MORE than a decade ago, I was part of a team that included prison chaplains, theologians, and penal reformers and produced a report for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. It attempted to set out a Christian approach to punishment in prison. We took as our text Pope John Paul II’s words: “Prison should not be a corrupting experience, a place of idleness and even vice, but instead a place of redemption.” Though we attempted to root what we wrote in the lived experience of prisoners and their victims, it was, of course, a document of hope and aspiration.
I’ve just re-read it in the light of the current crisis in the prison service. First came a shocking report about cockroach-infested Liverpool Prison. Now Birmingham has just received the dubious accolade of the worst prison ever seen by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who found blood, vomit, rat, and an overpowering smell of drugs. These are not isolated examples. Throughout Britain’s prisons, budget cuts, chronic staff-shortages, and overcrowding are producing new levels of violence, drug use, and self-harm.
There are about 120 prisons in England and Wales. Birmingham is one of just 14 that are run by the private sector — or it was until the Government decided this week that it had to take back control. Our report had pronounced: “It is hard to see why private-sector activities in prisons should be any more questionable than firms making a profit from health or education.” Perhaps we were wrong.
British prisons, the Catholic Bishop said, should produce a positive outcome for the victim, for society, and for the offender, alike. Reducing reoffending necessitated better education, more drug treatment, more behavioural programmes, and better mental-health care for inmates. We wanted a normal working day for prisoners, to nurture a work ethic and practical skills.
The hope was that the private sector would boost this. It promised to replace the traditional coercive methods with clever innovation, new technology, custom-designed new buildings, safer conditions, and a more humane approach. Our report cited several promising private pilot schemes.
It has not worked out that way. Things began to go wrong in 2013 when two private providers, G4S and Serco, were caught overbilling the government on contracts for electronic tagging — some of them involving offenders who had actually died. Those who had reservations from the outset about the private sector in public justice seemed to have their fears confirmed.
Yet all prisons, private and public, have been affected by savage austerity cuts, which have slowed down construction and increased understaffing and overcrowding. As a result, prisoners are being kept pent up, physically and psychologically, in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. Frustration and violence follow.
The thirst for profit in the private sector — which has been forced into tighter and tighter margins, just like the privatised railway companies — may have made things worse here. But the prime problem is this: it is not possible to run prisons on the cheap without creating the kind of evils now on display. Whoever runs a jail cannot do it without proper funding.