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Prison system in worst state in 60 years

September 07 2017
Murder and suicide in prisons are at a 25-year high, and assaults 27 per cent up

The prison system is more ‘chaotic and dangerous’ than it has been for 60 years, according to a high-profile former prisoner.

Eric Allison, who has been the Guardian newspaper’s prison correspondent since 2003, was first sent to prison at just 14 and in total has spent 16 years behind bars, all for theft-related offences.

He lived through the prison riots in Parkhurst, Strangeways and Hull, but claims that the situation is now “bleak” as prisons become increasingly overcrowded and violent.

His comments come after a new report by Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, which notes “startling increases on all types of violence” in England and Wales’s prisons.

Clarke’s report states that violence levels in prison have worsened significantly in the last year. Murder and suicide in prisons is at a 25-year high, with a 27 per cent increase in all assaults in the last year. He also claims that none of the young offender units he inspected were safe for the young people serving time in them.

In the 12 months leading up to March 2017, 113 prisoners took their own lives and six murders occurred. Normally only one or two prison murders happen every year. Numbers of deaths in Scottish prisons – 28 last year and 16 already in 2017 - are also “shocking”, according to campaigners.

The use of drugs has also risen sharply, with drugs seized almost 30 times a day in prisons in England and Wales in the year leading up to March 2017. Inspectors found that 63 per cent of prisoners said it was “easy to get drugs” and 22 per cent of prisoners said they had begun taking drugs inside prison.

The report also states that prisoners are being kept locked in their cells for up to 23 hours per day. The recommendation is that prisoners should be unlocked for 10 hours a day, but the current low levels of staffing means that prisoners are being kept in their cells their own safety.

In his comment piece in the Guardian, Allison notes that he experienced a ‘better environment’ in prison following the 1991 Woolf report, written by former chief justice Harry Woolf, which recommended a better prison system.

“But I say, hand on heart, I have never seen the system in such a chaotic and dangerous state as it is now,” he continues.

He told the Pavement that society needed to reconsider its “culture of revenge” and question whether our “someone-must-pay mentality” is really addressing the problem of anti-social behaviour. “It is bleak,” he told us. “I hear horror stories all the time, but the public are seem to be so anæsthetised to it that it is not enough that a prisoner dies due to neglect. It doesn’t seem to result in any action being taken.

“We know that it’s not working – look at the re-offending rates. Honestly, I think that it’s worse than when I was young.”

And he stressed that prisoners should speak out and complain if they felt they were being mistreated.

“Prisoners can speak out and they can legitimately complain,” he added. “There are people who care, and there are people who can help.”

He also urged people to make the most of opportunities available inside including education and rehab support.

Justice Secretary David Lidington meanwhile has pledged that reforms are underway to make prison safer and has acknowledged the need for more staff.

“The work to make our prisons true places of reform and rehabilitation is already under way – and it will continue unabated,” he said.


How to complain

Prison Advice Service (PAS), UK-wide
0845 430 8923; open Mon, Wed & Fri, 10am–1pm & 2pm–5pm
Free legal advice and information to prisoners throughout England and Wales regarding their rights, conditions of imprisonment. Freephone number is available from Prison.

The Independent Prison Monitor, Scotland
0131 244 8482; open Mon–Fri, 9am–5pm
A ‘watchdog’ group who make sure prisons are properly run and will investigate complaints from prisoners. A prisoner can ask to speak to an independent prison monitor at any time via a freephone number or request a form.

Prison Ombudsman
UK-wide:; 0845 010 7938
Scotland only:; 0800 377 7330
Contact the Ombudsman if you have already made an internal complaint against a prison service but are not satisfied with the outcome. The Ombudsman advisors can often give you advice on how make a new complaint.