All credit to the Howard League for gaining the media coverage they did about the extent of prison overcrowding in England and Wales. It’s not really news- the annual report of the National Offender Management Service published in June revealed that 23% of prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation across the prison system in 2012-13 and indeed NOMS claimed a degree of improvement in the numbers compared to the previous year. But amidst all the talk of rehabilitation revolutions and working prisons, it is all too easy to forget about the dismal basic living conditions which shape the daily experience of many prisoners.
The annual report of the Prison Inspectorate last year noted that many cells in the prison estate were too small and cramped, and not only in the older prisons. But by and large in prisons there is “too great a degree of tolerance of poor standards and of risk” to borrow the phrase used by Robert Francis to explain why numerous warning signs did not alert the health system to the emerging disaster in Mid Staffordshire.
More worrying perhaps is the complacent response by the Prison Minister who justifies overcrowding because “prison is not somewhere that anyone should be comfortable about going back to.” Earlier in the year his boss the Justice Secretary talked in similar vein about making prisons more Spartan.
In Sparta, boys were fed just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. The Spartans might have been impressed by the three young offender establishments where a couple of years ago Inspectors found that external nutritionists had been consulted but young men said they frequently felt hungry.Notions of less eligibility are bound to come to the fore in times of economic hardship and the Ministry of Justice has daunting economies to make. But reducing standards in prisons is not the way to make them. Reducing the number of people in prisons is.