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Rising suicides and assaults, more punitive regimes, less rehabilitation. No prisons crisis?

The UK government must act swiftly to reverse a steep and dangerous decline.

Main gate to the HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in spring 2013 (image: Chmee2)

One young prisoner told the Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service that “he is hearing voices and they are scaring him. He says he phones his mum sometimes when the voices are scaring him, but can’t always get to phone when she’s around.”

Prisons in England and Wales are less safe and less decent than they were even a year ago when we published our Autumn 2013 compendium of facts and figures.

A prison system built to hold young men is struggling to cope with the rapidly growing numbers of old, sick and disabled people behind bars, a new Prison Reform Trust report reveals.

Strip away the political rhetoric, public relations gloss, and popular media misrepresentation. Discount the vested interest of those who profit from growing a market in incarceration. And you are left with a public prison service cut by £263 million in  three years, struggling to cope with the loss of more than 12,500 (28 per cent) of its staff since 2010 and an ever-rising prison population. (On 24 October 2014, the prison population in England and Wales was 84,569. In 1994 the average prison population was 48,621).

Warning signs reveal a prison system under unprecedented strain. There has been a sharp drop in individual prison performance and a marked increase in staff sickness levels. Detailed reports by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons chart a decline in standards and much reduced opportunities for rehabilitation and resettlement. Serious assaults, prisoner on prisoner and prisoner on officer, have risen in adult male establishments along with concerted indiscipline. Saddest of all, for the first time in over five years, the number of deaths by suicide has risen drastically.

Every effort is being made to reverse what could so easily become a trend, rather than a spike, in numbers of self-inflicted deaths. People in prison are particularly vulnerable. Compared to the general population where 6 per have attempted suicide, 21 per cent of men and 46 per cent of women in prison have tried to kill themselves at some point in their lives. No one wants to see the painstaking gains made by safer custody staff and prisoners working as Samaritan listeners, improved support, training, first night arrangements, better assessment and management of risk, all swept away by reduced staffing levels, harsher regimes and increased uncertainty and hopelessness.

There has been a steep rise in natural deaths in custody too. Ever-lengthening sentences, improved disclosure of historic sex offences and the thousands of people serving indeterminate terms, left with no way to progress their sentence, together with a welcome reduction in youth crime and imprisonment, have all contributed to changing the prison population demographic from young to old. But sensible planning for a rapidly ageing prison population is proving challenging for a prison service driven into crisis management by slashed budgets, staff losses and a rising tide of violence and suicide.

The scale and driving pace of change in the justice system mean that mistakes are inevitably being made at every level. Prison population figures are being hastily recalculated upwards to reflect numbers of older people serving longer sentences and the rise in custodial remand as well as the unquantifiable impact of a Justice Secretary determined to promote ‘proper punishment’ and increased use of imprisonment.

A rushed benchmarking process, followed hard on the heels of the massive work and pay restructuring exercise curiously entitled ‘fair and sustainable’. Outcomes are as yet untested because so many prisons are operating well below new minimal staffing levels due to a combination of unfilled vacancies and long term absence on sick leave. Too many establishments, particularly in London and the South East are reliant on a small army of reservists, former staff recruited from the North of England who will not know their prisoners in the jails into which they are parachuted, and the remaining exhausted governors and staff, who are working excessive hours. From the outside it looks as if the prison service is taking a pounding in return for its disciplined approach and capacity to cope with adversity.

From the inside, people in prison are enduring worsening conditions, less time out of cell, reduced contact with staff, new mean and petty restrictions and unjustified curbs on release on temporary license. Overcrowding means that people awaiting trial are mixed in with sentenced prisoners regardless of their innocent until proven guilty status and young people are held with adults notwithstanding their developmental stage.

An incoming government in May 2015 must not accept this deterioration in prison standards and conditions as the new normal. It should rebuild confidence in a vital public service and acknowledge painstaking gains made by staff and the responsible prisoners who manage to effect reform from within. It must turn its attention to the new face of imprisonment and the changing needs of a rapidly ageing prison population. It must re-establish the defining principle that people are sent to prison as a punishment rather than for punishment. And from the wreckage it must create a just, fair and effective penal system.


‘Bromley Briefings’ are produced in memory of Keith Bromley, a valued friend of the Prison Reform Trust and allied groups concerned with prisons and human rights. His support for refugees from oppression, victims of torture and the falsely imprisoned made a difference to many people’s lives. 

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