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During his three years behind bars, Alex Cavendish learned many things. He learned, for example, that serving a cold sandwich instead of a cooked meal can be dangerous – food is one of the things that keep prisoners going, and disruption of that routine leads to frustration: ‘I’ve been in a prison where there was a riot as a consequence of a meal being cancelled’, says Cavendish, who has gone through six different penal institutions across England and Wales and worked as a mentor for other prisoners. He has learned about the problem of indebtedness in prisons (‘If you think payday loans are bad, go borrow off another inmate…’), about bullying, violence and sexual abuse. And he has seen how the state of prisons has gone from bad to critical.
The public has seen glimpses of the crisis – in recent months, there have been reports of a dramatic rise in prison suicides, overcrowding, riots in HMP Ranby in Nottinghamshire and HMP Northumberland, and prisoners going for two days without water and elecricity in Doncaster. But for outsiders it is hard to grasp just how bad the state of our prisons really is.
On one level, the crisis can be explained with a simple numerical fact: there are too many prisoners and too few staff. Today there are around 85’900 people in prison in England and Wales. In the past 20 years, the prison population has almost doubled, and the UK incarceration rate is now the highest in the whole of Western Europe. For justice secretary Chris Grayling, these figures do not seem to be a problem: ‘We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis’, he said in June; he reasons that as operational capacity of the whole prison estate stands at 86’421, there are a few hundred more prisoners who can be crammed in. But, as Robert Preece from the Howard League for Penal Reform explains, this is not how it works: While operational capacity refers to the number of people you can physically squeeze into the prison estate, the prison services have their own measure of how many people should be accommodated, the Certified Normal Accommodation, CNA. This is the figure that indicates how many people can be safely and decently held. The current CNA level is 76’619 people, 10’000 less than are accommodated now.
But the problem is even worse than that, says Preece: ‘If you’ve got a prison cell that is designed for two people, but it holds three, then you don’t have one person living in overcrowded conditions, but three.’ According to this measure, there are 20’000 people living in overcrowded conditions – one in four.
For Alex Cavendish, who left prison earlier this year and now lives with his family in the north of England, overcrowding was the most noticeable change he experienced: ‘When I first went into prison, most wings had a mix of double and single cells, with the singles usually going to older people, people with mental health problems or physical disabilities.’ But then, gradually, more and more single cells were converted into doubles – by removing the single bed and putting in a bunk. ‘They simply crammed two men into a space that had been designed for one person.“ In the worst-case scenario, double cells were converted into triples.
While more and more prisoners are crammed into our penal institutions, there are fewer and fewer staff to oversee them. In the four years since the current government came into office, the number of prison officers has been cut by 41 percent, according to the Howard League (the government contests this figure, saying the cut amounts to ‘only’ 27 percent). In October, the outgoing president of the Prison Governors’ Association warned there is a race on to get sufficient staff into our prisons before we reach tipping point.
The double whammy of overcrowding and lack of staff leads to numerous problems. Firstly, it causes friction between inmates. In order for people to share a cell, a series of risk assessments are done, but ‘because of overcrowding and lack of staff, this is now a tick-box exercise’, says Cavendish. ‘There are situations where somebody is put into a cell with somebody who has mental health problems or non-smokers are put together with heavy smokers.’ Another problem is that there is very little work to do. Cavendish gives the example of HM Lincoln prison, which is supposed to hold 400 people, but now accommodates around 700. ‘So you have jobs and education places for 400 people, and then you have another 300 prisoners you can’t do anything with – there are only so many wing-cleaners you need, only so many spaces in each class room’, says Cavendish. If a prisoner is not in education and does not have a job, chances are that they spend 23 hours in their cell.
Overcrowding also contributes to sexual exploitation. Many institutions take prisoners from the age of 18, who would normally be in an offenders institution for young people – they are supposed to be separated from adult prisoners. ‘But increasingly, because of overcrowding, these kids – and literally some of them have just turned 18, they look like schoolkids – are thrown into an adult world, where there is debt, violence and drugs’, says Cavendish. In Lincoln, he saw a small number of young prisoners arriving in his wing, who were in prison for the first time. ‘Every single one of them was sexually assaulted by older prisoners. Every one of them. We have to ask ourselves: Why is it acceptable to put a vulnerable 18-year-old into what is basically a lion’s den? And then we’re surprised when they start cutting their wrists and hanging themselves.’
When the Commission on Sex in Prison was set up to look into the problem of sexual assault in prison, Chris Grayling did not seem particularly interested. On the contrary: He tried to obstruct its work. Nonetheless, the commission released a briefing paper on coercive sex in prison earlier this year, according to which 10 percent of juvenile prisoners reported sexual abuse in prison in 2012, as opposed to 1 percent among adult prisoners. Sexual abuse in prison is now at its highest reported level since 2005.
