Prisons systematically generate suffering and death: thinking beyond reform

David Scott, The Open University

hmp-woodhill

HMP Woodhill, Buckingham, England: Source: BBC

 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing feature of imprisonment today is the tragically high number of self-inflicted deaths [SIDs].  At 120 SIDs per 100,000 people, prisoners are 10 times more likely to take their own lives than those living in the wider community.  On 18th November 2016 the one hundredth (100) prisoner killed themselves this calendar year.  This equates to one prisoner taking their own life every 3 days in prisons in England and Wales.  The official data also indicates that a prisoner attempts to kill themselves every 5 hours and that a prisoner is recorded as self-harming every 20 minutes. By the 24h November 306 people had died in prison in England and Wales in 2016 (on average of nearly one person a day).  All this evidence points to the fact that prisons are places of terrible harm and death.

 

A history of death

Whilst current explanations of the high number of SIDs have been reduced to prisoner mental health problems and reduced numbers of staffing, deaths in prison cannot be restricted solely to prisoner vulnerabilities and regressive policy changes in the last six years.  The officially recorded figure indicates that self-inflicted deaths in prison have risen substantially for the last four decades.  In 1986 there were 21 recorded ‘suicides’ in prison. This number, however, leapt by over 100% in 1987 to 46 recorded suicides. Official data show that there was another major incline of recorded deaths only seven years later, in 1994 when, for the first time, more than 60 SIDs were recorded; and yet again, four years after that in 1998, when more than 80 people took their own lives.  The highest number of prisoner SIDs prior to this year was in 2004, when 96 prisoner SIDs were recorded for that year.  Yet though less people died, because of the lower prisoner population at that time, at 127.2 per 100,000 prisoners, the ratio of death was actually higher in 2004 than in 2016.  What is important to note is that there have been large number of prisoner deaths since the prisons were ‘reformed’ in the early nineteenth century, indicating how deeply entrenched death is in the everyday workings of prisons.

 

Alongside the sheer number of SIDs, in recent day’s concern has quite rightly focused on the clustering of six SID’s from 2015 – 2016 at HMP Woodhill, a high security male prison in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.  Yet sadly this is not an aberration – cluster deaths have plagued prisons for years.   For example, from 1987-89 11 SIDs were recorded at Risley Remand Centre. Five young men aged from 17 and 19 died while on remand at HMP Armley from May 1988 and February 1989, whilst from August 1991 to March 1992 four young offenders, including a 15 year old, took their own lives at Feltham YOI. Six women hanged themselves in a three-year period from 2002 to 2005 at HMP Durham H wing, whilst from August 2002 to September 2003 six women took their lives at HMP Styal. Previous cluster deaths at adult male prisoners include the five prisoners who killed themselves at HMP Whitemoor from 19 November 2006 and 10 December 2007.

 

To understand, then, why so many people die in prisons, we need to think beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis confronting prisons.  This means challenging assumption propagated by the media, politicians, prison reformers and the POA that staffing levels and prisoner mental health lie at the heart of the problem.

 

Prison staff

Among traditional prison officer cultures the prisoner is often considered as “inferior” or “lesser”, and so rather the being treated with respect, care and decency, prisoner relationships with prison officers have often been based on indifference and neglect.  According to one study, the legitimate terms for prison officers who adhere to a traditional working personality when referring to prisoners can include:  Nick Names (Smithy, Jonesy); Second Names (Smith, Jones); 1st names; Prison Number; “Dicks”, “dickheads”, “cunts”, “bollocks”,  and “wanker”.  The legitimate terms for prisoners when referring to staff were “Boss”, “Officer”, “Mr”, and “Sir”.  These forms of address by disciplinarian officers become a means of institutionalising lesser eligibility and informally maintaining a psychic divide.   In this same study of prison officers it was found that prisoners were described by officers as:

 

“Selfish”, “pathetic”, “childlike”, “untrustworthy”, “ill-disciplined”, “irresponsible”, “bad bastards”, “overly demanding”, “inadequate”, “dangerous”, “layabouts”, “toe-rags”, “needy”, “druggies”, “contagious”, “scum”, “poor copers”, “manipulators”, “wasters”, “users”.

