This piece from the Guardian serves to highlight what happens when government ignores the warnings from people on the frontline:-We governors warned of the danger of more prison deaths, but no-one listened
The recent stabbing to death of Jamal Mahmoud, a prisoner at HMP Pentonville, shone a light into a dark world.
At our annual prison governors’ conference in Derby earlier this month, we took the unprecedented step of voting unanimously for an independent public inquiry into the extraordinary rise in violence and deaths in prisons since 2012, the year the Ministry of Justice cut budgets by 15.6%. This call was tragically prophetic because six days later, Mahmoud was killed.
Our condolences go to Mahmoud’s family and friends, but our thoughts are also with the staff involved. Most people do not appreciate how dedicated and professional most prison workers are, or what a devastating impact this incident will have on their morale.
For many prison governors involved in these types of incidents, it is the start of a long process of external scrutiny that will put them under intense, personal pressure over many months, if not years.
Should we have seen this coming? In short: yes.
In October 2015, I wrote that plans from the then justice secretary Michael Gove for rehabilitating prisoners through education was not a panacea while prisons continued to be starved of resources. Prisoners are not likely to focus on education if they are more concerned about being mugged on the way to the classroom.
This May, I wrote in response to Gove’s address to prison governors, where he stated just how terrible the figures for deaths in custody and violence are, (for example, there were 100 self-inflicted deaths in custody, up from 79 the year before) and said that only when prisons are places of calm stability would we be able to make the difference we need to. Our association would agree, but every key indicator tells us that prisons are anything but calm places and the future looks very bleak.
In July, Mahmoud was sentenced to six-and-a-half years for his part in hiding a loaded machine gun and ammunition in a garden in north London and was already serving a five-and-a-half year term for robbery.
If, as Gove stated, the principal purpose of prison is rehabilitation, Mahmoud was an example of someone we desperately needed to rehabilitate. But that cannot be achieved when violence and intimidation are a normal part of prison life.
In May, Gove called for prison governors to lead with “moral purpose not manuals and rulebooks”. While recognising the economic climate, we in the Prison Governors Association (PGA) urge the government to do the same. Investing in prisons will mean fewer victims of violence, as well as long-term economic savings.
Liz Truss, the current justice secretary, told the PGA that safety is at the top of her agenda and we believe her. However, this needs to be backed up with more than the £14m she promised earlier this month, which will only pay for 400 extra officers in just 10 prisons.
Eoin McLennan-Murray, a former president of the PGA, said in February 2014 that staff shortages and increasing numbers of incidents were creating a “perfect storm” that would destabilise prisons.
That storm has arrived. It’s about time the government listened to the concerns that prison governors have raised. Ministers cannot declare that governors should be empowered to lead our prisons but then fail to respond when they identify significant flaws. If there is still a reluctance to listen to the plethora of warnings governors are giving, then ministers must take notice of the hard statistics.
John Attard, National officer, Prison Governors Association