13:00, August 21 56 0 theguardian.com

2018-08-21 13:00:08
After Birmingham, who can we trust to run our jails?

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the current prison mess (Failures at private jail are reflection of broader crisis, MoJ is warned, 21 August) is that events were both predictable and avoidable.

Many of us have warned ministers of successive governments, both privately and in reports, over many years that the situation we see today was an inevitable consequence of government policy. For years we have drawn attention to the certain consequences of following the policy proposed by the Daily Mail and others (lock ’em up, for a long time, in terrible conditions, not holiday camps). It is particularly nauseating to read these organs of the press this week joining in the condemnation of conditions in prisons that only recently they had advocated.

It was reassuring to note that the Independent Monitoring Board had drawn attention to the problems. The IMB are known, perhaps unfairly, as being somewhat muted in their criticisms: on this occasion they were rightly judgmental but sadly ignored. The ministry contract monitors appear to have been invisible or asleep.

It is not inevitable that contracted prisons should fail: a few work well. But the process by which they are privatised is deeply flawed, and, despite the presence of IMBs, monitors and inspectors, it seems that they have, at least until now, lacked both accountability and proper supervision. To even ask the salary of senior governors – information that is widely available for public sector governors – was a closed, commercial secret, despite the funding for these being entirely from the public purse.

When a prison is selected for going private – euphemistically called “market testing” – governors are required to slim costs as much as possible. Since staffing is the main cost it also becomes the main casualty. Once the prison is privatised it is quite predictable that failure will almost certainly follow. A seriously negative inspection report is usually followed by a question in the House, the response to which by the prisons minister or secretary of state is something like this, “Changes are already being implemented and a new management team is now in place.”

The poor governor is publicly castigated for simply following the direction required from above. I fear that Birmingham will be no different.

Prisons need huge staffing if they are to work. Chris Grayling got rid of 7,000 officers. The government is constantly but remarkably disingenuously boasting of how it is recruiting 2,000 new officers, less than one-third of the number it dismissed a mere six years ago.

Increased staffing, while not everything, is fundamental. Prisons will be neither clean nor safe without staff. And they will certainly not be places of reform, which is in all our interests. There is much else to do, such as reducing numbers inside, but it has to start with staff.

John Weightman

Former vice-president, National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards

The problem with Rory Stewart’s admission re the failings at HMP Birmingham (Report, 21 August) is that it seeks to portray the failings as localised when in fact they are systemic. To quote from the 2017-18 Prisons Inspectorate Report:

“Inspectors at the rat-infested HMP Liverpool could not remember worse conditions, and the tragic toll of self-inflicted deaths at HMP Nottingham led [inspectors] to describe the jail as ‘fundamentally unsafe’. The iconic Wormwood Scrubs in London suffered from appalling living conditions, violence, poor safety and seemingly intractable problems over repeated inspections.”

Of equal concern was “the disappointing failure of many prisons to act on our previous recommendations – which are intended to help save lives, keep prisoners safe, ensure they are treated respectfully and to give them a chance of returning to the community less likely to reoffend”.

The problems at Birmingham are a result of successive governments seeing prisoners as less than human. Until that changes all else will remain the same.

Nick Moss

London

The welcome decision of the government to remove the contract to run Birmingham prison from G4S is somewhat tempered by the news that it could be returned to them in as little as six months. This behaviour is in marked contrast to the government’s policy on failing schools maintained by a local authority. These are removed permanently from the maintaining authority, with no provision for return. This is in spite of the fact that G4S has greater direct powers over the prison than local authorities have over schools.

This is another example of the Tory party’s insistence that private is always best, in spite of an avalanche of evidence to the contrary – in the fields of education, the prisons and rail travel, for example.

Graham Dunn

Adlington, Chorley, Lancashire

Your assertion (Editorial, 21 August) that the crisis in prisons is in part due to privatisation is supported neither by argument nor evidence. Over 25 years, there has never been a consistent advantage, in terms of quality of service, of public prisons over private – or vice versa. Both sectors have run very good and very bad prisons.

At Birmingham, research by the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge showed marked improvements in treatment of prisoners for some years after privatisation in 2011. It began to go downhill after 2014, but even last year, the inspectors had positive things to say. I don’t think anyone yet understands what happened to cause it to collapse so utterly in the intervening 18 months. We urgently need a better understanding; which won’t be helped by statements based on ideological preference.

Julian Le Vay

Oxford

In his opinion piece (The government knew about horrific conditions at Birmingham prison, but didn’t care, theguardian.com, 20 August) Lord Falconer correctly identifies that responsibility for the terrible conditions at HMP Birmingham ultimately lies with government. However, his causal explanation – increased sentencing of violent offenders; the pervasive effects of “spice”; and falling prisoner/prison officer ratios – misses the mark.

Current problems cannot be explained away by simply suggesting that more violent prisoners are being imported into prisons. Modern prisons, since their inception in the early 1800s, have been consistently plagued by violence. This is because prisons systemically generate conflict and antagonism through oppressive daily regimes. Historically and today, physical violence has been perpetrated by both prisoners and prison officers, pointing as much to the pathological nature of the regime as it does to individuals. Drugs are endemic because prisoners take chemical comforts to get through the monotonous and boring daily existence of prison life. Drug problems in prisons in England and Wales have been recorded since at least the 1860s, albeit then the focus was on alcohol and cigarettes as the cause of prison violence. And falling prisoner/prison officer ratios cannot be understood outside of the context of either the historically high levels of numbers of prison officers in the 1990s or the record increases in prisoner populations, which are now more than double the number of the early 1990s.

The only way forward is to recognise that prisons are harmful places making people more likely to engage in violent behaviour and to call for a radical reduction in the prison population.

Dr David Scott

Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester

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