The prison population has risen at an unprecedented rate, and progress on implementing the landmark Woolf Report has stalled where it has not gone into reverse. The projected end to slopping out has been postponed, prisoners have started to overflow into police cells, and the planned code of standards appears under threat. The commitments in the prison service's much-praised Statement of Vision and Values, promulgated 12 months ago, seem even more distant, and there is a danger that the whole exercise will be regarded with cynicism by prisoners and staff alike.
All of this is in stark contrast to the two years after Woolf published his report when prisoner numbers fell, and there were genuine improvements in the treatment of prisoners virtually across the board. For a short period, Britain did not top the European imprisonment league. Indeed, both in our approach to the use of custody and our approach to individual prisoners, we seemed to be coming into line with European norms.
Unless urgent action is now taken, the position seems set to worsen rapidly. When the Prison Reform Trust met recently with the Home Secretary, we reminded him that in the years 1986-90 there were repeated disturbances around Easter when the prison population reaches a seasonal peak.
The possibility of life-threatening, destructive and irresponsible behaviour on the part of some prisoners is clearly not a principled argument for a reduction in the size of the prison population. But Britain's over-use of custody is expensive, ineffective, and all too frequently inhumane.
I have never known a period when so many people close to the prison system fear that serious trouble may again erupt.
Prison Reform Trust
15 FebruaryReuse content