Prison Crisis and the Penal Merry-Go-Round

Posted in: Law, law enforcement and crime, Public services, Security and defence, Welfare and social security

Yvonne Jewkes is Professor of Criminology in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath.

On a recent visit to HMP Dartmoor, many prisoners I met were anxious for news about who the new Prisons Minister was. Had I heard anything? Could I hazard a guess? Why hadn’t there been an immediate announcement?

After an anxious eight day wait for those at the sharp end of prison policy, it was finally revealed that the new Minister of State responsible for prisons and probation is Robert Buckland QC. Many commentators have lamented the departure of Rory Stewart, who has gone to the Department for International Development, leaving behind him a prison system in turmoil, with assaults on prisoners and prison staff at record levels and a drugs crisis that, according to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) is “out of control”. Many supporters of Stewart have referred to his genuine desire to make a positive difference, but others have expressed cynicism about his departure, particularly given his promise to resign if he failed to markedly reduce drugs and violence in ten of the prisons most afflicted with these problems. Now looking rather like a cheap publicity stunt, a recent news report commented that had he stayed, he would shortly be handing in his notice.

Robert Buckland has inherited a multitude of problems. Indeed, in the very week he took over as prisons minister, it was announced that three prisoners had died within 16 days at HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes, and that a Dutch court had refused to extradite a suspected drugs smuggler in the belief that he was at “real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment” if he was returned to the UK. It was anticipated that the man would serve his sentence at HMP Liverpool, a prison that was described in an unannounced Inspection report as enduring “conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century”. Whether Buckland is able to stop the rot in our prison system remains to be seen – though with speculation over the resignation date of Prime Minister Theresa May continuing unabated in the news media – it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there will soon be a fifth justice minister in five years.

Criminologists have been referring to the ‘prison crisis’ for at least four decades, but the problems have indisputably worsened since government-imposed austerity measures were introduced in 2010. Prison budgets have been cut by a quarter in England and Wales, and frontline prison staff have been reduced by one-third, despite prisoner numbers remaining stable at around 85,000. The Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales summed-up the crisis when he said that the “simple and unpalatable truth” is that prisons have become “unacceptably violent and dangerous places” characterised by poor mental health, drug use, and the “perennial problems of overcrowding [and] poor physical environments”.

The man at the helm of the Ministry of Justice, Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, is the only one who remains at the Ministry since the reshuffle in January last year, though he is the fourth Secretary of State for Justice in the last three years. Rory Stewart served beneath him as prisons minister for only 16 months. And herein lies at least part of the problem. No minister is in post for long enough to fully comprehend the problems that plague our prison system and come up with a long-term strategy for improvement.

My research suggests that the ‘penal merry-go-round’ is destined to keep returning us to a state of crisis, because whatever ‘solutions’ are tested, and however humane and enlightened political soundbites of the kind regularly voiced by Stewart may appear, they end up being short-term publicity vehicles that are underpinned by deeply entrenched penal philosophies. One such belief that the government remains wedded to is the notion that prisons should punish offenders, while at the same time rehabilitating them. Not only are these mutually exclusive goals, but their chances of being simultaneously realised within a context that demands both protection for the public and value for money, are remote. In short, the lurching carnival ride through countless and sometimes conflicting penal ideologies underlines the failure of those in power to find a coherent, sustainable and legitimate set of principles to guide what prisons are actually for.

Dickensian prisons and the Daily Mail agenda

Another entrenched penal philosophy that raises paradoxical problems for the new prisons minister is that the popular media peddle images of vermin-infested Victorian gaols that have no place in the 21st century, while at the same time characterising ‘modern’ custodial environments that are hygienic or humane as “holiday camps” – even though most are designed along similar panoptic lines to their mid-nineteenth century predecessors, and have inherited many ‘Victorian’ problems, including high rates of mental illness, self-harm and suicide.

As the current Government plans four new prisons, it will be the features that might be described as humane (e.g. bar-less windows and in-cell telephones) that exercise the popular press, not the fact that government-imposed austerity measures mean fewer and less experienced staff, more lock-up time for inmates, and a greater likelihood of prisoners resorting to drugs to relieve pain and boredom. That the popular press can influence penal policy to such a degree is troubling, but “will it pass the Daily Mail test?” remains a constant refrain among civil servants and ministers.

