Prisoner A prisoner in his cell: the rules put in place a blanket ban on families sending in small items to prisoners. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Clare Sambrook reports on the devastating impact of the coalition government’s ideological pursuit of ‘proper punishment’

Justice minister Chris Grayling is imposing a ‘more Spartan’ prison regime, with deadly consequences.

  • 88 prisoner suicides in one year in England and Wales
  • Chief Inspector of Prisons to be replaced in 2015
  • Spending on food cut to £1.96 per prisoner per day (that’s £1.96 in total, breakfast, lunch and dinner)

Nick HardwickWhen inspectors paid a surprise visit to HMP Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey this past summer they found that the prison held 1,252 men. That’s 267 more than there should have been. Almost 200 of the men were unemployed and routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells. There’d been sharp increases in fights, assaults and self-harm.In the previous two years five men had taken their own lives.

Every day at Elmley, because there weren’t enough staff, association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice, and prisoners were turned away from work and education.In the 11 months before the visit there had been 11 incidents of ‘concerted indiscipline’ — that’s when two or more prisoners act together in defiance of the authorities. (In the 12 months before that, no such incidents had been recorded.)

The inspectors’ report on their visit was published last week — on the very day that yet another prisoner was found dead in his cell. Come Saturday night the prison’s ‘tornado team’ quashed Elmley’s latest outbreak of ‘concerted indiscipline’.

Things are going horribly wrong in prisons across England and Wales. The evidence of harm is mounting, the death toll is rising fast, but the government remains oddly unmoved, intent on its ideological pursuit of ‘proper punishment’.

HMP Hewell, HMP Brixton . . .

Two years ago, when inspectors visited Hewell Prison near Redditch in Worcestershire, they found a dirty, dangerous and drug-ridden prison, rocked by the recent escape of a Category A prisoner. In a critical report inspectors wrote of filthy toilets, of prisoners exercising in yards strewn with rubbish, high levels of assaults and some staff reluctant to challenge poor behaviour.

Critical reports are supposed to provoke improvements. By the time inspectors dropped in on Hewell again, this past July, the prison had seen one murder and six suicides. The inspectors’ report on the visit was published earlier this week.Use of force was increasing. Some 40 per cent of Hewell cells were overcrowded.Health services were impacted by staff shortages, poor access to GP clinics and the frequent cancellation of hospital appointments. Almost one in five prisoners told inspectors that they had developed a drug problem in the prison.

Violence was often linked to debt, which in turn was related to delays for new arrivals in receiving their first orders from the prison shop, especially tobacco. Prisoners’ frustration was evident in bullying and self-harm.

Perhaps most alarmingly, HMP Hewell had failed properly to investigate several allegations of assault (including sexual assault) by staff on prisoners. Some of the allegations had not been investigated at all.

Lately inspectors have been at work in HMP Brixton. Their report, due in March, is unlikely to make happy reading if this extraordinary comment from Brixton’s Independent Monitoring Board is anything to go by:

“The Board deplores prescribed levels of staffing which wholly ignore the requirements of running a prison effectively, safely and humanely.”

(Those words, addressed directly to justice minister Chris Grayling, appeared this month in the Board’annual report).

It’s not only Elmley, Hewell and Brixton that are troubled.

Breaking point

The Prison Reform Trust’s annual compendium of facts and figures about British prisons charts a steep and dangerous decline. On the OurKingdom website the Trust’s director Juliet Lyon described “a prison service driven into crisis management by slashed budgets, staff losses and a rising tide of violence and suicide”.

On the inside, she said: “people in prison are enduring worsening conditions, less time out of cell, reduced contact with staff, new mean and petty restrictions and unjustified curbs on release on temporary license.” (Release on temporary license, regarded as vital to resettlement, allows certain classes of prisoner to visit a parent or partner who is seriously ill, and helps prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to reconnect with their families.)

