Joan Smith: Our prisons are not just inhuman, they don't work

Fewer people than usual will pay attention to a damning report on Wandsworth jail. But its findings would be shocking in any civilised society
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It's hardly the ideal moment to release a report about inhuman conditions at Britain's biggest prison. Yesterday's revelations about bullying and self-harm at Wandsworth jail in London, should prove disturbing reading for everyone who works in the criminal justice system, but they've been published at a moment when demands for ever harsher treatment for convicted criminals are in the air. Last month the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, retreated from a flawed plan to cut the number of prisoners by reducing the length of sentences, while demands to bring back capital punishment have clogged up the Government's new e-petitions website.

Against the background of this week's events, it seems likely that even fewer people than usual will pay attention to a damning new report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales. It's the result of an unannounced inspection at Wandsworth in February, and its findings would be shocking in any civilised society. In blunt language, the report concludes that the treatment of many offenders was "demeaning, unsafe and fell below what could be classed as decent". Prisoners were bullied, denied reasonable standards of hygiene and kept in their cells with nothing to do for up to 22 hours a day.

Wandsworth is a category B prison, housing 1,650 inmates. It isn't hard to imagine the impact of a regime of enforced boredom on a "challenging population with multiple problems" – official jargon for men with high levels of illiteracy and drug and alcohol dependence. This year's inspection was carried out without notice because a previous visit in June 2009 was hindered by the transfer of "difficult" prisoners between Wandsworth and Pentonville, ensuring that they weren't present in either jail when it was inspected. The new report says that conditions are now so bad in Wandsworth that the safety of prisoners is a matter of serious concern; it found that there were around 32 incidents of self-harm in the jail each month, along with 11 deaths in custody, four of which appear to have been self-inflicted, between January 2010 and February 2011.

Feelings of isolation, insufficient activity and poor relations with staff were identified as possible causes of self-harm, with staff accused of 'indifference" and on a few occasions "abusive language towards prisoners". Foreign inmates have been held in the jail after completing their sentences, while black and ethnic minority prisoners are said to have been treated unfairly. The inspectors were troubled to hear from a disabled prisoner that he hadn't been able to have a shower while on remand in the prison for three months.

The report wasn't uniformly bleak, acknowledging that the prison has good training opportunities and resettlement services. Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, says that "a robust action plan" has been put in place and "managers and staff at the prison are in no doubt that they must improve performance". But Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal reform and a favourite hate figure for right-wing newspapers, rightly argues that the abuse of prisoners "hampers safe return to the community and puts victims at risk".

It's a point that's likely to be lost in theincreasingly punitive discourse around crime and punishment, yet official figures show that our prisons do little to discourage crime. Contrary to popular opinion, subjecting people to harsh prison regimes doesn't make them think twice about reoffending; according to a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) report on recidivism published last year, 14 prisons in England and Wales have reconviction rates above 70 per cent. The "short, sharp shock" theory favoured by Tory activists comes off particularly badly, with the reoffending rate highest at prisons holding short-term inmates.

None of this cuts any ice with the popular press, where it's axiomatic that tough prison regimes cut crime. It's a mistake about human nature that's likely to be repeated as politicians struggle to find language to deal with the enormity of burnt-out buildings in London, Manchester and Birmingham. The Prime Minister has already talked testily about a "sick" society and identified the root of the problem as an absence of "proper upbringing and morals", which doesn't exactly create a climate in which we can have a sensible discussion about criminal justice. The temptation to come up with punitive responses is immense, even if there's little evidence that they're likely to produce safer streets and neighbourhoods.

It hardly seems necessary to point out that there's a problem of values among the men (they are mostly men) who end up in our prisons. The culture of bullying and self-harm in Wandsworth shows how the strongest prisoners terrorise the weak, acting out fantasies of omnipotence and self-hatred. But what isn't said often enough is that most offenders suffer from a massive failure of empathy, rendering them unable or unwilling to imagine the impact of their behaviour on other people. This doesn't happen overnight and the factors that make it more likely are evident in the MoJ study of reoffending: reconviction rates are highest among prisoners who witnessed violence in their childhood home, were excluded from school or taken into care, and have been homeless or jobless.

Too many of our prisons are places that encourage the survival of the fittest, replicating the brutal milieu that offenders are accustomed to inhabit in the outside world. It's clear from the US, with the highest incarceration rate in the world, that gang culture flourishes in prisons, encouraging the behaviours (such as sexual abuse and extortion) already prevalent among repeat offenders. Wandsworth's failure to protect vulnerable inmates from bullying is especially worrying because it provides opportunities for violent prisoners to exercise the power they aspire to in their criminal enterprises.

If you take violent young men and lock them up in insanitary conditions for 22 hours a day, it isn't going to turn them into individuals who care about their fellow humans. We shouldn't be remotely surprised that the prison regimes we have at the moment don't produce the results we want. Institutional indifference and inhumanity encourage the warped values offenders have when they arrive in the place.