Under this government, our prison system is falling apart

When I started visiting Wormwood Scrubs, it was pinched but peaceful. Now our prisons are pits of despair

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

It used to be sewing mail bags, picking oakum and working the treadmill, now the government has come up with a wheeze to get convicts busy with sandbags, fence posts and kit for the armed forces. The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, says the ten-year deal will teach convicts ‘the value of a hard day’s work’.

This has been tried for six months with Coldingley prison in Surrey and Grayling reports savings of nearly £500,000. Although that figure must be offset by the £72,000 of taxpayers’ money he has just spent trying to overturn a court ruling against his ban on inmates receiving books from visitors. He is also planning major reforms on rehabilitation of offenders.

‘For too long we have released prisoners back onto the streets with £46 in their pockets and little else other than the hope that they would sort themselves out,’ he says. ‘Now all this will change. For the first time we will be giving all offenders a proper chance at rehabilitation, instead of just leaving them to wander the streets and get on with it.’

Anyone who has watched the destruction of our penal institutions over the past two years may wonder what happened to the idea of prison as a place of rehabilitation. What kind of men are now being released? When I taught in Wormwood Scrubs in 2007, it kept 1,355 men confined in a place built for 860. It was chronically underfunded even then.

But I first realised how good it was when we were visited in the art room by some redoubtable prison reformers from New Jersey. They gazed in wonder at a lot of messy acrylic paint tubes and wizened old brushes. The sinks were filthy and a group of Afro-Caribbean inmates hid behind tents made out of bedsheets and easels, smoking spliffs, listening to rap music and talking patois. To me it looked like a pit, but to the pious American ladies it was a revelation. They had seen nothing like it back home.

Once I’d got used to prison culture, with the constant intrusion of security, I found the Scrubs quite a cosy place. For many inmates it was the nearest thing to home they’d ever had. It was dirty, the food was lousy, the medical facilities were almost nil, but the men made friends and made the best of it. Many came up to education classes; these were full and had a waiting list to get in. Some men took an interest in art for the first time, while radical Muslims who couldn’t look at human images enjoyed the work of flower painters such as Henri Fantin-Latour.

As we enjoyed our coffee and biscuits together, smuggled in by me, I used to fantasise about taking a party to the National Gallery or the National Theatre. I felt I could reach them through cultural experiences they hadn’t had before. My other classes in English and history were great fun, although the foreign men, particularly the Africans, always outshone the British lads, who had had the worst education.

Britons often have a false picture of prison life from watching American films, which dwell on the terrible cult of prisoner rape, but there was none of that in the Scrubs and I didn’t hear of it in other UK prisons. Perhaps that was because 32 per cent of inmates in the Scrubs were Caribbean and tended to be homophobic. When I made a request for Peter Tatchell to give a talk, the governor refused, saying it would ‘cause a riot’.

I didn’t hear about much bullying, though men got beaten for stealing from each other. The people I met in my classes were happy enough and some thrived. Boys who’d grown up in care appreciated the order and routine. Jokes were currency and I hadn’t laughed so much since I was in school.

My prison experience reminded me of Porridge, the old TV sitcom, and films such as Two-Way Stretch. But the peaceful, rather indolent prison I knew has gone. Over the past two years the Scrubs, always a well of need, has changed into a pit of despair, from an establishment described by inspectors as getting the basics right to a hole where five men died last year. As many as six people a month are now killing themselves in our prisons.


The place where I worked was doing well on tight rations, but now it has been left to starve. Prison governors have been ordered by Grayling’s department to make savings of £150 million a year. A recent spending review saw a further 10 per cent reduction in the Ministry of Justice’s budget. The most damaging effect of this has been to drastically cut the number of prison officers.

In the Scrubs, there are wings containing 300 men controlled by nine junior officers. Many senior staff have been made redundant or have left due to stress. There is increasing violence between staff and prisoners, as well as between prisoners, who now spend all day banged up in their badly ventilated cells. Attendance at classes has dropped and many workshops, the key places for rehabilitation, have closed.

‘I’m absolutely clear, there is not a crisis in our prisons,’ Grayling declared last year, at the same time as the Isis Young Offenders Institution in London was criticised in an official report for the high levels of violence there, often involving weapons. Official figures from the Ministry of Justice showed that the number of assaults by prisoners in England and Wales rose to more than 15,000 in 2013–14, from around 14,000 the year before. The latest statistics also reveal a record number of serious assaults, including attacks by prisoners on staff.

