The UK prison system is in melt down. Currently we have riots in prisons, high staff turnover due to assaults, and high suicide rates.
Riots in prison
Violence in prison seems to be on the increase. Assaults behind bars increased by more than 34% to 23,775 – about 65 per day – in the 12 months to the end of June 2016. The MoJ figures show an increasingly volatile situation in women’s prisons, with the number of assaults rising by 25% in a year.
The Ministry of Justice has explicitly acknowledged that staff cuts are a factor in the rising tide of violence in prisons in England and Wales. The MoJ commentary on the prison safety figures states:
“The rise in assaults since 2012 has coincided with major changes to the regime, operating arrangements and culture in public sector prisons. For example, restructuring of the prison estate, including staff reductions, which have reduced overall running costs, and an increase in gang culture and illicit psychoactive drugs in prisons.”
In recent months we’ve seen a murder in Pentonville prison, riots in Lewes, Bedford, Birmingham and Swaleside and the Prison Officers’ Association stating that Hull prison is ‘on [the] brink of riot’ after inmates arrive from Birmingham.
High staff turnover
The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said that the National Offender Management Service, which oversees the country’s prisons, has classed 12 jails as “red sites”, meaning they do not have enough staff to operate a standard regime. A similar number are classed as “amber sites”, indicating they are also suffering acute staffing issues. The POA has estimated around 35% of the country’s prisons were experiencing some form of staffing problem.
Figures published by the Ministry of Justice show that in the past year the number of full-time prison officers has dropped by almost 600.
High suicide rates
The Howard League for Penal Reform said it had been notified of the deaths by suicide of 102 people up until 18 November – the equivalent of one every three days and breaking the record for frequency of suicides.
According to Frances Cook, the director of the Howard League:
“With five weeks remaining until the end of the year, it is already the highest death toll in a calendar year since recording practices began in 1978. The previous high was in 2004 when 96 deaths by suicide were recorded.”
“The number of people dying by suicide in prison has reached epidemic proportions. No one should be so desperate while in the care of the state that they take their own life and yet, every three days, a family is told that a loved one has died behind bars.
“By taking bold but sensible action to reduce the number of people in prison, we can save lives and prevent more people being swept away into deeper currents of crime and despair.”
Prison staff struggle to recognise mental health risk factors as shown in the case of Josh Collinson, aged 18, who was found hanged at Swinfen Hall young offender institution in Staffordshire on 3 September last year. He had been transferred the previous day from Parc prison, in south Wales, where he had self-harmed on six occasions and been placed on a list of at-risk prisoners.
So what can be done?
One of the key issues is to lower the jail population. As Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative former home secretary and justice secretary, Jacqui Smith, the Labour former home secretary, and Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem former deputy prime minister, have warned that the prison crisis will do “untold damage to wider society” if it is not addressed. The prison population should be cut from its current level, around 85,000, to what it was in the 1980s, around 45,000, they say in a letter to the Times:
“To restore order, security, and purpose to our jails, ministers should now make it their policy to reduce prison numbers. We want to see the prison population returned to the levels it was under Margaret Thatcher, herself no ‘soft touch’,”
Secondly is to review sentencing policy and to explore tougher alternatives to prison, possibly involving “visible” work punishments in the community, as suggested by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice:
“If you are sending someone to prison for a very short time, the ability of the prison to cope with that person is limited in the current circumstances. It’s very important that you have real alternatives to prison. It’s important you have tough community sentences available … and this is something at which we really need to look.
“Should you have some really tough kind of work for [offenders] to do? Should you make the punishment visible? What’s essential is that you have a tough alternative to prison … These are things on which it would be good to have a proper open debate.”
Thirdly, young offenders up to the age of 25 should be kept out of adult prisons because of “irrefutable evidence” that the typical adult male brain is not fully formed until at least the mid-20s, MPs have said.
The House of Commons justice select committee says young adults, who make up 10% of the adult prison population but account for 30-40% of police time, should be treated differently by the criminal justice system and be held in young offender institutions with 18- to 20-year-olds. The MPs say that the most recent evidence shows that young people are reaching adult maturity five to seven years later than they did a few decades ago, which is affecting the age at which most typically grow out of crime.