Last month, prison officers went on strike in an attempt to draw attention to the deteriorating conditions of England’s prisons. It was, by and large, a failure. But recent the 12-hour riot in HMP Birmingham has provided a more vivid example of the crisis that is to come.
Yesterday’s disturbance has been described by the Prison Officers’ Association as the worst since the Strangeways jail riot 26 years ago. But it has hardly come out of the blue. In the past year there have been 625 serious assaults by prisoners on prison staff — up 30 per cent on the previous year — plus six homicides and 2,197 serious assaults against fellow inmates.
When schools, hospitals and trains deteriorate, we notice because we can see what is happening. All we tend to hear about prisons are dry statistics. Dry, but still shocking. Since 1993 the prison population has almost doubled to 85,000. Given how much crime is committed by a handful of prolific criminals, there is a strong argument for using prison to protect us from the worst offenders. But that should not blind us to the conditions behind prison walls. While the number of inmates has risen, the number of prison officers has plummeted — down by a quarter in the past six years. Violent incidents have more than doubled over the same period.
You don’t have to be a liberal extremist opposed to incarceration to see how wrong this is. If safety is so badly compromised, if about half of adult prisoners are re–convicted within a year of release, then prisons are not working. And it is the poorest members of society who have to put up with recidivist thugs and drug-dealers prowling their neighbourhoods. Those with high fences, burglar alarms and CCTV need not worry as much
This is a crisis which demands a debate.