Comment: the prison system is in a worse state now than at any time I’ve known it

Eric Allison, long time Guardian prisons correspondent and former prisoner, writes first fortnightly column for Prison Watch UK

Eric Allison Prison Watch UK

Eric Allison joins Prison Watch UK to deliver fortnightly column. Photo: Karolina Webb.

When I first entered prison as an adult, in the mid 1960s, the conditions and practices I encountered were grim – to put it mildly. There was no in-cell sanitation and prisoners had to urinate and defecate in plastic chamber pots which would be emptied into large sinks, located on each landing. Prisoners were allowed one bath per week, when they also received a change of underclothes, socks and bedding. It should not be difficult to imagine the stench.

Visits were limited to once a month, with 30 minutes being the allotted time to see your relatives and friends. A number of staff at that prison, HMP Strangeways, Manchester, were out and out thugs. Some openly wore National Front badges on their lapels, in a jail that had a sizeable black and ethnic minority population. If you were unfortunate enough to be sentenced to a period of time in the Punishment Block, you were more likely than not to receive a beating at the hands of staff.

And if the Governor or visiting magistrates saw fit, you may have received a spell on “Number One Diet.” This meant that for a maximum of three days at a time your three meals a day consisted of slices of dry bread and a mug of water. The food was awful, barely fit for the vermin that infested the mostly Victorian jails and there was little in the way of education, in a system where, like now, many prisoners were unable to read or write.

HMP Strangeways

HMP Strangeways, not Manchester prison, was notorious for its conditions. Photo: Rich

And I could go on. It is therefore with a sense of deep regret and despondency, that I say in this, my first column for Prison Watch UK, that the prison system in England and Wales is in a worse state now than at any time I have known it. Do not just take my word for it. Some months ago, I had a long conversation with David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and he shared my view that conditions across the penal estate have gone backwards in the time he has been observing the way we treat those we incarcerate.

And while the outgoing Chief Inspector, Nick Hardwick, cannot go back as far in time as your correspondent, in his last report before leaving post – or being forced out – he said conditions were at a ten year low. Hardwick spoke of the increase in serious assaults on staff and prisoners and soaring self harm and suicide rates in male prisons. Homicide rates in jails has increased alongside the assaults. He reported that staff at Wormwood Scrubs showed him cells that were so so bad they said they “wouldn’t keep a dog in there.”

And most depressingly, from my point of view, I can barely remember the last positive report I read on a young Offender Institution (YOI). For the last few years, I have read of young men harming themselves and others. And of fit young men lying idle in their cells all day because there is no work or education for them. Depressing, because the shameful conditions in YOIs are guaranteeing a swollen prison population in the years ahead.

To compile a list of what is wrong in the system would take an article of biblical proportions. But if I were to sum up the problems, I would point to one, overcrowding and under staffing and two, the shocking numbers of prisoners with mental health problems who should be treated in hospitals, instead of being mistreated in jails.

According to Michael Spurr, the head of NOMS, ten per cent of the prison population have “serious mental health problems”. That is a shameful indictment of our society. People with such illnesses require a calm, therapeutic atmosphere and suitable treatment if they are to regain their mental well being. Prisons are noisy, volatile places. And we should reduce overcrowding by only locking up those who are a danger to society and stop jailing those who are merely nuisances.

There is one possible ray of hope in this otherwise thoroughly depressing penal situation. After the nightmare of enduring Chris Grayling as justice secretary, the new man in post, Michael Gove is at least talking honestly about the problems that lie ahead of him. And he has overturned the ludicrous book banning decision taken by his predecessor and talking of the importance of education for prisoners, which is a highly encouraging start.

Let us hope that, in future, I can write a more positive piece about the state of our prisons. And it matters, it really does: because how we treat those we lock away, will have a marked effect on how they treat us once liberated.

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