Danny Kruger, who runs the crime-prevention charity ‘Only Connect’, says his work has become almost impossible since government cuts. ‘We deliver some education services in London prisons,’ he says. ‘To do our work we need prison officers to unlock and escort the inmates to the classroom. If we’re lucky we get half a class, maybe six prisoners; if we’re not, we get none. This is what budget cuts and poor morale does to a system that never worked well in the first place.’

Prisons inspector Nick Hardwick, who published a report on the Scrubs last November, said: ‘Major structural changes in late 2013 had led to a significant reduction of resources. We were told that one consequence of this was that a large tranche of experienced staff had left very quickly and that this had been destabilising, not least because the prison had found it difficult to recruit replacements. This inspection found that the prison had declined significantly in almost every aspect.’

‘Wormwood Scrubs has been through a difficult change process,’ says Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service. ‘It has had to adapt to hold young offenders alongside its adult population while implementing new structures and routines to provide a decent regime for prisoners at a lower cost. This has not been an easy transition.’

It’s been impossible. Our prisons are going the American way, without the hygiene. Nelson Mandela once said, ‘No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.’ Grayling’s empty pronouncements suggest that all this nation really cares about now is getting hold of ready cash.

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  • This article seems to be based on rather limited experience for such sweeping claims – and please remember all those managers, staff and volunteers in our prisons who continue to do some amazing work, in challenging circumstances, on all our behalves.

  • veritas

    There are significant problems in HMPS/NOMS & MoJ. What’s not generally known by the general public is that Officers are being ordered hundreds of miles away from their families & commitments to cover substantial shortfalls in staffing levels. Recruitment of new Staff & subsequent retention is worse than poor. So called ‘managers’ are incompetent buffoons who have no idea of what is actually happening on the landings. Those that do. worry only about getting their bonus at the end & will bully/intimidate & threaten newer Staff to work beyond safe staffing levels. ‘Managers’ want those Staff on higher pay out so that they can employ new Staff on far less pay. There is much incompetence in ‘managerial’ grades & in my 20 years service, I met only a few who were trustworthy & honourable. The rest were over promoted yes men & women who had no morals. I for one am glad to be out of the mire. Prisons are NOT for profit but there will be more privatisation of jails in the near future. Ministers want this as most are on the payrolls of security companies & will benefit. Prisons=TIMEBOMBS & waiting to explode. The clock is ticking!

    • veritas

      Assaults on Staff are happening daily & it’s become accepted as the norm. Violence is a daily occurrence for Staff trying to maintain order & discipline. Threats of assaults/self harming/suicides/dirty protests/being ‘potted’ with urine & faeces etc are frequent. HMPS has become an employer who cares not for it’s most valuable asset-STAFF. Ongoing detatched duty to unfamiliar jails with different cons & regimes & in some ways different cultures is a pre cursor to untolerable stress for Staff. This detatched duty is costing an enormous amount of money from the public purse-the taxpayer! Failing Grayling is an embarrassment to this once proud discipline service & the damage he & others have caused is IMHO both inexcusable & irrepairable. It does set the way for complete privatisation of most if not all of the Prison Service in the UK. Maybe the high security estate will remain public-similar to the farce in the Probation Service with the offenders deemed the most dangerous being ‘managed’ by the Prob Service & not private companies. If I were still a Prison Officer, I would be ashamed to associated with HMPS. I know very many of my former colleagues feel this very way & only remain because they have to ie mortgage/schooling etc. Most take no pride anymore & are embarrassed. God help if Ministers/’managers’ impose a complete ban on tobacco in jails as has been suggested. Roofs will come off jails very quickly. Even more disorder will ensue as many cons have significant mental issues & if ‘burn’ was not available, many simply wouldn’t cope. Staff are not trained in mental health management, yet have significant interactions with cons that have both recognised & unrecognised disorders each & every day. Prison Officers really are the forgotten service both in monetary terms & in their worth & value in doing one of society’s dirtiest jobs as literally ‘pest controllers.’

