Prisons in England and Wales are in the grip of a crisis created by staff cuts, a rising jail population and increasing availability of drugs but government remedies do not go far enough in tackling the problem, justice experts have warned.
The issue was dramatically illustrated by grainy video shot inside HMP Bedford on Sunday showing rioting prisoners storming the jail’s corridors, bellowing and screeching, while one inmate jabbed at the window with a large wooden beam. Less than 24 hours later, two prisoners had escaped from Pentonville jail, in north London, after drilling through their cell bars with diamond-tipped cutters and stuffing their beds with pillows to mimic sleeping bodies.
Some now fear that following years of austerity and tough justice policies, such incidents will become more routine as violence and disorder spread across the prison estate. After visiting HMP Bedford, the scene of the weekend riot, the jail watchdog reported it was easier for inmates to access drugs than clean bedsheets. A snap inspection of Pentonville raised concerns about vermin, cockroaches, bloodstained bunks and inmates being stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day.
“We are just living through a different sort of crisis,” says Peter Dawson, a former prison governor and now director of the Prison Reform Trust. “In the late 1980s there were riots, then there were escapes from category A prisons, and in the last two to three years, the number of people injured and who have died as a result of the state of our prisons is extraordinary and is a daily catastrophe. What you saw in Bedford and Pentonville . . . is likely to become more common.”
The statistics tell a story of decline. Since 2010, the number of frontline prison officers has fallen by a quarter to 18,000 after cuts to the prison budget. Reduced levels of supervision have contributed to rising levels of violence: in the past year alone, the number of deaths in prison has risen by one-fifth, while suicides in jail have gone up by 13 per cent and incidents of self-harm have increased by a quarter.
Prisoners’ assaults on each other have risen by a third, and attacks on staff are up by more than 40 per cent. Meanwhile, the prison population has more than doubled in the past two decades and continues to climb. Figures from Eurostat show that England and Wales has 148 prisoners per 100,000 head of population — the highest rate in western Europe and the 11th highest across the whole of Europe.
Liz Truss, justice secretary, last week announced reform plans to contain the crisis. She promised 2,500 more staff and the creation of “no-fly zones” over prisons to prevent drones dropping drugs and other contraband over perimeter fences. In addition, prison governors will be given more powers over budgets for education, work and health, while each jail’s performance will be published for the first time in an annual league table.
Critics suggest that Ms Truss’s measures do not go far enough. Kevin Lockyer, former deputy governor at Belmarsh, says that, while extra resources for staffing are welcome, it is difficult to undo the effects of the cuts because years of under-investment have made jails more difficult places to work. The starting salary of £20,500 is too low for a job that is exhausting and potentially unsafe, he explains. “Hanging on to people at that kind of salary level is fantastically difficult.”
There are more fundamental problems. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for penal reform, accuses politicians of being “too feeble” to admit to the public that prisons are a scarce resource and that custody should be used sparingly. “Someone, somewhere, has got to come out and say there are too many people in prison,” Ms Crook says. “You don’t build more hospitals [just so] everybody with a cut knee [can be treated]. Nor do you want people to bed-block. It’s the same with prisons . . . We are sending people to prison who are merely annoying.”
Governments elsewhere have taken radical measures to reduce the prison population. Dutch officials have closed 19 jails in the past few years, having cut the number of inmates from 14,468 in 2005 to 8,245 a year ago, the BBC has reported. The reduction was achieved through better rehabilitation services as well as increased use of community service orders, fines and electronic tagging.
Mr Lockyer, who now works as an independent justice consultant, believes the only potential for change of this nature would come from devolving full responsibility for prisons away from Whitehall. “You’ve got the frankly bizarre situation in which justice secretaries worry themselves about how many books prisoners have got in their cells and the dimensions of their bath mats that they’re allowed to have,” he says.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the long-term, sustainable answer is one where responsibilities for offender management services . . . are devolved.”
For now, the Ministry of Justice is determined to pursue a limited devolution of powers to governors alongside the introduction of new prison standards that reinforce the notion of central control. A £14m investment in emergency staffing has also been promised, with a Teach-First style scheme to attract graduates into the prison service. But Mr Lockyer is sceptical of surface-level changes. “If you just chuck money at the problem,” he says, “all you’ll do is spend a load of money and not necessarily make it any better.”
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