Alice Wilcock: Prisons are a national scandal, and need a national response
Alice Wilcock is a Criminal Justice Researcher at the Centre for Social Justice. Her research has focused on the prison and probation service in England and Wales, victim support and serious youth violence. Read the full report.
In a week where Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister, put himself forward as a potential candidate to replace the Prime Minister, the prison reform agenda could not be more critical. After all, this is the legacy that Stewart himself has asked to be judged upon.
Our prisons are some of the most unsafe and unjust places in civil society today. Last year, more than 34,000 brutal assaults were carried out behind the locked doors of our prison estate and 10,000 assaults were suffered by prison staff.
Our latest report, published this week, reveals that over a third of prison officers have less than two years’ experience. With too few officers on the landings, prisoners have increasingly had to stay inside their cells for inhumane lengths of time – or, conversely, overwhelmed officers have had to lock themselves away in offices. One prisoner described feeling as if they were being “left to rot”, while staff said they felt “unsafe”.
This represents a huge waste and lost opportunity. Prisons can be awe-inspiring sites of rehabilitation, providing prisoners with the tools, such as education and employment opportunities, to turn their lives around.
But instead, whether in the quest for relief or exploited by predatory drug dealers, far too many inmates have taken to using drugs and new psychoactive substances. Videos posted by prisoners on social media show naked inmates leashed and scrapping like dogs and others brushing their teeth with soiled toilet brushes.
One prison officer disclosed to me the extent to which these abhorrent levels of brutality have become just another day at work for front-line staff. She told me how so much of the job was responding to urgent calls to break up inmate violence, a task their limited training had ill-prepared them for: “My workmates have dealt with much worse than me. I’ve not been hospitalised or anything, yet, so I can’t really complain,” she smiled, only half-joking.
It’s a grim reality that one in ten of the 10,000 assaults on prison staff were serious last year. That means prison officers were sent to A&E for treatment, sexually assaulted, or that their injury left them with one of a myriad of life altering conditions including: burns and scalds, broken bones and teeth and in some cases blindness.
Our current Prisons Minister is not insensitive to the scale of the problem. In Stewart, the prison estate has one of the most dedicated and engaged ministers to have ever held the post. In fact, in August of last year, he promised to resign if he was unable to reduce our prisons’ scourge of drugs and violence within twelve months.
However, this promise was limited to focus only on ten target prisons. The pledged investment for better security and improved conditions provided little material benefit for the more than one hundred other prisons and their officers across England and Wales.
The recruitment of 2,500 additional prison officers nationwide will prove to be futile if the service is unable to retain them and keep them safe. Prison officers should be offered, at minimum, welfare support to help address trauma and anxiety exacerbated by their job. We also need to get serious about tackling drug supply: body scanners have a proven record of success, and their national roll out across our prison service is long overdue.
Whatever your view on crime, the state of our prisons really is a national scandal. It will take political and organisational leadership to turn it around – and it will take resource. We have political leadership in Rory Stewart, and the promise of organisational leadership in Dr Jo Farrar, the new prisons and probation leader. What must now follow is resource and will.