      • veritas

        Amongst all this chaos in HMPS, which incidentally has been ongoing for many years, successive Govts & their Ministers are most definitely to blame as well as totally incompetent so call ‘managers’. There has been an appeasement policy in force since I first donned the uniform of a Prison Officer in 1995. The over promotion of sycophantic Staff in establishments where they remained after being ‘one of the lads’, contributed to this. What ‘managers’ do is play act at topical policies & issues & if they think they can exploit something/someone-they will. Staff sickness levels will continue to rise sharply & predominantly due to increasing stress levels. The old adage levelled at Staff, ‘if you don’t like it, hang your keys up at the gate’, is as true nowadays as it ever was. When Staff have personal commitment issues ie young children/elderly parents etc, what used to be said was ‘we don’t employ your family’. Well due to changes in the laws (for better or worse), HMPS/NOMS &MoJ do have to comply & they seem to forget that Staff have outside, far more important issues in their individual lives than whether there are enough Staff on duty so that cons can have association/exercise etc etc. All that continues to happen, suggests to me that there will be far more privatisation of prisons after the general election. Things are deliberately being hushed up at the moment but mark my words-there will be trouble ahead for absolute certainty!

  • Phil

    What else was she smuggling in with the biscuits to be so anti security. Also to allow the smoking of whatever in class without doing something about it. Quality comments by `veritas`. Happy to be recently retired after 28 years service

  • Patrick Roy

    You’ll never guess what religion are @50% of the prison population. I’ll give you ONE guess, actually. And there’s not much chance for rehab on these lot.

    • Shorne

      The latest figures available in the public domain (June 2014) show the three highest religious categories are;
      Christian – 42706 =49.94%
      No Religion – 25619 = 25.96%
      Muslim – 12106 = 14.16 %

      So perhaps you could explain what you mean…?

      • Patrick Roy

        Try major cities. Not outer Hebrides.

        • Shorne

          What goes on in some cities is not reflective of the nationwide picture.

          • Patrick Roy

            Yes it is.

          • Shorne

            No and even in cities with a high Muslim population there is a wide variance for example in Tower Hamlets and Newham it’s over 30%, in the Borough where I live it’s 7%. The 2011 census showed the population for the whole country was 4.8%.

          • Patrick Roy

            Need to include no religion as a percentage of the percentage.

  • Paulo Williams

    As an ex-prisoner, I am a bit amazed at this piece by Jane Kelly. I spent a month in Wormwood Scrubs while being transferred to see my partner who was in Pucklechurch when I set off, but by the time I arrived almost three months later (!!) had been transferred to Styal after sentencing. The Scrubs I knew was a hard place and I certainly never saw or heard of anyone smoking spliffs openly as has been claimed here. It has always been a tough place, but now conditions are worse everywhere, and privatization will only see them worsen. The ‘man on the street’ seems to think that inmates in British prisons spend their days watching television in the comfort of their cells, or wandering down the hallways to chat with fellow inmates. The reality is very different; banged up for 23 hours a day, shortage of officers, not enough education or other workshops…. the list goes on. Rehabilitation is impossible in British prisons without the benefit of education and the chance to learn a skill. I was lucky enough to eventually be sent to The Verne where I did a welding course and gained a certificate, but this is most definitely not the norm. My partner spent her time in Pucklechurch, Styal and then Cookham Wood and she had a much tougher time of it than I did. Pucklechurch, a remand centre where you are presumed innocent until trial (and many are found innocent after spending an average of a year on remand), still has slop-out, a ten-minute bath once a week and during that ten minutes you must clean the bath and pray there is hot water, all the while having an officer watch you, and because of a staff shortage inmates are banged up usually for 23 hours a day. If there are enough staff they might get recreation once a month, which is just being banged up in a larger room with more prisoners and a television. Styal at least gave one the opportunity to learn skills, plus the prisoners live in houses and do the washing up and cooking by rota so it gives the semblance of ‘normal’ life, although it can be tough. Cookham Wood on the other hand has you banged up most of the time unless you have a job in the gardens or do an educational course. But at least at Cookham you do have your own toilet so are not reduced to squatting on a pot in front of a cell-mate. My partner began her Open University degree in Styal (although she had to write to outsiders to get help as the governor refused to allow her to enrol) and continued it in Pucklechurch and now holds a degree, so rehabilitation is possible, GIVEN THE RESOURCES. Staffing must be at manageable levels and you must have at least one senior, experienced officer for every inexperienced one; and you must have education and other worshops so the inmates can be engaged in activities. It is the only way.

