With an NHS in crisis and teachers having to buy school supplies from their own wages, the state of British prisons is often overlooked, and seen as far less important. In general, the public is largely apathetic towards the way our jails are run, which means governments know that wide-scale budget cuts in this sector will be met with less outrage.
Since 2010-11, there has been a 40% reduction in Justice budgets, in a bid by the Tories to save money. However, their cuts have come at a huge cost. Between 2012 and 2016, despite the prison population steeply rising, frontline prison staff numbers fell by 7,000. Whilst the government have promised to further recruit 2,500 more, will that really be enough?
At the time of writing, there are 82,694 prisoners in custody, a figure that has almost doubled in the last 25 years. The safe capacity of the prison estate is estimated to be around 75,000. Overcrowding is a huge issue. For example, HMP Wandsworth is currently 162% over capacity, with HMP Durham and HMP Doncaster running at 155% and 151% over capacity, respectively. Not only does overcrowding make prison unpleasant for both staff and inmates, it makes the establishment completely unsafe. Such is the severity of the issue, prison officers are often asked to guard inmates at a ratio of 1 member of staff, to 100 prisoners.
In conjunction with overcrowding, a lack of appropriate staffing leads to unsafe conditions. Research by the Observer recently, found that 68% of prisons provide unsatisfactory standards, with 2 in 5 jails deemed unsafe. Every 2 days, a member of staff on the prison estate is assaulted. For less than £21,000 a year, whilst facing great personal risk, it’s not hard to see why the job is unattractive and uptake is low.
An example of where prison conditions have failed offenders, some of society’s most vulnerable, is the tragic case of Khader Ahmed Saleh, who was murdered in HMP Wormwood Scrubs. On C wing, where he died, food frequently ran out, leaving inmates to eat dried-food (usually eaten by those hiking or mountain-climbing). Just 53 days before he was killed, inspectors found cockroaches, rats and huge amounts of litter in the prison grounds, but most disturbingly of all, found that two-thirds of inmates felt unsafe.
The above isn’t an isolated experience. There have been scores of inmates murdered across the prison estate. If they aren’t a risk to others, many prisoners are also a risk to themselves. Around a quarter of the prison population (21,000) have mental health issues, yet find themselves in mainstream prison. Should they be there? Unfortunately, there is little choice – there are only 3,600 medium/high security beds for those with mental health issues in the whole country. These are often some of the most vulnerable people in society, who are being thrown in a cell and given very little intervention.
The effect of this feckless approach to inmate health is apparent. Self harm has reached unprecedented levels. Between 2016 and 2017, there were 42,837 incidents. Each day there are 117 incidents of self harm across the prison estate. Sexual assaults in prisons have more than tripled since 2012. Every 5 days, an inmate will kill themselves. The life expectancy of the average British prisoner is 56 – lower than even poverty-stricken countries like South Sudan.
In prisons with poor surveillance and low staffing, drugs are rife. Nurses are being taken ill because they have inhaled fumes from Spice (a synthetic drug similar to cannabis which is smoked, and can cause users to become catatonic). Prison officers speak of mentally and physically unwell inmates being left unchecked, often causing them to mutilate themselves.
But with 6 Justice secretaries in 7 years, is it any wonder the prison system is blighted with issues? No secretary seems to have a clear vision, and if they do, they never stay around long enough to fully implement it. Staff in prisons who whistle blow about poor conditions or practices are quickly fired (this happened at privatised HMP Liverpool). Privatisation is another big issue. Ethically, do we want to be a country that runs prisons for profit, capitalising on the misery of inmates? Private prisons like HMP Liverpool, run by Amey, have some of the poorer conditions – Liverpool in particular had blocked toilets, pools of urine and rodents. Many of our prisons are clearly unfit for purpose.
With our prison system so clearly in need of reform, there are many other countries we can look to, for guidance. New Zealand’s Minister for Justice has just announced that they will be suspending their “tough on crime” rhetoric, as locking people up for longer “only leads to more crime”. Instead, diversionary tactics like community sentencing, mandatory therapy, or financial punishment could be more appropriate.
Closer to home, in Scotland, the SNP are following the same path. They want to stop handing out short jail sentences entirely, with any sentence of less than a year being scrapped by the end of 2018. Short jail sentences have been proven to have higher re-offending rates than longer sentences, and therefore are less effective – especially given lots of petty criminals arguably shouldn’t be locked up in the first place.
America, which has traditionally taken a hard-line approach to crime, has in recent years begun to soften the way it ‘does’ justice. Despite still having the biggest prison population in the world, 35 states have aimed to reduce incarceration rates. Between 2008-2016, when they began their diversion programme, they saw crime rates drop. Texas, for example, started prioritising prison only for violent criminals.
The biggest component of the system that needs reforming, though, is the philosophy which underpins our prison system. Currently, we take a highly retributive approach, with very little meaningful activity and re-integrative support for ex-offenders (probation budgets have been slashed by over a quarter since 2010). There is little chance of rehabilitation in our prisons at the best of times; let alone when our system is barely feeding inmates, or keeping them safe. Locking them up in a cell for 23 hours a day won’t reform them. Arguably, making them spend their time in custody to learn skills and tools to equip them upon release, would be far more valuable.
In Norway’s Bastøy prison, for example, inmates are entrusted to carry out tasks and play their role in a micro-community. They have their own housing (instead of cells) and responsibilities to uphold, and respect and dignity are the core values of the prison. The prison boasts a re-offending rate of just 16%. Britain’s re-offending rates for those who served short sentences of a year or less range from 59-61%. Young offenders have a 69% chance of re-offending.
It couldn’t be more clear that our prisons are in dire need of reform. Not only must we overhaul the way we approach imprisonment – rehabilitation instead of retribution – but we must also ensure that they are fit for purpose. Reversing the wide-scale cuts, declines to living conditions, under-staffing and lack of safety is the best place to start.