Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Crowding Out the Truth.

Today’s publication of the latest World Pre-Trial Imprisonment List from the International Centre for Prison Studies puts UK jail problems in perspective. Its data shows how prisons in the poorest countries and those emerging from conflict largely are involved in locking up people on remand. In Bolivia, Libya and DR Congo more than four fifths of prisoners are awaiting trial. Many stay in detention for years in congested conditions where corruption, violence and disease can be life threatening.

Remand detainees represent less than 15% of prisoners on any one day in England and Wales, a low rate due to a comparatively efficient criminal justice process, and relatively generous provisions for bail pending trial.  The conditions in which they are held are immeasurably better than those in most low income countries. But can the prison conditions in which British prisoners are held be fairly described as overcrowded?

Earlier this week the UK Parliament heard Justice Secretary respond to an urgent question from the Opposition by asserting that “we do not have a prison overcrowding crisis”.  Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan accused him of breath taking complacency, quoting Wandsworth prison in his constituency, “which should have 943 inmates, currently has 1,597” and has been asked to provide even more spaces.

The politicians were not for the first time talking at cross purposes. Khan is right that the Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA) -the number it was designed to hold- in Wandsworth is 943. But for more than twenty years, the prison service has measured overcrowding not in relation to CNA but to what they call Operational Capacity. By deciding that most single cells could accommodate two prisoners, prison capacity was at a stroke almost doubled- in Wandsworth it is currently 1628.  Grayling could therefore claim that pressures on the prison estate are little more than business as usual.

It is that business as usual which is the greater scandal , not that more doubling up may be needed until new prison places come on stream. There is an underlying acceptance by the political class that large scale overcrowding and enforced cell sharing is inevitable. Almost a quarter of prisoners –half in local prisons- are held in accommodation units intended for fewer prisoners. Not only does this impact on the quality of life of prisoners, but it limits the prison system’s ability to respond to unanticipated pressures as seems to be happening now.

The Conservatives recognised the problem when in opposition, arguing that “overcrowding has dramatic consequences both for prisoners and for the operation of prisons. Living and working conditions, the ability of prison officers to work effectively, inmates’ access to educational and training programmes, the success of and access to mental health, drug and other vital rehabilitative programmes, are all affected”. Plans to take total capacity to over 100,000, significantly reducing overcrowding and formally ending it by 2016, were  scaled back even before the 2010 election.  After it Kenneth Clarke’s efforts to reduce demand for prison places were also ditched when he was, producing the political and policy failure highlighted by the Chief Inspector of Prisons at the weekend.

It is drastically reducing prison numbers through sentencing reform and justice reinvestment that holds the key to a sustainable penal policy. But this must be complemented by specific  legislation to prevent overcrowding. After the 1990 Strangeways riot , Lord Woolf recommended a  new Prison Rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners than its CNA, with provisions for Parliament to be informed if exceptionally there is to be a material departure from that rule. It was not accepted but something similar is required today if we are to avoid the kind of disaster that gave rise to the recommendation.


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