  • Gerschwin

    Start hanging the worst of them and free up some space, cheaper too in the long run.

    • tolpuddle1

      How many crimes do you want to make Capital offences ?

      What makes you think that laws can be applied retrospectively ?

      • WTF

        Lets start with terrorist acts and racially motivated sexual grooming, that should reduce the prison population by at least 20%

        • Shorne

          Convicted terrorists = c. 0.14% of the population prison population.
          2012-13 prisoners convicted of sexual grooming 1.95%. 72% of child sex offenders are white, 10% are female.
          Most common category of offence is Violence Against the Person.
          It doesn’t take long to find these figures out instead of making yourself look silly.

          • WTF

            Old statistics and judging by the number of court cases involving sexual grooming last year across the UK and even more surfacing every month, its going up in leaps and bounds.

          • Shorne

            Well apart from some individual cases, like the former UKIP Regional Chairman convicted last November ,I found a total of 23 convictions with patterns comparable to Rotherham last year.

          • Michael Cooley

            “There are lies , damned lies and statistics” .

            Sexual grooming hasn’t been prosecuted till recently and is still under prosecuted, Just ask 1600 children in Rotherham and countless numbers elsewhere.

          • Shorne

            Rotherham was appalling and those responsible will probably get away with is more or less but it shouldn’t be allowed to mask the fact that the vast majority of child sex offenders are white males known to their victims. I especially know this because my job in the prison involved interviewing some of them.

    • Shorne

      Miscarriages of justice are not rare events. An estimated £65m a year is spent on imprisoning people who have been wrongly convicted. Around 25 people a day successfully appeal against their convictions. This includes offences that would have attracted the Death Penalty.

  • Roger Hudson

    The prison numbers go up all the time, just look at the number of lifers getting parole tariffs of over 25 years, a huge burden. 25 years of a ladies art class? ho hum.
    There is already one geriatric nonces prison, soon we will need another.
    The time will soon come when the big change will be needed, work details for the non-violent and ‘warehousing’ for the violent.

  • scampy

    Could it be a factor that our prisons are filled with black and muslim immigrants?
    Singapore with one of the lowest crime rates in the world has corporal and capital punishment plus long sentences?
    The vermin must be made to not want to return to prison?

    • Shorne

      As my comment above shows the latest figures available show 14.16% of the prison population are Muslims.
      The figures on ethnicity are; White 73.8%, Black and Asian 24.42%
      Hardly ‘filled with’ is it although the prison I worked in was notable for one ethnic statistic, it had the highest number of Black Minority Ethnic staff in the country
      I took early retirement from working in a prison (in a civilian role) in 2010. It never ceases to amuse me even now how people confidently assert ‘facts’ about prisons when they clearly know nothing.
      I wholeheartedly agree with the comments of the ex-Prison Officer and ex-prisoner above. Interesting he mentions HMP The Verne, it’s no longer a prison but an immigration removal centre.

  • WTF

    Prison isn’t tough enough especially for certain types of criminals. I’d say the criminal system has lost all credibility after the recent sentencing of a “Asian” man found guilty of raping an 18 year old girl out celebrating her birthday.

    Jeremy Forrest the school teacher gets 6 years for having totally consensual sex with a mature school girl about to turn 16 where no alcohol was involved and this piece of s*** gets 6 years for kidnap, assault and rape of a young girl who was inebriated. Other than the obvious political correctness does anyone understand this sentencing as I sure don’t ?


    • Molly NooNar

      I don’t understand it myself, but I don’t think judges look at what criminals in either the same or different circumstances received and compare them. I think its all case by case.

  • Michael Cooley

    When a family member did some time in the Scrubs, he said it was like a school reunion with so many from our comprehensive in Harlesden resident.

    The changes Michael Gove has made to education in raising standards after 50 years of comprehensive disaster, will help young men to come out of school in the future able to read, write and do maths and will do more to calm the pressure on prisons, than worrying about their daily spliff intake once inside and written off.

    Also if you really want to cut down on the violence you need to stop mass imigration from warzones.