 

Negative categorisations justify neglect and lead to the blaming of prisoners for their own dreadful predicament.  Those who harm themselves or attempt to take their own lives are labelled by some prison officers as childish and pathetic manipulators whose harming act is part of a ‘general display of attention-seeking behaviour’.  Controversy has arisen in the past regarding the apparent complacency of staff and the neglect of prisoners who are experiencing serious emotional difficulties On March 11 2004 Arif Hussain took his own life at HMP Full Sutton whilst in the jails segregation unit.  Eye witness testimonies described how Arif’s “screams of agony were ignored by staff for hours”.  When he later repeatedly rang his alarm bell for attention, rather than respond to him the night staff switched it off.

hmp-risey

Prison Officers, HMP Risey.  Source: BBC

 

This negative attitude to the lesser prisoner is not restricted to prison officers alone.  A prison operational manager in a recently published book by a prison governor is quoted as saying:

 

Sometimes I think, ‘oh fuck, if the guy wants to kill himself, fucking get on with it’ but when I’m on the shop floor I can’t demonstrate it can I? These guys on dirty protest, I’d like to throw my own bucket of piss over them myself, but you can’t do that because it’s not humane.  Doesn’t stop you thinking it though does it? I have to make sure that the staff hold that moral ground.

 

 

The current focus on prison officer numbers is predicated on the assumption that there is now less care for prisoners by staff.  But the evidence above indicates that prison officer numbers and prisoner care cannot be easily quantified.  Neither is it obvious that close prisoner-prison officer relationships mitigate the harms of imprisonment.  A study of self-harm and SID’s of women prisoners in England and Wales in 2007 found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that “feeling closer to correctional staff increases a woman’s risk of self-harm and suicide ideation only in England”. This might help explain why the data appears to indicate there is no obvious correlation between historical rates of self-inflicted deaths and in prison officers staffing levels.   Certainly, if we explore the data over the last hundred and fifty years in terms of prisoner self-inflicted deaths and prison officer- prisoner staffing ratios we find that in the last four decades there are record rates of recorded self-inflicted deaths at the same time as there have been record high levels of prison officer – prisoner ratios.

 

Individual pathologies?

The other main reason proposed for the high number of deaths is prisoner mental health problems. ‘Suicide’ risk has for a long time been connected to ‘abnormal’ people with serious mental health problems. The suicidal prisoner is considered to suffer from fear, depression, despondency and hopelessness and a general inability to adapt to prison life. They simply do not have the personal resources to cope with the deprivations of imprisonment. Whilst this argument around mental ill-health is clearly of significance, as an explanation of the actual deaths of prisoners it has proved remarkably limited. The problem is that even if a person who takes their life has mental health problems this alone cannot tell us why they took their life at that specific time or indeed provide any insight into the distinct set of interpersonal dynamics leading up to the act.

 

It has proved exceptionally difficult to identify the manner in which mental health problems actually relate to suicidal attempts or to differentiate the ‘suicidal’ from the rest of the prison population. One of the key revelations is the evidence of the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among prisoners, with a number of recent studies identifying exceptionally high levels of suicidal ideation (i.e. thoughts about taking own life): 46% of male remand prisoners have thought of ‘suicide’ in their lifetime, and 40% of male prisoners and 55% of female prisoners experience suicidal thoughts in their lifetime, compared with 14% of men and 4% of women living in the wider community.

 

Whilst many people in prison do have mental health problems, those who commit ‘suicide’ are less likely to have a psychiatric history than those on the outside who take their own lives.  There has in fact been a systematic failure of identification by the Prison Service of those who are likely to attempt to take their own lives.  Under the current Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork [ACCT] policy only around 1 in 4 prisoners who successfully end their lives are identified as a risk of ‘suicide’.

