Two weeks ago when the Gate at Birmingham Prison banged shut behind Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, he must have thought as he walked away to write his Report: ‘how on earth could it have got to this?’
Behind him he left a prison he’d found in “an appalling state” with high violence, widespread bullying, squalid living conditions and poor control by fearful staff, who suffered an arson attack on their supposedly secure car park during the inspection.
Birmingham is only the second jail ever to be assessed by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) as poor, its lowest assessment, across all key aspects of prison life.
How did we get here?
Until a year or so ago the problem with our prison system had just two basic roots – and to a large extent it still does.
The first is a public who demand ever longer sentences and harsher prison conditions, despite a wealth of evidence that neither reduces crime and serves only to land them with a £15bn a year bill for reoffending.
The second has been the failure of politicians on all sides to rise to the challenge, to stand up to the public and argue for what they know the evidence shows is in everyone’s best interest: reducing reoffending is brought about through engagement, decency, respect, humane conditions and support – all things far too many of our prisons cannot deliver.
Politicians need to educate the public that treating prisoners humanely is not being soft on crime – humane treatment of prisoners has nothing to do with punishment, and everything to do with investing prisoners (whatever they’ve done) with the rights of a human being – and that is always a test that we must pass, not them.
Eighteen months (and three Justice Secretary’s) ago, Liz Truss sought to bring common sense to the law and order debate with a change of direction, the White Paper she published on Prison Reform would have gone a long way towards making real progress, but it was not to be.
Theresa May then went for her infamous walk and the White Paper, much like her parliamentary majority, was tossed in the trash.
But while all that makes for fine theory, it is the dreadful translation of that recipe for chaos into practice that has brought the prison system to its knees.
The minefield that is our prison system today goes back to 2013 when Tory Justice Secretary Chris Grayling slashed front line prison officer numbers by 7000 (and cut budgets by over £900m) when he introduced VEDS – Voluntary Early Departure Scheme; in effect – redundancy.
And this at a time when prisoner numbers were rapidly increasing too.
When I first learnt of the scale of the frontline cuts Grayling was going to make I fully expected the Prison Officers Association (POA) to mount large scale protests across the prison estate to fight them – but not a bit of it.
There was not even a whimper from the POA – and the reason?
The VEDS package (coupled with the promise by Grayling to end prison privatisation) was so generous that it ‘bought off’ any objection to the staff cuts from the POA – indeed not only were the POA complicit in the staff cuts, but the evidence shows their own bid to run the prison actually involved 150 LESS staff than the winning G4S bid offered – something the POA seem today to have quietly forgotten.
And VEDS really was generous too – Grayling blew more than £50million in just one year sacking staff at Britain’s overcrowded jails; in 2013 the Prison Service spent £56.5million on severance payments – ten times the amount spent in 2012.
Its not rocket science – you can’t run a modern, safe, humane, reforming prison system with a handful of staff and on tuppence ha’penny.
And, its got nothing to do with Birmingham being a private prison – that’s a red herring.
The moral argument is no one should earn a profit from imprisonment – well tell that to the 25,000 prison officers when they collect their ‘profit’ each month.
I’m a pragmatist – I don’t care whose name is over the prison gate, I’m more concerned with what happens to real people who live and work on the other side of it.
The truth is there are good and bad public and private prisons – and don’t forget until we had private prisons in 1992 our prison system was in an even worse state than it is today.
With private prisons came integral sanitation – instead of a bucket prisoners were required to urinate and defecate in and ‘slop out’ – also with private prisons came access to telephones, reduction in mail censorship, evening family visits, drug and alcohol detox, offending behaviour courses and until 1992 time out of cell was 11 hours a week – with the opening of the first private prison that became 11 hours a day.
We have had private prisons for almost 30 years and generally they have worked quite well – the difference now is that the government austerity spending cuts have driven down private sector contracts to such low levels that they are simply unsustainable – we see that with Birmingham (not to mention Liverpool, Nottingham and Exeter) and we saw it too with Prison Service facilities management company Carillion.
There is one thing however about the privatised Birmingham prison that is different to other failing public sector jails – public prisons don’t have a wicket keeper.
When private prisons were introduced Parliament insisted that behind every private prison Governor must sit a ‘Controller’, an experienced public sector prison governor, there to monitor how the contract to run the prison was being delivered – and where they believe the Governor was at risk of losing control, to ‘step in’ and take over.
There were four, full-time, Controllers at HMP Birmingham, Peter Clarke suggested they were all ‘asleep at the wheel’ and that’s impossible to disagree with given that none of them appeared to notice that security, order, safety and control at the prison had been lost.
What is the solution?
Recent speeches by Justice Secretary David Gauke, and his Prisons Minister Rory Stewart, show they have clearly recognised the dire state the prison system is in, and there has been a raft of welcome policy initiatives to address identified problems.
We have seen a commitment to end rough sleeping, a package to steer the vulnerable away from custody, a drive to address the problems at the ten most challenging prisons, and a £9m ‘blitz’ on drugs in prison too.
These are welcome and useful – but they are also piecemeal, disjointed and there is no overall clarity of ‘mission’ that pulls them all together – you won’t reduce reoffending by sticking plasters over prison problems and ignoring the much bigger picture.
What we need now is a Public Inquiry, not just into the debacle that is Birmingham, but the prison system as a whole – defining not only how we get out of this mess but drafting the course of prisons and probation development well into the 2030’s.
We need to clearly define the ‘mission’ of our prison system.
What, exactly, do we as a society want our prison system to deliver in terms of punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, reducing reoffending and victim care?
Once we have the mission clear, then we just need to pay for its delivery.
At present we are on our EIGHTH Justice Secretary since 2010, and the Prison Service itself in that time has been reorganised four times too – from Prison Service to Correctional Services, to NOMS and now to HMPPS.
Our Prison Service is disorientated by changes of organisation, leadership and the disarray caused by abrupt policy and funding changes that inevitably flow from a change at the top.
It has to stop.
Birmingham prison needs to be the point where a halt is called, where emotion is taken out of the law and order debate, and the future of our prison and probation services are handed over to an impartial public inquiry where evidence and not rhetoric shows what works best for everyone.