In the absence of a sufficient number of officers, the daily management of a penal institution starts breaking down – even without serious overcrowding. Everything a prisoner does on a daily basis requires staff: The initial screening interview, where issues like legal aid, illnesses and special needs are discussed; the provision of things like clothing, toothbrushes, and access to telephones; the organisation of visits from family members and legal representatives; exercise and visits to libraries, doctors and dentists – everything needs to be facilitated by staff.
Lack of officers means that exercise is cancelled, visits to libraries are cancelled and education classes are cancelled, and prisoners spend more and more time in their overcrowded cells. ‘You can’t run a prison with skeleton staff – which is exactly what is happening now’, says Marek Kazmierski, who has worked in prisons for many years – among other things as a teacher of creative writing courses, as a charity worker, and for five years as a prison governor. Today he edits the prison magazine Not Shut Up. Kazmierski describes the cuts to prison staff as ‘disastrous’: If staff don’t have the capacity to even manage the most basic daily needs of prisoners, they are going to be completely helpless if an inmate has any urgent issues that need to be dealt with – bullying, sexual exploitation, legal issues, or self-harm. ‘That prison is on the edge of disaster’, says Kazmierski.
The situation is exacerbated by a number of deliberate policies initiated by the coalition government. In autumn 2013, Chris Grayling introduced changes to the so-called Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme (IEP). This scheme puts prisoners in different categories according to their behaviour – Basic, Standard and Enhanced – and rewards good behaviour with privileges such as more visits and higher wages; bad behaviour, by contrast, is punished by a downgrade and the accompanying restrictions. Last year, Grayling introduced a new level above Basic – Entry – where privileges are restricted and prisoners have to wear a uniform. On top of that, he banned prisoners from receiving books and other basic items, restricted the use of TVs, and introduced an automatic review of the IEP status after ‘bad behaviour’.
According to a briefing paper by the Prison Reform Trust from April 2014, these changes have had a profoundly harmful effect on the wellbeing of prisoners: they increase the likelihood of inmates going down the scale to the Basic level, and evidence suggests ‘that the move to the basic regime can have a significant negative impact on mental wellbeing and lead to an increased risk of suicide and self-harm.’ Overall, the authors write, the new system compromises standards of safety, decency and rehabilitation.
Alex Cavendish’s experience confirms this. ‘In effect, [the new regime] has made the prison situation worse, particularly when people first come in, which is the time when there is a lot of self-harm and suicide’, he says. ‘Prison is a pretty awful place. But Chris Grayling and his hard-line justice policies have thrown out of the window any attempt to try and cushion the experience, to make it more humane and bearable. He wants people to suffer.’ Cavendish considers the steep rise in the suicide rate to be a direct consequence of this: ‘If you humiliate people and dehumanise them, they will commit suicide.’ In early December, the High Court has also been critical of Grayling’s punitive measures: it ruled that the prison book ban was unlawful. Mr Justice Collins described the policy as ‘unneccessary, irrational and counter-productive to rehabilitation’.
Indeed, rehabilitation is one of the major failings of the present system. Re-offending rates are abysmal: 46 percent of adults are reconviced within one year of release. For people serving a sentence of less than a year, the figure is even worse: 58 percent of them re-offend.
In his time in prison, Alex Cavendish saw people leaving prison in exactly the same situation as they went in. Lots of male prisoners serve a sentence of less than a year for repeat offences, that is to say, things that would not attract a prison sentence if they happened just once – shoplifting, burglary, small-time drug dealing, fights in pubs. Repeat offenders going to prison for less than a year in effect serve a maximum of 6 months, which means that they don’t have a so-called sentence plan, says Cavendish: ‘You probably won’t get a job, you won’t get onto an education course because you haven’t got long enough to complete it – you’re just locked into a box.’ Private sector education providers like A4E are paid by completion, so they don’t want prisoners who won’t complete a course. ‘These people will have no intervention in prison. If they have a drug habit or an alcohol or a gambling problem, none of that is going to be addressed. They will leave prison with the same problem, and they will re-offend.’
‘We’re seeing prisons in meltdown’, says Robert Preece. ‘The decline in the past 18 months has been particularly sharp and even surprised the Howard League.’ According to Preece, the situation hasn’t been this bad since the 1990 Strangeways Prison riot, in which one prisoner was killed and dozens of inmates and staff injured. One urgent question that needs answering is: why are we sending so many people to prison in the first place? ‘A large number of these people have not committed any violent offences and could almost certainly be dealt with by way of community sentence’, says Preece. These sentences have also proved more effective at reducing reoffending and are much cheaper to deliver. Instead of giving this question serious consideration, the government is planning to simply build more prisons and expand the capacity of existing institutions. While we will see a modest rise in prison spaces, the government ‘can’t build itself out of this problem’, says Preece. ‘It’s time we reduced the prison population and spend the money on more meaningful interventions that might help turn lives around.’
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist based in London. He tweets @Pete_Stb.