In the past few years, a series of increasingly alarming government statistics, inspectorate reports and news stories have pointed to a prison service under growing strain. In 2016, standards of safety and decency fell to a new low with record numbers of deaths, self-harm and assaults. Inspectors consistently find too many prisoners spending pointless jail time locked in their cells instead of engaging in purposeful activity. Surveys of prisoners highlight worrying levels of boredom and frustration and a lack of engagement from prison staff. A number of recent high- profile disturbances have raised questions about the systems and resources in place to maintain safe and secure regimes.
A letter sent by a prisoner to the Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service highlights the impact of deteriorating treatment and conditions: ‘I feel that I must bring your attention to the appalling, and worsening, conditions and regime operating in [this prison]. On a Friday, Saturday and Sunday prisoners are on average only getting 45 minutes a day out of cell. On a Sunday this includes having to queue for kit change and medication. Showers, cell cleaning, admin and phone calls also have to be done in that time... Exercise is almost never available and there is no interest or will from senior or wing management to facilitate any... People just mill around growing increasingly frustrated as they try to get staff to help them with admin or any issues.’
Three years of austerity have brutally exposed the vulnerability of a system stretched far beyond its safe and decent limit. Over that period, the proportion of prisons rated ‘of concern’ or ‘of serious concern’ by the prison service has doubled and the number now stands at 31 establishments. The number of prisons rated ‘exceptional’ has plummeted from 43 in 2011/12 to only eight in 2015/16. The Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke has pointed to a ‘toxic mix’ of factors including shrinking prison budgets, declining staff numbers, a dilapidated prison estate, an increasingly vulnerable prison population, and the impact of a sudden influx of new psychoactive substances.
Behind recent trends lies the deeper malaise of a justice system in which we send far too many people to prison for too long. England and Wales continue to have the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe. At 85,000, our prison population is nearly twice what it was in 1993. Sentence lengths in the Crown Court have risen by a scarcely believable 30 per cent over 10 years.
As a result, overcrowding still cripples the system’s ability to provide a decent and constructive public service. Twenty thousand people still share cells designed for fewer occupants, often eating their meals in the same space as the toilet they share. Inspections regularly find a third or more of prisoners unoccupied during the working day because a prison holds more people than it should. Every day, prisoners are bussed around the country to extraordinarily remote locations just to make sure that every last bed space is filled. The system is wasteful and chaotic, undermining effective rehabilitation and resettlement and the precious ties of prisoners to their families and communities, which reduce the risk of reoffending on release.
This is a political not an operational failure, shared by all governments of the last two and a half decades. It is to the credit of the current Justice Secretary Liz Truss that she both acknowledges her personal accountability for making prisons safe and has found the money for an additional 2,500 prison officers to back that up. A new Prisons and Courts Bill, which had its second reading in March, has promised to put safety and rehabilitation at the heart of the statutory purposes of prison, as well as to strengthen the independence and oversight of the prisons inspectorate and ombudsman in monitoring treatment and conditions.
These are welcome developments that may help to arrest the dangerous recent decline in standards. But without a comprehensive strategy to control the numbers in prison, and so to end overcrowding, the government cannot hope to turn around a failing system that is constantly forced to play catch-up with ever-increasing demand. An uncrowded prison system is not only a necessity for maintaining safe and decent conditions in the long term, it is also vital for delivering the improved resettlement outcomes to which this and many previous governments have aspired.
Mark Day is head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust. www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk