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What Now For a UK Prison System In Crisis?

In November 2016 Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham experienced the worst disorder in our Jail System since the infamous HMP Strangeways uprising took place during April 1990. Birmingham was formerly the notorious hard time jail Winston Green. But a name change and the sub contracting of services to G4S seems to have made matters worse rather than better.


600 offenders went on the rampage finally catapulting the developing and fast moving crises in the prison system onto the news. When the coalition came to power in May 2010 virtually the first cut announced by Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was an eye watering 20% reduction in resources allocated to prisons.

A Deputy Governor at a medium sized Cat B/C prison in the North agreed to be interviewed for our book, “Through Red Lenses” and he told us that the whole thing would come crashing down and it would make Birmingham look like a teddy bear’s picnic. “You’re thinking, “he would say that wouldn’t he?” as we are a spending part of the public sector. But I’m saying that we are on the bones of our arse as it is. If we didn’t have tellies in cells then it would kick off today. Due to a freeze (by Chancellor Alistair Darling) in real terms we are having earlier bang ups as it is, and prisoners can be behind their doors 21 hours a day at the weekend. We have cut officers and replaced them with barely qualified guards who can’t open a cell unless it’s a life or death situation. I know of a prison where only ONE officer is on duty overnight. The rest are non qualified guards.” We can verify this as we visited there and were told the same thing. “It’s a ticking time bomb. A question of if, not when someone is killed by disorder”, concluded our anonymous source.

Government is paralysed by indecision. Justice Secretary Liz Truss could do nothing or make any announcements until the charismatic Chancellor Phil “exciting” Hammond loosened the purse strings. Last week a paltry £12 million extra was announced. Truss decided to play the politics of divide and rule by hiking the pay of officers in just 31 jails by between £3 to £5 K a year. This was spun as an attempt to stem the hemorrhaging of  7,000 officers leaving their jobs since 2010. Instead the move had a devastating effect on morale in the other 119 prisons.

Truss came to the Commons last week and was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Her Party’s ethos is, “prison works” as Michael Howard told rapturous Tory ladies at the 1993 Conservative Party Conference. This hang ’em and flog ’em strain binds the hands of any Tory Minister with reform in mind, as Ken Clarke found during his second stint in charge of the Justice system. He was moved aside in 2012 just two years into the Parliament.

Fortunately the antics in Washington surrounding the new Administration, and BREXIT dominated the news agenda and Truss was temporarily off the hook. That was until the broadcast of a BBC Panorama documentary which showed open defiance of officers, drunkenness and overt drug taking. Spice is the new choice and it’s effects are truly horrific for not just the imbiber but anyone in the vicinity who accidentally inhales the fumes, including officers as the film demonstrated.

Whether or not prisons are part of the news agenda depends on how much violence, scandal and drug taking are available for the delectation of the tabloid press. This means that the public perception is warped. A certain cab driver never failed to deliver the bon mots, Holiday Camp when my destination was HMP Hull. I could feel my hackles rising but only embarrassment for the organisation I represented would have been the result. Everyone is the expert it seems. This issue sums up what an uphill struggle it is for Socialists with a significant minority of our own class who are rightly angry and feel the establishment is deaf to their needs. The quick fix, “lock ’em, prison works” sates (very temporarily) their ire.

Going Underground is a politics programme that aims to take an alternative view of matters. Broadcast by RT UK and anchored by Afshin Rattansi guests come from across the political spectrum and you are as likely to see the DUP debate the Tories as on Sky News. The general pro Putin bias is less noticeable than on other RT UK shows and Rattansi, unlike the inexorable George Galloway who cannot stop his urge for self promotion or ranting at others with whom he disagrees, allows the guests to reflect and answer his probing questions.

In a Special last week the subject was prison with the POA Union Chair MIke Rolfe debating with Tory Justice Select Committee Phil Davies MP. Dear old Phil. He once suggested that disabled people really ought to work for less than the minimum wage to make them more competitive and that Muslims should fly the Union flag, or, “fuck off” (Guardian 16th April 2011).

