As a crisis in our prison system intensifies, Saul Jay assesses the current state of the UK prison system, and how the situation is ripe for an explosion.
Imagine you’re the Secretary of State for Justice– you’ve got a die-hard commitment to appearing ‘tough on crime’, which results in in a constantly rising prison population and in the same instant maintaining a neo-liberal commitment to efficiency and cost cutting. You’ve recently closed several prisons, resulting in massive staff layoffs.The remaining prisons that are left to you are dangerously over full and their budget is next to nothing. What do you do?
If you’re the kind of person who reads anarchist news websites, you’re unlikely to ever find yourself in a position anything like this. But it’s exactly the situation that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has created for himself. And his solution is one only a Tory could love – ignore the overcrowding, staff the prisons with ‘reservist’ screws on zero hours contracts and continue to massacre the budget.
Given the current state of prisons in the UK, any one of those things would constitute a newsworthy deterioration in conditions, but under Grayling’s regime they all seem depressingly business as usual. Cuts already imposed have reduced funds available for food to around £1 a day per prisoner in some institutions (despite low quality food being a frequent factor in prison riots). Changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) since November have seen a massive increase in the number of people kept on ‘basic’ status – which amounts to 22 hours confined to a cell every day. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the number of suicides and instances of self harm have also shot up. Add to this a dangerous lack of both medical supplies and staff and the picture is already pretty bleak. While Grayling claims there is “anything but a crisis”, the chief inspector of prisons has said the system is just ‘not coping’.
HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest in Western Europe, is currently running at 169% capacity. That means there are around 1600 inmates in a facility built to house around 940. But its one of 40 prisons that have just been told to make space for more prisoners – Grayling calls this ‘opening up reserve capacity’ and assures us all that ‘sensible steps’ are being taken to ensure that all can be accommodated. Since many single person cells already hold two to three people, some are suggesting that the only way to fit any more inmates in will be to start installing twin beds.
Not content with cramming cells to bursting, Grayling has also found other ways of making prisoners lives even more miserable – packages containing books have been banned, uniforms reintroduced and many people inside have claimed that ‘rehabilitative work’ has totally dried up, leaving them confined in their cells with nothing to do. It’s not hard to imagine that the combination of crap food, overfull cells, effective solitary confinement and sheer boredom has put a fair amount of people at Her Majesty’s Pleasure on edge. In fact, the head of the Prison Governers Association recently said he can’t remember a time where there were so many problems in the prison sector. Surely someone has to keep a lid on all this, which brings us back to those retired screws and their zero hours contracts.
Closing down 16 prisons in the space of 4 years has had the knock on effect of manufacturing a massive shortage of staff. The government’s current plan to fix this is to create a state run temping agency through the institution of a pool of reserve officers who can be shipped into whichever prison is most in need. Grayling has said he wants to create “access to the kind of temporary or agency staff routinely found in our health and education systems” – anyone who’s worked in those sectors as a temp might suggest that it isn’t the best model to follow.
The fact that the scheme has been unpopular with former prison officers might have something to do with the fact the Ministry of Justice is using the scheme to mess with pensions and is demanding that anyone who takes the offer up is to pay back any early retirement payments they received. The slow take up might also have something to do with the deteriorating circumstances described above, creating one of the the most volatile situations since the Strangeways riots a decade a go. Screw or not, who would want to put themselves through that for the possibility of some temp work?
While, as Angela Davis points out, no amount of prison reform will ever really tackle the issues at the core of the prison system , for the sake of prisoners’ mental wellbeing and physical safety, something has to change in the way prisons are being run. The Justice Secretary claims that ‘more criminals going to jail is what people want, which is probably very easy to believe if you spend all day with other bigots, but the heavy handed, clumsy and short sighted way he’s mismanaged the prison system can only go on so long before something gives in a big way.
The Conservative party might gain a few votes from the hang em n’ flog em crowd, but the saddest thing is that when it does all blow up, it’ll be the people inside who suffer – not the bastards who’ve made this mess.
Anarchist Black Cross
Anarchist Black Cross are a network of local, prisoner support groups that support political prisoners both internationally and in the UK. In contrast to Amnesty International, ABC groups support revolutionaries who have committed illegal activities to further their political aims, as well as those who have been most brutalised by the prison system as it exists today. Find your nearest ABC: