August 22, 2014 6:57 pm

Prisons at breaking point, say justice campaigners

Budget cuts, a crackdown on prisoners' perks and rising numbers of inmates have increased pressure on jails©Getty

The chief inspector of prisons says mistakes made at Oakwood must be taken on board

When inspectors made a surprise visit to an east London prison this year, they found inmates under the grip of an “emergency regime”.

Staff shortages meant that prisoners at Isis – a jail specialising in retraining male offenders aged 18 to 30 – were spending up to 22 hours a day locked in their cells because there were not enough officers to accompany them to lessons or workshops.

Prison

The restricted conditions were stoking tension and levels of violence were “high”, the chief inspector, Nick Hardwick, noted. “These were concerning findings,” he warned. Unions and justice campaigners say budget cuts, harsher conditions for inmates and a steadily rising jail population have pushed prisons in England and Wales to breaking point.

The number of violent assaults by prisoners has increased 23 per cent in the past year, while suicides are at a six-year high. Staff numbers have been cut a third since 2010 and incidents of self harm among inmates are rising.

Chris Grayling, justice secretary, tried to provide reassurance this week, admitting that prisons were facing “pressures” but insisting “there’s not a crisis”.

Prison

Mr Hardwick appears to disagree. He raised concerns this summer that cuts in prison officer numbers were causing “huge tension” as inmates were left in their cells with little to do, and laid the blame with the Ministry of Justice. “This is a political and policy failure – this is not the fault of staff,” he told the BBC.

Austerity is certainly a factor. The Prison Service has had to make cuts of £650m to its £3.4bn budget by 2015, leading to the closure of 18 prisons since the early days of the coalition.

Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform showed that there were just 19,325 officer grade staff working in prisons in September 2013, down from 27,650 three years before.

Stresses on the remaining staff have intensified under a toughened regime on prisoner perks, which makes it harder to control inmates. Since November an “incentives and earned privileges scheme” has curbed access to television, banned certificate 18 DVDs, cut subscription channels and prevented family members from posting books to prisoners.

The book ban in particular prompted a public outcry, with author Philip Pullman denouncing the policy as “barbaric”. This year the department introduced more curbs, including a 10.30pm “lights out” policy aimed at enforcing discipline on teenage offenders.

Simon Creighton, a solicitor specialising in prison law, said efforts to be “tough on crime” are having a regressive effect.

“Every single policy that Chris Grayling brings in seems designed to pacify the tabloids but actually increases the likelihood of disorder,” Mr Creighton said. “The ambitions of keeping everyone in productive activity are being undermined . . . We are receiving a lot more letters and calls from people saying they have got nothing to do with their time.”

The danger, he added, is that prisons are “rapidly turning into warehousing dumps for people”.

Even if disorder is being kept at manageable levels, the current pressures are not making the coalition’s “rehabilitation revolution” any easier to achieve. Ken Clarke, the former justice secretary, said in 2012 that his intention was to double the number of prisoners working a 40-hour week but progress has been slow. MoJ statistics show that there were only 9,900 inmates in work during 2013-14, up just 200 from the previous year.

Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, warned that following the cuts in staff and rising levels of unrest, attempts to work constructively with prisoners are in “chaos”.

Prison

“I am hearing more and more stories of prisoners being kept in their cells and not being taken to places of work or training or on to education services,” he said. “Prison governors tell me that the amount of work being done in prisons is far less than it was before.”

In response to the growing tensions, the MoJ now aims to recruit 1,600 new prison officers by March 2015 and is creating a “strategic reserve” of about 100 former officers on short-term contracts to help deal with acute problems. Mr Grayling said the government was still providing a safe and effective prison system “in a world where budgets are much lower than they were”. He added that levels of violence in prison had been higher under the Labour government.

But David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, said morale among officers was at an all-time low. “I have never known people working in prisons to be so despondent about what’s happening,” said the professor, who was previously a prison governor.

Having regularly set his first year undergraduates the essay topic “Is the Prison Service in crisis”, Prof Wilson suggested that the question was now easier to answer than ever.

***

Cutbacks, rising numbers and sex abuse

The difficult task of achieving more than £650m savings in the Prison Service budget has been compounded by a gradual rise in the jail population in recent months.

Although inmate numbers have fallen from historic highs after the 2011 summer riots, government figures show they have risen just under 2 per cent during the past year.

Roger Beale cartoon

Chris Grayling, justice secretary, has suggested that this could be a result of convictions for historical sex abuse prompted by the scandal surrounding the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile.

Ministry of Justice officials have sought efficiencies by closing 18 prisons during the past four years, with plans to replace some of this capacity with fewer more efficient, larger jails. One such facility in Wrexham, North Wales, will be the UK’s first super-prison, housing more than 2,000 inmates. But it is not due to open until late 2017 and, in the meantime, overcrowding has become an increasing problem.

The other response to the cuts has been a reduction in the number of staff. Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, called the savings measures “draconian” and complained that they had been “too deep, too quick and dangerous.

“We have lost thousands of operational staff since 2010,” he said. “If it had not been for the professionalism of our members, we would be in a far worse crisis.”

Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform indicates that the number of prison officers in England and Wales has been cut 30 per cent in three years. Frances Crook, the charity’s chief executive, said lower staff to inmate ratios in privately run prisons have created an unhelpful precedent for public providers.

“The private prisons are run on far fewer staff and that has given the impression that it’s possible,” she says. “Now, state prison services have to compete on the same lines.”

helen.warrell@ft.com

Twitter: @helenwarrell

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