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Expert comment: What is wrong with our prisons?

Prison Friday 19 January 2018

Professor of Criminal Justice and Head of Law George Mair looks at the state of British prisons, following a damning review of conditions in Liverpool Prison.

As of this morning (Friday 19th January), there were 84,574 prisoners in custody in England and Wales. This figure is high and has been so for some years - in 1991 the prison population was only around 41,000. Today, Liverpool Prison was accused of having the worst living conditions for inmates that prison inspectors had ever seen. Yesterday, the Chief Inspector of Prisons invoked the Urgent Notification process for Nottingham Prison, on the basis that the prison was judged to be fundamentally unsafe for inmates. These are serious claims and the Prison Inspectorate do not make them lightly. So what is happening in our prisons?

First, there are far too many inmates, which leads to overcrowding. Crime has been falling for 20 years or more, what crime there is has not been more serious, so why is the prison population so high? This is partly to do with sentence inflation, partly to do with recalling prisoners who have been released and are not keeping to their licence conditions. We, as a society, are more punitive and this is a disturbing trend.

Second, since austerity became the main driver of government policy in 2010, prisons have been starved of funding. The number of frontline prison officers - those who deal with inmates on a daily basis - dropped by 30 per cent between 2010 - 2013. The lack of staff means that prisoners - many of whom are vulnerable - are not given the levels of monitoring that are necessary. They are locked in their cells for most of the day. Lack of funds also means that prisons are not refurbished and cleaned to satisfactory levels, so conditions deteriorate. As a result, there have been significant increases in prisoners committing suicide, self-harm, and assaults on both inmates and prison staff.

Third, specialist medical staff are difficult to recruit and retain, and so inmates who require such help – and many prisoners have mental and physical health problems – are missing out.

There have been what are officially termed ‘disturbances’ at half a dozen prisons in the last 18 months or so, and there is no reason to think these will not continue.

Many policy areas have been starved of money since 2010, but there is an urgent need for funding for our prisons. If we wish to try to rehabilitate prisoners, we cannot keep them in squalid conditions, locked up for 23 hours a day, with little medical help. It was in fact, not Churchill, but the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who spent time in prison), who said that you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners. If this is the case, then what do Liverpool and Nottingham prisons tell us about ourselves?

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