Prisons are a powder keg waiting to explode. These cuts could be the spark
April next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the , an orgy of violence and destruction at the Manchester prison that lasted for 25 days, spread to two dozen other prisons, led to the deaths of one prisoner and one prison officer and cost an estimated £350m to the taxpayer.
The by Lord Woolf blamed the failure of successive governments to provide resources so that the prison service could provide for an increased prison population "in a humane manner". If the recent heavy-handed ordered by Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, are anything to go by it would seem that the hard-learned lessons of Strangeways have been forgotten.
And now, less than one year before that ignominious anniversary, it has been announced that the National Offender Management Service has by £149m a year, £2,200 per prison place. Budgets have already been cut so much that prisons are now struggling to provide the basics, such as toilet rolls, soap, clean bedding, towels and clothing. Grayling's ban on prisoners receiving parcels containing not only books and stamps but also underwear, socks and other clothing from their families is adding to the problem. It also doesn't help that he has decided to put (a practice dropped in the 1990s to save money). In addition, food budgets have been cut to the bone, leaving most governors with just over £1 per day, per prisoner, to provide the stipulated three meals.
Such measures have led to dozens of letters being sent to , the national prisoner's newspaper, complaining of a starvation diet being imposed and reports of prisoners resorting to eating cockroaches, mice, pigeons and even the feral cats that infest some prisons, in order to get protein. It is worth bearing in mind that a persistent complaint in the testimonies of the prisoners involved in the 1990 riots was about the poor quality and meagre portions of the food.
Since the coalition came to power in 2010, it has closed – or plans to close – . Some of them, including Latchmere House, in Surrey, Kingston in Portsmouth, and a female prison, Morton Hall, in Lincolnshire, were high performing with excellent reports. Several of them, including Blundestone in Suffolk, had hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on repairs and improvements just before being closed down. Their former inmates have been scattered all over the country wherever spaces were available, and many of the staff have been offered redundancy or suffered the same fate as the prisoners.
British prisons have been overcrowded for almost a decade now, with two or three prisoners crammed into cells designed for single occupancy. Prison closures have exacerbated this problem and turned some prisons into veritable powder kegs. The announced cuts of £149m could provide an unwanted spark. In 1990 there were just over 40,000 prisoners in the UK; the is more than double that and prisoners are being held in fewer jails.
There have already been several "disturbances" (Ministry of Justice speak for riots) this year, including one at Oakwood, near Birmingham, a private sector prison run by G4S and lauded by Grayling as "an excellent model for the future of the prison service". Oakwood, the shining star in Grayling's , has had a short but chequered history since it opened in April 2012, including several "disturbances". It now holds the distinction of being, along with another G4S jail (Altcourse, in Merseyside), the worst jail for incidents of self-harm among its prisoners: 611 last year. You do not have to be a genius to see that cutting the budget of an already failing and beleaguered institution cannot be good news. And when that institution is an overcrowded, underfunded, directionless behemoth such as the British prison system, you can bet that the results are bound to be ugly.
Whether Grayling, the media or the public like it, it is widely accepted that a prison system cannot be run without the co-operation of its prisoners. It seems as though Grayling is determined to test the validity of this. In the aftermath of the Strangeways riots, a new 10-year sentence was introduced for prison mutiny, which is largely why there have been very few riots since. Having 10 years added to a sentence is a great deterrent for most prisoners, and so they do not indulge in such behaviour without great provocation and much thought.
Until Grayling took the reins, the "carrot and stick" ratio in our prisons was pretty even, but the latest tinkering and the imposition of yet more cuts will, I fear, leave only the stick. When this happens, Grayling may well no longer be in power, but the rest of us will be reaping the whirlwind of his creation. God help us.