Rory Stewart got out of political jail last week. He was sprung by Gavin Williamson, who won’t be going to jail himself since our fearless police apparently detect no semblance of a crime in whatever he may or may not have leaked.
Penny Mordaunt’s promotion to replace the bumptious pipsqueak at Defence gifted Stewart his reward for remorselessly Tiggerish loyalty to the PM with the cabinet portfolio for International Development.
Stewart must be overjoyed to be paroled from overseeing a prison system in more monstrous shape than when he took it on with a solemn oath.
Without going the full Gav by swearing on his children’s lives, the emaciated-looking ex-soldier promised to resign if he couldn’t salvage the worst penal institutions from the sub-developing world horrors into which chronically criminal underfunding has allowed them to sink.
The figures establish that he failed beyond his wildest nightmares. Under his aegis, suicides rose by a fifth, and inmates self-harming by a quarter. Deaths in custody for the year to March, meanwhile, increased by 18 to 317.
Individual cases are viscerally tragic, as Stalin understood, where the statistics seem banal. Google “prison death inquest”, and the catalogue of disgrace should redden you with rage and shame.
A farmer who treated cattle with the same level of neglect that killed Anthony Robinson in Lancashire’s HMP Garth might well end up inside.
An inquest in April heard that Robinson – “Fat Bob” to his wingmates when he went in; “Skinny Bob” by the time he was carried out – was so desperate for hospital care after bleeding internally for months that he threatened suicide.
In the event, that wasn’t required. He bled out in the cell in which, a cleaner told the hearing, he was covered in blood and vomit, and in such agony that he permanently crouched like a Muslim facing Mecca. His prayers went unanswered, even though surviving inmates told the court that he was visibly dying.
The internal NHS staff, who claimed to think him an opiate-hungry malingerer, never bothered to discover what anyone with a smattering of medical knowledge would have pinpointed in five seconds as the likely diagnosis. He had nothing more lethal than a stomach ulcer. All he needed was an endoscopy, followed by a course of antibiotics and an acid-suppressing proton pump inhibitor.
This case, of what the inquest described as “catastrophic neglect”, is not isolated to one infamously gruesome prison. In May 2016, to pluck one example from the roster, an inquest gave a similar judgment about the similarly avoidable death of Shalane Blackwood in HMP Nottingham, where the abysmal level of staffing led to him being observed by medics through the cell door hatch.
After coughing up blood – a symptom that warrants a blue-light ambulance ride – for a fortnight, he was finally hospitalised. He was found dead in his bed the next morning. His duodenal ulcer had burst in the night.
Rory Stewart is barely more directly to blame for the death of Robinson under his watch than Blackwood’s before he was became the relevant minister. The systemic disregard for the most basic human rights predates him, and Chris Grayling’s typically effective stint as justice minister.
It goes back even further than the Conservative-led coalition, though Tory governments of the last nine years have exacerbated the crisis with more dramatic underfunding and the outsourcing of management to private firms. The level of prisoner care now amounts to torture as anecdotal evidence confirms, along with inquest verdicts and the figures.
An acquaintance who did three-and-a-half-years in Belmarsh told me that cancer patients on his wing weren’t getting their chemo on time, if at all. A friend who visits a women’s prison speaks of conditions that might have been computer designed to cause mental illness even in those without it when it when they went in.
But however blithely unconcerned recent administrations have been about inhumanity that makes Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption look a utopian facility on the outskirts of Oslo, the fault ultimately lies with us.
Politicians are indifferent because the media is indifferent, and the media is indifferent because the public is indifferent. There is no clickbait or electoral advantage in challenging the status quo in a brutalised country that appears to have concluded that imprisonment removes not just liberty, but supposedly inviolable human rights.
Grayling’s declaration of the intent to ban books for prisoners attracted infinitely more publicity than any of deaths, because it was so pantomime cretinous. It should have been taken as a serious warning – a milder version of George Smiley’s observation, about late 1930s Bavaria, that when books are burned, people will also be burned.
People are living and dying, at their own hands and those of a system that belongs in the Hague, in conditions that constitute the most appalling scandal of this age.
Now he’s out, you would no more expect to hear another word on the matter from Stewart than you’d anticipate his failure to keep his promise damaging any leadership prospects.
He seems a relatively civilised guy, and no doubt had only good intentions. But the general tragedy among so many specific ones is that, however paved with those it may be, this road to hell stretches towards infinity. If we don’t give a damn about Anthony Robinson dying untended in his cell, crouched in excruciation until his last breath, this livid national stain will never begin to fade.
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