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The appalling state of our prisons – the watchdog is barking but is anyone listening?

Head of human rights, and prison law specialist, Sean Humber on the current state of the UK's prison system and why it is, in his opinion, "disintegrating before our eyes"

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Sean is a partner in the human rights department at Leigh Day.  He acts for individuals and campaign groups on a wide range of human rights issues including prisoner rights, environmental, discrimination and information law matters.
Let’s face it, the state of our prisons really isn’t a very sexy subject. It is an issue that makes many people slightly uncomfortable, probably due to a vague feeling that, while things aren’t quite right, it doesn’t really affect them. Almost the very definition of “out of sight, out of mind”.

In light of this, the statutory role of the Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons to independently inspect and report back, with recommendations, to Government on the conditions in our prisons becomes particularly important.

The current Chief Inspector is Peter Clarke a former Deputy Assistant Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police and head of its anti-terrorism branch. His CV therefore suggests someone who has been around the block and is difficult to dismiss as a dreaming liberal with hopelessly unrealistic expectations of how the real world works. Interestingly, perhaps, he also has a law degree.

The Chief Inspector’s most recent annual report was published last month and makes truly depressing reading. I hesitate to try and pick out particular lowlights for fear of minimising, through their omission, the significance of other important findings.

Nonetheless, his finding that many of our prisons are simply not safe, with assaults on both prisoners and prison staff increasing dramatically, is important.
“Last year I reported that too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. The situation has not improved – in fact, it has become worse. There have been startling increases in all types of violence. The biggest increase is assaults on staff which, in the 12 months to December 2016, rose by 38% to 6,844 incidents. Of these 789 were serious, an increase of 26%. In total there were more than 26,000 assaults, an increase of 27%. Of the 29 local prisons and training prisons we inspected during the year, we judged 21 of them to be ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ in the area of safety.”

The picture he paints of what it is like to be a prisoner, so different from the holiday camp mythology perpetuated by tabloids, is also revealing:
"These figures suggest a serious deterioration in standards in our prisons, but they do not describe it. What is it like for prisoners on a day-to-day basis? During the course of the year I have often been appalled by the conditions in which we hold many prisoners. Far too often I have seen men sharing a cell in which they are locked up for as much as 23 hours a day, in which they are required to eat all their meals, and in which there is an unscreened lavatory. On several occasions prisoners have pointed out insect and vermin infestations to me. In many prisons I have seen shower and lavatory facilities that are filthy and dilapidated, but with no credible or affordable plans for refurbishment. I have seen many prisoners who are obviously under the influence of drugs. I am frequently shown evidence of repeated self-harm, and in every prison I find far too many prisoners suffering from varying degrees of learning disability or mental impairment. I have personally witnessed violence between prisoners, and seen both the physical and psychologically traumatic impact that serious violence has had on staff.”

His views on the lack of prison staff and its consequences is also significant:
"it is undoubtedly the job of the Inspectorate to point out where the imbalance between staff and prisoner numbers adversely affects the treatment of and conditions for prisoners. An immediate impact in far too many prisons is that staff shortages make it impossible to provide a decent, rehabilitative environment. When a person is sent to prison, the state accepts responsibility for their well-being, including their physical and mental health, safety and education. There is clear evidence that for too many prisoners the state is failing in its duty.”

He reserves particular concern for the state of the Secure Training Centres and Young Offenders Institutes that house our young offenders:

"Perhaps the most concerning findings during the year emerged from our inspections of the custodial estate for children and young people…. By February this year we had reached the conclusion that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people …. The current state of affairs is dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken.”

Worryingly, he notes the limits to the Inspectorate’s powers and that, following inspections, prisons now simply ignore many of the recommendations made:
"As an independent inspectorate without formal powers, we rely upon persuasion, logic, goodwill and publicity to achieve our impact. We are an inspectorate whose role is to find things out and report what we see. Our inspection criteria are underpinned by international human rights standards. This means we are consistent in the standards we expect to see, and are not influenced by policy swings, bureaucratic convenience, resource constraints or political expediency. We neither have nor seek regulatory powers. However, I am concerned by the fact that this year we found – for the first time – that the number of our recommendations that had been fully achieved was lower than the number not achieved.”

Put simply, our prison system is disintegrating before our eyes. On Monday, prisoners at HMP The Mount in Hertfordshire were simply the latest to riot in response to deteriorating conditions. On Wednesday, the president of the Prison Governors Association felt compelled to publish an open letter setting out her devastation at the complete decline of the service, criticising the lack of any tangible response from Government.

These current problems are a result of successive Governments’ almost fetishistic desire to lock more people up for fear of being seen as soft on crime (the number of people sent to prison has doubled over the last 25 years) followed by a subsequent slashing prison budgets (reduced by almost a billion pounds since 2010) and staff numbers (cut by over a quarter since 2010).

So what is to be done? The Government is now making tentative noises about making additional money available and recruiting some additional prison staff. The danger is that these timid initiatives are insufficient to get to the heart of the problem and constitute, if not quite rearranging the deckchairs on the Titantic, a wilful refusal to see the approaching iceberg.

The Government needs to be brave enough to address the issue at source and say that we should not be locking up so many people in the first place. Is it really a badge of honour to say that we have the highest imprisonment rate of any country in Western Europe?

We sent over 68,000 people to prison in 2016, the majority committing a non-violent offence and almost half were sentenced to 6 months or less. At the same time the use of community sentences has halved since 2006 despite being more effective than short prison sentences at reducing reoffending.

We then need to properly resource our prisons to ensure that those we do send there live in a humane environment with a genuine opportunity of rehabilitation.

There is clearly a role for lawyers in tackling the most egregious breaches. However, you are often left with a feeling that you are trying to rectify the faults of a failing system one client at a time and with 85,000 people in prison that is going to take an awfully long time. There is also an impression that the Government is ultimately quite prepared to pay out what are relatively modest amounts of compensation to prisoners who have jumped over the various legal hurdles needed to bring a successful claim because, in cold financial terms, it is a price worth paying for continuing to operate an unsafe and unlawful system.

Rather the change needs to come at a political level. The largely indifferent amongst us need to somehow be mobilised to demand change from our complacent politicians. This is why the expertise of organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust, Howard League for Penal Reform and Prisoners Advice Service is so important and deserving of our support.

However, I fear that it will take some high profile calamity to truly focus the public and the politicians on the urgent need for action. Very sadly, reading the Chief Inspector’s latest report, I also fear that this event may not be far off.

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