But it's not just the respected Howard League ringing the alarm bells, it's also the Prison Governors Association worried at a 30% reduction in prison staff and HM Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick finding increasing numbers of prisoners being held in 'deplorable' conditions as reported here:-
There has been a "significant" and worrying deterioration in the standards of British jails, the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales says. In an exclusive interview with BBC Newsnight, Nick Hardwick urged ministers to take immediate action. He said he had "seen with his own eyes" prisoners being held in "deplorable conditions" in some jails. But the civil servant in charge of prisons has insisted the service is safe.
The comments come as a report from the Howard League for Penal Reform is published which says the total number of prison officers has fallen by 30% over the past three years, to 19,325. The charity said there had been 42 suicides in jail in the first half of this year - up from 30 in the same period last year. Its chief executive Frances Crook told BBC Newsnight: "I am absolutely sure that lack of staff [due to] cuts in prison officer numbers are contributing to increased violence, people being locked up for longer, and as a consequence, the highest death rate we have ever had in prisons." She said the situation was "beyond crisis", with the system pushed to breaking point.
The Ministry of Justice's own figures show the number of suicides in jail rose from 60 to 72 from 2012 to 2013 - and another rise could be on the cards this year. Mr Hardwick told the BBC: "I think they are an indication of wider problems in the Prison Service, an indication of a prison system under growing pressure. He added: "If you look since the beginning of the year, our inspection findings have dropped significantly. We are seeing a lot more prisons that are not meeting acceptable standards across a range of things we look at. And I go to most of these inspections and I see with my own eyes a deterioration."It's not acceptable we have this rate of suicides in prison."
"There is a danger I think of the politicians over-analysing the figures and miss what is under their noses on the wings, which is sometimes I think people being held in deplorable conditions who are suicidal, they don't have anything to do and they don't have anyone to talk to. We need to look at what's under our noses and sort that."
Two weeks ago, the Ministry of Justice announced it was recruiting ex-prison officers on short-term contracts to help plug gaps in jails. Prison Governors Association president Eoin McLennan Murray welcomed the move but said his members had been urging the Ministry of Justice to do something months ago.
"We were saying we were heading for a shortage some time before the Prison Service reacted. I think they were late to react when the warning signs were there."'Additional pressures'
Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service Agency, conceded Mr Hardwick was "right" to say there had been "some deterioration" in the standards of prisons this year. "Over the last six months in particular we have struggled with some additional pressures. The population has gone up greater than anticipated, there are more remand prisoners and sex offenders than anticipated. At the same time we have ended up with fewer staff than we need actually. Have we taken action? Absolutely we have taken action."
However, he said there had been overcrowding in British jails since he started in the service 30 years ago, adding: "To get rid of the problem would cost £900m that we do not have. "So we are retaining the level of overcrowding, not expanding it. The crowding now is lower than it has been for the last 10 years. Of course I'd like a position where we didn't have anybody in crowded cells. But can we manage people in crowded cells safely? Yes." He said he was worried by the suicide rates, but insisted the service was safe and that it was wrong to suggest people's lives had been put at risk by the cuts to staff numbers.Beyond what might be termed the 'usual suspects', here's a powerful blog post by an angry barrister reflecting on what Chris Grayling told Parliament recently about the issue:-
In Parliament yesterday Mr Grayling insisted:
“We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis. Today’s prison population is 85,359. This is against total usable operational capacity of 86,421, which means we have more than 1,000 spare places across the prison estate.”
This is a statistical sleight of hand, of the sort that one has, sadly, come to expect from Mr Grayling. The phrase total “usable operational capacity” refers to the absolute maximum that the prisons can hold if prisoners are held in conditions that the government itself accepts are not of a “decent” standard. If prisoners are held in revolting conditions in which, for example, they are forced to defecate in shared cells in view of their cell mates, something that is permitted when they are being operated over CNA, Mr Grayling should not be surprised if the prisons erupt in rioting again. Little wonder that Nick Hardwick the mild mannered and moderate Chief Inspector of Prisons has described the situation as “dangerous” and pinned the blame squarely on “political and policy failures.”
