By Mark Leech
Look, I get it.
When your back is against the wall and you’re up against it, when every single piece of evidence shows no matter what you do it stubbornly isn’t working, there is a real temptation to find virtue in anything.
But there is no virtue to be found in the latest safety in custody quarterly statistics, where every single one of the key indicators show a continuing annual rise in deaths, violence and self-harm.
Just look at the plain, stripped-of-spin, painful facts.
- In the 12 months to March 2019, that’s just four weeks ago by the way, there were 317 deaths in prison custody, up 18 from the previous year – of these, 87 deaths were self-inflicted, up 14 from the previous year.
- Self-harm incidents rose to 55,598 in 2018, a new record high.
- Incidents requiring hospital attendance rose to a record high of 3,214 in 2018 and the number of self-harm incidents requiring hospital attendance increased by 5% on the previous year to 3,214.
- Assault incidents increased to 34,223, a record high level in 2018.
- Annual assault incidents reached a record high of 34,223 incidents in 2018, a 16% increase from 2017.
- Assaults in the October to December 2018 quarter show a 5% increase on the same quarter of the previous year.
- The proportion of assaults on staff continue to rise. The proportion of assaults on staff increased to 30% of all incidents in 2018, an increase from 29% in 2017, and a steady increase from 20% between 2008 and 2011.
- The proportion of assaults on staff (38%) in female establishments in 2018 was higher than in male establishments (29%).
- In the 12 months to December 2018, there were 3,918 serious assault incidents, up 2% from the previous year.
- While serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults decreased by just 1% since the previous year, serious assaults on staff rocketed by 15% (to 995) in the same period.
Now you tell me what has anyone who can read, talk and walk upright, got to applaud here?
When every single indicator across the quarter is at a higher figure than 12 months ago – often reaching yet more ‘new record highs’ – I find nothing to applaud at all.
But Prisons Minister Rory Stewart did.
Indeed despite the reality that every single annual indicator on deaths, assaults and self-harm showed increases, Rory made a video.
In it he managed to keep a straight face while celebrating the fact that, as he saw it, we have turned a corner, there is now light at the end of the tunnel, the signs of success are there he said, and we should all take comfort from the fact that he has it all under control.
No he doesn’t.
It’s one thing to mistake a swallow for the arrival of Summer, but it’s insane to look at these figures and say a single grain of sand means we’ve all arrived on a beach in Ibiza and it’s now Party Time.
No its not.
You can’t look at one quarter’s figures in this custodial world and make presumptions or try and extrapolate it into the future – especially when every single key annual indicator is still on the rise.
This is not a world where exact science works at all.
The prison population is constantly changing, it’s fluid, it’s a world where there are people with mental illnesses, addictions, learning difficulties, impulsive behaviour issues, gang allegiances, where skilful manipulators and sophisticated fraudsters are at work.
It’s a place where there isn’t and never has been a one size fits all solution to anything.
It’s a world where when you think you’ve got something cracked the whole thing goes tits up proving you haven’t cracked it at all .
Exactly 25 years ago six Exceptional Risk Category A prisoners escaped from the ‘impregnable prison within a prison’ Special Secure Unit at Whitemoor prison, having managed to acquire a gun and ammunition they shot one prison officer and made it out of the unit over two walls and through a fence to short-lived freedom on the other side – the later Woodcock report revealed they’d also managed to smuggle into the SSU one pound of Semtex high explosive.
What seems calm and controlled one minute can blow up in your face the next – and then drop back down again as if nothing has happened just minutes later.
It’s a world where people aren’t afraid of consequences, being sent to prison doesn’t bother them – they’re already there – and they’ve largely spent a lifetime sticking two fingers up to authority and saying ‘fuck you’ whatever may then befall them.
You can take nothing for granted in this custodial world – and certainly not the fragile seeds of hope that even on the best view these figures do not represent.
I know, I spent 14 years in prison, during a prison career of riots and roof-top protests, segregation, ghost trains, and 62 different prisons until one day I arrived at Grendon Underwood where the healing process started, where for once I was treated with decency and respect and where my head was taken off and screwed back on the right way round and I haven’t looked back.
But in 61 other prisons it was ‘them and us’ – and consequences were irrelevant; which is why telling the public that the Government has doubled the sentence for assaults on prison officers may appear like progress, but in the real world of prison it’s utterly meaningless – neither prevention nor cure work here, only reasoning succeeds in the end.
I don’t doubt at all that Rory Stewart and David Gauke have the best of intentions but they are political animals, they have a concave view of the world in which they tell lies for a living – no disrespect, it’s just what politicians do – they call it putting a spin on things but to many people it’s just lying.
Yes, the 10 Prisons Project has had some success, I don’t deny that, it was inevitable and it would be strange if the investment in those prisons didn’t see cleaner wings, brighter landings, fresher environments and progress – but there are another 108 prisons where that simply isn’t the case; in fact there are another 108 prisons where things are going from bad to worse and no amount of spin or fresh paint can conceal it.
Don’t take my word for it, just go to the IMB web site and just read the latest annual reports just published.
IMB at HMP Durham: ….The prison has seen large increases in the use of force, assaults, death in custody and illegal use of drugs
IMB at HMP Haverigg …. widespread use of Psychoactive Substances (PS), not only with respect to those addicted to its use but on the general prison population, staff and also on the overall regime.
IMB at HMP Channings Wood …. decline in both the safety and well-being of the prisoners and in the physical condition of their surroundings with a significant increase in the use of the drug Spice and a serious deterioration in the state of the men’s living blocks.
IMB at HMP Hewell say the prison isn’t even fit for the 21st Century – 20 years after we entered it, widespread use of illicit drugs and mobile phones….
And so it goes on.
A splash of spin and a coat of paint can’t conceal reality – Queen Victoria thought the world smelt of fresh paint because, wherever she went, ten feet in front of her was a man with a paint brush; but had she turned the corner, had she gone off-tour, she would have collided with a reality where filth, stench and danger were obvious to anyone who cared to look.
Well, I care to look.
I want to be optimistic, I want to see progress, but equally I refuse to be deceived and distracted by political spin from the reality of a prison world that is, on the statistical facts, one where in terms of violence, death and self-harm it is getting worse not better.
When we’ve had 12 months not 12 weeks (and we haven’t had a single week across all four key indicators yet let’s not forget) of falling figures on deaths, self-harm and assaults in our prisons, when anecdotal evidence matches the figures and confirms that control has been regained and retained then – and not until then – we can say that progress has genuinely been made; rather than just a second-rate video that frankly was as risible to watch as it was as laughable to listen to.
Mark Leech FRSA is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales. @prisonsorguk