the process by which the Ministry of Justice chooses the preferred company to run the prison(s) on its behalf.  From the initial advertisement of the offer of the prisons to be privatised, through to what is now being undertaken and the stage where private companies actually send in their proposals, we have offered legal and commercial guidance and support.  As part of this procurement process, bidders are given the opportunity to visit the specific prisons they wish to bid for; this is where our chance to have a sneak peak came from!

En route, feeling like I was going on a school trip/mini adventure, I had no idea what to expect.  A vision of Louis Theroux visiting the Miami jails was running through my head along with all the other TV and film portrayals of prisons.  But all was eased with tea, biscuits and an introduction by one of the lovely prison staff on arrival.

One of my main worries was that the prisoners would be made to feel uncomfortable (almost like zoo animals) with us as onlookers but what I found most amazing was, in fact, it was the inmates who were more intrigued by us.  Many wanted to engage in conversation and even more would just stare – the prison staff joked that we were providing an exciting distraction!  One of the inmates (who was a life sentence prisoner) even showed us his cell and anyone who has the perception that prison is some sort of “holiday camp” should just try and stay in one of those for a day – you would definitely be demanding a full refund on your holiday!

The prison we visited was a “working prison”, where the inmates had the opportunity to work making signs, windows, and metal works in return for a nominal wage.  It was fascinating to see this micro community at work and how occupied the inmates were in whatever task they were doing.  There are also educational opportunities including things like horticultural studies and the arts. All of this type of work was on display and looked incredible – at least in this respect I left feeling more positive.

We also stuck around for lunch (although we didn’t taste the delights of the prison kitchen).  This was perhaps the most depressing aspect of the entire day.  The dining room was a small dark room with plastic chairs, but I still found it difficult to grasp that the inmates would rather eat alone in their cells than engage with other inmates.  We were later told this was due to these communal areas being breeding grounds for bullying.  All of this made me feel a million miles away from the Hub restaurant in Crown Place where I would usually be enjoying light conversation with colleagues!

In all, it was an unusual and unique experience.  I did come away exhausted and slightly saddened by what I saw; but on the other hand, glad to have had the chance to see for myself what prison was really like.  Being involved in such a high profile and important project has provided a wealth of experience, not to mention gaining exposure to such an interesting area of the public sector.  I have had to not only engage my commercial brain but have also had the opportunity to investigate and familiarise myself with areas that you would not normally come across in a corporate environment.  This is the attractiveness of working within the projects department; no two projects are ever the same.