A recent research paper from The Howard League for Penal Reform (Breaking point: Understaffing and overcrowding in prisons) recorded the shocking scale of staff cuts: The number of frontline prison officers in English and Welsh prisons has fallen by 30 per cent since the coalition government came to power in May 2010. Twenty prisons have been closed or partially closed. Yet the prison population has increased slightly from 85,015 to 85,469. (In 1994 the average prison population was 48,621).

The Prisons Inspectorate’s annual report, published last month, further exposed the spiral of decline propelled by radical cuts, staff shortages, overcrowding and pressure to deliver what Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick politely described as “a significant new policy agenda”.

Hardwick wrote:

“it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures, particularly in the second half of 2013–14 and particularly in adult male prisons, was a very significant factor in the rapid deterioration in safety and other outcomes we found as the year progressed.”

He said there had been a dramatic increase in incidences of prisoners clambering up onto the nettings or railings attached to wing landings “in the hope they will be taken to segregation and then ‘shipped out’ of the prison to somewhere they feel safer, where the conditions appear better or where they will be closer to home.”

The most shocking symptom of decline was a 69 per cent rise in self-inflicted deaths: 88 prisoners took their own lives in the year 2013 to 2014, the highest figure in ten years.

“It is important that the bald statistics do not disguise the dreadful nature of each incident and the distress caused to the prisoner’s family, other prisoners and staff,” Hardwock noted. “It is a terrible toll.”

An ‘appalling upsurge in suicides’

Lately a Guardian investigation revealed that 125 prisoners had killed themselves in 20 months, an average of 6 per month. Reporters looked behind the statistics, examining every case.

They included a 31-year-old who killed himself while on remand for stealing a T-shirt from TK Maxx. He had warned officers he was going to hang himself. An inquest concluded that the Prison Service failed to take reasonable steps to prevent his death.

Chris Grayling

A 21-year-old with no criminal record and a serious mental health problem killed himself after being sent to prison “for his own safety”.

The prison service ombudsman Nigel Newcomen, who investigates every prison death, told the Guardian that his repeated recommendations to help save lives were being ignored. He said the scale of self-inflicted deaths was “utterly unacceptable” and reflected a “rising tide of despair”. 

“There is no question the prison service is more challenged now than in a generation,” said Newcomen. “My job is to draw lessons from these individual human tragedies, and I don’t think that adequate heed has been taken of them. This appalling upsurge in suicides means there is an absolute need for prisons to review and reframe the approach that they take to suicide and self-harm. That must include more resources being applied. I keep saying it, and I will continue to say it, but I am yet to see serious, tangible steps taken to heed these lessons.”

Shoot the messenger

Swift and radical change obviously requires careful monitoring and scrutiny.Far from respecting evidence and heeding expert advice, the government is shooting messengers.Charities whose research examines the impact of policy are dismissed and derided by the justice minister Chris Grayling as “left wing pressure groups” whose language “bears little relation to reality”.The Ministry of Justice has slashed the Prisons Inspectorate’s budget and is seeking to replace Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick.

When Hardwick appeared before theJustice Committee on Monday 10 November,MP Elfyn Llwyd observed: “If the MOJ decide on budget allocation, they could limit your work quite severely if they wanted to.”

“Perhaps you could have a word with them,” Hardwick replied.

His present five year contract comes up for renewal in July next year. “I understand that the job will be readvertised,” he said.

Deborah Coles is the co-director of Inquest, a charity that helps the families of people who die in custody. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week she said:

“The shocking thing about our casework is that far too many of these deaths are preventable, prisoners have experienced really very often shocking neglect in prisons. What concerns Inquest is that all those people charged with the inspection and monitoring of prisons are warning ministers that there is a crisis. Ministers’ indifference to this issue is really concerning.”

Grayling declined the BBC’s invitation to appear on the programme. When he does comment on prison policy he is upbeat: “I absolutely refute the suggestion that our prisons are in crisis,” he told the BBC this past August. Writing in the Guardian in September, Grayling, a former PR man at Burson-Marsteller, acknowledged that “the recent rise in self-inflicted deaths has been very unwelcome and unhappy”.

Unwelcome, unhappy.

He opened his article with: “Prison is not meant to be comfortable. It’s not meant to be somewhere anyone would ever want to go back to.”


Grayling writes in the Guardian, 18 September 2014

On the conservative home website earlier this year, Grayling wrote: “There has been a big change in the prison regime. You no longer get privileges just by keeping your nose clean. If you are going to get access to greater rights to buy stuff from the prison shop, or to make more phone calls each week, you have to engage in proper positive rehabilitative activity. And some things have gone altogether – like 18 certificate DVDs and Sky Sports in some prisons. It’s bizarre that they were ever there in the first place.”

He went on:

“The penalties for bad behaviour are tougher too. You lose the right to wear your own clothes, and have to wear uniform instead. You lose the TV from your cell. These are the kind of changes the public wanted to see. A regime that is more Spartan unless you do the right thing. And of course it’s the kind of thing that left wing pressure groups hate.”

What Grayling seems unable or unwilling to grasp is that in prison everything connects. A late arriving tobacco order may lead to a little borrowing, a debt, bullying, violence…

This week the Ministry of Justice confirmed to OurKingdom that it has cut the food budget from £2.20 per prisoner per day to £1.96 a day. That’s £1.96 in total, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Here’s Grayling’s take on overcrowding, as expressed (smilingly) to the Parliamentary Justice Committee in July: “Prison overcrowding means prisoners sharing a cell… If prisoners have to share a cell in order to make sure they can go to prison this is not a great problem.”

It’s a bit more complicated than that, as Hardwick explained in his annual report:

 “At its worst, overcrowding meant two prisoners sharing a six foot by 10 foot cell designed for one, with bunks along one wall, a table and chair for one, some shelves, a small TV, an unscreened toilet at the foot of the bunks, little ventilation and a sheet as a makeshift curtain. A few prisoners might spend 23 hours a day in such a cell – 20 hours was relatively common in a local prison. Prisoners would eat most of their meals in their cell.”

Overcrowding, said Hardwick, “means that the purposeful activities, rehabilitation programmes and other services and facilities are insufficient for the size of the population.”

David Rasbotham

David Ramsbotham, House of Lords, March 2014

The healthy prison

Fifteen years ago, after the number of suicides in prison leapt from 68 one year to 83 in the next — (we’re now at 88 and rising), the then Chief Inspector of Prisons David (now Lord) Ramsbotham, led an investigation into why it was happening and what might be done about it.

Ramsbotham consulted prison governors, staff and prisoners, Coroners and organisations such as Inquest, Death on Remand, Cruse, the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust. Ramsbotham, who’d been a four star general in the British Army, met with relatives of nine prisoners who had died in prison “whose courage in coming to meet with us,” he said, “I recognise and admire.”

He concluded: “The total experience of imprisonment affects suicidal behaviour.”

His report set out the concept of a “healthy prison”, the key constituents, “a safe environment, treating people with respect, a full, constructive and purposeful regime and resettlement training to prevent reoffending.”

He titled his report “Suicide is everyone’s concern”, explaining why: “Central to my recommendations is the need for a ringing declaration from the Home Secretary, through the Director-General, to everyone in the Prison Service, that suicide and self-harm can and will be reduced, and that accountability for delivering that reduction begins at the top and goes right down to the bottom.”

Tellingly, the current Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick quoted Ramsbotham’s plea in his annual report.

From this government there is no ringing declaration that suicide and self-harm can and will be reduced. Prison conditions are getting worse. Expect more grief. Unwelcome. Unhappy. Preventable.

Clare Sambrook

Clare Sambrook, novelist and award-winning investigative journalist, edits the Shine a Light project at OurKingdom, the UK arm of openDemocracy. Clare is a co-founder of End Child Detention Now.

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