 

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Sarah Reed, who died in HMP Holloway in February 2016: Source dailymail.co.uk

 

The pains of imprisonment

There is one further explanation of SID’s that has not been fully explored in the media or in contemporary policy but one which appears to fit much better with historical and contemporary evidence: prison through its daily workings systematically generates death.  Life in the prison place should be seen as a humiliating and unsafe experience perpetuating fear and loathing on a daily basis. Dividing prisoners between ‘copers’ and ‘non-copers’ provides only false assumptions about who may be suicide prone. Most prisoners only just about cope.  The real pains of imprisonment are not to be found in the given quality of living conditions, relationships with staff or levels of crowding, but in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away.  Deaths in prison should not be considered as aberrations or malfunctions of the system but rather located in the daily processes of imprisonment itself.

 

Adaptations to imprisonment are not a permanent state of affairs but open to erosion, meaning that even small changes in the prison world may reignite underlying difficulties a person has in coping with life inside. Coping mechanisms for everyone, irrespective of the numbers of prison officers or the extent of prisoner mental health problems, are tenuous. Coping and non-coping with prison life are matters of degree that fluctuate over time and all prisoners are vulnerable to suicidal ideation.  There is no let-up in the deadly harms generated by the prison place, but at certain points some prisoners (perhaps virtually all) feel they can no longer face them.

 

A suicide attempt may then be a frantic and desperate attempt to ‘solve problems of living’. If the response to this situation is hopeless and there is an explicit or implicit expectation that the individual will take their life, this negative communication may erode any sense of hope and facilitate a suicide attempt. SIDs then should be conceived as a social problem where those who take their own lives are responding to given temporal, spatial and emotional contexts of the prison place.

 

Beyond reform

We will not find a solution to the current problems of SID’s by employing more staff or updating failed policies of the past that focus on risk.  Indeed, the large number of different policies and procedures over the last 50 years indicate just how badly the Prison Service is failing to protect people in prison.

 

Interventions should be directed at helping people vulnerable to suicidal ideation to develop new meanings and alternative strategies that can help them take their lives forward. Central is the nurturing of hope and the prison is the very last place to try and do this.

 

The most rational solution then seems to be for the adoption of social policies that can provide immediate humanitarian support to people who are suicidal and the diversion away from prison for wrongdoers who are especially vulnerable to the development of suicidal ideation. Given the high numbers of both SIDs and prisoners with suicidal thoughts, this raises key questions regarding the use of imprisonment at all.

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Of Dangerous Nexuses and How to Survive in a Post-truth World

Giulia Zampini from the University of Greenwich presents thoughts on the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative conference

 

The Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) at the Open University organised a launch event on 9th November, 2016. The one day conference was free to attend, opening its doors to scholars across disciplines, students, third sector and campaigning organisations. As the name suggests, the aim of this collaborative is to establish cross disciplinary and cross field networks to investigate the harm and evidence nexus in relation to various aspects of the criminal justice system and beyond. Following the zemiology turn in criminology, replacing crime with harm is regarded as a useful way to shift the focus away from narrow definitions of crime and criminal justice towards broader engagement with the notion of harm in pursuit of social justice. In their own words,

HERC’s research can be summarised as “evidencing harm and harmful evidence” which encompasses a range of areas such as the use of evidence in the criminal justice system and the harmful practices of public and private institutions. The notion of harm is increasingly central to new initiatives in policy and practice. However, policy-makers and practitioners fail to regard their own institutional practices as harmful to health and wellbeing and fail to recognise that institutional neglect can severely impact on people’s life chances.[1]

Scholars and campaigning organisations alike hope that by ‘evidencing harm and exposing harmful evidence’ change should follow. In other words, there is an assumption that producing and exposing evidence of harmful institutionalised practices – ‘speaking truth to power’ – will eventually result in change for the better. In an ideal world, public institutions should be responsive, accountable and open to change. However, in reality, institutions are perceived as stubborn, neglectful, and blind to their own failings. Thus, state institutions are regarded as harmful, and not evidence-informed.

For someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about evidence, what it means to people, how it is constructed and how it is used, I am painfully aware of the manners in which it can be at once emancipatory and treacherous. If evidence is always granted an emancipatory role – if evidence is assumed to provide better, fairer, more neutral grounds for justifying claims in seeking change – then there is a risk that it becomes misleading. Though evidence is often portrayed in the evidence/policy nexus as the thing that will make policy fair and just, the reality is that there is a complex interplay between evidence and policy, and that evidence is neither neutral nor apolitical. Similarly, the relationship between evidence and harm should not be conceived as a linear one, but as a complex interplay; we must critically engage with both sides. A key aspect of my own work has been to understand the ways in which evidence is (mis)understood and (mis)used by institutions whose putative role is the prevention of harm. More important, I question what can and should be done when we realise, as we increasingly are, that these institutions are responsible for causing the most harm?

Professor David Nutt, keynote speaker for the day, is a classic example of a scientist who has taken on the task of producing and using evidence as political ammunition to question an institutionalised truth that has caused immense harm, namely that ‘drugs are bad, therefore they should be criminalised’. His solution to address this simplistic logic was to compare harms, not only across a variety of legal and illegal substances, but also by comparing activities as mundane as horse-riding with illegal activities such as ecstasy consumption. When confronted about this comparative choice by a politician – for whom the thought of comparing a legal activity with an illegal one was unacceptable – a painful truth became clear: the idea that harm is not tied to the legal status of an activity is simply unthinkable. Indeed, the illegal-because-harmful nexus has been sustained for decades despite being misleading and dangerous. Harm must be understood as a much more complex, multifaceted and non-linear process. The intricate design and comprehensive nature of the harm index developed by David Nutt in collaboration with other scholars – motivated by his persistent efforts to shift the debate from criminality to harm – has gone somewhere to addressing this. This work has also gained Nutt the reputation of a maverick in political circles. And yet, he has attracted the attention of portions of the public, contributing to bring this debate outside policy and science.

The modern state and its institutions have continuously positioned themselves as protectors of their people from harm, so any evidence to the contrary (of which there is plenty; i.e. that the state and its institutions cause a great deal of harm) is seldom well received. It is often when people and communities are personally affected by harms perpetrated by institutions, as the case of justice4paps made clear, that they mobilise to attempt to change the culture and practices within them. And yet, as in the case of this campaign seeking justice by exposing police brutality, communities are routinely silenced and discouraged from pursuing change. In the end, the most harm is suffered by those who are institutionally and positionally weaker in society; the marginalised, the homeless, sex workers, LGBT communities, ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. These groups were at the very heart of the discussions throughout the day, as they embody the very contradictions that exist within a democratic state. That is, a state moved by the values of inclusion and universal rights but governed through social, economic and cultural hierarchies. This discrepancy lies at the very essence of our contemporary politics; something that was felt even more acutely on the particular day of the conference as we absorbed the news that the US had elected Donald Trump as its leader.

Narrative after narrative, paper after paper, it was clear that both institutions and majorities in the nation-state go through a process of ‘explaining away’ and re-legitimising every time they are questioned and critiqued. Focusing on symptoms rather than causes, never engaging with the systemic nature of the problem, and routinely shifting the burden of responsibility away from the system and toward the individual: these are favourite tactics, which also lie at the very foundation of the modern criminal justice system. Jo Phoenix’s contribution, highlighting the struggles of legitimation involving sexual deviants, was a timely reminder of the limitations of the sociology of deviance in accounting for what happened after decades of moral and political struggles: only those who could adapt to hetero/mononormativity were mainstreamed and welcomed into the licit and moral economy, leaving the ‘sluts’ and the ‘paedos’ stuck in the landscape of immorality and criminalisation.

During the panel on gendered and racialized harms, I was reminded once again that evidence is a double-edged sword. One of the panellists noted that the World Value Survey was used to evidence British tolerance in a radio debate, which reminded me of Trevor Phillips’ argument that Britain is the least racist country in Europe (because the levels of integration – measured by mixed parenting as main indicator – are higher than anywhere else). To use evidence in this way is extremely dangerous; it panders to the belief that we are on an exponentially growing curve of progress, and that things can only get better. The World Value Survey is an invaluable tool, but it remains a data set that needs to be carefully interpreted. It is paramount that we make clear the difference between data and evidence. Data never speaks for itself. Evidence is a construct; it is built from our interpretation of data. It is our responsibility to be open and honest about this process of interpretation and construction.

