Every available statistic shows a system that is inexorably lurching from chronic failure towards acute crisisby Chris Tilbury / December 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Words are no longer adequate to discuss the simmering conditions inside our prisons, so let’s try a few numbers. In 2010, 58 prisoners in England and Wales killed themselves. Last year, the number was 199—that’s an increase from about one suicide a week to approaching four. Suicide, of course, is only ever the tip of an iceberg of misery. In 2010, there were 26,979 recorded incidents of self-harm; last year there were over 40,000. And what about violence that turns outwards instead of in? In 2010, there were 2,848 recorded assaults on prison staff and 11,244 inmate-on-inmate assaults. Last year those numbers were 6,844 and 19,088 respectively.
In 2015-16 almost 21,000 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation, many doubling up in cells designed for one. In some prisons, the ratio of prisoners to staff officers is as high as 30:1—fully three times the level of staffing that many of the experts suggest is wise. The output of this brutal, broken system remains stubbornly unreformed. Forty-four per cent of adults are reconvicted within one year, and that figure rises to 59 per cent for those serving futile short spells. Heaven knows what it would rise to if we were able to include all those who reoffend but don’t get caught.
Every available statistic shows a system that is inexorably lurching from chronic failure towards acute crisis. This autumn, 10 groups of anti-riot officers were sent to Long Lartin prison in Worcestershire after 80 prisoners took over a maximum security wing housing some of the most violent offenders in the country. That came almost a year after a riot at Birmingham’s main prison, when armed police were posted outside in case inmates escaped. One former prisoner told me starkly where all this is headed: “We are going to have major prison riots in which people will die,” he said. “Officers will be taken hostage, tortured and murdered. It’s going to happen.”