So far this year, there have been 91 suicides in UK prisons, and 278 deaths in total. These figures already exceed their counterparts of 88 and 256 for the whole of 2015. Recently, the rates of death and assault in prisons have been rising. The most obvious reason for this is a deterioration in the quality of life of prisoners which causes a violent reaction in some – and it needs to be addressed urgently.
More and more prisons are receiving the lowest performance rating when inspected. A combination of staff shortages and overcrowding mean that the important provision of courses in new skills and opportunities for work is inadequate. Many prisoners spend long periods of time just locked in their cells, as there are not enough staff to do more than ensure they stay that way. Some might say that this is no better than they deserve – after all, they are there to be punished. However, I consider the levels of psychological stress that result from this treatment to be inhumane. Furthermore, once this stress starts to have dangerous manifestations, such as the rise in assaults, it is clearly imperative that we act, regardless of our levels of sympathy for the prisoners themselves.
Prisoners often already have underlying mental health issues. Subjecting them to the levels of boredom and the sense of purposelessness propagated by many prisons is therefore extremely unwise. Many resort to drugs – a key concern is so-called ‘New Psychotic Substances’, or NPS. These were originally mostly ‘legal highs’, but in January 2015, sanctions were imposed for using or possessing them. At least 39 of the deaths in prisons between June 2013 and June 2015 are thought to be linked to their use. Worryingly, in recent inspections, nearly two out of three prisoners said that it was easy to obtain drugs.
Towards the end of his time as Prime Minister, David Cameron raised hopes with talk of prison reform in the near future, including giving more freedom to prison governors to manage themselves. The then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove described the positive impact this would have: “By trusting governors to get on with the job, we can make sure prisons are places of education, work and purposeful activity.” Unfortunately, these planned reforms have been put on hold by the current Justice Secretary Liz Truss. When questioned about this decision, she said that the reforms were under review, and that she could not commit to anything specific at the present time. This is worrying, especially as Truss co-authored a book in 2011 that included a call for prisons to be made even more disagreeable for inmates.
It is imperative that we act now, regardless of our levels of sympathy for the prisoners themselves.
Prison reform needs to be prioritised, not put on pause. A number of important changes could make a real difference to the spiralling problems of substance abuse, mental health issues and ultimately violence. Staff shortages need to be addressed. More staff will improve the control of drug supply into prisons, and more positive human interactions with staff will help reduce prisoners’ distress. Further, the ability of a more comprehensive team to give a full provision of work, training and education opportunities will keep prisoners active and give them a sense of purpose. Hopefully a virtuous cycle of reduced psychological distress and substance abuse, leading to a greater sense of safety and control in prison and thus even less distress, drug taking and violence, would follow.
Overcrowding in prisons is also a factor in deteriorating conditions. As well as increasing staff levels, decreasing inmate numbers would improve prison life. Many are there for relatively minor crimes, and statistics show that community service is a more effective means than prison of reducing reoffending rates. In general, prison sentences ought to be shorter but more intense; much greater emphasis should be placed on rehabilitation. Prisoners are individuals with different needs, and in an ideal world, each would receive a tailored programme of medical support (including help with addictions or mental health problems) and education. Prisoners should not just be written off as too dangerous to be in society. Many have led deprived lives – figures have shown that around one quarter of prisoners spent time in care as a child, compared to only 2% of the general population. Of course prison should act as a deterrent for crime, but it should also be a constructive experience. It should help often very troubled people work on making sure their lives are better once they leave. Increased activity and purposefulness during a sentence would significantly improve the mental health of prisoners and finally reverse the worrying trend of increasing drug taking, assault and deaths.