Did you hear about the swimming pool at HMP Wandsworth? I hadn’t heard about it either, until I was sent there in the summer of 2011. A fellow inmate, perhaps sensing I was feeling a little glum, started telling me about all the benefits of life behind bars: you can smoke inside, watch as much TV as you like, and, he said, “there’s swimming every Tuesday!”.
Perhaps this won’t be so bad after all, I thought to myself as I rolled up a rough prison-issue towel and tucked it under my arm. There was, of course, no swimming pool to be found. Far from the holiday camp I had, very briefly and foolishly imagined, life inside was almost unrelentingly grim. Prisoners were, at best, simply being warehoused; at worst, neglected and abused. Rehabilitation barely seemed to get a look in.
Even so, I’m glad I was inside then and not now. Today our prisons aren’t merely depressing; they’re deadly. This year the system has plunged into a crisis like none before. Tragic suicides, grisly murders, and brutal assaults have all become an alarmingly regular feature of life behind bars. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, one prisoner dies by his or her own hand every three days, breaking all previous records. Violence has risen by 64 per cent since 2012, which was a major factor in November’s mass prison officer walkout. Inmates, too, are uniting in their misery. The dramatic prisoner takeover of HMP Birmingham recently made headlines, but it was simply the latest expression of a growing trend. Indeed, with a recent explosion of inmate anger at HMP Swaleside, it seems riots are becoming fortnightly occurrences. What’s to be done?
Somehow, all of this seems to have caught the Ministry of Justice by surprise, which is strange because it’s a crisis of their making: one that almost everyone else saw coming. At each stage, as the Tories closed prisons, clamped down on funding, instituted a more punitive prison regime, and sent thousands of experienced officers packing, a chorus of experts and ex-cons warned of the likely consequences. Yet everyone, from the Prison Officers Association, to former Lord Chief Justice Woolf, to the Howard League for Penal Reform, found justice to be not just blind, but deaf too.
The result is the overcrowded, understaffed, out of control prison system we have today. The initial impulse of Justice Secretary Liz Truss, brought in by Theresa May in July to replace Michael Gove, was to teach those namby-pamby, wrist-slitting crybaby convicts a bit of stiff upper lip. Ex-forces personnel would, she announced, be sent into prisons under a recruitment drive to “instil the virtues of discipline”. While it’s true that even the most twisted murderers and prolific thieves could learn a lot from the British Army, sending in the military isn’t the solution to complex socio-economic problems: not in a democracy anyway.
Since then, faced with public outcry and a prison officer strike, Truss has adopted a more expansive approach. Her recent White Paper promised to deliver “the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation”. It said that 2,500 extra officers will be recruited by 2018, with £1.3bn invested in new prisons; new drug tests will be developed to fight the synthetic cannabis epidemic, there will be greater autonomy for governors, and technological solutions rolled out to combat contraband mobile phones and the security risk presented by drones.
It sounds impressive, but it’s not. Even if the MoJ manages to recruit the extra officers – a hard task given the underpaid, unappreciated, and dangerous role it’s become – the service will still be thousands short. Without enough officers on hand to unlock doors and escort prisoners to work, education, and other rehabilitative activities, frustrations will continue to boil over. In such conditions, riots, suicides, self-harm, and drug abuse will continue to flourish.
Some of the measures could even make things worse. As a recent report by drug policy experts Volteface points out, the new proposed drug tests are won’t solve the problem of synthetic cannabis. The most likely result is that inmates will simply start taking different, possibly even more dangerous, experimental drugs, leading to further chaos and loss of life.
As Christmas approaches, an especially hard time for those in prison who can find themselves unable to even speak to their families due to short staffing, it’s an even more unwelcome gift than the coal lumps convicts might naturally expect.
The solution is not complicated: more prison officers and far fewer prisoners. As one former governor recently told The Guardian: “To borrow from the Iraq war, we need a ‘surge’ of staff into disordered prisons to restore control and get a decent regime going.”
After that, we need to rethink our entire approach to criminal justice. Prisons aren’t just failing inmates: they’re failing society too. Almost 50 per cent of people released from prison will reoffend within a year. And little wonder: many are being sent into the world entirely unprepared. I was shocked to find that a friend, recently released after almost two decades behind bars, hadn’t been told about Oyster cards or educated about the internet. He dealt with it, but thousands don’t.
The most successful models, such as that of Norway, seek to provide prisoners with a semblance of normality. Life in prison is intended to be as much like the outside world as possible: inmates can access the internet, cook for themselves, pick up useful skills, and gain meaningful employment. There the idea of a prison swimming pool isn’t such a wild fantasy. In fact, at Bastoy, inmates enjoy fishing and swimming from the prison’s beach during the summer months. As a result, the Norwegians have some of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.
It’s possible the Tories are working towards the same goal but from the opposite direction. Theresa May’s Britain – with its punitive benefit sanctions, panopticon-like surveillance powers, and general nastiness – must, for many people, be starting to feel a lot like a prison. Setting that thought to one side, if there aren’t to be more murders, suicides, and riots in the year to come, our prisons need more than a few extra officers and a lot of empty promises.
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