On Sunday, just outside of Brighton, prisoners at HMP Lewes staged a full-scale riot. Only four staff members were on duty in that wing of the prison, and were forced to retreat to safety for six hours until the prison could be retaken. Just days later, news of unrest came from the G4S-run HMP Birmingham. Cells were barricaded, fires were started and serious injuries were reported.
When a school is failing, parents demand changes. When a local A&E faces closure, the member of parliament starts a campaign to save it. But for most people, prisons are an unknown world, where offenders are taken out of sight and out of mind. The riots this week triggered no public outrage, and few people are speaking out on behalf of the people trapped in a failing system.
These two riots come at a time of unprecedented unrest in our prisons. Since Labour left power in 2010, prison budgets have been slashed by almost £1bn. Violence and assaults, including those on already over-stretched prison staff, are at an all-time high.
But with little public clamour for reform, the government is getting away with simply brushing the issue under the rug. For all his faults, Michael Gove presented an optimistic vision for prisons that at least aimed to reduce violence, cut reoffending and improve rehabilitation.
Within the criminal justice community, the consensus seems to be that Gove’s original plans to hand more autonomy to prison governors is not a backdoor to creeping privatisation of the system. Similarly, refitting and replacing ailing Victorian prisons that are no longer fit for purpose was a good first step towards modernising the system. As a result, prison officers and policymakers alike could breathe a sigh of relief that action was finally being taken.
Since his departure to the backbenches, more than 80,000 prisoners have been left in limbo, with real uncertainty about what the government’s solution to this issue will be.
Since her appointment, justice secretary Liz Truss has been criticised for her lack of legal experience and her deafening silence on the escalating problems in our prison system. However, as deputy director of the think-tank Reform, she made the case for more efficient delivery of public services. Hopefully then, she will see the false economy of a system that spends £40,000 per prisoner, only to have half of adult prisoners reoffend with a year of release at a cost of around £2.8bn.
Tomorrow, Liz Truss will return to Reform and is expected to announce the launch of a widely anticipated and long overdue white paper, setting out the government’s plans for our troubled prison system. While it is unclear whether she will continue in the same direction as her predecessor, we can almost certainly expect some kind of power shift to make the most successful prisoners more autonomous. It is vital that any such move is accompanied by increased funding and clear accountability, to avoid a repeat of Tory devolution to councils, simply to have them carry the bucket on cuts.
It is very easy to imagine prison as a place for retribution, where conditions should be harsh and the system unsympathetic. But the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of prison reform, and the lessons we learnt from the 18th and 19th century show that if you dehumanise vulnerable people, put them in a system that encourages criminality rather than tackles it, then they are unlikely to suddenly become upstanding citizens when you inevitably have to release them.
Because of this, the public, and the Labour party should be holding the government’s feet to the fire. Better prison policy means better crime prevention and safer communities. The revolving door system we currently have is of use to no-one, particularly not those trapped inside it.
Gabriel Gavin co-founded the Labour Campaign for Prison Reform. He tweets at @
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