Breaking Point: What's going wrong in Britain's prisons?

Posted On: 
12th December 2016

The prison service is in crisis – with chronic staff shortages, record numbers of prisoner suicides and escalating levels of self-harm and violence. How should the government respond? Former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham and Justice Select Committee chair Bob Neill discuss 

The reduction in prison staff is "the principal reason for the dramatic increase in suicides and violence," Lord Ramsbotham warns

It’s time to ask those with on-the-ground experience to contribute, says Lord Ramsbotham

The record number of suicides in prisons, in the last year, has been branded an epidemic by the Howard League for Penal Reform. I submit that it is much more than that because, rather than a subject in isolation, it is yet further confirmation that our prisons, described by Professor Nick Hardwick, the recently retired chief inspector of prisons, as places of violence, squalor and idleness, are in crisis. 

This crisis has not suddenly occurred, but has been bubbling up for years, as will have been obvious to anyone who has read any one of a number of damning inspection reports over that past 20-plus years. What has, however, tipped the situation over any containable edge is the deliberate reduction in staff numbers by Chris Grayling, when he was secretary of state for justice, coming on top of a number of ill thought-through government interventions in the way prisons are run.

When I was chief inspector of prisons, following the then worst year for suicides, 1998, when there were 82, I was asked by the then prisons minister, now Baroness Quin, to conduct a thematic review of the causes and possible remedies. In my May 1999 report Suicide is Everyone’s Concern, I wrote: “Central to my recommendations is the need for a ringing declaration from the home secretary, through the director general, to everyone in the prison service, that suicide and self-harm can and will be reduced, and that accountability for delivering that reduction begins at the top and goes right down to the bottom. If that needs resources these must be made available, but personal commitment does not cost money.”

Central to doing anything with and for prisoners are staff, and staff/prisoner relationships are the key factor in determining how prisons work. I have always maintained that unless things are right for staff, nothing will be right for prisoners. What’s deplorable is that the deliberate reduction of staff numbers by a third has undermined their ability to do things with and for prisoners, thus undermining that relationship. 

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the reduction is the principal reason for the dramatic increase not only in suicides, but in violence of prisoner-on-staff and prisoner-on-prisoner. It has also gravely affected the protection of the public, because rehabilitation work is virtually at a standstill in some prisons, there not being enough staff to escort prisoners to such activities as work, education or substance abuse treatment.

Prisoners left locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day, with nothing to do, are bound to get bored and frustrated. Full, purposeful and active days should be the norm in prison, and I was interested to find that substance abuse was invariably less in those prisons in which the majority of prisoners had something active to do by day. That was admittedly before the dreadful psychoactive substances added their layer of violence and misery, but I suggest that the logic of the devil finding work for idle hands still applies.

I was sad, but not surprised, when the very responsible Prison Governors Association called for a public inquiry into the state of our prisons because, to my mind, such a call represents a vote of no confidence in the Ministry of Justice and NOMS from which, in recent years, has gushed forth a veritable torrent of unconsulted and unachievable instructions.

In the same spirit, I was sorry to see the secretary of state issue a white paper on prison safety and reform, rather than a green paper, which could have been made subject to a timetabled consultation.

If this crisis is to be resolved, it is essential that everyone, with any knowledge of the facts on the ground, should be given the opportunity to contribute, rather than merely being on the receiving end of yet more under-resourced direction from people who have never worked in prisons. The ball is in Liz Truss’s court.   

Lord Ramsbotham is a Crossbench peer and former chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales (1995-2001) 


Prisons need to prioritise ‘meaningful activity’ and a sense of order and control, says Bob Neill

Talking of a crisis in one of our public services always risks the accusation of ‘crying wolf’ – and often with justification! 

The same cannot be said of our prison system which, be in no doubt, is experiencing a genuine, severe and systemic crisis. If, in the last eight weeks alone, a murder, a riot and two escapes isn’t enough to convince you, then the figures on prisoner suicides recently published by the Howard League and the Centre for Mental Health should. 

On average, a prisoner, for whose welfare the state is responsible on our behalf, takes their own life every three days. Even if we were to forget the exponential rise in prison violence, the dangerous understaffing across the estate, and the failure to reduce tragically high reoffending rates, this figure by itself powerfully makes the case for reform and should shame us into action. 

Of course, prisons play a vital role in keeping us protected from those who pose a risk to public safety and need to be punished for breaking the law. But we must never forget that they are also home to some of Britain’s most vulnerable individuals, many of whom haven’t been dealt a good hand in life, suffer from ill mental health and have a history of severe alcohol or drug dependency. 

Imprisonment – the taking away of one’s liberty – is, in itself, punishment enough. A system that is incapable of protecting those in its custody is not only fundamentally broken, but also, inevitably, flawed in rehabilitating those whose care it is charged with. 

While it is never simple to overcome a problem on this scale, unlike many other complex dilemmas the government faces, the antecedents that have led to this sad state of affairs are easily identifiable and should then be manageable. That is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all – generally speaking, we know how to alleviate this issue. 

As the prisons and probation ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, aptly put it when giving evidence to the justice committee earlier this year: “It remains the case that I am frequently obliged to repeat recommendations and lessons and it can be depressing how little traction we appear to have on occasions.”

The ombudsman, along with many others, including Lord Harris in his excellent review on self-inflicted deaths in custody, are agreed in the causes: the pervasiveness of mental health needs; prison overcrowding; the impact of the use of psychoactive substances, and the knock-on effects of staff shortages, most notably growing violence, a reliance on confinement (with many prisoners locked up for 23 hours every day), and the impossibility of adequately monitoring inmates when so overstretched. 

The damning evidence that suicides have risen by 53% since 2011 should signal that we are getting this wrong and an urgent rethink is needed. Prisoners should be given meaningful activity, opportunities to learn and socialise must be prioritised, and the sense of hopeless emptiness, which is sadly often tangible, replaced with order and control. 

More than this, the prison estate requires a serious overhaul. Too often prisoners, scared to leave their room, self-isolate, and it is not uncommon to see three inmates share a cell that was designed by the Victorians for one. Considerably more staff are needed and, over time, we must reduce the prison population by remaining open-minded to alternatives to custody in less serious cases. 

The Ministry of Justice has shown promise, most notably in the measures detailed in its white paper, and should be congratulated on securing additional funding in the autumn statement a fortnight ago. But given that five others will have committed suicide since then, time is of the essence. Action, not words, is urgently required. 

It was Fyodor Dostoyevsky – that great author of Crime and Punishment – who wrote that the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. On that basis, as things stand, we have been found wanting.   

Bob Neill is Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chairman of the justice committee