The state of our prisons – light the blue touch paper…
The HM Chief Inspector of Prisons published his second annual report of the state of Prisons in England and Wales on 18th July 2017 and, within two weeks, of the report being presented to Parliament there have been a series of terrible incidents reported at several prisons including Mount, which highlights the clear issues identified by the report and the failures by the Government and Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to consider any of the findings made a year ago.
He further commented: “It is widely recognised that the conditions in which prisoners are held has an impact on their sense of well-being… The prevalence of drugs inside prisons, and the seeming inability to keep them out has been a major factor. Debt, bullying and self-segregation by prisoners looking to escape the violence generated by the drugs trade are commonplace. This has all been compounded by the staffing levels in many jails that are simply too low to keep order and at the same time run a decent regime that allows prisoners to be let out of their cells to get training and education and have access to basic facilities”.
The report is even more shocking in light of the recent events in HMYOI Aylesbury where it was reported (BBC News only 23rd July 2017) that on 21st July 2017 a wing was effectively “out of control” and both inmates and prison staff were injured as a result. I had personal insight into that event when I was called by a distraught mother on 22nd July fearing her 19-year-old son, a servicing prisoner, was dead since she had heard that he had been stabbed during the altercation.
She tried to get details from the YOI, but they refused to give any information. It was only after I contacted them explaining who I was and my real concerns that I was eventually informed he was ok and would be in touch with his mother “in due course”. Aylesbury YOI is notoriously a very difficult environment with a prevalent violent gang culture.
The situation gets worse following reports of “loss of control of wings” at The Mount Prison on 31st July and 1st August 2017 (BBC Online 1st August 2017) demanding riot-trained officers being called in on both occasions. One of our trainee solicitors Brid Doherty could be said to have had a close shave having attended The Mount to see a client on the morning of 31st July just hours before the incidents began … her comments below – one wonders how it hasn’t happened sooner.
“I had a legal visit at HMP The Mount earlier this week. I arrived there for 8.30am. My visit was booked from 9am-11am. It was not until 10am that we were actually brought upstairs for our legal visits. It was a while longer before our clients were actually brought out as they had not been brought over from the house blocks.
While waiting downstairs in the reception area, I complained to the staff twice about the fact that I was still waiting for my visit to begin. I explained my concern that I had booked a two-hour visit and that an hour was almost up so I was now looking at having only half the amount of time I was supposed to have. They said that unfortunately, there were not enough staff available to man the legal visits and bring clients over from the house block.
When we were finally brought up, there were two female guards upstairs. They apologised for the delay and explained that they were seriously short of staff. They said that they were so severely short staffed that though it is a C Cat prison, they were operating as though it was an A Cat. Freedom of movement was severely restricted. They said that they do not know how long this will go on for. The officer explained that the issue is that people do not want to work at the prison. She said, “why would they, we come in here risking our lives every day and things get more and more dangerous because we’re so short of staff”. Once up in the visits area, we had to wait another 10 – 15 minutes for them to actually bring our clients over.
We were told that we would not get any extra time on the end of our visit because they had to end the legal visits at 11am. I complained that I had travelled all the way from London and desperately needed two hours and that it was totally pointless us travelling all this way and then not getting to start my visit until 10.15–10.30.
When my client was finally brought up, he told me about how bad things had been in the prison. He had not been allowed out of his cell at all since Thursday the previous week. As such, he had spent four days locked in his cell. His cell was not single occupancy either. There are also issues about halal food. As his room is at the end of the wing, when they get to his there is often none left so they give him the non-halal meal. He cannot eat this as it contravenes his religious beliefs. As such, he had barely eaten for days. It was absolutely appalling to hear and he was really upset about the conditions he was subjected to.”
The general public may well feel that prisoners are in Mount to be punished and that is obviously an element of the criminal justice system, but there is also the very vital requirement of rehabilitation to try to prevent reoffending once a prisoner is released. The National Probation Service budget has time and time again been cut so severely that they are now simply monitoring prisoners on release without any real ability to help them move on and, subsequently, people reoffend.
Rehabilitation in prisons simply doesn’t happen because of the lack of staff and resources and as evidenced by the report, many prisoners are being kept in terrible conditions and locked up 23 (and sometimes in the case of The Mount Prison 24) hours a day, without any education, physical exercise and simple humanity that will help them move forward.
Solicitors are frequently told stories from inmates about prison officers turning a blind eye to the bullying and drug taking for a “quiet life”. One staff member at the Mount told our trainee, “We risk our lives every day and things get more and more dangerous……” Yet the funding decreases and recommendations from last year’s report are ignored. We have no reason to believe the recommendations in this year’s report will be taken on board with even more cuts to the budget. Are we then surprised the riots begin?
The Government needs to heed the recommendations of the HM Inspectorate report. Otherwise, the tinder box of anger and animosity will ignite. Some would say the touch paper has already been lit and ministers are simply standing back and watching it go up in flames.