15:22, July 18 76 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-18 15:22:03
The Guardian view on England’s prisons: a national humiliation

Nelson Mandela once observed: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” Most of us will never find out what life is like in prison, but the official version is that conditions behind bars in England and Wales are grim and getting worse. There have been, says the prison inspectorate, startling increases in violence. Buildings are filthy, crumbling and often infested with rats and cockroaches. The number of prisoners killing themselves has more than doubled since 2013, with 113 taking their own lives in the year to March. Despite a fall in female prisoner numbers, women behind bars self-harm at five times the rate of their male counterparts – a worrying indication of how vulnerable these inmates are. The most shocking finding of all was that not a single establishment inspected in England and Wales was safe to hold children and young people. If the words of Mr Mandela, perhaps modern history’s most famous prisoner, were taken literally, Britain would truly be beyond the pale.

The government has been the author of this crisis. Political choices were made about public spending that meant cutting the budget for prisons in real terms by more than a fifth over the past six years. There are a quarter fewer prison officers than in 2010, but they are responsible for a similar number of prisoners. Violence has risen sharply – with assaults on staff up by an astonishing 70% since 2009. More drugs and fewer staff is a dangerous mix, one that the inspectorate picks up on. Resources have been stretched so much that in November 2016, staff shortages coupled with riots and breakouts led to mass walkouts by prison officers. Belatedly, the chancellor finally woke up to the crisis and found £104m for a recruitment drive for an additional 2,500 prison officers – in effect reversing almost half of the staff cuts made since 2010. If there is a better example of the self-defeating nature of austerity, then answers on a postcard to HM Treasury.

But it is not only the budget. The Conservatives have also made a complete hash of prison policy. Ken Clarke, David Cameron’s first justice secretary, had the right idea in addressing sentencing, only to be removed for being too liberal. His replacement was the disastrous Chris Grayling whose tin-eared tenure was epitomised by his refusal to extend the contract of the then chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, after he robustly criticised policy failures. Michael Gove talked a lot about reform but ignored the most pressing issues of fixing prison overcrowding and supporting staff. It was on the watch of Mr Gove, whose intellectualism is undermined by his faddish prescriptions, that a blueprint of youth justice reform, created by Charlie Taylor – a former headteacher and Gove svengali – was supposed to emerge so children would be safe in a system to address their behaviour. Instead, his successor Liz Truss announced a new youth custody service. The prison inspectorate drily notes that only “time will tell” if it will avoid the “tragedy” it predicts unless urgent corrective action is taken.

However, in easing up on spending, Theresa May is beginning to right the wrongs of previous policy. She has also installed as justice secretary David Lidington, who learned his trade at the side of the old-school Tory Douglas Hurd, whose liberal policies shrank the prison population. He will know that his predecessors have now tried almost everything except the obvious: locking fewer people up. Tories could perhaps emulate Winston Churchill, who in 1910, as Liberal home secretary, let out prisoners serving sentences of less than six months. It would be a bold departure from the recent hysterical trend, whipped up by politicians for two decades, whereby longer sentences are demanded for every offence. But Mr Lidington is a historian, who wrote his PhD on 16th-century penal policies. His quick grasp of his brief has already impressed the judges. Few of them think locking people up helps them or society. He must listen.