In an age where every statement from policy maker and pundit alike needs to be justified as evidence-based, or at least notionally evidence-informed, our transformative efforts need to be rooted in openness and engagement; we must not fall into the trap of hiding behind the false neutrality of evidence, or else we risk further polarising debates. If both we and our political opponents are making supposedly evidence-based claims, then how can anyone judge the validity of those claims with any level of confidence (particularly considering many people do not know how evidence is constructed in science)? Perhaps, it is not incidental that we are increasingly living in this ‘post-truth’ regime. The public is saturated with contradictory truth claims. The world of science is often too complex, pessimistic, and full of caveats and uncertainty to provide people with that (false sense of) protection the state offers.

Safety and security are among the cornerstones of the modern state. They served to justify its creation and its expansionary aims, and continue to be used to justify its existence, running concurrently and in opposition with democratic liberal values of inclusion and universal rights. This paradoxical state of inclusion/exclusion is what we currently find ourselves in at every level of political engagement, and with every group that challenges our sense of stability, security, and identity. Going further in our struggle for inclusion and universal rights, we must find strategies to address the divisiveness of current politics. Else, we run the risk of alienating and excluding people who will likely turn to the state and its rising populist leaders in search of protection and the very inclusion and rights we seek to obtain.

 

[1] http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/herc/events/exploring-harm-and-evidence

This post was originally published on the University of Greenwich Law and Criminology Research blog at http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/lawandcrim/2016/11/22/88/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own, and are not necessarily representative of the University of Greenwich or any of the organisations mentioned in this post.

Criminalise or ‘disappear’ the young? No path to a ‘Great Meritocracy’

Ross Fergusson considers the stark choices that the policy swings of successive governments now present to many 16-17-year-olds

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(Image source: http://discoversociety.org/2016/11/01/great-meritocracies-dont-disappear-their-youngest-casualties-mrs-may/)

Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference elaborated her plans to ‘transform Britain into a Great Meritocracy’.  She stressed the unfair division between ‘a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation’.  A major study has just shown that the 1980s generation are already half as wealthy as their 1970s peers.

A faltering recovery

One of the factors most damaging to young people’s income prospects is an early period of prolonged unemployment. The recessions that followed the Global Financial Crash of 2008 brought unprecedented unemployment levels amongst 16-24 year-olds in the UK. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data show that the subsequent slow recovery in youth employment may be faltering. About 30 per cent of 16-17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) have been recorded as unemployed over the last two years, and last month’s figures show a new high of 35 per cent  (which is likely to have risen further since the summer).

But if the law was being adhered to, no-one aged 16-17 should be unemployed or NEET. The Education and Skills Act 2008 requires every 16 and 17-year-old to be in full-time education or training, or in full-time or part-time work that includes release for regular training. The one part of the parliamentary debate about the Act that triggered objections concerned the sanctions that apply to those who contravene its requirements – especially sanctions which would place them in detention centres for persistently refusing to comply. The Labour government rejected these concerns and forced the legislation through, but in 2011 the coalition government suspended the clauses which required Local Authorities and employers to monitor attendance and punish refusal. Participation remains compulsory, but it has never been enforced.

Why? Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs had raised high-minded objections to the Act. They argued that 16 and 17-year-olds, who are legally deemed mature enough to marry, bring up children and serve in the armed forces, should enjoy freedom of choice not to participate in any form of education or training (or work). But the coalition’s reassertion of these principles coincided conveniently with its ‘austerity’ policies: monitoring and enforcement would have been far beyond the capacities of shrunken Local Authority budgets.

The unknown status

The effects of non-enforcement have been predictable. Department for Education figures for 2015 in England show that the numbers of 17-year-olds who were known to be NEET were exceeded by the numbers of ‘not knowns’ who had in effect ‘disappeared’ from Local Authority records. Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated that the ‘participation’ statuses of more than 100,000 16-18-year-olds were unknown.

Prioritising 16 and 17-year-olds’ supposed ‘freedom of choice’ releases the state from some long-established commitments to their welfare. This is troubling when their limited chances of getting a job, earning a genuine living wage and being able to afford somewhere to live are left to ‘the market’: the Low Pay Commission has shown that the real earnings of 16-17-year-olds fell by 17% between 2009 and 2013, and their median hourly pay fell by more than £1 to £5.03.

