From the archive: Chris Grayling – cooking up a prison crisis

Alex Cavendish /   October 20, 2014 at 8:39 PM 1,682 views

prison guard

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I refer in many posts to the ongoing crisis in our prisons. In my view this is attributable to three key factors: substantial budget reductions, serious overcrowding in many establishments and shortages of frontline staff. This sad state of affairs is, of course, denied by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). They prefer to use the weasel word ‘challenging’ and pretend that all is well in our nicks.

Whichever way you choose to look at the problem, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny the facts. We have too many people in prison (many of them non-violent offenders or unconvicted people held on remand) and too few staff to manage them. This dangerous combination of factors is creating a highly toxic mix.

I must admit that I rather like my cooking metaphor, so let’s examine how you set about creating a prison crisis using Chris Grayling’s experimental recipe for disaster. Forget Gordon Ramsay’s cooking Behind Bars, this is more a case of Heston Blumenthal’s worst – and potentially most explosive – nightmares, combining various volatile and dangerous elements.

The first ingredient has to be to have more prisoners than the existing system can reasonably cope with. This can be achieved in various ways, but closing a significant number of public-sector prisons without making any provision for a rising prison population is always a good start. Shutting down a prison is much easier than opening a new one, so once they’re gone, they’re usually gone forever.

You can also create loads of new populist, knee-jerk criminal offences that carry custodial sentences, but don’t forget to make sure that Legal Aid is almost impossible for many defendants to get. These measures can be relied on to raise the prison population to historically high levels and will significantly aid the overcrowding you need to ensure the success of your prison crisis.

Next, make sure that your main ingredients are well stirred-up and highly volatile before you really get going. Raise the temperature by cramming two, three or even four prisoners – often very temperamental or disturbed individuals – into a tiny cell space designed by our Victorian ancestors for just one convict. Then bang up the cell doors for 23 hours per day, cancel activities, work and education because of chronic staff shortages and allow the mixture of resentment and misery to simmer until serious violence or an epidemic of self-harm bubbles to the top. (Warning: there could be explosions of anger and people could be injured or even killed).

If you can also reduce the availability of any form of mental healthcare or treatment for addictions to negligible levels, then this should also help in destabilising a large number of individual cons. Even if they aren’t driven to self-harm or suicide, then they could turn violent against others, including prison staff, thus raising the temperature even further.

The next key ingredient in making your prison crisis is to slash operational budgets and encourage large numbers of experienced staff to take early retirement or redundancy. This may reduce expenditure in one budget line, but don’t forget that provision will need to be made for bussing staff in from other regions and putting them up in hotels at a cost of £500 per week. Mrs Beaton would certainly not have approved this profligate waste of public money, but she’s not the Secretary of State of Justice, is she?

Just as reducing is an important part of cooking, if you want to achieve a real prison crisis then reducing your frontline staff is always a vital ingredient in the mix. Personnel cuts have left prisons in England and Wales dangerously under-staffed. According to the latest report prepared by the Howard League for Penal Reform, using the MOJ’s own figures, the number of prison officers at public-sector prisons has been cut by 41 percent in under four years (see here).

These statistics reveal that there were just 14,170 officer grades at the end of June 2014, compared to more than 24,000 at the end of August 2010. According to the report, a total of 1,375 frontline staff posts went as a result of the closure of 15 public-sector prisons. However, if you are going to make a real humdinger of a prison crisis that will by talked about for years, then these are the sort of reductions that will be essential. Remember, crushing staff morale is absolutely essential in your prison crisis recipe.

When you have your overcrowded, highly volatile cons on one side and your demoralised, understaffed screws on the other, the next phase is to mix the two together and stir vigorously. A great way to get cons to kick off is to introduce a revised and politically-motivated Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system that even most prison governors reckon is unfair and undermines respect. Confiscating a con’s personal possessions that they have saved up for over many months or even years is a really great way to ratchet up the tensions.

It always helps if you throw in a good measure of drugs (legal and illegal), improvised weapons and mobile phones. Also, there’s nothing like a generous dash of potent prison-brewed hooch to get a really good riot (sorry, ‘localised disturbance’) going a treat.

Not all of your cons will initially want to get mixed into a prison riot, but you should ensure that even those who aren’t normally badly behaved are softened up by some long periods of bang-up in their cells, added to regular cancelling of activities, exercise, work, library visits and education. For a really big bang, an inventive chef can always cancel prisoners’ family visits without notice on the actual day, leaving their loved ones angry and disappointed. That rarely fails to set off an impressive chain-reaction of anger, resentment and hatred.

Once the vast majority of the cons in the toxic mixture are completely disaffected and rebellious, then you know that you will be well on the way to achieving your prison crisis. Screw down the lid on your pressure cooker environment and sit back until the inevitable explosion occurs and blood has been shed. Then be sure to look astounded, deny that anyone ever warned you, blame everyone but yourself and, above all, make sure that you leave someone else to clean up the mess.

Courtesy of Alex Cavendish at Prison UK: An Insider’s View

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