‘It’s time for Liz Truss to face up to the reality of the crisis in our prisons’

Photo by Andy Aitchison (www.prisonimage.org)

Photo by Andy Aitchison (www.prisonimage.org)

Earlier this week news broke about the murder of an inmate at HMP Pentonville. Two other inmates were seriously injured and, at the time of writing, are still in critical condition. So far two prisoners have been arrested on suspicion of murder and the identity of the victim Jamal Mahmoud, a 21 year old father, was released last night.

The Ministry of Justice has yet to issue a statement on what actually occurred and it is unlikely that we will know the exact details until a trial takes place.

Sadly this is not the first murder in our prisons and it certainly will not be the last – unless changes are made immediately.

It is also sad to note that neither the secretary of state for justice Liz Truss, the parliamentary under secretary of state for justice Sam Gyimah (whose remit is the prison estate), nor NOMS has issued a statement in the 24 hours that have passed since the incident.

There has been much coverage in mainstream media detailing the increase of violent crime in prison and contraband that flows or, in the case of drones, flies into the prisons today.

However what is not talked about in the general media is the root cause for this violence. Action needs to be taken to increase the staffing levels in order to stem the flow of contraband, the self harms, the suicides and even murders.

The inability of Liz Truss and her team to face the harsh reality that unless she rises to the challenge posed by the crisis in our prisons then her tenure as justice minister will go down as a total failure. If she continues to allow her parliamentary under secretary to use his social media presence to gripe about his train service and his football club then both she and he will become the Morecambe & Wise of politics today (see here).

This year there have been two announcements of ‘emergency inputs of cash’ to be given to the 10 most dangerous prisons. It is widely recognised that the first £10 million provided for by Michael Gove in July has yet to be spent. But there are over 100 prisons in England & Wales today, what about the other 90? Liz Truss stated earlier this month that a further £14 million would be specifically set aside to hire 400 prison staff. That’s 40 officers for each prison – but what about 2,300 prison officers who left their posts last year?

Prisons are supposed to be centres for reform and rehabilitation, not something out of Papillon or Midnight Express and the woeful inactivity of those elected officials to tackle these issues is beneath contempt. One has to wonder if any of the prisons under the control of the Ministry of Justice are left fit for purpose.

As an ex-prisoner, I have experienced, firsthand, the dreadful effects of understaffing. I have witnessed the suicide of a prisoner whose cry for help went unheeded. I have seen prisoners self harming many times. I have been locked up for 22 hours in a day and told that I may have 20 minutes out of my cell to have either a shower or a call to my family – but not both. One would expect these things to happen in third world countries but not in the UK. The most upsetting thing is that some of these suicides or self harms could have been prevented if the staffing levels were at full operational levels. I was so distraught at what I saw that I helped set up a scheme to help ensure that vulnerable people coming into custody were listened to by fellow prisoners on their first night.

It is rare to see the Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association agree on much these days; but the chronic understaffing and safety in prisons is at least one topic on which they do agree. They recognise that a prison is a community in itself and that it cannot function without the cooperation of both staff and prisoners alike. If their prisons are understaffed, prisoners will be locked up in their cells for longer, the opportunity for rehabilitation lessens, boredom will become the order of the day and prisons will become increasingly volatile. Volatility breeds violence.

Liz Truss says that she wants to make prisons more ‘unpleasant’ (see here) for the inhabitants. By maintaining the status quo, I don’t think she needs to do any more

Profile photo of Tartan Con About Tartan Con
Tartan Con is a pseudonym used by an ex-prisoner. He blogs on the state of our prisons today at www.thetartancon.blogspot.com and tweets at @TheTartanCon

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