Our jails crisis is even worse than we've been told

Our prisons crisis is far greater than HMP Birmingham

25 August 2018 9:00 AM

HMP Liverpool (Photo: Getty)

You need a strong stomach to be Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, as a letter from Peter Clarke — the current holder of the title — proved this week. HMP Birmingham was in an ‘appalling’ state during his unannounced visit at the start of August. ‘We saw evidence of bodily fluids left unattended, including blood and vomit… next to numerous rat droppings.’

His findings marked a dramatic new low for the prison estate. But they won’t surprise anyone who has recently worked in or visited a bog-standard English jail.

When I was appointed speechwriter to Michael Gove at the Ministry of Justice two years ago, I was given a whistle-stop tour of a few of them to get a better idea of my brief. Within weeks, I discovered that the only prisons which functioned properly belonged to Category A — the highest security level — where, absurdly, one notorious Islamist was to be found tending his sunflowers. Elsewhere, the picture was grim. At Pentonville, a Category B jail, an inmate berated me about a cockroach infestation. ‘What about our human rights?’ he asked, some might say not unreasonably.

At Wandsworth, one of the largest prisons in Europe, authorities took the brave decision to let a BBC crew in. Jaws dropped across Whitehall as their film aired on the six o’clock news: prisoners were openly smoking cannabis and trampolining on the netting between the landings. Clarke found prison officers to be ‘anxious and indeed fearful’ on their rounds. Can you blame them?

Clarke’s letter — to the Justice Secretary, David Gauke — reads not so much like a visit to a 21st-century jail as to 18th-century Bedlam. On the cell door of a troubled man who was ‘struggling to maintain personal hygiene’, a scrawled poster read: ‘Say No to BO.’ Fellow inmates had been sticking a fire hose into his cell and hosing him down, soaking him and his belongings. The cruelty stunned inspectors, as did the indifference of prison officers. The letter concluded that there was an urgent need to address the ‘squalor, violence, prevalence of drugs and looming lack of control’ at the jail. In other words: it predicts a riot.


Inevitably, there has been a great furore about the fact that HMP Birmingham is run by G4S, a British multinational with more than half a million employees. ‘The crisis,’ according to the shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, is ‘just the latest failed privatisation in the justice sector.’ Jeremy Corbyn promised: ‘Under Labour there’ll be no more privatised prisons. We’ll run them safely, efficiently, and accountable to the public.’

A fine ambition in many ways. The trouble is that plenty of publicly run prisons are in a dreadful state too; HMP Birmingham was before 2011 when it went private (a report a decade earlier said conditions were ‘far worse than in other failing prisons’). In fact, of the 15 prisons rated as causing the government ‘serious concern’ last month, only one is privately run.

When the annual prisons inspection report, published in mid-July, spoke of ‘conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century’, it was not only talking of the handful of prisons that are looked after by companies such as Sodexo, Serco and G4S. It was describing the entire estate. Likewise, the discovery that living conditions at the state-run HMP Liverpool were among ‘the worst we had seen’ less than a year ago cannot entirely be blamed on outsourcing. There inspectors found piles of rubbish so rat-infested that inmates employed as orderlies were not allowed to deal with it, because it was deemed hazardous to health.

More relevant is HMP Birmingham’s age: it was built in 1849. Up-to-date figures reveal that 12 of the country’s worst 15 jails were established during the 19th century. Again, this is no surprise. As Policy Exchange research found five years ago, ‘the key determinant of the decency, safety and effectiveness of a prison is not its size, but its age’. It argued for a plan to close more than 30 old prisons and replace them with a dozen new ones — large ‘hub prisons’ geared towards rehabilitation that would dramatically reduce the cost per prisoner. They would be far bigger than any currently planned by the government.

Gove wanted to close Pentonville and Brixton in 2015, but, alas, these damp Victorian dungeons survive. A telling detail from HMP Birmingham is that hundreds of windows in the prison are broken. This is how drugs get in: ‘Deliveroo-style… by drones direct to cell windows,’ as Gauke put it in a speech earlier this year. Inspectors noted that ‘it was likely that the misuse of synthetic cannabinoids was involved’ in the recent deaths of three prisoners at the jail.

Such levels of self-harm and violence are reflected across the estate. A jail sentence isn’t supposed to be like a stay at Claridge’s — but it’s not meant to be a death sentence. Last year, there were more than 44,000 incidents of self-harm, five ‘apparent murders’, and 69 suicides. Some of these statistics are an improvement on the year before. And consider the staff: the men and women who choose to work in such an environment. There were, in the same year, more than 8,000 assaults on prison workers.

It’s no wonder that staff retention in prisons has plummeted. One in 16 officers resigned last year, compared with one in 33 officers two years before and just one in 100 ten years ago. This has an increasingly dire effect. It takes years to learn ‘jail craft’, as one veteran of the Ministry of Justice puts it. ‘One officer who’s worked in prisons for two decades can have more impact than four new ones.’ That’s worth remembering when the government boasts of a net increase of 3,111 prison officers. Without the right sort of leadership and experience, it will count for nothing.

Only one good thing has come out of the past week — a pledge by the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, on ten jails targeted for special measures. ‘I will quit if I haven’t succeeded in 12 months in reducing the level of drugs and violence in those prisons,’ he said.

It’s a high-stakes gamble, because if the people on the ground aren’t up to the job, and the prisons themselves are crumbling, little will change. That is the implicit challenge laid down by the prisons inspectorate this week — for the government to create a safe, 21st-century system that reduces re-offending among the 99 per cent of prisoners who will one day be walking the streets. Squalor and violence will not turn them into law-abiding citizens.