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Expert Comment: Is the prison system in crisis?

Ms Emily Hart Tuesday 16 September 2014

As Justice Secretary Chris Grayling denies that England and Wales's prison system is in a state of crisis, Lecturer in Criminology Dr Emily Luise Hart assesses the facts.

Recent comments by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling have denied that England and Wales’s prison system is in a state of crisis despite a spate of recent reports highlighting increases in levels of violence and self-inflicted deaths, cuts to staff numbers and a series of damning inspections. Francis Crook, The Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded saying that she agrees with Grayling- the prison system is not in crisis, it is in a state of emergency.

The figures are difficult to argue with. The ongoing program of austerity has led to cuts in staff numbers which directly corresponds to the increased levels of violence and suicide at a time when the prison population is rising with a 2% increase in the last 12 months. Official figures released in July from the Ministry of Justice show the number of assaults by prisoners in England and Wales having risen to 15,033 in 2013-14 from 14,083 in 2012-13. In addition, these statistics also show a record number of serious assaults which includes attacks by prisoners on staff. Most worryingly, the figures show a significant increase in the numbers of self-inflicted deaths in custody from 52 in the 12 months to March 2013 to 88 in the 12 months to March 2014. This is the highest rate since 2005. At the same time the National Offender Management Service reported that 28 out of 126 jails were ‘of concern’, the third of four ratings, and one was in the lowest ‘of serious concern’ category.

These figures are a direct result of severe cuts to prison staffing levels. The Howard League for Penal Reform reported that prison officer numbers in England and Wales had been cut by 30% over three years, from 27,650 officer grade staff in September 2010 to 19,325 in September 2013 with some prisons having the number of officers halved in only three years. Finally there have been a number of recent damning reports on both Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions by the Prison Inspectorate including Geln Parva, Feltham, Aylesbury, Brinsford, Isis and the shocking report into Wormwood Scrubs with the report stating that deteriorating standards directly linked to the cuts in funding and declining staffing levels. Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, said his office found that Wormwood Scrubs, which holds nearly 1,300 inmates, had "declined in almost every aspect" over the last three years with prisoners held in cells for 23 hours a day.

It is worth noting that these criminal justice cuts are not limited to prisons and have impacted on wider areas of the system. In terms of women offenders the vital network of women’s centres which offer holistic support to women with complex needs, those at risk of offending, women on bail or women who have committed low-level crimes, have struggled to remain open as funding streams have dried up and centres have had to make cuts to staff and discontinue vital projects.

The neo-liberal politics, ideologically motivated austerity measures and continuous attack on prisoners’ human rights (see recent ‘lights out’ policy in YOI’s, books for prisoner’s campaign and debates around voting rights) has meant that the reformist agenda has never been less effective. It presents a veneer of improvements while masking discriminatory systems and practices. Now is therefore the time to reopen the debate for prison abolition. Prison does not work, in fact it kills people. It also increases the likelihood of re-offending, fractures families and communities, causes and exacerbates mental illness, increases levels of substance misuse, curtails employment prospects and increases personal debt. Locking people up is also an expensive endeavour which uses vital public funds which could be spent on far more effective targeted community based support.

Obviously there are some offenders who are a direct danger to communities and need to be in secure accommodation but these are a small minority (70% of male prisoners and 80% of female are non-violent offenders) and the real answer lies in tackling the underlying causes of crime: social exclusion, poverty, inequality in all its forms, lack of representation and unequal distributions of power. The state of a nation’s prison system is said to be an illustration of the state of the country itself. I think the evidence speaks for itself.

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