Her Majesty’s Prison in Leeds has been the latest facility to feature in a string of reports exposing just how overcrowded, under-resourced and inhumane UK prisons have become in recent years. The report, based on an inspection that took place at the end of 2017, found 1,127 inmates being housed in an establishment with a “certified normal capacity” of 669. Since HMP Leeds’ last inspection in 2015, the prison has seen absolutely “no improvements” in living conditions.
With the UK prison population now at 86,000, our country has one of the highest ratios of inmates to ordinary citizens in the EU. Our ratio is double the likes of some of our neighbours, including France and Germany.
A photograph taken from the Strangeways riots in 1990, after overcrowding and living conditions in prisons reached similarly shocking levels (Source: Manchester Evening News)
Sentences are getting longer, prison budgets are repeatedly being cut alongside other public services, and yet overcrowding is reaching horrifying levels, compounded with a dramatic increase in serious assaults between inmates. Community service sentences have also halved since 2006, despite their proven success at reducing re-offending. Everything the government has done this last decade has only exacerbated the prison crisis.
Whilst it has reached the odd headline here and there in the news, it seems that the paucity of our prison services still belong to the age-old phrase: ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Ed Miliband summarised the dire state of affairs on his ironically named podcast Reasons To Be Cheerful: “In 2016, 344 people died in prison, from which they reckon 120 were suicides. There were 26,000 assaults, that’s nearly 500 a week, and riot teams were called out nearly 600 times. There were more than 2,500 fires and 40,000 acts of self-harming. It’s a pretty grim story.”
As these conditions worsen, the percentage of inmates to officers gets ever higher, creating an increasingly unruly and threatening environment. This results in staff gradually leaving the prison service just years into their careers, put off by working in these stressful contexts.
HMP Gartree in Leicestershire, which largely houses high-risk inmates with life-sentences, is one example amid a sea of prisons that have been classified this last month as “unsafe because of staff shortages”.
Scotland’s HMP Inverness, one of the country’s oldest and smallest prisons, is “no longer fit for purpose” and is scheduled to undergo a complete rebuild in the coming years. As conditions have reached this critical level, the prison has seen an alarmingly “high turnover of senior leaders”.
The examples are endless, and span the whole country. But what doesn’t make sense is the fact that the crime rate has actually been going down. There is no consistency between the overspilling numbers of inmates in UK prisons, and these falling crime rates. When the Labour Party was last in power, Tony Blair and his colleagues took on the appearance of “tackling crime”, putting more people away for milder crimes with longer sentences. This stance has become incredibly meaningless and ineffectual, as what’s really happening is that crime rates are dropping, and rapidly at that. So we’re locking more people away, when in actual fact, there is absolutely no need.
It’s precisely these sorts of actions, performed to win mindless reactionary backing from the public, which leave our public services in disarray. Crimes should be treated with the severity they deserve but we must also accept that not all crime can meet the same hard line that pushes these prisons into critical overcrowding and staff drop out rates.
The longer public services such as our prisons are confused with political agendas, the longer we will see public services deplete and decay, lacking any direct hand of experience. As we know, politicians really don’t know best.
The press will spin stories that prisons are too comfortable, but the reality is very different, and it is a reality that doesn’t receive popular readership in the mainstream media. Hence, prisons go on to be vilified and put on the back-burner, a topic of debate avoided by politicians for fear of ruining their reputation amongst voters. The taxpayers don’t want to read that their hard-earned money is going on making prisons “more comfortable”. Once we disband this misleading rhetoric, and truly expose the dire straits our prisons are in, perhaps our nation will uncover their lost sense of empathy on this topic.