The state of British prisons: overcrowded, violent and angry

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Birmingham prison, December 2016: prisoner protected then and again in August 2017

On 26 August prisoners at Haverigg in Cumbria staged an angry protest as the prison joined the increasingly long list of those introducing a ban on tobacco. A further upheaval occurred the following week at Birmingham prison. Such disturbances are now routine within a prison system that has always been punitive and austere, and which is once again at a tipping point as both numbers and violence continue to increase. The prison population has doubled since 1980. According to the National Audit Office, there is no consistent correlation between prison numbers and levels of crime. Nicki Jameson reports.

Overcrowded and dangerous

On 7 September the House of Lords debated prison overcrowding, highlighting how ‘The percentage of our population serving prison sentences is almost twice that in Germany, let alone Scandinavia, and very substantially higher than in most of the developed world’.

There are 116 prisons in England and Wales; as of 30 June 2017, they held 85,863 men and women, with 282 children detained in ‘secure training centres’ or secure children’s homes. In Scotland, which has a separate criminal justice system, 7,453 men, women and children were in custody at the same date, while a further 340 were serving the final part of their sentences at home subject to electronic tagging. Out of every 100,000 people, 182 in England and Wales and 170 in Scotland are in prison.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) measures overcrowding by counting the number of prisoners held in cells in which the number of occupants exceeds the ‘uncrowded capacity’. For example, two prisoners in a cell designed for one person, or three in a cell designed for two, are each said to be living in ‘crowded’ conditions. Using this measure, a quarter of prisoners in England and Wales are in ‘crowded conditions’, a figure which has remained stable since 2003 irrespective of changes in overall prison numbers.

Overcrowding is also assessed by comparing a prison’s ‘certified normal accommodation’ (CNA) to its actual population. As of 30 June 2017, the population of 75 out of 116 prisons (65%) exceeded their CNA.

In practice – as has been the case for over 30 years – overcrowding is concentrated within certain types of prison. High security prisons, in which all the cells are built for one and are never shared, are never full beyond capacity. At the other end of the spectrum, low security open prisons are not overcrowded. It is ‘local’ and so-called ‘training’ prisons, housing Category B and C prisoners on remand or serving short to medium length sentences, which remain overcrowded, insanitary and volatile. Other than the introduction of integral sanitation so prisoners no longer have to ‘slop out’, little has changed since the early 1990s when similar conditions, together with the vicious behaviour of prison staff, led prisoners at Strangeways and other inner-city gaols to stage the biggest wave of protests the British prison system has ever seen.

Overcrowded prisons are dangerous and deadly: in the year to March 2017, 344 people died in prison in England and Wales – the highest number on record. A third of these deaths were self-inflicted. Self harm is at the highest ever recorded level.

Although the Lords’ debate was dominated by well-meaning liberal peers who see a clear link between prison overcrowding and a broken society which sends too many people to prison, the government spokesperson Baroness Vere made it apparent that reducing numbers is far lower on the political agenda than creating yet more prison places. Her only boast in relation to reducing numbers was ‘our focus on deporting foreign national offenders. Last year we deported 6,171 – a record number.’

‘Reshaping the prison system’

In November 2016, against a backdrop of dramatic headlines about a prison system in crisis, the MOJ published the White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform. The White Paper, which set out the Conservative government’s plans for reshaping the prison system, was the brainchild of previous Justice Secretary Michael Gove. It promised: ‘the most far-reaching reform of our prisons in a generation and a key part of the government’s social reform programme – creating a society that works for everyone’ and to spend £1.3bn on building up to 10,000 new adult prison places.

The White Paper was followed in February 2017 by the Prisons and Courts Bill, which was then kicked into the parliamentary long grass after Theresa May called her snap general election. While reformers lamented that the government had ditched its ‘reform agenda’, and prisons such as Wandsworth, which had piloted the Bill’s devolved power arrangements for prison governors, became even more chaotic than before the experiment, the government announced that it was all fine as the plan to build more prisons would still go ahead. On 22 March Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss announced plans for four new prisons, providing places for 5,000 prisoners, with another 2,000 places having recently been created at newly opened HMP Berwyn in north Wales. She also confirmed further expansion at two other sites, Glen Parva and Wellingborough, which had been named in an earlier announcement in 2016.

Three of the planned new mega-prisons are next to or will replace existing prisons at Full Sutton, Hindley and Rochester, with the addition of a new site in Port Talbot in Wales. The new Full Sutton prison, which will house 1,000 Category C male prisoners on a site next to the existing high security prison, was granted planning permission in May. The MOJ’s planning application is being handled by property company GVA, which also advertises ‘Holloway prison coming to market – expressions of interest sought for this unique development opportunity’ on its website.

While overall all this new prison building will undoubtedly increase the already excessively high prison population, the government continues to be keen to close further old prisons and make money from the prime land they occupy.

