Prisons crisis shows how austerity has ripped the soul out of Britain

Sara Hyde


Let’s be frank, the Queen’s Speech was legislation-lite. Designed not to startle the horses, Cameron sets himself as the great social reformer – rather than admit the fact large parts of the country are on its knees because of his Government’s relentless ideological obsession with austerity.

Along with food bank queues, a housing crisis, mental health services unable to meet increasing demands comes prisons – on their knees and another manifestation of a country with its soul ripped out to “balance the books”. The marked deterioration in the already-less-than-ideal prison conditions is being covered with the fig leaf of “reform”, all espoused by a prime minister who has seemingly had a Damascene conversion on the issue this year. He laments the horrific, Dickensian state of our prisons like it is nothing to do with him.

In a less dangerous landscape, Michael Gove’s prison reforms could be an interesting start. As we are now – with fewer staff, rising violence, rampant problems of legal highs and overcrowding – they are re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s a classic neoliberal tale of state neglect of a public institution, looking puzzled when all hell breaks loose, then absolving oneself of responsibility by devolving authority to an individual (in this case a governor) to run it in a marketised way – and then blame them in a year’s time when they haven’t fixed the broken system that’s crumbled over years.

We need systemic change.

The crisis in our prisons has been highlighted in the last few weeks, the Ministry of Justice released its Safety in Custody statistics that stated:

  • In 2010 59 people took their own lives in prison. In 2015 it was 100.
  • In 2010 no-one died in a homicide in prison. In 2015, six people were murdered in our prisons.
  • In 2010 there were 14,335 assault incidents. In 2015, there were 20,518.

Then staff at HMP Wormwood Scrubs recently staged a walk out,  Andy Slaughter asked an urgent parliamentary question because of an incident of extreme violence there against two staff members. This hot on the heels of an awful inspection report of the prison in mid-April. The report drew attention to the fact that:

  • Almost two out of five prisoners told the inspectorate it was easy to get drugs in the prison and one in five that it was easy to get alcohol
  • Many prisoners spent almost all day, and ate their meals, doubled up in a dirty, damaged cell with an unscreened toilet. Some prisoners had improvised a toilet screen with a torn sheet and stuffed paper in broken windows to keep out the weather
  • Staff shortages meant that most prisoners did not have an offender supervisor and there was a large backlog of risk assessments
  • Since the new community rehabilitation company had taken over resettlement services, the proportion of prisoners who had accommodation on release had fallen from 95 per cent to 60 per cent.

These conditions are a breeding ground for violence and clearly stymie any chance of re-habilitation. They are not the inevitable result of ‘locking up criminals’ – staff shortages, not being engaged in purposeful activity, inability to risk assess or provide good mental health services means running prisons on a terrifying knife edge. Ideas of education, rehabilitation or space for reflection and change are exceedingly hard to come by when you don’t leave your cell. No amount of iPads are going to fix the profound need for human contact.

The same thing that’s needed inside prison to aid rehabilitation journeys is what is needed outside – the current administration provides neither. But if you look around the world there are examples that our shadow teams can learn from, or from pockets of good practice here. Even Texas now takes a different approach to incarceration, realising that traditional models of imprisonment cost too much and are ineffective. The closure of HMP Holloway this summer creates an immediate opportunity to do something bold, evidence-based, less expensive, that essentially reduces crime meaning less victims of crime. We could make our country a safer place to live rather than just holding people in cages. People in cages committing more crime, more violence, more damage to themselves, to others and to society at large: there’s nothing that smacks of the common good in our current model.

Labour should have a clear offer on diverting people from custody; a colleague told me last week that the current average stay in HMP Bronzefield is two weeks – that serves nobody and creates more chaos. More than 70 per cent of people in prison have two or more identified mental health diagnoses – so liaison and diversion from custody is crucial, as highlighted by Luciana Berger and Jo Stevens earlier this week. So-called problem-solving courts for family drug and alcohol issues, for domestic violence and housing should be championed as a more efficient and effective way to deal with low level crime and provide people with a supported route out of prison, rather than criminalising them. Incidentally, they also provide huge costs savings.

Gove is right when he says people in prison are an under utilised resource – but there is so much before prison, during incarceration and after release that needs to change to release and enable the potential of those in our prisons. We’ve seen recently in London what a Labour party offering a politics of hope over fear can achieve: this is the kind of bold strategy we need to adopt here. A society and prison system where people can achieve what they set their minds to, unhindered by parental or educational background, rather than the accidental geography of your birth meaning you are set off on a dinghy, paddling furiously to escape an often inevitable torrent of traumatic life experiences.

We can tackle the crisis in our prisons – not with Gove’s tinkering, but with a bold reform agenda based on best practice, understanding a prison stay in its wider societal context and by offering hope.

As the Opposition we need to keep making a noise about this: new legislation and a recruitment drive for skilled prison officers could curb these problems. The stakes are too high. People are needlessly being assaulted and dying, the cycle of crime is perpetuated. We have to hold the Government to account and set a distinctly Labour trajectory for a more just justice system. These are our prisons and our people in them. Without robust action, we risk having the blood on our hands of those murdered in our prisons.

Sara Hyde is vice-chair of the Fabian Women’s Network

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