Betsy Everett meets prison volunteer Kay Atkinson and discovers that life inside isn’t quite as easy as some would have us believe

KAY Atkinson wants people to know that everything they read in the popular press about prisons as holiday camps is nonsense.

She’s an unsentimental, practical sort of person who doesn’t expect sympathy for criminals, with whom she has a lot of contact, but would welcome a calm debate about their treatment.

“Many people read the tabloids and think prison is a holiday camp with luxurious cells, Sky TV round the clock and matching duvet covers and curtains. It’s just not like that,” says Kay, who’s a monitor at the oldest prison in the country: which, surprisingly to those who see only the modern brick facade, turns out to be Northallerton, built in 1774.

Hers is a voluntary post and she has a more formal role than that of a prison visitor: monitors tend to deal with standards, and ensuring they are met, not with social or spiritual aspects of inmates’ lives. A former law lecturer, living in Birmingham until retirement brought her and husband John to Aysgarth, Kay does have knowledge of prisons beyond Northallerton, but it’s this one she wants to talk about to dispel those tabloid myths. She does it in a very matter-of-fact way, with no embellishment and not much comment.

“When I started eight years ago it was a young offenders’ institution and I was shocked to discover that 50 per cent of the young people were from the care system which abandons them at 16.

They hadn’t a clue how to look after themselves, so prison, while hardly a soft option, at least meant they were cared for,” she says.

Since 2010 it’s been a community jail with about 250 inmates at any one time, only a small proportion of whom are under 21. All are category C or D and many, though not all, have committed minor offences, or are nearing the end of their sentence.

Because of its size – it has only two wings – it can’t take sex offenders, or very violent offenders, for prolonged periods. For the 50 or so category D prisoners it operates as an open prison, which in the case of Northallerton doesn’t really mean anything because there are no grounds at all for them to go into. But their cells aren’t locked so they’re free to move around within their wing, and some are released on temporary licence to work or visit home.

“Northallerton looks modern because it has a newish brick wall around it, but other than the addition of central heating and new showers – 18 for 250 people – it’s pretty much as it’s always been,” says Kay.

“It is the only prison in the country that still has two people to a cell and the cells are tiny, a metre narrower and shorter than the standard because it was built before the 1850 prison rules. You can’t turn round in the space between the bunk bed and the wall. I’m much smaller than any of the men and I have to go out backwards. The heating system is Victorian so some of the cells are boiling and some are freezing.

“There’s a toilet in the corner with a two-foot-six decency screen – actually no more hygienic than slopping out, which is banned now.

There’s no air circulating as the windows have bars and Perspex in front of the glass which means they can’t be opened so you can imagine it’s not pleasant.”

Category C inmates are locked in their cells from nine at night until seven in the morning. They have ‘association’ each day, and unless they are cleaning, working in the kitchen or in an education class, they are locked in their cells. As for meals, Kay says: “No prison in the country now serves breakfast. They get a bread roll and spread, coffee and some milk powder. Very few prisoners eat in a canteen and most, including Northallerton, don’t have one. Everyone eats in their cell.”

So far, so sparse: nothing much to suggest a holiday camp. However, there is one perceived myth that turns out to be true: all prisoners have a television in their cell. “There aren’t nearly so many officers on duty at night in any jail, precisely because prisoners are watching the box and so giving them some peace. Government plans to make them earn the right to television through working or going to classes probably won’t work: there isn’t enough work and there aren’t enough classes and so they’d have to have many more staff,” says Kay. There would be another unforeseen consequence: while televisions are the norm, as now, removing them for bad behaviour is an effective sanction. That would be lost if the default position was ‘no TV until earned’.

As for the government’s other big idea, the so-called super prisons with upwards of 2,000 inmates, she doesn’t think those will work either.

“Conditions at Northallerton are hardly ideal, but against all the odds it works. That’s because it’s small and because they have excellent staff who know each prisoner individually, which makes a massive difference.”

The real answer though, she’s sure, is just to put fewer people in prison.

“We jail far too many people who don’t need to be there. Of course there has to be an element of punishment, and violent offenders have to be locked up.

But community service has a much lower reoffending rate and we need to pay more attention to rehabilitation, so offenders can integrate back into society. You can’t just classify all criminals as evil and think that putting them away for longer in massive prisons is going to solve the problem.

It isn’t.”