OPINION: ‘Nottingham prison deaths are tragedies. We should care about prisoners’

Ian Birrell: "England and Wales lock up far too many people - more than any other nation in western Europe."
Ian Birrell: "England and Wales lock up far too many people - more than any other nation in western Europe."

Marc Maltby was only 23-years-old. He was the fifth person to die in a month at Nottingham prison.

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Their names will soon be forgotten, except by the grieving families and some victims of their crimes. But consider this stark statistic: the number of corpses found in one month in this category B unit is the same as the highest number of deaths there over the course of any previous year this century.

The single fact shows the spiralling scale of our prison crisis, each death a damning indictment of state failure. Yet these tragedies are just tip of an iceberg.

Inspectors recorded 199 attacks on staff at this 1,060-capacity prison within a year, along with 457 fights among prisoners and 82 fires. Drugs are rife, causing debt and violence. Education and work was slashed due to spending cuts. Such is the systemic collapse that one inmate had to wear the same clothes every day for three weeks.

Rioting and suicides

Similar problems exist across the country. All indicators are heading in the wrong direction, from the 20 assaults on prison officers each day - including a mob armed with pool balls at Long Lartin last week - through to rising numbers of riots, self-harm incidents and suicides.

In local prisons, one-third of inmates are locked in cells for at least 22 hours a day. What hope of human beings - many with disturbed backgrounds, addiction issues and mental health problems - emerging from such hellholes to rejoin society in better shape?

Warnings are coming thick and fast. “The worst we’ve ever seen,” said Andrea Albutt, the Prison Governors Association president, earlier this month. Prisons are ‘unacceptably violent and dangerous places’ said their chief inspector in his annual report.

Or maybe you heard Dan, released after ten years behind bars in 17 different places, tell Radio 4’s Today last week how everything had broken down, from the beds and disgusting cells through to any sense of helping people deal with personal demons. “Your head goes, you just get worse and worse,” he said. “You leave prison worse than before you went in.”

Overcrowding

The immediate solution is simple: hire more staff. Many problems at prisons such as Nottingham are due to staff shortages, the number of officers falling almost one-third after the coalition took office.

This has, thankfully, been belatedly recognised. Prisons minister Sam Gyimah installed a special team on the ninth floor of the ministry to drive recruitment, leading to a net increase of 868 officers this year despite difficulties of retaining staff amid the chaos and drug-fuelled violence.

Yet a more fundamental issue lies at core of this crisis. England and Wales lock up far too many people - more than any other nation in western Europe. Thanks to the myth that prison works, promoted by politicians trying to look macho, the population behind bars doubled in two decades.

This has caused hideous overcrowding. It is cruel when three in ten inmates have a learning disability or difficulty. And a criminal waste of taxpayers’ money when almost half reoffend within one year of release.

Pointless short sentences

Both main parties share guilt in Government. The response to any problem is longer sentences. We have just seen another example of this posturing with maximum sentences for animal cruelty set to rise from six months to five years. This will impact directly on few people and deter no-one. Yet as one justice department insider said, it will lead to more crowded prisons ‘since you can’t see someone getting a longer sentence for cruelty to a horse than for grevious bodily harm on a human’.

Short sentences especially are pointless since they achieve almost nothing except for disrupting any family or job stability. Recidivism rates actually rise among those serving less than 12 months.

Even Albutt admitted prison is the worst place for someone who is mentally ill while drugs are so widely used some offenders first become addicted behind bars. And once someone goes to jail they are more likely to commit crime.

Political incentives

Politically, there has never been better time to end this farce since the Tories could look compassionate while left-wing Labour should be on board. There are 86,337 inmates in England and Wales. Each one costs £35,000 a year - yet many emerge with problems fuelling criminal behaviour worsened.

Use of community sentences is falling. Yet it is far tougher to force people to confront personal issues than to leave them lying around stoned all day - as well as much cheaper, even if rehabilitation and treatment programmes were made more effective.

Holland used to match English incarceration rates, then found reducing them had little impact on crime levels while freeing up cash to tackle social issues.

Closer to home, the Scottish Government deserves credit after courageously telling courts to avoid sentences under three months. Now the chief inspector of prisons demands an end to all terms of less than a year. “If you want to reduce crime then you don’t send people to prison for a short time,” said David Strang, chief inspector of prisons for Scotland and a former chief constable.

No sympathy

These issues are easy to ignore. Prisoners are seen as scumbags, shut out of sight from polite society, even banned from voting. And why waste cash on crooks when hospitals struggle?

Yet we should care, whether on grounds of humanity or purely selfish reasons. For if serving time leaves minds more messed up, addictions intensified and families broken, these people are more likely to burgle your home, mug your mother or beat your son when back on the streets. We must free ourselves from the myth that prison works.