The Ministry of Justice has just published its annual report on the state of the prisons in England and Wales, and it makes for damning reading. Among the most disturbing findings are that instances of violence within prisons, both male and female, have risen. Attacks on other inmates and staff has risen to record levels – 11% and 23% respectively – with 29,485 instances of assault recorded in total. That amounts to around 80 per day. HM Inspectorate of Prisons report that many institutions are in appallingly unhygienic conditions with, in some cases such as Bedford prison, infestations of rats and cockroaches.
But there is worse to come. Another recent report, commissioned by the Disabilities Trust in conjunction with the University of London’s Holloway Hospital, found that a staggering 65% of inmates at the women’s only Drake Hall prison in Staffordshire have some form of brain injury. That number is astounding, and there are indications that inspections at other institutions would yield similar results. This, coupled the recent spike in prison suicides – 120 in 2016 – has led to an increase in calls for government action. So, what is to be done?
The problems in our prison system have not sprung up overnight. The Institute for Government, a largely conservative think-tank, has long campaigned for prison reform, yet their pleas have fallen on deaf ears in Downing Street. Overall, government spending on prisons has not increased in a decade. Proposed government spending for 2016-17 was £772 billion. Only £4.2 billion was allotted to the rapidly growing prisons population. More money will provide better, more sanitary facilities, provide a pay rise to prison staff, and employ more health care professionals. However, simply increasing funding is not the answer.
For a long-term solution to this increasingly pressing issue, we must look to other countries who have faced similar issues and come out of their situations with a system that works. Take Norway and the system of restorative justice, for example. There, they focus all their efforts on person-centred rehabilitation. With money for job training, education programs and therapy classes, Norway has the lowest recidivism rate in the world at only 20%, and the highest inmate-employment rate along with Denmark.
This is the way forward. Their overall structure and belief in rehabilitation, not just retribution, should be the focus of our long-term prison strategy. Combine this with more attention paid to the root causes of crime – poverty and unemployment to name a couple – and the system should slowly improve. Sadly none of this seems likely under the current administration.
Infestations of rats, cockroaches, and escalating levels of violence. These are merely symptoms of a much larger problem: the fundamental disregard for the human rights of prisoners.
To understand the reasons for such horrifying conditions, one should look to society’s perception of criminals. It will quickly become apparent that criminals are often forgotten by the UK: this is not surprising in a country in which 48 per cent of the population still supports the reintroduction of the death penalty, and 30 per cent believe that torture can be justified. An even bigger problem is prisoners being barred from voting, which has been openly recognized as a violation of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. This is largely due to the ‘us vs them’ effect. A population
may find it comforting to know that the most dangerous individuals in society are being treated poorly because, after all, that’s what they deserve, right?
However, many people ignore that prisoners are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, due to being, once in prison, at the complete mercy of the state.
Before trying to fix the current system, a complete overhaul is needed. In this regard, it is imperative to redefine the purpose of prisons. For both practical and humane reasons, prisons should focus on the reintroduction of convicts to society. In fact, in the Netherlands, where prisons engage in extensive educational programs, only 11,600 people of a population of 17 million are locked up. On the contrary, in the UK, 68 per cent of prisons hold more inmates than their usable ‘certified normal accommodation’. Therefore, rehabilitating people would not only be an admirable exercise in humanity, by conceding second chances to people who have already suffered the due punishment, but it would also mean a relief on the prison system, which is currently overpopulated.
Another problem tied to the prison system is the continued disregard for mental health concerns. This affects prisons in two different ways. Firstly, when people are imprisoned, any pre-existing mental health conditions that they may have are never addressed. This is especially troubling considering that nearly 65% of prisoners at women’s jails show signs of brain injury: this can be identified as a contributing factor causing irresponsible, and even criminal behaviours. Secondly, the terrible conditions prisoners are expected to endure can give rise to serious issues when being reintroduced into society: one cannot expect a man to go from killing ‘cell rats during inspections’, to being reintroduced into society.
Any country who prides itself on democracy and freedom cannot expect to be truly considered liberal, until these vital issues are addressed.
Last modified: 8th March 2019