Don’t be surprised by the violent death of a man at Pentonville Prison – the numbers told us this was coming

This is the third homicide in a prison in England and Wales so far this year. During the 1990s, by way of comparison, there were only one or two annually

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A single dramatic incident is sometimes as effective as a formal inquiry in showing that something is wrong, very wrong. So it is with the killing of a prisoner at Pentonville Prison in London on Tuesday. The victim, who died from knife wounds, was in his twenties. Two other prisoners were taken to hospital. This is the third homicide in a prison in England and Wales so far this year. There were eight in 2015. During the 1990s, by way of comparison, there were only one or two a year.

Suicides in prisons show the same increase. There were on average 55 suicides per annum in the 1990s. In the 12-month period between June 2015 and June 2016, a total of 105 prisoners had taken their own lives. At Woodhill Prison near Milton Keynes, for instance, there have been eight deaths in nine months, the most recent a death by hanging at the end of August.

You would expect the Prison Officers Association to be concerned and apprehensive, but there is something about the language it uses that goes beyond the everyday arguments between employers and staff. A spokesman said: “Uniformed staff and prisoners are working and living in squalid and brutal conditions … if a society is judged by how it treats those it locks up, then we are in a very dark place.”

But the explanation is simple. Fewer staff look after more prisoners. Since 1993, the prison population in England and has nearly doubled to 84,000. And the number of staff employed in prisons has fallen by 30 per cent.    

It is not just the prison service that is in this situation. Unfortunately the entire justice system has been starved of funds as a result of the severe cuts in government spending imposed by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Legal aid has been cut back; probation services have been subject to a misconceived and mishandled privatisation programme, and even the magistracy is under pressure as a result of court closures.  

For people whose incomes are low, legal aid can help meet the costs of legal advice, family mediation and representation in a court or tribunal. This is one of the marks of a civilised society. The poor must have fair access to the justice system. But the Government’s recent cuts in legal aid have put this in doubt.     

Vulnerable women, for instance, are now having to appear in the family courts without legal representation. Some people denied legal aid are representing themselves in court. The result is that miscarriages of justice and long delays are becoming more common.

Then there is the privatisation of probation services. May I remind you what the work of probation entails? Its essence is the establishment of a relationship between a probation officer and an offender. Former Chief Inspector of Probation, Andrew Bridges, described it thus: “The heart of probation practice is about using one’s influencing skills in a one-to-one relationship.” This is obviously a delicate and sophisticated process. Yet many of the private sector successful bidders for probation contracts had never been involved with the process before.

Now it turns out, as reported by the Financial Times a week ago, that almost every contract to provide probation services in England and Wales is lossmaking. Apparently contracts were drawn up that overstated the number of offenders that would be managed by private sector bidders, suggesting revenues would be far higher. What chaos. It makes one shiver.

There has also been a drive to cut the number of court and tribunal buildings in England and Wales. Some 86 are to close, of which half are magistrates’ courts. For many people this will mean longer travelling times, often well over an hour, to get to court.   

This may seem like a small inconvenience in the scheme of things. But as I contemplate the many murders and suicides in English prisons and the multiple deficiencies elsewhere in the justice system, I cannot keep out of my mind the famous words of the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, written 365 years ago in his Leviathan: “The life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

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