Back in 2016, in the Queen’s Speech, then Prime Minister David Cameron announced a “new-for-old” strategy, vowing to close and replace the Victorian prison stock, describing these ancient gaol houses as “ageing, ineffective, creaking, leaking and coming apart at the seams”. Yet according to a recent report by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, led by Bob Neill MP, the new-for-old policy is not working because sites for new prisons have proved difficult to obtain, and receipts from the sale of existing sites do not cover the costs of building new facilities. Prison population pressures continue to grow unabated, due to ‘sentence inflation’, i.e. higher rates of custodial detention relative to other available sentences, and with increasingly lengthy tariffs, and many prisoners are forced to share cells that were designed for single occupancy. Moreover, the current annual cost for maintenance of prisons is £716 million, yet the sum allocated (in 2018) was £90 million. And while the Government committed to invest £1.3 billion in prisons in the 2015 spending review, the amount actually spent (by August 2018) was £0.2 billion, with only one new prison, HMP Berwyn, being completed in the period.

Meanwhile, every time a prison wing has to be refurbished following a disturbance or simply because age and attrition make it unsafe, it costs approximately £500,000. The aforementioned report by the Commons Justice Committee report notes that it will cost £6.1 million to replace all the windows in HMP Birmingham. A statement by the Chief Inspector of Prisons accompanying an Urgent Notification that he issued in August 2018, which resulted in Birmingham being taken from G4S’s control back into the state sector, illustrates the “dramatic deterioration” of the prison and the inertia to the environmental decay – including the “hundreds of broken windows”. In addition, HMCIP catalogue the “pool of blood that had apparently been there for two days, next to numerous rat droppings”, the “exposed electrics” in “squalid and unfit” cells and the arson attack in the staff car park during the week of HMIP’s inspection – all of which had a devastating impact on the operation and management of the prison.

At the other end of the prison pipeline, the government estimates that the cost of reoffending is £15 billion a year. And while the current planning and construction of four new prisons might go some way to alleviate the pressure on the system (though if projected prison numbers continue along the same upward trajectory as they have for the last four decades, they will not) there needs to be a radical rethink of custodial design. One of the problems with new prison design in England and Wales is the requirement to bring a new prison facility in on budget (or better still, under budget), and make it suitable not only for the security classification of prisoners it will hold, but also for higher-security inmates if there is a future need, resulting in ‘value-engineering’ and ‘future-proofing’ becoming the mantras of architects. In turn, these requirements mean that prisons tend to be designed, not as places of care, hope and aspiration, but simply as buildings in which to contain people designated according to various real and imagined assessments of risk.

New prisons must be more than “fit-for-purpose”

Planning a new prison is a complex, politically-charged undertaking, irrespective of size, location or purpose. The ongoing conversations that the prison services in the UK and Ireland are engaged in regarding future strategies for their prison estates – all of which have a focus on improving opportunities for rehabilitation, resettlement and reintegration – are to be welcomed. However, some of the proposals being shared in consultation documents and briefings in all four jurisdictions indicate a lack of ambition among high-level stakeholders and a failure to regard the current phase of strategic planning as an opportunity, even in the current climate of financial austerity, to plan prisons that are not simply fit-for-purpose but are forward-thinking examples of international best practice.  Prisons could be places of rehabilitation in both its senses – desistance from future offending, and also repair or healing of broken individuals.

But, in the main, official rhetoric is focused on the former. Understandably, politicians want to reduce recidivism without attracting scathing headlines about being ‘soft’ on crime, and where there has been a willingness to explore design innovation, it has been women’s prisons that are regarded as safe spaces for a more experimental, ‘therapeutic’ approach. For example, former Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove used his Longford Lecture in 2016 to defend his record (which included a reduction in the female prison population, but very little focus on improving the lot of men in custody), by saying he started with the women’s estate to “try and change hearts and minds” before tackling the more controversial reforms required in the men’s estate. Alas, the penal merry-go-round moved on (when Gove was sacked from post in a leadership challenge) and the man who many thought had a genuine vision for penal reform was gone.

Modern prison warehouses do little to rehabilitate the offender and arguably do even less to engage the public with questions about the purpose of imprisonment and the harms that prisons do. The high-security architecture that holds medium-security prisoners might be regarded as a barometer for understanding the methods and parameters of state power, as security in prisons has run parallel to its rise in prominence in an increasingly risk-attuned and retributive society. But our bloated penal system is unsustainable in both human and financial terms and a new approach is long overdue. Let us hope that the new Minister of State is in post for long enough to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Professor Jewkes gratefully acknowledges the support of the ESRC: for funding ES/R010145/1 ‘The “Rehabilitation Prison”: An oxymoron or an opportunity to radically reform imprisonment?’ and ES/K011081/1 ‘"Fear-suffused environments" or potential to rehabilitate? Prison architecture, design and technology and the lived experience of carceral spaces’.

Posted in: Law, law enforcement and crime, Public services, Security and defence, Welfare and social security


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