Rory Geoghegan

Prison is failing. Here’s how to fix it

As much as the country is divided by Brexit, there’s arguably an even more stark division. It’s the one between those directly and repeatedly affected by crime, and those who aren’t.

Prison officers – more so than police, prosecutors, barristers, or probation officers – face the worst of state failure when it comes to crime. They go to work and spend their shifts outnumbered by prisoners, and only marginally less constrained in their movements than their charges.

They see colleagues – and prisoners – routinely and violently assaulted. Recent cases involve a prison officer having their throat slit. It’s the sort of event that, occurring in any other workplace, would be massive news.

But prisons, prison officers, and prisoners are out of sight and out of mind for many. That suits those in the Westminster and Whitehall bubble who are accepting – whether knowingly or not – of the true horror of the status quo.

The reality from recent prison inspection reports is of prisoners locked up for too much of the day in their cells, or, conversely prison officers, poorly resourced and unsupported in the work they do, locking themselves away.

This represents a huge and costly waste of what prison can be: an opportunity to tackle root causes, change behaviour, and cut crime. It’s an opportunity that other countries, including Norway, recognise and realise. They focus on safe and stable regimes that lead away from crime and poverty, and into work. By contrast, we are wasting money and missing a valuable opportunity to cut crime.

And, when things boil over in our drug and violence-filled prisons – as they did most notably at HMP Birmingham – the consequences are severe. It sends ripples – along with injuries and fear – through the workforce and well-behaved inmates alike.

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