Prison overcrowding – squalid and dangerous

The current prison population of England and Wales now stands at 85,661 and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has ordered governors at 40 prisons, many of which are already officially overcrowded, to take in more prisoners. Wandsworth and Pentonville, for example are already 169% and 143% respectively over capacity, yet have been ordered to find space for more men. Eric Allison reports.

A recent letter to Inside Time summed up the shameful situation concisely. John Palmer, a prisoner at Channings Wood, described his living conditions. The cell he shares with another prisoner is nine feet eight inches long and six feet seven inches wide. There is a toilet and a washbasin in the cell and a double bunk bed. He and his cellmate share one table and one chair.

Apart from the indignity of eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating in the same small space as a stranger for up to 23 hours a day, there is a serious risk factor in cell- sharing. As all prisoners will know, there is a good chance you will be sharing a cell with someone with serious mental health problems. Since Thatcher and her Tory cronies sold off most of the mental health hospitals in the 1980s, prisons have become a dumping ground for those suffering mental illness. This is reflected in the increase in prison homicides and soaring rates of self-harm.

In March 2000. at Feltham Young Offenders Institute 19-year-old Zahid Mubarek was killed by his cellmate, who had a severe personality disorder. For six years the Home Office refused calls for an inquiry into the killing, but in 2006, the House of Lords ruled an inquiry should take place. It was headed by Mr Justice Keith and was damning in its condemnation of the regime at Feltham. It found 186 failings in the system and made 88 recommendations to reduce the risk of ‘something like this ever happening again’.

But it has happened, time and time again. Of the 18 prison homicides since Zahid’s death in which there is no doubt about the perpetrator, over half were committed in shared cells, by people suffering severe mental health problems, who should not have been confined with anyone. People who should have been in hospital, receiving treatment, not punished in prisons.

So what’s to be done? Last month, Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, published a report reviewing the implementation of the recommendations made by the Keith Inquiry. Hardwick notes: ‘The Inquiry felt the most obvious way to reduce in-cell attacks was to eliminate enforced cell-sharing’. The Inquiry recognised that this would be difficult. But Hardwick states: ‘It is recommended that eliminating enforced cell-sharing should be an objective for the prison service.’

We know full well they are not going to follow that recommendation; perhaps prisoners should force them to change their view? Mass protests would, at least, create a debate on this inhumane and highly dangerous prison practice. Old as I am, I was not around when the ‘silence rule’ was in force in British prisons, but I have it on good authority that the rule was scrapped when hundreds of prisoners just started talking. If prisoners en masse refused to share cells on grounds of personal safety what could the authorities do?

Progressive change in the prison system never comes from the top, but protests in which a significant number of brave prisoners take a stand does bring reform; ‘slopping out’ was abolished after the 1990 uprising at Strangeways and other prisons.

The system can and does inflict great pain on individual prisoners who protest, but it cannot repel the resistance of hundreds and thousands. In the words of Shelley from The Masque of Anarchy:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

– Ye are many – they are few

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014


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