Disgrace over prisons not fit for habitation – 23 Feb 2016 

Last week we heard from the Prime Minister about his hopes and dreams of prison reform for England and Wales, how he wanted to see “a modern, more effective, truly 21st century prison system”. He spoke of his optimism for rehabilitating prisoners into “potential assets” and his vision of reforming prisons so that they “empower staff, charities and businesses to innovate and try new things”. 

Similarly at the weekend, Michael Gove and Chris Grayling, the current Justice Secretary and his predecessor, penned a joint article sharing their united vision of transforming the prison and probation service so that our prisoners “are kept safe and secure in decent surroundings, free from violence, disorder and drugs”. 

No one would disagree with the ambitions behind this lofty rhetoric, unfortunately it is the same rehabilitation revolution the Tories have been promising since they came to power and, sooner or later, reality kicks in. 

Since 2010 nearly ten thousand operational staff in prisons have been cut. Successful prisons were closed and thousands of prisoners were forced into overcrowded cells as a consequence. Violence has soared with serious assaults on staff doubling since 2012. And the Government has been warned time and time again by the experts that things are getting worse. 

Earlier this week the Prisons Ombudsman said that staff were failing “to recognise or act” when prisoners demonstrated obvious factors, such as mental ill-health or a lack of experience of prison, that indicate that they are at heightened risk of suicide. He said that too often these led to “potentially fatal consequences” for the prisoners in question. This is the third time that the Ombudsman has made a warning like this in the last three years. 

Then we saw a report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Prisons on Leicester Prison which found conditions in one unit were so poor that it recommended closing it immediately as it was “not fit for human habitation”. The prison is over capacity by 50%, conditions have worsened since the last inspection in 2013 and the use of drink and drugs is rampant throughout the prison. Most disturbingly the staff often were unable to “account for prisoners” with it often found that “prisoners where they were not supposed to be”. 

On the same day, we heard reports of prison officers refusing to unlock 300 inmates in protest over recent attacks on staff at Wetherby Young Offenders Institute. They say that there is inadequate risk assessment and safe systems of work in place to prevent these sorts of assaults happening. Considering how just last week Cameron praised prison staff as being “some of the most deeply committed public servants in our country”, you would think the Ministry of Justice would make their welfare and safety more of a priority. 

The public and victims of crime need to have confidence that justice is being done, that offenders are being punished appropriately and rehabilitated, and that communities are being protected. Making prisons work is not only the right thing to do; it will save us money and make us all safer. 

Yet again this week we’ve heard deeply worrying news concerning UK prisons. But we really need to hear more from the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary than the same old tired rhetoric they’ve been spouting for years. We need to see concrete steps taken to address the scale of the crisis. The Conservatives need to realise that it is impossible to deliver the rehabilitation revolution they have repeatedly promised in prisons where some aren’t even fit for human habitation. 

This story was originally written for Red Box at The Times and can be read here: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/redbox/topic/tory-policies/disgrace-over-prisons-not-fit-for-habitation  

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