Friday, 1 August 2014

We need a Royal Commission on Prisons

    The Sun newspaper is not widely known for supporting prison reform. More than ten years ago it sent a removals van to the Royal Courts of Justice to urge then Lord Chief Justice Woolf to make way for a more punitive successor and it has campaigned regularly since for a harsher approach to sentencing and the treatment of prisoners. It comes as some surprise today that its leader  accuses Justice Secretary Chris Grayling of failing to accept that there’s a  crisis in the prisons and urges him to give priority not only to the security of the public and prison officers but also (and perhaps more surprisingly)  to  the welfare of inmates.

Yesterday’s raft of statistics from NOMS about the deteriorating performance of prisons also led  the Economist to decry the shameful state of Britain’s prisons and   the Independent  to opine that  the  steep rise in prison violence is the logical consequence of too little funding and too many inmates. This seems to be the view of the Chief Inspector of Prisons who also sees a link between high rates of overcrowding and the current level of self-inflicted deaths.

Yesterday’s statistics included a league table of ratings of the 111 public and fifteen private prisons in England and Wales.   The methodology for giving the jails one of four grades (from 4 “exceptional” down to 1 “serious concern”) is complex and open to question. Much has been made of the failings at Brinsford Young Offender Institution which scored 1 and was earlier in the year described by the Chief Inspector as the worst prison he had been to in four years.  The three new prisons, the privately run Oakwood and Thameside and the publicly run Isis are still causing concern at level 2.  While the Independent Monitoring Board at Oakwood has found the prison much more settled (and unfairly criticised in the media), it none the less reported today that four in every five hospital appointments had to be rescheduled because of lack of staff to escort the prisoners.

What is at least as concerning however, is the performance in the best prisons. Inspectors reported  last year (within the period covered by the NOMS ratings)  on a prison where more than a third of prisoners told them they had been victimised by staff including 6% who had been hit or kicked; and where 32% had been victimised by other prisoners. The watchdog  described another establishment where more than one in ten prisoners said they had developed a drug problem while inside and fewer than half of those with such a  problem (whenever they developed it) said  they had been offered help or support. The performance of both of these two prisons was rated by NOMS yesterday as exceptional.

There is something deeply troubling about such tolerance of poor standards and the need for a fundamental and independent examination of the state of our prisons. While the Inspectorate does valuable work day in day out to document what is happening, its status is not strong enough to insist on change. The inconvenient truths it uncovers can, and have been ignored or swatted aside by Chris Grayling. At the very least, like OFSTED, it needs a strong Chair and greater powers.

But something more is needed. As we approach the twenty fifth anniversary of the Strangeways disturbances in 1990, we need a judge led investigation into the prison system, its standards, resources, staffing and monitoring arrangements. If the government will not set a Royal commission or something similar , Labour should do so. Lord Woolf may not himself feel like revisiting the field of his magisterial inquiry but something like his investigation is needed if we are to avoid the kind of disaster which prompted it.  

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