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To point out that the prison system in England and Wales is in a bad way is not to say anything original. Reports of overcrowding, filth, drugs and increasing rates of self-harm surface regularly. Prisons, some of which date from Victorian times, are understood to be unpleasant and dangerous.
Periodically, a story of violence or mistreatment emerges that shocks people. The death of a newborn baby girl in a cell at HMP Bronzefield after her mother gave birth alone in September last year is one example. But broadly speaking, the public has learned to expect very little.
Peter Clarke’s final report before he leaves the post of chief inspector of prisons in many ways covers familiar ground. Mr Clarke is careful to give credit where he believes it is due. At HMP Liverpool, for example, a damning report in 2017 was followed by a turnaround which he credits to new leadership. Parc young offenders institution, part of the only privately run prison in Wales (by G4S), is contrasted favourably with the “catastrophic failure” of Feltham. But pages of detailed description and statistical analysis make it painfully clear that these are exceptions. The rule that English and Welsh prisons do not work properly, and in many cases fail badly, is unchanged, with the lack of purposeful activity a particular sore point.
Many of the reasons to be disturbed by this are familiar. However, as Mr Clarke spelled out in an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday, Covid-19 has raised the stakes. Being confined in their cells for 23 hours a day has left many prisoners feeling hopeless. While the Prison Officers Association has welcomed the reduction in violence in men’s prisons, Mr Clarke thinks the deteriorating mental-health situation is dangerous.
Releasing some prisoners early in order to reduce overcrowding and improve conditions remains the obvious solution, as it was in the spring when ministers announced it. But unlike in France, where the prison population fell by around 10,000 (14%) by mid-April due to early releases, the recent fall in the prison population of England and Wales (to 79,187 from 83,787 a year ago) has mostly been due to prisoners completing sentences – while closed courts have meant fewer criminals being sent to take their places. In August, early release arrangements were suspended.
With the sense of threat linked to the pandemic once again rising, it is not surprising that prisons do not top the agenda. Compared with the hungry children being championed by the footballer Marcus Rashford or families separated because their relatives are in care homes, prisoners and their families do not attract much sympathy. But that is no excuse for those whose job it is to run the system to do nothing. Ministers and civil servants must come up with a plan.
Solitary confinement is harmful, and has no place in a civilised country except as a short-term emergency measure or in exceptional cases. Its use in children’s prisons this year has been an affront to human decency. The damage inflicted on people by prolonged separation from their families, in the absence of visits, is likely to be longlasting.
As a society, we cannot afford to risk further undermining our poor record on rehabilitation. Yet this is what we are in danger of doing, by leaving tens of thousands of prisoners (the vast majority of them men) locked all day in cells. To suggest that meaningful reform of prisons could take place in the midst of a pandemic would be naive. Allowing them to deteriorate amounts to an act of national self-harm.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on failing jails: an inspector’s call | Prisons and probation