INSIDE STORY

Another report, another series of warnings that will probably go unheeded because we’re dealing with society’s least desirable citizens – well, after those who spend their days lounging around Westminster; yes, we’re talking Her Majesty’s Prisons yet again. This time, the review into the average conditions of Britain’s penal institutions has been conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, producing findings that would appear (in several cases) to contradict the rules of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. 200 years on from Elizabeth Fry’s landmark visit to Newgate Gaol, it seems prison conditions remain abysmal, relative to the conditions in which the rest of us live.

Out of those currently incarcerated (numbering 85,000), upwards of 21,000 have complained of living in an overcrowded environment; conditions in cells also comprise poor ventilation, a lack of heating in the winter months, damp and vermin. When you’re banged-up in a small enclosed space for 22 hours a day, the indignities of having to take a dump a few feet away from a cellmate is neither enjoyable for the person on the throne or the person hearing and smelling the process. The picture painted by this latest report isn’t exactly the holiday camp model regularly referenced in the likes of the Daily Mail.

According to the report, single cells just about meet the specifications outlined by the CPT, whereas multi-occupancy ones fail dismally. HMP Birmingham has even managed to squeeze as many as four to six inmates in cells that were probably designed to fit three at the very most. As the prison population continues to rise year-on-year, the prisons simply cannot cope. A severe shortage of prison staff isn’t helping either, meaning inmates are spending less of the recommended time out of their cells because there aren’t enough screws to keep an eye on them. To while the long hours away, many prisoners naturally turn to drugs whilst others turn to the Koran – radicalised in time for release.

The Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson, reacted to the revelations in the report by calling them ‘shameful’, whereas the President of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, said ‘The Government must be brave and reduce the prison population, and don’t worry about votes.’ Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, added ‘The aspirations of the prison reform programme will not be met if prisoners are confined in conditions that embitter and demoralise, leaving them unable to access rehabilitative activities and, all too often, turning to illicit drugs to break the boredom born of long periods locked in their cells’.

Punishment is pivotal, of course; I would’ve thought being there amounted to pretty severe punishment in itself; I certainly can’t imagine anything worse, but then I haven’t committed a crime serious enough to warrant being detained at Brenda’s pleasure – or at least not one that’s recognised as such, yet. An astronomical increase in the list of offences since the Blair era, the upsurge in terrorist activities, and the habit of the CPS in pursuing allegations stretching back decades have all undoubtedly contributed to the dire state of affairs. At the moment, the prison population is barely a thousand below what is regarded as the ‘useable operational capacity’.

But then there’s rehabilitation; quite important if we are to prevent reoffending and a return to the same cramped cell in the same overcrowded nick. The successful rehabilitation of criminals whose previously closed minds were expanded in the prison library wasn’t helped by the intervention of that dumbbell Chris Grayling when prisons were part of his remit, but education either of an academic or a practical nature is surely a crucial stage in the transformation of the con into a member of society with a purpose. ‘Purposeful activity’ is supposed to constitute at least 10 hours of out-of-cell time a day, though just 14% of inmates in the report claim to have received this, with 21% of them alleging their daily break from the cell amounts to little more than a couple of hours.

The Ministry of Justice has responded to the findings by declaring the Government is indulging in its favourite hobby of tossing money at a problem in the hope it will go away. ‘We are investing £1.3bn to modernise the prison estate,’ said a spokesman. ‘Our work in this area is supported by a drive to recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers, who will boost the frontline and help turn our prisons into places of reform’. Exacerbating the situation, however, today was also the day when the DPP Alison Saunders proudly trumpeted the fact that sex offence prosecutions are at a record high, with more sex offenders being prosecuted ‘than ever before’!

As well as half of the cases coming before courts in 2017 being sex crimes, they now also account for a fifth of the annual CPS caseload, and one wonders how many of them result in a sound conviction, let alone how many should have even ended up before a jury in the first place; according to Saunders, however, ‘Just because they’re cleared doesn’t mean it’s made up’. It’s also telling that cases of domestic abuse making it to court have dropped since the last stats were published, suggesting the majority of the success stories Ms Saunders is so eager to take credit for are either in the ‘stranger danger’ category or are ‘historical’; and the CPS loves to time travel. Perhaps the least surprising revelation is that there hasn’t been a single prosecution for Female Genital Mutilation during the past year, regardless of NHS England claiming 5,000 new cases over the last twelve months. Ah, those funny foreigners and their funny ways.

© The Editor

4 thoughts on “INSIDE STORY

  1. If we accept that the primary role of detention is the deprivation of liberty as a form of punishment, then it should be the duty of the management (government etc.) to ensure that this primary gaol goal is achieved with at least basic safety and humanity – reports suggest that even this objective is not being achieved.

    Because it is the same agency, i.e. national government, that makes the laws, enforces the laws, operates the judicial system and applies the penalties, then it’s a classic case where ‘joined-up’ government should be operating – it’s an end-to-end system under one control, so it indefensible to get it so wrong. Trouble is, it’s in different budget-boxes, so joining-up will never work, as each fights its own case for and with its own funding.

    I would propose a radical change. More than 90% of crime is entirely local, it is committed in the same locality where the perpetrators (and victims) live, so it could be argued that all the costs of their punishment should also be borne by that same area, the area and society in which they acquired their criminality.
    That would mean local authorities operating local prisons, paid from citizens’ Council Tax, because it is the same local citizens who are responsible for the problems of local crime. That way, areas with lower crime would save money, thus enjoy better local services, areas with high crime would see services cut as a result – it then becomes in every citizen’s direct interests to help reduce local crime, ideally by applying social and family pressure, because they will directly benefit in their own pockets and services.
    There would then only need to be a few ‘national’ prisons for offenders operating on a non-local scale, most of which would not be the run-of-the-mill petty criminals and drug-offenders, so the volume problem would have been distributed. Sorted.

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    1. Hmm… One unintended consequence of that could be that more local people end up imprisoned for failing to pay their Council Tax. Which add more pressure on the system.

      I’m sure many would argue that they should not have to be responsible for the actions of others, financially or by applying social pressure.

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      1. There would be all sorts of unintended consequences, but my starting point is to put the cost of the solution closer to the source of the problem. As long as ‘punishment’ is funded from a remote national budget, there is no local incentive to address the root-causes because there is no benefit.

        Clearly, the current national Prison Budget would be shared out amongst local authorities on a per-capita basis – how they choose to use that funding and whether to top it up from extra Council Tax or refund any under-spend to tax-payers would be a decision for which they would be answerable at the council elections. Surely a better accountability than the current national ‘black-hole’ approach.

        The current system is failing, costing £40,000+ a year per inmate, and there seems no prospect of changing that, whichever party is in power. Only fresh thinking has a chance to make a difference – my way is certainly fresh and it would make a difference – whether that’s a beneficial difference could only be proved by implementation. But what’s to lose? Could it be any worse?

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