Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How to fix our broken prison system

Our prisons are in a scandalous state – ignoring them is both inhumane and a waste of money, writes Jack May 

At last, from the government shackled, Prometheus-like, to the giant boulder of Brexit and infighting at the expense of all vague semblance of caring about any other issues, something resembling a policy.

Not a huge one, mind, but it is something – David Gauke, the justice secretary, has announced a boost to the employment and education programme in prisons, including proposals to allow more prisoners to be temporarily released from jail for work placements and sweetening the deal for employers if they hire ex-offenders.

While public attention is often rightly focussed on the state of our hospitals, the resources of our police forces, and the quality of our schools, prisons are almost totally overlooked by the majority of the population (and the commentariat), despite forming a crucial chunk of our public infrastructure, and our civil society.

Make no mistake – prisons in the United Kingdom are in an abhorrent condition, creating a cycle whereby hundreds of millions of pounds are effectively thrown down the drain into a system of putrid, chaotic, unsafe and violent prisons where rule-breaking is rampant, deaths far too common, and re-offending negates the value of all spending that takes place in the first place.

Earlier this month, a prison inspection at HMP Nottingham found that prisoners are committing suicide because they cannot bear the ‘dangerous, disrespectful, drug-ridden’ conditions. At HMP Liverpool, meanwhile, prison staff were sacked by the private contracted company who run the prison for blowing the whistle on appalling conditions, which include cockroaches, rats, blocked toilets, pools of urine, and the highest suicide rate in the country.

At HMP Birmingham, run by G4S, five inmates died within seven weeks, as the prison faced two improvement orders from the Ministry of Justice, while inspectors not long ago decried Wormwood Scrubs prison’s rat-infested, overcrowded conditions, where prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm were left in cells with jagged glass in broken windows, while other prisoners were forced to stuff gaps in broken windows with scrunched-up paper in an effort to keep out the elements.

All the while, guards and staff are leaving the industry in droves – fleeing appalling working environments, and prison nurses have gone on strike after falling ill because they are forced to inhale the fumes of ‘spice’ – a powerful psychoactive drug – thanks to nonsensical industry rules.

It is therefore no surprise that the UK has one of the highest re-offending rates in Europe. As Erwin James, the ex-offender turned Guardian writer, sagely puts it: ‘this amounts to a huge investment in failure’. No thought is given to the damage re-offending criminals can cause to their victims when released, unrehabilitated, from our putrid prisons. And successive ministers and governments have seemed completely deaf to the idiocy of spending hundreds of millions on a prison system with a return no better than a twisted frequent flyer programme.

David Gauke’s comments this week suggest a minute pivot – and Rory Stewart, the pensions minister within the justice department, has previously written in the ministry’s defence, arguing that reforms are underway, that change takes time, and that recruitment of more prison staff is going well.

That well may be, but look into the detail of the projects and initiatives he hails, and so often they are being run by charity on the whim of those who donate, rather than with the guaranteed backing of the state to ensure prisons become centres of rehabilitation and reinvention, not hothouses of drug abuse and violence with the odd kooky charity-run restaurant programme that looks good in a newspaper magazine feature.

It is perhaps no surprise that the two figures Rory Stewart cites as his opening salve both died before Prince Albert. Panning around for the possible benevolence of charity actors is no 21st century way to address the mammoth challenge our prison system poses.

Much of the problem stems from the political minutiae of the business. Firefighting missions by justice ministers not in post for long enough to do anything serious about the state of our prisons won’t be enough, as the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Frances Cook has argued.

There are plenty of models available to us as to how to do prisons differently, and Labour would do well to root around, read around, and incorporate some of the best elements as part of its next electoral package.

Even within parts of the UK, some have taken the initiative to try something different. At Polmont young offenders’ institution in Scotland, Paws for Progress sees young offenders re-train abandoned dogs for rehoming. Scotland has also led the way on new approaches to women’s prisons – particularly for those with the most challenging behaviour.

Internationally, more examples abound. Prisons in the Netherlands now suffer an under-occupation crisis after authorities changed their approach to shorter sentences, and after a rehabilitative approach has lowered re-offending rates. Frequent offenders, called ‘revolving-door criminals’ in some quarters are given two-year sentences and bespoke rehabilitation schemes. The re-offending rate among these prisoners is ten per cent – whereas in England and Wales, half of those serving short sentences reoffend within two years.

And while the temptation is to eye roll and think ‘well of course, it’s the Netherlands’, it has not always been this way. The Netherlands went from having one of Europe’s highest incarceration rates in 2005 to one of its lowest in 2016.

Norway’s prisons offer a step change in how we think about serving time. Not all prisons are liberal lands of wonder, though – there are still high security prisons for the most challenging inmates, and for those at the beginning of their sentences, but many of the country’s criminals are serving time in a very different environment.

At Halden Prison, guards and inmates are friends, there are no bars on the prison’s windows, and kitchens are fully stocked with sharp objects. Vocational programmes in woodwork and bicycle repair sit alongside a recording studio stocked with electric guitars. The maximum sentence available in Norway is 21 years – though if a criminal is not deemed to have been rehabilitated to the point of being ready to re-enter society, that can be extended.

An inmate runs the ferry service between Bastoy prison, on an island in Norway, and the mainland bank of the Oslo fjord. Cells have computers, showers, and televisions, and the harsh stereotype of clanging corridors, wings, and the reverberations of cell doors slamming shut is replaced by pod-like communities of six people who share a kitchen – more like a student halls of residence than a prison.

Inmates are given one meal a day and are given a food allowance to spend on the prison island’s supermarket to make their own breakfasts and dinners. They also earn the equivalent of six pounds a day through their work on the island – some spend this in the island’s supermarket while others save up for a bicycle with which to ride around the site. Erwin James, who visited the island, lists the jobs available to inmates: working in the laundry, looking after the island’s horses in the stables, the bicycle repair shop or the timber shop.

Norway’s attitude to incarceration is far more sophisticated than our bullish, naive approach. While training to be a prison officer in the UK takes just six weeks, prison guards in Norway train for three years, learning about criminology, psychology, mental health and rehabilitation.

As Arne Nilson, the governor of Bastoy prison, said to the Guardian: ‘The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.’

It is a mindset we, with our dank, putrid, inhumane Victorian prisons, could do with learning to foster ex-convicts with a legacy of humane treatment rather than a vindictive instinct to re-offend after years in violent, animalistic; drug-ridden institutions. Aside from the moral element, it is in our financial interests not to squander millions feeding and housing prisoners for years on end while the only return on that investment will be more crime, more upset, and another stint behind bars.

Alexander Hamilton said that the first duty of society is justice. It cannot continue to be every government’s last priority.


Jack May is a Progress columnist. He tweets @JackO_May


Photo: by Dun.can, licensed under Creative Commons (CC by 2.0)

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