And since he seems so remarkably complacent, Mr Grayling should be aware of another precedent. In March of this year in the case of Badre v. Court of Florence EWHC 614 (Admin) the Administrative Court refused to extradite a suspected criminal to Italy partly on the grounds that Italian prisons were so grossly overcrowded that to imprison someone in them would constitute “inhuman and degrading treatment.” According to the evidence before the Court Italian prisons had a national overcrowding rate of 151 – 148%. How does that compare with this country? We have not quite reached that degree of crisis, and the definition of “overcrowding” obviously differs somewhat between Italy and Britain. Even so the figures appear comparable. Last week the UK prison population exceeded its certified normal accommodation by 9,464 inmates, equivalent to an overcrowding rate of 112.5%. But some prisons were overcrowded to an extent that would make Italian prisons look almost attractive by comparison. Swansea prison, for example, was at 184% over CNA, Lincoln 172%, Wandsworth 169% and numerous others had populations at 150% or over.
The courts have accepted that forcing prisoners to live in overcrowded conditions can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment. There is now a strong case for saying that the Chief Gaoler himself, the Minister of Justice, should be brought before the court and made to explain to a judge how he can justify treating human beings like canned anchovies. It will be no answer to spout populist slogans about “doing what the public wants.” The law, as well as common decency, requires him to do better than that.A recent letter from an inmate to Inside Time should serve as a timely warning that if complaints about food are growing, unrest won't be far behind:-
50% reduction in food
From Jon Waldron - HMP Stoke Heath
Here at HMP Stoke Heath inmates have been complaining about the poor quality and quantity of food for months but we keep getting told by the acting kitchens manager that his budget has been cut by 11p per prisoner per day. Now the kitchens have sunk to a new low. According to the rules the correct portion measure per man of stews, curries, etc is one 10 ounce ladle per prisoner, but the servers have been told to give 3 spoonfuls instead of the official measure. Three spoons equates to 5 ounces per prisoner. I complained about this and was told 'the portions are correct'. So we measured using the correct ladle and ran out of food halfway through the serving. This is a 50% reduction. We are being malnourished in order to save money. This prison is reducing its budget by stealing food from its inmates and breaching the national portion control guidelines, which is a disgrace. This is morally wrong, but their moral compass is so messed up I'd be surprised they can find their way to the car park. Can NOMS comment on this, please, and not just with their standard quoting of the rules - we know the rules.On the subject of custody, I notice an important new report has been published questioning our whole approach to the subject:-
A Presumption Against Imprisonment: Social Order and Social Values
This report looks at the issues of crime and punishment, and why we seem unable to reduce our reliance on imprisonment. The study explores the reasons behind the high prison population in the UK, as well as offering contributions to the ongoing debate about why and how we should try to reduce both the number of people we imprison, and the length of time for which many are imprisoned.
The report is split into three parts:
Part I – Where We Are Now and How We Got HereFinally, on the theme of limiting custody, here's cheeky prison expert Chris Huhne in the Guardian putting up a spirited case for not imprisoning Andy Coulson:-
Analyses changes in the use and practice of imprisonment in the UK over the last twenty years that has led us to the where we are now and provides an overview of the current situation.
Part II – Why Our Imprisonment Policies Should Change
Discusses some of the reasons why we should, as a matter of urgency, try to move towards a lower use of, and reliance on, imprisonment in our formal response to criminal offending.
Part III – Strategies for Reducing the Prison Population
Examines possible strategies through which a presumption against imprisonment could be given practical force and could thus help to reduce our excessive reliance on imprisonment.
The slowness of the Metropolitan police and the then director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to prosecute over widespread voicemail hacking was feeble at best. Those prosecutions needed to happen, but that does not mean Andy Coulson or his journalist colleagues should now be in prison.
The custodial sentences are ridiculous; they serve no public purpose. The conviction itself will be the most severe part of Coulson's punishment. If he should make amends, it would surely have been better to work for a worthy cause than cost the taxpayer nearly £40,000 a year to bang him up. Community service or teaching adult literacy somehow seem right.
Coulson's sentence tells us more about the vindictive nature of our justice system – and of public opinion – than it does about his crimes. In a century, we will look back on today's penal practices with scarcely less surprise than the way we currently see, say, the 1723 Black Act, which introduced 50 new hanging offences, including one for "hiding in a forest while disguised".