All in all, the youngest adults’ freedom of choice means that many of those who have gained least by way of skills and qualifications from 11 years of compulsory schooling face stark choices between unemployment, poverty-level wages and extending an unproductive school career. At this point, ‘disappearing from ‘officialdom’s’ view’ is the most rational and appealing option for many of them – one that is lent apparent legitimacy by the government’s indifference to enforcing the law that requires them to ‘participate’.

Tackling inequality justly and fairly

This version of freedom of choice is self-evidently one with tangible consequences for future financial (in)security and prospective poverty.  If the current government is serious about the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling intergenerational inequality, it must break the silent consensus which the coalition allowed to evolve between young people who believe their best option is to ‘disappear’ themselves, government departments that are content to accept their invisibility in official data, and Local Authorities that are forced to ignore it for lack of funding. Policies that veer between the ill-advised and socially unjust extremes of criminalising young people for ‘being NEET’ and colluding with it are no path to any kind meritocracy – least of all a great one.

Ross Fergusson is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University

An extended version of this article first appeared in the on-line not-for-profit publication Discover Society, with the title: ‘Great Meritocracies Don’t “Disappear” Their Youngest Casualties, Mrs May!’

A number of the themes of the article are developed in: Fergusson, R. (2016), Young people, welfare and crime: governing non-participation, Bristol: Policy Press.

Bloodbaths and prison staff: Considering the actual state of our prisons

David Scott, Open University

hm-manchester-at-night-noise-demo-october-2016

[HMP Manchester. Photo source: David Scott]

On the 3rd November 2016 the government published Prison Safety and Reform, its vision of the future of the Prison Service in England and Wales.  Claimed to be the “the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”, at the start of her foreword, Justice Secretary Liz Truss approvingly cites the words of nineteenth penal reformer Elizabeth Fry:

The better the actual state of our prisons is known and understood, the more clearly will all men [sic] see the necessity of these arrangements by which they may be rendered schools of industry and virtue.

Liz Truss clearly places great weight on “evidence” and “data”, yet the portrayal of the ‘actual state of our prisons’ in the media in the days preceding and following the white paper (including The Guardian editorial on the 3rd November) has mystified and mislead rather than generated knowledge or understanding.

elizabath-fry

[Elizabeth Fry. Source: anglotopia.net]

Prisoner violence and rehabilitation

One of the key goals of Prison Safety and Reform is to remove obstacles preventing the rehabilitation of prisoners.   The reason given for the failure of prisons to rehabilitate is prisoner violence.  The white paper notes that since 2012 there have been significant rises in recorded incidents of prisoner violence and that in 2016 there are 65 assaults in prisons every day.  As “reform can only take hold in a safe and disciplined prison environment” it is essential, the white paper informs us, to dramatically reduce prisoner violence so we can achieve “a more stable estate, in which staff and prisoners have the time and headspace to address the causes of re-offending”.   Whilst Prison Safety and Reform  provides a number of alleged reasons for the increases in violence, the one placed most prominently in public spotlight is the decline in numbers of prison officers.

The day before the publication of Prison Safety and Reform, Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Office Association [POA], received enormous publicity when he claimed that as a consequence of a 25% reduction in the number of prison officers in the last six years, prisons were now places of “carnage and bloodbaths”.  His claims were evidenced with a mixed set of data pointing to the high levels of recorded prisoner violence, self-inflicted deaths and recorded assaults on prison officers.  These apparently intimate connections have been taken as ‘common sense’, by politicians and media commentators alike.  No-one in the media has highlighted the limitations of the statistical evidence presented in the white paper or by the POA.   Yet a number of their assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny. Let us consider three:

(1) decline in prison officer staffing levels;

(2) the rise in recorded assaults on prison officers;

(3) staffing levels and self-inflicted deaths of prisoners.

Our dedicated and brave staff

Prison Safety and Reform draws upon statistics showing:

The number of Band 2 to 5 frontline operational staff reduced from 29,660 on 31 March 2012 to 23,080 on 31 March 2016. As violence has increased it has become harder to retain existing staff, thus creating a vicious cycle of staff pressure and violence.

