A couple of years ago I was invited to a posh lunch held in a prison in Surrey. I can't now remember its name but it ran a training scheme to enable its inmates to qualify for work in the restaurateur industry. The food was good, served very civilly (though the "waiters" had an astonishing number of tattoos on their arms) and I understand the scheme was and still is reasonably successful
In the entrance hall of the prison was a plaque quoting these words by Winston Churchill:
The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.
The quotation is from a speech made by Churchill in 1910, when he was Home Secretary of the Liberal government. More details of the speech can be found here.
I've no means of knowing whether the UK's prison conditions in 1910 would have qualified us as civilised - I suspect not- but at least the recognition and intention were there.
Today's report on the conditions in Liverpool prison (identifying prisoners living with "rats, cockroaches, damp, dirt, damaged windows with jagged glass in the frames, and filthy or leaking toilets".) demonstrates that, a century and more later, we should certainly fail now.
It cannot be said too often and too loudly that the punishment of prison is deprivation of liberty and that is all. It does not include bullying, beating-up or living conditions so squalid that they would be below the minimum standard acceptable "outside."
Some figures given in an article by Chris Tilbury in the January 2018 issue of Prospect show that these unacceptable conditions are not confined to Liverpool, and that overcrowding is a significant, perhaps the most significant, factor
Prison numbers in the UK have increased as follows:
Mid 1950s..................20 000
Late 1980s...................40 000
1997...........................60 000 (this was the year Labour won the election and remained in office for 13 years)
2010...........................88 000 (almost a 50% increase on 1997 - Blair et al being "tough on crime." )
England and Wales have the highest per capita incarceration rate in Western Europe: about 150 per
100 000 population, more than double the Scandinavian rate Along with overcrowding this has led to a staff : inmate ratio of of 1:30 rather than the recommended ideal of 1:10
The local prison for my area, Leeds, (locally known as Armley,) is the third most overcrowded of the prisons in England and Wales, at 169% of capacity. The most overcrowded is Swansea at 175%.
Such overcrowding is almost certainly a contributory cause to some of these statistics (for England and Wales,) comparing 2010 and 2016.
Suicides 58 199
Recorded incidents of self-harm 26 979 40 000
Recorded assaults on prison staff 2 848 6 844
Recorded inmate-on inmate assaults 11 244 19 088
Tilbury's article is entitled "I predict a riot."
Clearly something pretty drastic must be done if we are to enter, or re-enter, the ranks of civilised society. University Departments of Criminology are presumably brimful of suggestions. My own, inexpert, ones are:
- drastically cut down the numbers sent to prison. There is little point in sending someone to prison who is not a danger to society if at liberty.
- abolish mandatory and minimum sentences. Expert judges and informed jurors are in the best position to make decisions appropriate to each individual case.
- beef-up the Probation Service, (and take it back into the public sphere, along with the privatised prisons. Profit-maximisation should have no place in the sphere of personal liberty)
- reverse the 22% austerity cut in the service, enabling both keeping the physical facilities in decent condition and pay rates to attract and retain qualified and experienced prison officers.
- spend lavishly on the prison education service.
- and just as lavishly on the medical services, especially on mental health.
It was a Tory minister who said that "prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse."
It is estimated that re-offending at present costs between £9bn and £13bn a year. So we need to spend now both to reduce future costs and pass "one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of [our] country."