The National Prison Catastrophe – Is The Worst Yet To Come?

A truly appalling inspection report on Liverpool prison coincides with repeated safety failures at Nottingham prison and the first use of the Chief Inspector’s new power to demand action from the secretary of state who appoints him. But the story struggles for attention with the idea of a Boris bridge across the English channel. Have we finally exhausted the public interest in the violence, chaos and early deaths that characterise much of our custodial estate?

We must hope not. “The Chief Inspector of Prisons has demanded that the Secretary of State for Justice intervenes to ensure urgent action to save lives and protect fearful prisoners in the “fundamentally unsafe” HMP Nottingham”. Not my words, but the opening line of the press release on Nottingham. Lives are at stake. And with the one exception of suicides, mercifully reduced in 2017, every significant indicator of the health and safety of our prison system has continued to show deterioration for the last three years. Things are still getting worse.

There is a temptation to see the crisis in purely operational terms. The Chief Inspector is aghast that conditions could be allowed to deteriorate so badly at Liverpool when the signs and symptoms are so obvious. The Prisons Ombudsman bemoans repeated failures to implement the lessons learned from her investigations into both deaths and the day to day processes about which prisoners complain to her. Are the management asleep at the wheel?

The complicated truth is that people are exhausted, battered and spiritually drained by the struggle. Governors feel morally compromised – do they collude with a system delivering standards so far below what they know to be acceptable, or do they walk away and let someone else do a worse job but feel less anguish because they care less? At what point and why does it become acceptable to treat the consistent delivery of an impoverished way of life as some kind of success? To quote the Chief Inspector on Liverpool – “…whereas in the past it (the regime) had been unpredictably poor, it had now become predictably poor… we found that half of prisoners were locked in their cell during the working day”. When do you simply stop seeing the rubbish and the rats, the toilet with no lid, and the cell covered in graffiti?

To say that the issue is political not operational is not to make excuses. There have always been poor prisons – Liverpool certainly one of them. But the sudden decline across so much of the estate, encompassing prisons never normally on the HQ radar, coincided with a drastic cut – nearly 25% – in the resources made available by ministers to the prison service between 2010/11 and 2014/15. The cuts eviscerated the prison service. They pushed it over a tipping point, so that the basic deal between staff and prisoners could no longer be delivered. That deal involves prisoners acquiescing to the idea of staff authority in return for reasonable safety and stability on the wings. It allows staff to be confident, despite being continually outnumbered, and underpins the relationships between staff and prisoners that both protect the vulnerable and identify the troublemakers. Cameras, handcuffs and incapacitant spray are no substitute for that precious lost commodity of time spent together.

The wound continues to bleed. The remedy for Nottingham’s woes is an injection of experience at all levels, but where do those invaluable people come from other than prisons also teetering on the edge of crisis? Liverpool, Pentonville, Scrubs and many Victorian prisons need replacing, but another new prisons for old promise is quietly biting the dust in Whitehall. Modern prisoner-facing ICT could allow prisoners to do far more for themselves, both day to day and in preparing for release, but the major programme to deliver that is under huge threat. And the reason is not hard to find. Over the next two financial years, the Ministry of Justice must make a further £600m of cuts.

An analysis commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust from a former Director of Finance for the prison service found that the government’s published plans for the future of the service faced a shortfall of over £460m by 2022. That was based on the dismal but realistic view that there would be no decrease in overcrowding levels, and the optimistic assumption that pay settlements would not be driven upwards by a higher inflation rate in the economy at large.

The new incumbents at the ministry face the same political challenge as their many and short lived predecessors. They must either control the demand for imprisonment, or resource the system sufficiently to make it safe. Those responsible for the cuts that have created this catastrophe did neither – the principal architect, Chris Grayling, gloried in the possibility of more people in prison at the very moment that he was destroying the system’s capacity to look after them. But he is not alone. A separate analysis for the Prison Reform Trust suggests that changes in sentencing law since 2003 may have inflated the prison population by around 16,000 places, enough to have eradicated overcrowding.

The cuts currently in prospect are not supportable. In the short term, a different calculation will have to be made or we will look back on the last four years as only the beginning of a disaster rather than its lowest point. In the long term, ministers must lead a fundamental reframing of the debate around punishment. Prison is retribution first and foremost, and governments of every colour have fed what they consider to be a general appetite for more of it. No politicians have been prepared to pay the price of that policy, and few are brave enough to remind parliament that justice is only justice when tempered by mercy. The debate has to change.