We do not have to tolerate a prison system that drives young people to suicide

Both the Tories and Labour have ignored the facts and continued a populist prescription of jail, jail, jail
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The Independent Online

Fourteen years and 1,006 prison suicides ago, a 15-year-old boy called Philip Knight strangled himself in his bare prison cell in Cardiff. Making a noose was the only way he could see to end the misery-go-round from foster home to foster home that had dominated his short life. He had not been convicted of any crime. The young man was held on remand and shunted into an adult jail because places for young offenders were full. The Tory policy of massively increasing Britain's prison population had begun.

Fourteen years and 1,006 prison suicides ago, a 15-year-old boy called Philip Knight strangled himself in his bare prison cell in Cardiff. Making a noose was the only way he could see to end the misery-go-round from foster home to foster home that had dominated his short life. He had not been convicted of any crime. The young man was held on remand and shunted into an adult jail because places for young offenders were full. The Tory policy of massively increasing Britain's prison population had begun.

The death of Knight was considered a national scandal. It led news bulletins; ITV ran an hour-long documentary at 9pm and, a few months later, broadcast a two-hour drama-documentary in a prime-time slot. Tory politicians were harangued by the media and the Opposition. The Home Secretary, David Waddington, was forced to make a parliamentary statement declaring that tackling prison suicides was his "top priority".

And now? The Tory policy of jamming ever more prisoners into already packed jails has been brought to a climax by David Blunkett. Tonight, there will be twice the number of prisoners there were when Philip Knight last took breath. Our prisons have received almost no extra cash. Politicians have been warned repeatedly that overpopulated prisons cannot deal adequately with depressed, despairing inmates. They cannot maintain sufficient suicide watches, never mind the rehabilitation programmes that might offer long-term hope.

Both the Tories and Labour have ignored these facts and continued a populist prescription of jail, jail, jail. (Michael Howard yesterday called for even more people to be jailed, attacking the Government for stopping at 80,000.) As a direct result of this policy, six women have to be cut down from their home-made nooses by prison officers in Holloway every night. A 14-year-old boy called Adam Rickwood hanged himself at Her Majesty's Pleasure on Monday. Suicide is now so common in our prisons that the fuss made about Philip Knight seems like a quaint relic from another age. Today, there are no documentaries and no rage.

David Blunkett is right, however, about one thing. It is not enough merely to condemn this. Critics of the Government's policy of over-crowded, suicide-infested jails need to offer a serious alternative. In an illustration of the contradictions within New Labour, this alternative can already be found in the prison service itself, if you look hard enough. In the reactionary soil of Blunkett's law and order policy, there are the fragile seeds of an authentically progressive alternative.

A few weeks ago I visited HMP Liverpool - one of the largest jails in England - where an extraordinary experiment is taking place. The Liverpool experience focuses on something that might seem trivial at first: the housing prisoners will eventually move into when they are released.

One third of prisoners in Britain are released to "No Fixed Abode" (NFA); in some jails it is as high as 70 per cent. This means they are walking out of the prison gates to life on the streets or dossing on friends' floors. For single men, it is almost impossible to get council housing, and most prisoners lose any home they might have had. Without an address, it's very hard to get a job. NFA is virtually a revolving door straight back to prison.

Staring into this black hole is a key factor in the suicide rate in our jails, and in the decision of 60 per cent of the surviving prisoners to reoffend within two years of their release.

In Liverpool, a visionary governor, Kathy James, and a former officer, Gary Thurgood, have turned this around. They have established a Housing and Resettlement Unit so successful in finding accommodation for released prisoners that this March Liverpool became the first British jail where every single inmate walked out to a home or a guaranteed hostel place. Dedicated officers work with the prisoners on securing a proper home from the day they are admitted.

Thurgood is keen to link these new homes with developing the work ethic in prisoners who have often grown up in families where nobody has ever had a job. Liverpool has the largest amount of vacant housing stock in Britain, so Thurgood approached the local council to see if prisoners training in bricklaying, plastering and construction could work on derelict or run-down housing stock and then move into the houses themselves on release.

The project has already begun; prisoners will move into their first homes later in the year. Thanks to the culture of hope this fosters, the suicide rate is falling.

So why isn't this approach being rolled out to every prison in the country? Simple. The cash isn't there. While we have such an extraordinarily high number of prisoners - the largest in Europe - we can barely afford to keep our prisons running at all. Liverpool was only able to find the money for this project because it is classed as a deprived area and therefore entitled to special benefits from the European Social Fund.

It takes a huge sum of up-front money to do what they are attempting at Liverpool: to convert prisons from the 19th-century model (Warehouses for Bad People) to a 21st-century model where they are centres for rehabilitation. It saves money in the long run, because it slashes reoffending and all the court and prison costs that come with it. But the effects aren't felt for years, and it takes a brave politician to think five years ahead, when they will be in a different job or, more likely, on the back benches.

Given that huge new sums are not going to be found for the prisons budget - it is always an unpopular priority - Britain has a choice. We can have a smart, sleek prison system on the 21st-century Liverpool model that seriously rehabilitates (at most) 40,000 prisoners. This would cut crime and heal the lives of some of the most abused and brutalised people in our society.

Or we can have the 19th-century status quo: 80,000 prisoners warehoused like battery chickens, where prison officers barely have time to cut down prisoners as they twitch on a rope. To go for the second option is suicidal not just for prisoners but for every one of us. We are all more likely to be mugged, burgled or raped when unrehabilitated and uneducated prisoners return to our streets.

A government with a progressive law and order policy would explain there is no contradiction between helping prisoners and cutting crime, as The Sun screams every other day. Indeed, if we are serious about reducing crime, we have to help prisoners to turn their lives around.

But rather than try to persuade the British public of the need for this fundamental change, Tony Blair has knowingly pandered to the know-nothing right-wingers who act as though our prisons already focus entirely on rehabilitation and offer scarcely a stroke of punishment. It's a blatant reversal of the truth, as Blair must know - but he does not have the political courage to challenge it. When Michael Howard wheels out these old, big lies, as he did yesterday, Blair is reduced to yelping "Me too!"

For every week we wait for the Prime Minister to develop a morally serious policy towards prisons, a fresh noose is being tied.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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