The punishment of serious offenders does not require them, and their keepers, to be subject to a routinely violent environment. That, however, is the reality in many of these institutions, according to the Ministry of Justice’s own executive agency. Even three new jails opened during the life of the Coalition Government have sunk into the lower categories for welfare and security. Overall, serious assaults are up by 30 per cent in a year, and suicides, self-harm and absconding are all on the rise. Hardly a holiday camp.
The cause of it is not difficult to identify, and it is the same underlying factor that is undermining the NHS, schools and other public services: lack of funding. Of course the Coalition needed to reduce the deficit, and that required painful cuts in public spending, reductions that will run many years into the future. So the bad news is that prison conditions are unlikely to improve in the short term.
One hopeful sign is the fall in the level of crime, a trend identified in the latest data. Running against that, of course, is the constant call from politicians who should know better for longer and more severe custodial sentences. Whether these sentences are justified or not, and whether retribution is a legitimate factor in sentencing policy, it is not practical politics. Instead it puts maximum pressure on our ageing, often Victorian, prisons.
Privatisation and contracting out was designed to reduce costs and make public money go farther. So it should have; what is so disappointing is the manifest failure of so many private contractors to implement a secure as well as cost-effective regime. The G4S-run Oakwood, one of our newest jails, has already been dubbed “Jokewood”, after a catalogue of mishaps.
Some past Conservative ministers, either through experience or common sense, came to see that banging up human beings for 23 hours a day in unsafe, overcrowded conditions did nothing much to prevent their reoffending and was an appalling waste of humanity. Kenneth Clarke and, more distantly, Ann Widdecombe came to see that harshness for the sake of it, and overburdening prisons with inmates for whom there is no accommodation, was not so much a policy as an exercise in spite.
It is a shame that their successor, Chris Grayling, has not applied his mind to the fundamental contradiction in his party’s approach to crime and punishment. An admission, if only in private to his Civil Service officials, that there is a problem with overcrowding would be a start. He might then move on to reconsider his silly ban on bringing books into prisons. It may be too much to expect that he would start experimenting with alternatives to custodial sentences. Sooner or later, though, he, or his successor, will have to do so, though perhaps not until the next election is out of the way.
There, too, is a factor we cannot ignore: the British public. Revulsion against crime, fully justified, and impatience with a generation of politicians too complacent to bring it under control fed that lust for harsh punishment. So did the occasionally eccentric actions of judges. And yet crime, generally, is falling, and the prisons are full. Prison, if it ever did work, is not working now.