Surprisingly arch free marketeer Davies described selling off prison contracts as, “a privatisation too far.” Both Rattansi and Rolfe looked suitably flabbergasted. The latter outlined the crisis facing the service, “You can’t lock more people up whilst cutting staffing to dangerous levels and slashing the overall budget”. Davies appeared to agree but looked non plussed when the anchor made the link between £500 billion in bank guarantees and the actual deficit caused by pumping £48 billion in liquidity in one October 2008 weekend alone. He then went on to make dubious claims that 50% remission on sentences is a legal requirement. Davies suggested that most sentences should run their full term. You hear this a lot from politicians because they think it’s what the red tops, and therefore working class people want to hear. They forget that this just increases the prison population, puts more strain on less staff, removes incentives to comply and squeezes resources aimed at rehabilitation.

Rolfe made the point that the deprofessionalisation of prison officers has seen morale, and thus discipline plummet. Comparing one Northern jail to three others I couldn’t agree more. A certain prison had a disastrous inspection in 2011 and the report criticised the atmosphere. I was waiting to go into a meeting and observed very poor offender behaviour where groups of lads were allowed to loiter on movement, and openly laughed at, and defied officers whom they called by first name as per company policy. Analysis of data provided by the operating company to a committee showed rising issues with gang violence, drugs and attacks on staff. These correlated with information from other jails and by 2013/4 matters were running away from the authorities.

The loss of confidence for officers has led to a recruitment crisis. Who would want to go to work in such a violent environment? (O.K, best not answer that. But I have to say I saw, or heard very little Life on Mars attitudes from officers). A cursory google search reveals that for 6 weeks training you can be on the wings as an assistant, often alone with offenders for £20,545. According to the Office of National Statistics this is just over £7K below the national average. As a result working in prison is now very much not the high status it was twenty years ago.

Prof. John Podmore the Governor of HMP Brixton for three years in the mid ‘noughties and is widely credited with turning round a failing establishment. He points the finger firmly at New Labour whose paranoia with being accused of weakness regarding law and order saw the prison population rise a staggering 41,850 to a high of 86,217 falling back to 84,857 in December 2016 (Source: Prison Reform Trust/ HM Ministry of Justice). This is despite crime falling by over 40% during New Labour’s 13 year term in office.  Podmore states categorically that, “50,000 can be released immediately with absolutely no threat to the public”. He argues that Labour’s “Kafkaesque” approach to crime, allied to the profit motive for private companies has seen the UK follow the USA down the industrial scale mass incarceration route. Therefore Government benefits by being perceived as, “Tough on crime” , the media thirst for crime stories is slaked and private contractors watch the money roll in. And if they screw up either deny it or blame a worker bee rather than any systemic failure.

Podmore is clear that the issue of private contractors is key. By undermining the transparency and accountability of Governors to Parliament and the public, they contribute to the debate via lobbying politicians to bang people up for very spurious reasons at a cost of between £37,000 to an eye watering £110K at the new private jail HM Kent. Follow the money has never been more apt.

Tory boot boy Home Secretary Michael Howard was wrong. Prison does not work. This is unless you are a shareholder of G4S and Crapita who are involved in “delivering” contracts. The Universities of Crime have career success rates their academic counterparts would be proud of. According to the ONS these criminal graduates cost the taxpayer £13 billion and year with 3/4 of these cost being raked up by those serving less than a year. And that’s not taking into account the far more important human cost to victims and indeed children of offenders. The Prison Reform Trust estimate that 200,000 youngsters have one parent in prison every year since 2002.

Socialists realise that punishment is part of the purpose of prison. But crucially the theory of, “Pour Encourager Les Autres” (deterrence) in sentencing policy has no bearing as few criminals think they are going to get caught. We must shift the emphasis onto rehabilitation by recognising things like 20% of offenders have been in care (it’s 0.9% in the general population) and that there are more people in prison (21K) with mental health issues than there are in hospitals (16K). Then there are issues with addiction, homelessness, unemployment and PTSD from serving in the armed forces.

Whilst societal issues place most people in the judicial firing line it is a fact that the vast majority of crimes are committed against property and thus against the capitalist system. back in the 18th century the ruling classes simply executed workers for so called theft of goods, usually food. Then when capital needed labour to subdue and then colonise what they called the New World, transportation became the norm, even for murder. Moving into the 20th century the UK imprisoned workers to re educate them to evolve into useful producers of wealth for capital.

Ultimately we can tinker at the edges but  capitalism cannot deal with its problem of crime any more than it can with bad housing, mental sickness, war, and destitution.Beveridge, it could be argued began this process but successive government failed to deliver. We need a Socialist, 21st version because all these issues are part of one great problem; Capitalism which can be solved only by a conscious action to end the society which imprisons us all.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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