10:33, August 02 272 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-02 10:33:02
Why are prisoners rioting? Serial ministerial incompetence

Today is the second day of rioting at the Mount prison, and “disturbances” across the prison system in England and Wales are becoming increasingly frequent. Levels of violence and self-harm in our prisons are the highest they’ve been in decades. The president of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, was right to express “grave concerns” and call for a stronger government response.

The basic reasons for the riots, violence and self-harm in prison are not complicated. There are 25% fewer operational staff, and the staff there are aren’t sufficiently skilled or experienced. Staff are hampered by poorly designed buildings. The dilapidated HMP Wandsworth is a prime example of a historically fascinating and eerily beautiful architecture – a perfect panopticon – but moving prisoners around its narrow corridors and steep stairways safely is far from easy. Overcrowding is acute across the estate – and contributes to a claustrophobic atmosphere. There’s little time for so-called “constructive activity” and inmates are trapped in their cells for ever-longer periods as governors try to reduce the chances of violence, but inevitably increase inmates’ frustration in doing so. Less is being done to rehabilitate prisoners in prison – and their chances are further undermined by the declining performance of probation services that were hastily outsourced by Chris Grayling, when justice secretary, in 2015.

The underlying reason for these obvious problems is an astounding level of political negligence and arrogance. Our problems today have been long in the making and must be seen through the stories of our rapidly changing cast of justice secretaries. We’ve had five of them since 2010 and they boast an average tenure of less than 18 months – barely enough time to understand the job, let alone do anything.

In 2010, Ken Clarke made it clear he supported the government’s goal of controlling public spending but he did give serious thought as to how this could be achieved sensibly. He realised tough choices were needed to reduce prison numbers, and former prime minister David Cameron and then-chancellor George Osborne promised to back him. Only they changed their minds and fired him in 2011 after the right of the party applied pressure and Clarke left himself politically exposed through a painfully misjudged interview.

Since then, every justice minister has felt obliged to pretend they could square the circle of cutting the Ministry of Justice’s budget by 25% over five years, while dealing with the same volume of prisoners. It might just have been possible, with careful attention to retaining the best prison staff, detailed work to improve the day-to-day management practices in prison, and work to pull in charitable funding and other sources of support for rehabilitation work. But then came Grayling. Proud of his outsourcing of employment services (despite its mixed results), he decided probation would work better if the private sector did it. And he ensured that his department focused almost exclusively on this programme rather than the mounting problems in prisons.

Then came Michael Gove. He was oddly heralded as a reformer, after setting up six “reform prisons” and saying lovely things about rehabilitation and the judges. But he ducked the need for more funds, agreeing to a 2015 budget settlement that promised more savings even as violence against staff doubled and suicides reached record highs. He also distracted the entire system when it should have been focused on the basics of recovering order in prisons – and when he must have known full well that he would be out of the job soon. As soon as he declared himself pro-leave before the EU referendum, he was a goner, destined to be promoted by Boris Johnson in the case of a leave victory, or sacked by Cameron in the case of a remain win. The fact he somehow managed to get fired after his side won is an alarming feat.

In 2016, the government finally promised it would recruit more officers. This was an achievement by Liz Truss, who replaced Gove, but a modest one. She, however, got the boot not because she was failing to manage the practicalities of the job but – reading between the lines – because she kept making enemies.

Cue 2017 and the arrival of David Lidington. So far, he has been virtually invisible, which is perhaps a reason for today’s salvo from the Prison Governors Association.

Who allowed this systematic irresponsibility? Civil servants could no doubt have been more robust in their advice. But the truth is that Grayling and Gove at least did not broach any challenge. Any senior officials that they felt were obstructing their plans or raising awkward questions were edged out. It’s tough to push back when your job is at stake.

No doubt some governors and prison officers could have done more to raise problems and find solutions – but most of them had crises to manage.

The only conclusion I can really draw is that the blame lies with the politicians. They cut prison budgets without having a good understanding of the likely impact, then carried on cutting long after those consequences were clear. They focused on pet projects rather than getting the basics right.

They were supported in doing so from the very top. Cameron and Osborne made the call that people didn’t much care about the condition of our prisons, and if budgets were to be cut this was a place to cut particularly deeply. They ignored signs that the system was creaking, and forgot that changing your justice secretary every 18 months is a sure-fire way to create problems. Most important, they forgot that there is no better symbol that government is out of control than riots within the facilities they are meant to run.

Tom Gash is an honorary senior lecturer at UCL’s Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science

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