20 March 2018
During my first year as a student, I received an email from the Criminology Office advertising a vacancy with the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Lancaster Prison. I did some research and discovered that members of the IMB are appointed by the Minister of Justice to carry out routine visits in every prison in the UK to monitor conduct and ensure the fair treatment of prisoners. As a Criminology student, with a specific interest in prisons and prison policy, I immediately applied.

The application process was rigorous, but my passion for the area shone through and I was accepted and appointed as a member of the Board.

The training was intense! I began in September 2017, just before the start of my second year. I attended a week-long training course, along with other new staff members at the prison – various roles such as new prison officers, senior management staff, professional support staff, and the chefs. The course taught me about security, health and safety, self-defence, suicide and self-harm, mental health, and how to use my keys. Following my week-long training course I did probationary training, where I shadowed an experienced board member for several months. Over this time I gradually got to grips with the job, gained confidence, and learnt my way around the maze-like prison! In February 2018 I finished the final part of my training; a residential training course run by the IMB secretariat, meaning I am now a fully-fledged member of the IMB.

So what does my role involve? I visit the different wings, and speak to prisoners and staff. Prisoners can specifically apply to speak to an IMB member by filling in an application form, which is then collected by the IMB each week. These applications can concern a whole host of things, varying from the rather mundane to the very serious. Common applications include things such as lost property during prison transfers, and matters concerning Home Detention Curfew reviews. It is up to the discretion of the IMB member to determine how to respond. Our job is not to deal with the problems ourselves, but to ensure that the prison is dealing with it, and doing so properly.

Another part of my job is to attend adjudications and segregation review boards. Adjudications take place when a prisoner has broken prison rules, and are conducted almost like "mini-trials" within the prison. If a prisoner is found guilty, penalties are put in place. Segregation review boards take place with prisoners who are held in the Care and Separation Unit, and assess whether they are fit to return to the main wings. During both of these processes, my role as a member of the IMB is to ensure that they are carried out according to the regulations, and the prisoner is treated fairly.

A third part of the job is to attend serious incidents at the prison. These can happen any time of the day or night. Board members take it in turn to be ‘on call’, meaning they are the one to attend a serious incident if need be.

IMB members have a responsibility to ensure the rights of prisoners are being upheld by the prison system. If we have serious concerns, we can take matters straight to the prison Governor. If, after much prompting, we are still extremely concerned, we have the power to take matters to the Minister of Justice.

On the whole, I have managed to balance this responsibility with the demands of doing my degree. I tend to have one day a week where I have nothing on my university timetable, or at least a free day at the weekend, where I can do my prison work. It benefits my degree because I can see the reality of things I’m learning about in the classroom. The hands-on approach at the prison compliments the theory I am learning about in my degree. It gives me a totally different perspective on the things I’m learning in lectures, because I’m seeing (and having to deal with) the reality of it.

I’d really recommend other Criminology/Sociology/Law students, particularly mature students, to look into joining your local IMB. It’s an extremely challenging job, and it carries great responsibility, but the experience you gain is invaluable. Most importantly for me though, the role of safeguarding the rights of prisoners is incredibly important because they are a part of society who’s human rights are extremely vulnerable and sometimes forgotten about.