Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Reducing Prisoners not Staff the only Answer to Prison Crisis

Another week another deeply disturbing report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Actually Nick Hardwick concludes that the Isis Young Offender Prison is generally better than when he last inspected in 2011 but this is damning with faint praise. Last time, his inspectors were overwhelmed by prisoners who wanted to complain about their treatment by staff and officers’ unwillingness or inability to help with simple, everyday problems. This time he found an “emergency” regime which meant that far too many prisoners were locked in their cells with nothing meaningful to do. The prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) reported earlier this year that this will continue until September 2014 at least, possibly indefinitely.

Normalising an emergency regime is symptomatic of the way low standards have come to be accepted in the prison system as staff numbers have declined.

In the last inspection report on Isis, HMIP thought that the essential step in meeting the formidable challenges the prison had still to overcome was achieving a stable, permanent staff group with a common culture and objectives. It needed, and was entitled to expect, every support from the prison service nationally.

According to the IMB, far from providing support, the prison service imposed a freeze on recruitment. In the Board’s view, this was exceptionally damaging and contrary to the stated aims and objectives of Government to optimise work opportunities for offenders and to prepare them for release with a view to reducing reoffending.

Does this constitute a crisis – a time of intense difficulty (according to the dictionary)? Not according to Chris Grayling who admits there are challenges but claims he is meeting them. He increasingly risks looking like Canute refusing to accept that waves of cost cutting will adversely affect safety, decency and rehabilitation in prisons. The fault is not all his. Kenneth Clarke was reckless in accepting budget cuts in his department without assessing their impact. But he at least wanted to reduce the demands on the system.

Dictionaries also define a crisis as a time when a difficult or important decision must be made. With little prospect of additional resources, the decision must be made to look to reduce not the numbers of staff but the numbers of prisoners. A recent British Academy report has shown how this can be done. If this government won’t do it , the next one must.   

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