The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”.
Today’s report into conditions at Birmingham prison reads just like a chapter of Crime and Punishment.
The report was such a horror story of drug abuse, violence and squalor that the government has been forced to take control of the prison from security firm G4S.
POA members from all sectors are now working together to deliver a better future for Birmingham, but the situation there is an extreme example of a problem that has plagued our prisons for years.
Under the Tories, under-funding and a dogmatic belief that only the private sector can deliver public services has brought our prison system to the brink of collapse.
That’s why we urgently need an end to private profit in the criminal justice system and proper funding to ensure our prisons are safe, secure and civilised.
Like Dostoevsky, Her Majesties Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) knows a thing or two about prisons. The conditions it described at HMP Birmingham are distressing.
The report identified a catalogue of failings, including a culture of bullying, freely available drugs (one in seven prisoners reported developing a drug habit since entering the prison), squalid conditions and too few staff.
The situation was so grave that HMIP had to invoke the Urgent Notification Process, an emergency procedure that passes control of the prison to the government.
G4S must shoulder much of the blame for what has happened, as they have been managing the prison since privatisation was introduced by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling in 2011.
But speaking earlier today, the chief inspector was clear there had also been an “abject failure” of contract management by the Ministry of Justice.
So it’s clear that ministers have many questions to answer too.
Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the POA, said Birmingham was yet another example of the catastrophic failure of the private prison experiment that ministers should have seen coming:
From probation to prisons, we’re clear that privatisation across the criminal justice system has been a complete failure.
But we should not ignore the wider funding crisis across the system.
Spending on the prison service plummeted by 21% between 2009/10 and 2015/16, while the number of full-time equivalent prison officers from 24,830 in 2010 to 21,000 in 2017.
Given these deep and damaging cuts, is it any wonder that the number of assaults in prisons in England and Wales rose to 29,000 in 2017-18 — a 93 per cent increase from 2007-08.
And over the same period, incidents of self-harm have surged by 91 per cent to reach 44,000.
The government has been warned several times about the impact of austerity and privatisation on our prisons.
In April, the POA wrote to the Justice Secretary to raise concerns at the government’s failure to tackle violence in prisons following staff cuts.
And as recently as July, the HMIP found “Dickensian” conditions in some prisons, calling them “disgraceful” and “fundamentally unsafe”.
Unfortunately, today’s report shows that those warnings fell on deaf ears once again.
Dostoevsky was right: a society should be judged by the state of its prisons.
That’s why today’s report should give us all cause for concern.
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