Long sentences – Labour government legacy

As the Lords noted, ‘in England and Wales, more people are sentenced to an indeterminate term than in all the other 46 countries of the Council of Europe combined.’

Both the invidious Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) and the longer and longer minimum terms handed out to life sentence prisoners are a direct result of changes to the sentencing framework brought in by means of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which was brought in by David Blunkett, one of a succession of vicious Home Secretaries under the Blair government.

An IPP consists of a usually relatively short minimum custodial period, following which the prisoner can be released if they persuade a panel of the Parole Board that they have sufficiently ‘reduced their risk of harm’. Multiple obstacles prevent this happening and prisoners are routinely held for years beyond their minimum tariff. Despite the IPP having been abolished in 2012, all those already sentenced continue to be subject to the scheme, with around 3,300 prisoners yet to be released, many having served years beyond their minimum term, and those who have been still liable to be recalled to prison if they breach the terms of their licence.

Sustained campaigning by prisoners’ families and supporters, together with a general consensus around the injustice of the IPP sentence, has finally compelled the Parole Board to speed up consideration of these cases and release some of those who would otherwise have remained inside indefinitely. Following a hearing on 4 September, the Parole Board directed the release of James Ward, who received an IPP in 2006 with a minimum period of 10 months. James, who has self-harmed and attempted suicide during his 11-year ordeal, was given the indeterminate sentence after he set fire to his bed in prison, while already serving a sentence for assault.

Short sentences – Conservative government chaos

While such lengthy sentencing with no certainty of release is clearly the system’s most glaring injustice, the revolving door effect of repeated short sentences, recalls and re-release, only to recall again for the next supposed transgression, also takes its toll on the mental health of those concerned and plays its part in racheting up the numbers in the most overcrowded parts of the prison system.

The only bit of the previous sentencing framework under the 1991 Criminal Justice Act which the Labour government left alone was the part which dealt with sentences of less than 12 months. These were administered in a simple fashion in that, unless granted an earlier tagging date, prisoners were released at the halfway point. There was no ‘licence’ associated with release and consequently no possibility of being taken back into custody for minor misdemeanours that did not amount to a crime.

As the start of the Coalition government in 2010, then Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke favoured abolishing such short sentences altogether, but the government backed away from doing so, in the face of opposition both from its own right wing and from Labour Party spokespeople such as Hazel Blears and Sadiq Khan.

The current government has now created a further nightmare out of short prison sentences. Since February 2015, under the guise of the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ agenda, which has seen the privatisation of large swathes of probation work, anyone leaving custody in England and Wales, who has served two days or more in prison is subject to at least 12 months of ‘community supervision’. (Scotland has not implemented such measures and is moving towards less use of short sentences.)

As a result, the number of people recalled to custody following release, for breaching the terms of this supervision, has increased by nearly 1,000. Nearly 8,000 people serving less than 12 months were sent back to prison in the year to December 2016. At the end of March 2017, 6,554 people were in prison on recall.

Going up in smoke

Not content with presiding over an overcrowded, volatile prison system the government is setting about making levels of stress, bullying and racketeering reach new heights by banning smoking. The majority of Category C prisons are now officially ‘smoke free’ and the MOJ plans to have the ban in place in all closed prisons by summer 2018.

‘Smoke free’ does not of course mean that no one is smoking or that there is no tobacco, any more than a ‘drug free’ prison wing really means there are no drugs. But the possession of a highly addictive substance which is perfectly legal outside prison has now become an offence inside. So, while the black market tobacco price rockets and prisoners roll up nicotine patches issued by health care to smoke, levels of stress mount. According to press reports, prisoners at the recent Haverigg and Birmingham disturbances could be heard chanting ‘We want burn [tobacco]’. They will almost certainly not be the last prisoners to be pushed to the edge in this way.

Statistical information in this article was drawn from Prison: the facts Summer 2017, produced by the Prison Reform Trust www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Publications/Factfile


Criminal justice system – racist to the core

Over a quarter (26%) of the prison population of England and Wales, 22,432 people, are from a minority ethnic group, compared to 14% of the general population. 11% of British prisoners are black and 7% Asian.

On 8 September the government published the report of the review by Labour MP David Lammy into the ‘treatment of and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system’. Lammy found a clear, direct link between ethnicity and the likelihood of receiving a custodial sentence, with black people 53%, Asian 55% and other ethnic groups 81% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence.

The number of mixed ethnicity prisoners has nearly doubled since 2004 and there are nearly 80% more Asian prisoners – during the same period the number of white prisoners increased by 22%. Black men are 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody.

The number of Muslim prisoners more than doubled between 2002 and 2016, from 5,502 to 12,663. Muslims now account for 15% of the prison population.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 260 October/November 2017