The white paper states that recent reductions in prison staff levels have led to increased prisoner violence and placed intolerable “operational strains on the dedicated and brave staff that work in our prisons”.  Consequently there is to be an immediate increase in prison officer numbers (in total 2,500) and new reforms aiming to facilitate prison officers who are not just “security guards and minders but also mentors” with a dedicated case load of six prisoners.  In so doing “frontline staff will be given the time and the tools they need to supervise and support offenders so they can turn our prisons into places of safety and reform”.

When studying numbers of prison officers through an historical lens we can see they have risen in recent decades to their highest ever levels.  The real problem is that the prisoner population has doubled from around 40,000 in 1990 to nearly 85,000 in 2016.  Prisons have never had high numbers of paid staff.  In the eighteenth century some prisons only had 1 paid turnkey (prison officer) for every 100 prisons.  Even by the mid-nineteenth century the vast majority of prisons still had less than 10 staff, largely because prisons at this time were run by ‘prisoner warders’, who undertook nearly all of the key functions of the prisons, including locking and unlocking other prisoners.

From the 1870s with the professionalisation of paid prison staff, official data on frontline staff- prisoner ratios began to stabilise at around 1 member of staff for every 6 prisoners.  Yet evidence from prison officers, such as H.U. Triston in the 1930s, indicate that at the start of the twentieth century the ratio was more like 1 prison officer to between 20-50 prisoners.  From the 1950s the official staff-prisoner ratio fell for four consecutive decades, so that by 1990 the prison officer-prisoner ratio was 1 prison officer to every 2.3 prisoners.   Because prisoner populations doubled, the prison officer-prisoner ratio increased to 2.8 prisoners by 2010 in public sector prisons.  Following the recent staff cuts, by March 2016 the ratio had increased to 1 prison officer to every 3.6 prisoners, which brought public sector staff ratios largely in line with private sector prisons.  If the proposed new 2,500 officers are factored in, the ratio of prison officers will fall to 3.3 prisoners in public sector prisons.

birmingham-prison-2011

[HMP Birmingham, 2011. Source: Newsrt.co.uk]

But things are not quite as simple as the sound.  This data only tells us so much.  Important considerations missing include the amount of hours officers work in the prison in a given week, the quality interactions between prison officers and prisoners, and the security classification of a particular prison. Over the twentieth century the amount hours worked in prisons by prison officers reduced dramatically, falling from as high as 72 hours a week to as low as 39 hours and since the late 1960s prisoners have been separated across the penal estate based on security risk.  Prison officer-prisoner ratios have been as low as 1 prison officer to every 1 prisoner in dispersal / high security prisons but as high as 1 prison officer for every 8 prisoners in lower security prisons.   Significantly, and despite a new emphasis on prison officers performing a rehabilitative role from the 1920s onwards, no comparative decrease in prisoner reoffending rates can be mapped onto changes in staff-prisoner ratios.

Punch bags and crying wolf

In the recent media coverage of prison reform POA General Secretary Steve Gillan highlighted the remarkable increase in the number of recorded assaults against prison officers.  He noted the POA “will not stand by and watch our members become punch bags on a daily basis”.  These sentiments are reproduced in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform.

Prison safety has declined since 2012. Levels of total assaults across the prison estate and assaults on staff are the highest on record, and are continuing to rise. Comparing the 12 months to June 2016 with the calendar year 2012:

  • total assaults in prisons increased by 64%;
  • assaults on staff rose by 99%;
  • the number of self-harm incidents increased by 57%

The white paper calls for “a robust and swift response” to the rise in assaults.  It also highlighted that killing a prison officer would result in a life sentence.  Yet any talk about violence against prison officers and their likelihood of being murdered by a prisoner should be considered in historical context.   Since 1850 only eight members of staff (and not all of these prison officers) have been killed in prisons in England and Wales.  The last prison officer to be murdered at work was Derek Lambert, who was killed at Portland borstal by a prisoner in 1965.   It was the first murder of a prison officer for some 30 years in England and Wales and proved to be an isolated incident.  Not only is serious physical violence against officer by prisoners rare, but there are also many examples of prisoners going to their aid in dangerous situations, such as during prison disturbances.

