This past few weeks my X (formerly Twitter) feed has been full of bad news about the state of Britain's prisons. This started with Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, and moved to The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent newspapers. The narrative has clearly been in favour of improving prisons and highlighting just how dangerous they might be. This feels like a shift compared with the occasional newspaper report about a specific prison. Newspapers are now talking about the entire prison estate and the mess it's in, such as overcrowding, the poor living conditions and the levels of violence, self-harm and suicide.
Given the above exposure, any intelligent Government would be putting together a 'rescue' or 'crisis' plan right? Not this one. The Government is more concerned with creating more prison places akin to building warehouses, largely run by private companies with shareholders. They've increased sentence lengths and the the amount of time that a prisoner should serve inside before being released on licence. We are criminalising for more trivial offences (e.g. protests, non-payment of TV licence), and probation officers have been recalling more people to prison. The Government has failed to acknowledge the poor state of our prisons.
I've always regarded people in prison as the 'forgotten people' because they're often, out of sight, out of mind. I strongly believe now that we are sleepwalking into riot scenarios. When a prisoner has nothing to lose, then the risks become worth taking, and it is seemingly the only way to get a Government to listen and change, as attested by the Strangeways riot in the 1990s. The riot becomes the agent of change because prisoners become visible to the public, and politicians are forced to disclose how neglected the system is. It is shameful if it takes riots to amplify the injustices of the prison system and become the only agent of change, but quite frankly, what else is going to work?
At the moment, prisons are all about control and order. There are small pockets of rehabilitation that is often delivered by a range of excellent charities or voluntary organisations, underpinned by a Governor that might be forward thinking, but this is set against difficult or impossible conditions. Governors are having to re-prioritise and operational issues will trump rehabilitation initiatives.
Of course, we all know what is needed. A root and branch reform of the prison estate with a clear purpose and objectives, underpinned by a sensible, evidence-led strategy that balances risk and order with potential. The more prison places we create, the more victims we create. We are storing up problems for the future.
Will I be reinforcing this again next year and in 5 years? Probably.