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Filth, overcrowding, five suicides in one year at Wormwood Scrubs. No prisons crisis?

A toxic mix of drastic cuts and fewer staff, rising prison numbers and harsher and less purposeful regimes are putting the clock back on prison reform.

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

If the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling still needs convincing of the growing crisis in our prison system, he should read the latest damning report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons from cover to cover. In just two years, Wormwood Scrubs, London’s most famous Victorian jail, has gone from being an establishment described by inspectors as getting the basics right, to one where standards have deteriorated, remaining staff are overstretched and prisoners feel unsafe. There were five deaths by suicide at the prison in 2013 alone, and inspectors found that repeated recommendations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman concerning suicide and self-harm had yet to be implemented.

Drastic cuts combined with rushed policy decisions are creating a race to the bottom in prison conditions. But despite the repeated warnings from prisons governors and officials and the evidence of prisons inspectorate reports including three consecutive, highly critical, reports on young offender institutions (YOIs) which were published last month, the Justice Secretary has denied that there is a crisis. “There are pressures which we’re facing but there's not a crisis,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in August. He sought to blame an “unexpected” rise in overcrowding on the number of convictions for historical sex offences.

The truth is that the blame for the majority of the problems the prison service is currently experiencing can be laid firmly at the door of the Ministry of Justice. The rushed closure of 15 prisons, the transfer of a further two to the private sector and a 28 per cent reduction in the number of prison officers employed in publicly run prisons since March 2010 have created a system stretched to the limit. More than 40 per cent of prisoners are now held in institutions of 1,000 places or more and nearly two thirds of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded by the prison service’s own definition.

Respected for its disciplined approach and capacity to cope, the prison service is nonetheless taking a battering. Subject to a punishing benchmarking review and swingeing budget cuts, it faces a further drive to drag costs down to the £15,500 per place claimed by controversial private sector establishment HMP Oakwood which holds 1,600 men and his been subject to severe criticism from prison inspectors, independent monitors, prisoners and their families since it opened its gates in April 2012.

The results of cost cutting for staff recruitment and retention are alluded to by the Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick in his report on Wormwood Scrubs. He highlights the impact of “major structural changes in late 2013” which led to “a significant reduction of resources. We were told that one consequence of this was that a large tranche of experienced staff had left very quickly and that this had been destabilising, not least because the prison had found it difficult to recruit replacements.”

This pattern is not isolated but has been repeated across the prison estate. As recruitment problems have escalated, fuelled by adverse changes to terms and conditions and starting salaries, governors have resorted to bussing in staff from other establishments to fill essential gaps in the service. The consequence of the unfolding recruitment crunch is that governors no longer have enough experienced staff available to run safe, decent and purposeful regimes.

While rates of violence and self-harm have escalated in the adult male estate, the quantity and quality of purposeful activity has plummeted. The prisons inspectorate has reported the worst outcomes for purposeful activity in six years with over half of prisons results judged to be not sufficiently good or poor. Inspectors found that more than 40 per cent of prisoners at HMP Wormwood Scrubs were locked up during the working day with nothing to do.

At the same time as coping with the consequences of ill-thought through budget cuts, the prison service is having to deal with the tension and confusion caused by punitive new prison conditions. Mean and petty rules, including bans on parcels and books, introduced as part of the government’s review of the 'incentives and earned privileges' scheme, along with restrictions on the use of 'release on temporary licence' and the open estate, are adding to the stress and strain of imprisonment for prisoners and their families and the pressures on prison staff.

Since the 1991 Woolf report, which provided a benchmark for a decent and humane prison system, and up to a couple of years ago, the prison service had made painstaking progress to improve treatment and conditions. In just two years, a toxic mix of drastic cuts and fewer staff, rising prison numbers and harsher and less purposeful regimes, have combined to put the clock back on prison reform. Before it is too late, the Justice Secretary must act to reverse the damage his policies are causing and put prison back where it belongs — as an important place of last resort in a balanced justice system.


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