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The Government might save itself a great deal of soul searching, setting up commissions to establish how and why Daniel Khalife escaped from Wandsworth prison. He escaped because prisons are under-funded, under-manned, and overcrowded – and they have been for many decades.
On the day Khalife escaped, about 80 prison officers hadn’t reported for duty. Those prison officers can’t talk about their working conditions because they’re bound by the Official Secrets Act. But the reality is that, behind those prison gates, there are crippling levels of depression afflicting staff and inmates.
At one young offenders institution, psychologists are speaking with inmates through their cell doors because the officers who should escort them to interview rooms simply don’t exist.
Conditions inside English prisons are so foul that Germany recently declined to expedite an extradition over (justified) concerns that prisons in this country aren’t humane. They’re not – not because they’re brutal, but because they’re barely maintained, crammed to the rafters, and under-staffed.
No political party has made significant efforts to improve prisons because there aren’t any votes in the equation. Prisoners and their families aren’t a profitable demographic and, sadly, the rest of the voting public either doesn’t seem to care, or thinks that prisoners should suffer – and the staff along with them.
The public’s knowledge of prison life is negligible at best or formed by mainly ludicrous television programmes that bear no resemblance to the truth.
After the brutality and racism scandals of the 1970s, especially at Strangeways, there was a realisation that the easiest way to control a prison was by lowering the temperature – keeping things calm. Like most people in most jobs, prison staff seek to make the work as easy as possible. That’s difficult inside prison walls.
A man – and they’re mostly men – ‘banged up’ in a small cell for 23 hours a day is likely to suffer a mental catastrophe. Even men who have prison work endure immense psychological pressure (so what? says the public – they deserve it). This is because every door they pass through is locked, because they’re counted dozens of times a day, because the food is grim, and because they can only glimpse the sky. Their cells are either cold or hot, and everything looks dirty. Showers aren’t readily accessible and while cells now have
lavatories, the Howard League for Penal Reform said in 2019 that 20,000 men sleep with a shared toilet.
Most prisoners aren’t the Yorkshire Ripper. The sad reality is that most prisoners aren’t terribly bright, which is why they’re banged up inside. A disproportionate number are illiterate. That’s why the UK’s criminal recidivism rate is so high, and even higher among juveniles.
Meanwhile, prison officers may not be particularly liberal, a great number being ex-army or navy, but they inevitably form relationships with ‘their’ inmates – albeit relationships
with rigid boundaries. They have to if they want to keep the peace, and keeping the peace is paramount inside prison. In other words: it’s not a place where one hears endless barked orders and threats, but it is place where you hear prisoners being joshed into compliance.
None of that means there isn’t violence.
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It generally begins between inmates, but the ‘screws’ will form a rapid team and restrain them. Those restraint methods hurt like the devil but leave no bruises or marks except for
the rare occasions when batons are used. Prisoners, especially young prisoners, regularly start fights, most commonly during ‘association’ – the time prisoners on a wing are
allowed to mingle.
Sometimes, these fights become brawls among scores of inmates, throwing furniture and lashing out at whoever is closest. There’ll be between three and six prison officers on the wing, rarely more, left to restrain a score or more of inmates – some of whom could be armed with shivs, homemade knives fashioned from whatever they’ve been able to lay their hands on. This isn’t easy work.
The Government will continue to rest on its laurels as it’s done for decades. And perhaps we can blame staff for Khalife’s escape – but we can’t blame them for being hopelessly under-staffed in an overcrowded nick that’s well past its sell-by date. We can’t blame them for the huge levels of depression, nor for the rank, stifling conditions in prisons. Walk into any prison in the country and the first thing that assails the senses is the stench.
The only thing that’ll fix England’s ailing jails is the one thing no government has been prepared to provide: a great deal of money.
No one, least of all prison officers, are suggesting that prison should be a hotel. But they should be properly staffed, with one person per cell, and properly maintained. None of those issues has ever been addressed, not by the Conservatives or Labour – and, inside those walls, no one expects they ever will be.