The testimony of the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, about HMP Birmingham is damning: “Squalor, filth, the air hanging heavy with the smell of drugs, a dilapidated physical environment, a sense of great instability and a feeling that at any time violence could break out. This is the only jail – and I've visited many – where I personally was forced to leave a wing because of the effect the drugs were having on me.”
Mr Clarke, it seems, was not the first or the only person to find the stench of heroin, cannabis and the latter’s synthetic equivalent, spice, intolerable. Prison wardens had also given up trying to breathe the air and maintain order. The result was the squalor Mr Clarke has described so eloquently, as well as a full-blown riot.
One immediate question is why the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, and his boss, justice secretary David Gauke, seem so unwilling to follow Mr Clarke’s recommendation and set up an independent inquiry. This would build on Mr Clarke’s evidence but, crucially, also determine who was “asleep at the wheel”, in Mr Clarke’s words, at the Justice Department – in other words, why the civil servants and ministers responsible were so painfully slow to take any action at all, even when the funds were available for tasks such as emergency repairs to windows. Mr Stewart has, honourably, promised to quit if the prisons don’t improve. It is therefore in his interests to find out what went wrong in his own department.
The saga of Birmingham prison – now in effect nationalised – tells us much about the neglected cockroach-infested corners of Britain’s public services in the age of austerity. Necessary or not, there were surely instances when the need to repair the public finances led to grotesque distortions of national priorities. While schools, hospitals, student loans and the benefits system were all high-profile areas where interest groups and genuinely concerned parties would raise the alarm about crises, the cuts to the prison system, and indeed criminal justice more generally, were almost silently executed.
There are few media commentators, for example, championing the human rights of prisoners. Offenders, by definition, have transgressed and are in prison to be punished; but the denigration they suffer goes beyond what society has a right to expect to be meted out even to the most heinous of criminals.
Now ministers admit that these cuts went too far, and that too many prison officers were lost. But Birmingham prison suggest that something structural had failed – that the partial privatisation of the prison service was geared far too often in favour of radically reduced costs, to the detriment both of discipline and rehabilitation. If prisons are actually unsafe for the officers meant to be running them, then something has plainly gone wrong.
It is not a matter of ideology but of simple practicalities. In some areas the privatisations introduced since 1979 were justified and led to much better outcomes: selling off jaguar Cars, British Airways or BT are measures that not even Jeremy Corbyn seeks to reverse now. Others have had more mixed results. They have attracted investment that might not otherwise have been possible, but private finance initiatives, for example, have sometimes proved disastrously costly to the taxpayer, privatising profits but nationalising losses when they go wrong. In areas such as the railways, nuclear power and, indeed, the prison service, privatisation has suffered too many failures for anyone to be comfortable with the present system. Even the ideologically inspired would concede that point.
So an inquiry into what happened at Birmingham should go ahead; but a wider review of the performance of private prisons also needs to be carried out as matter of urgency. Birmingham prison may have been exceptional in the scale of its failure, but it is hardly alone. The National Audit Office and parliament’s Public Accounts Committee and Justice Committee need not wait for an official inquiry into the scandals at Birmingham before beginning that examination. Prison privatisation is itself on parole.
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