On the 6th November, following disturbances at HMP Bedford, the POA were once again reasserting claims regarding prison staff numbers and prisoner violence.  The media accepted their claims without question. During the HMP Bedford disturbance no prison officers were injured, but almost immediately the POA made claims to the BBC and The Guardian that the disturbance was directly linked to the lack of frontline staff and provided further evidence that prisoners are starting to take control of prisons.  In so doing the POA ignored the fact that the largest prison disturbance in UK history in April 1990, which involved 25 different prisons, occurred at a time when staff-prison ratios were at an all-time historical low.  Prison disturbances are generated by people living in inhuman and degrading living conditions, denial of voice, prison officer brutality and being treated like animals.  They certainly cannot be reduced to staffing levels alone.

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[Prison Officers Association. Source: http://www.poauk.org.uk]

The current focus of the media and white paper on prisoner violence and assaults on prison officers has only utilised data from the last 4 to 6 years.    In the period from 2000-2009, however, there was also a 61% increase in prisoner violence.  This rise was not at the time tied together with prisoner deaths or data about reported assaults on prison officers, the latter of which were actually declining. The POA noted in 2011 that on average, one prison officer each week required hospital treatment following an assault by prisoners, indicating that there were 52 serious assaults a year on prison officers.   Concerned in particular about the failure of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute prisoners (a punitive approach rather than one focused on safety), on the 17th April 2012 POA General Secretary, Steve Gillan, called on all prison officers to “always report assaults”.  Crucially, the data on assaults on prison officers cited in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform is detailed only from 2012 onwards.

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[Steve Gillan, Prison Officer Association. Source: tuc.org.uk]

What the POA has not called for is for prisoners to always report assaults by prison officers.  That prison staff violence continues to be a problem was evidenced earlier this year at Medway Secure Training Centre when BBC Panorama, 11th January 2016 caught staff brutalising and assaulting child prisoners on camera.

Carnage and bloodbaths

Ironically, there is evidence indicating that prisons really can be deadly for prison officers.  This data, however, refers to the life expectancy of prison officers following retirement.  At only 18 months this is one of the shortest life expectancy rates of all occupations.  The toxic and deadly fumes that prison creates are not just restricted to prison officers, but to those whose voice is generally not heard in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform: prisoners.

Prison Safety and Reform reveals that there were 107 self-inflicted deaths [SIDs] in prisons in the 12 months to September 2016.  Whilst data on prisoner SIDS over the last four years appears to support the claims of Prison Safety and Reform, when placed in historical context the connection between prisoner deaths and prison staffing levels is much less clear.  Research by Professor Joe Sim has uncovered detailed historical evidence indicating that prisons have always been places characterised by violence and death.  Whilst historical data is inconsistent, and there are significant difficulties with making comparisons regarding terminological differences between SID’s and suicides, the data indicates there is no obvious correlation between a decline in rates of self-inflicted deaths and rises in prison staffing levels.  Officially recorded SIDs in the last four decades have risen substantially.  In 1986 there were 21 recorded suicides in prison but in 1998, for the first time, more than 80 people to their own lives.  Even high levels of SIDs pertained in the 1990s and early 2000s, predating data cited in Prison Safety and Reform by a number of years. Thus, when looking at trends over the last four decades we actually find record high rates of recorded self-inflicted deaths at the same time as record low levels of prison officer – prisoner ratios.

The evidence cited above should be read carefully and with great caution, but given the strong commitment of Liz Truss to deliver ‘evidence led penal policy’ recognition of the narrow focus and restrictive timeframe placed around statistical evidence in the white paper is undoubtedly important.  As is media scrutiny, for the currently uncontested POA data presents an account of current prison realities that inevitably directs us towards a specific set of solutions: more prison officers and more prisons.  Such an uncritical adoption in the media of the POA informed explanatory framework not only closes down opportunities for a more informed debate in a time when we have record numbers of prisoners, but it also rules out alternative policy solutions, such as those that would reduce the number of prisoners and close our degrading and inhuman prisons rather than build new ones.