Prisons crisis: How to fix a broken system?
The human cost of austerity is unlikely to cause outrage if it is paid by those society already believes should be punished.
It is on this premise that our prisons are now engulfed in an entirely foreseeable crisis – the collective turning of a blind eye that occurs when it comes to what’s happening inside our jails.
86,000 people are imprisoned in England and Wales, a figure that has stabilised in recent years, but equates to the highest rate of incarceration in western Europe. Double the number of people are now in prison than there were under Thatcher.
How our prisons entered their current descent has been well-documented, but where do we go from here?
As cuts fell on the public sector in the wake of the financial crash, prisoners were an easy target for a government looking to shrink the state, as well as the deficit. Taking money from criminals doesn’t cost votes.
When Chris Grayling was appointed Justice Secretary in 2012, he was charged with slashing the Ministry of Justice’s budget by 24%. The decisions he took will continue to reverberate for years to come.
Every other day prison inspection reports are published revealing serious shortcomings and offering grave warnings that largely go unheeded.
In his latest annual report, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said:
“When a person is sent to prison, the state accepts responsibility for their wellbeing, including their physical and mental health, safety and education. There is clear evidence that for too many prisoners the state is failing in its duty.”
“Startling increases in all types of violence” continues, he found, while the utter failings of custody for young offenders – every establishment of its type in the country has been deemed unsafe – will “inevitably end in tragedy”.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, which had 115 self-inflicted deaths in prisons reported to it in the past year (a nearly 50% rise since 2015), has described the problems as “significant and systemic”.
The president of the Prison Governors’ Association has said she is “devastated at the complete decline of our Service”.
Through The Gate, Grayling’s reformed probation services, have been assessed as so poor by inspectors that, if they were removed tomorrow, the “impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible”.
50 of the 118 prisons in England and Wales have been rated as of ‘concern’ or ‘serious concern’ by HM Prison and Probation Service itself.
Many prisons are now functioning as little more than unacceptably dangerous warehouses for inmates and prison officers alike.
In the past year, self-harm has “stabilised at historical highs”, with 40,400 incidents – a 17% rise on the year before, and assaults have increased by 20% to 26,600 in the same period.
The deterioration of prisoner-staff relationships – crucial to the safe running of any prison – is reflected in the trebling of serious assaults on prison officers since 2013.
Having been cut by 30% between 2010-13, the number of prison officers remains worryingly low and attrition rates high – the overall total increased by just 75 in 2016, despite the £100m a year allocated by the Government to recruit another 2,500 prison officers by the end of 2018. Experience and expertise have given way to constant firefighting and concerns over poorly trained, “unsuitable” new recruits.
Although they are some of the most tightly controlled institutions in our society, many prisons are awash with drugs – with the unpredictable new psychoactive substance Spice gaining a particularly concerning foothold in recent years.
Anger caused by severely restricted regimes, excessive time in cells and overcrowding is bubbling up into riots.
The numbers in prison with mental health and other complex issues continue to rise, while concerns remain about the treatment of female offenders.
More than 3,500 inmates are still serving the abolished sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection.
Recall rates for offenders serving 12 months or less in prison – who are now supervised for a year after being released – have risen.
The Home Office has acknowledged that 45% of acquisitive crime is committed by those addicted to heroin or crack cocaine.
And, all the time, reoffending rates remain stubbornly high.
None of which is prompting the societal introspection required to ask: what should the purpose of prison be today and what are the consequences of prioritising retribution over rehabilitation and criminal over social justice?
The current crisis in our prison system is a symptom of the sidestepping of a much more fundamental conversation that we need to have in society – about what criminal justice is for.
Because prisoners may be separated from society, but they are not separate to it. Most of them are released and many of them will end up back in prison, having created more victims along the way.
It is as Dostoyevsky wrote, that “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”. They reflect the values of the society in which we live, which is perhaps why we dare not look too closely at them.
Now, more than ever, we need well-informed, thought-provoking journalism exploring, not only how we can solve the current crisis consuming our prisons, but the need for a new social paradigm around our whole approach to criminal justice.
This is what I’m joining Byline to do.
Through my column, I will be giving a voice to those engaged with criminal justice issues, examining where the problems really lie and the options for progress available. And your support will be crucial – whether financial, through information or insights.
When Grenfell Tower stood burning this summer, our society had a mirror held up to it. In it, was the devastating reflection of what turning a blind eye can do.
If those within our prisons end up paying the ultimate price before change is forced, we must not legitimise such futility by refusing to question why it had to be that way.
Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu