10 April 2024

Britain’s prisons are screwed


I’d been thinking about writing a book about our current crisis in prisons since 2016. Back then, it was the height of the austerity programme that played an integral role in destroying an organisation I had once proudly served in. I was once temporarily in charge of Erlestoke prison. It’s a small category C jail buried in the hills outside Devises in Wiltshire. I had very fond memories of a cohesive staff group who were able to balance security with fairness. Prisons are rarely happy places, but at Erlestoke great relations between prisoners and staff meant hopeful things could happen. In other words, it’s a hard place to get wrong. But then came the riot.

I was both perplexed and horrified at the descent of this decent place into chaos. There were just 15 staff front line staff available to look after 500 prisoners who were boiling with frustration behind cell doors that rarely opened on the weekend Erlestoke went up. The situation was replicated across the country with similar disturbances – faint but unmissable echoes of the national emergency in 1990 when widespread destruction in multiple jails spurred the last great prison reform programme. What happened to make this costly dystopian mess and what could be done to change a situation which has only worsened since?

I was in no danger of running out of material. Managerialism combined with swingeing staff cuts sent every metric of decency and safety deep into the red. Lord Chancellors and Prisons Ministers replaced each other with dizzying speed with no time to appreciate the scale of the problem, and there were precious few votes in tackling it anyway. All this took place as the prison population inexorably rose. Grand plans to replace our Victorian dungeons with purpose built modern units were delayed then dropped as it became clear that we could not build ourselves out of the problem.

Synthetic drugs exploded across the prison estate causing devastation and helping entrench a drugs economy led by organised crime that is now almost too big and too lucrative to fail. My independent Government review of Islamist extremism revealed a senior management of the prison service defined by endless, useless layers of bureaucracy unable or unwilling to stop terrorists in the making. Instead of tackling these major problems, this invisible and unaccountable boss class busied itself with virtue signalling. I still can’t get over the Director General of the Prison Service piously ‘taking the knee’ outside a prison where you would hesitate to house cattle. A vivid representation of a law enforcement agency in terminal decline.

The Covid years saw an unlikely coalition between unions and senior management when there was every legitimate reason to keep prisoners behind their cell doors. And to be fair, the agency did a good job in stopping Covid run amok in a uniquely vulnerable group. However, this represented a plateau in declining performance, not a tuning point. Emergency recruitment to get boots on the landing at any cost has resulted in barely trained and often unsuitable young people thrown into the maw of some of the most hostile working conditions in Europe. These people are now leaving what used to be a vocational job almost faster than they can be recruited.

The only growth in the sector is the ballooning Prison Service Headquarters where non-operational staff sit in judgment of front line staff and Governors doing a near impossible job. As front line staff leave and cannot be replaced, this ineffective part of the machine has increased from 3,454 staff in 2016 to 5,681 at the last count. Somewhere in the acres of spin that try to explain this are indigestible realities: a reoffending rate that now stands at 55% of prisoners. And rates of assault against staff happen at a rate of nearly every hour of every day. Money isn’t the only problem here. On the day of the escape from custody of Daniel Khalife in September last year, 80 prison officers failed to be available for duty. Rock bottom morale is endemic in a workforce that does not believe it is valued by its employer. 

For this reason, my book focuses to a fair degree on the role and the potential of front line prison staff who sometimes feel like an inconvenient necessity to those who are accountable for their performance. The men and women who pull on uniforms each day and walk into places saturated with distress and risk are the invisible heroes of the story. Ludicrous interference by civil servants, many of whom have never met an angry prisoner, have reduced authority and legitimacy on the prison landings. To improve this, we have to restore order and control in places where the state has effectively given up. This will require dramatic surgery, not simply an injection of cash.

We need to do two things. First, get the prison population down to a size that can protect the public by allowing the time and space for staff to help change lives and preventfuture victims of truly dangerous people. The only way to do this in a demand led organisation is to divert all non-violent offenders, particularly those addicted to drugs, into secure NHS treatment facilities. These people do cause harm, to themselves and to the communities they torture, but they have a medical not a criminal justice need. It’s worth remembering that there are prisons where over 50% of those tested randomly have illegal drugs in their system. Prisons where offenders actually develop a drug habit while banged up. Taxpayers are paying £50,000 per offender, and in many cases, prison only makes things worse.

The other thing that needs to be done – and it looks increasingly like this will be Labour’s job – is to have a fundamental review of the organisation and capacity of the executive part of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation service. The Conservatives dodged this despite the evidence of hubris, arrogance and ineptitude. Without fundamental and radical change and a new injection of determined leadership focused on restoring safety, additional investment will be wasted. The problems are serious, but fixable. My book will hopefully continue the debate. The next victims cannot wait. 

Professor Ian Acheson’s book ‘Screwed: Britain’s prison crisis and how to escape it’ is published by Biteback on 11th April.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.