Prison conditions continue to reflect Government’s overly punitive justice policies

A report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons concludes Glen Parva youth offenders’ institution in Leicestershire is not safe. The report notes 11 points of concern, including a 25 per cent increase in assaults from 2012 to 2013; a 32 per cent increase in prisoners assessed as at risk of self-harm and suicide over the same period; evidence of prisoners running protection rackets by charging rent for cells and using violence to collect on the debt; and an “unacceptable attitude among some staff”.

Chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, said: “Outcomes for the young men held at Glen Parva were unacceptable in too many areas. This is a model of custody that does not work”. Going on to describe a culture of bullying and violence, in which the prison staff too frequently resort to full restraint to control inmates, Hardwick said some prisoners deliberately committed offences to get placed in segregation for their own safety.

Glen Parva holds around 650 offenders aged 18 to 21.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This prison is dangerous for teenagers and this sounds more like an extract from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies than a report on an institution that is meant to help young people turn their lives around”.

The report comes as a tide of violence swells within young offenders’ and adult prisons. Last week, the Ministry of Justice published figures revealing soaring levels of attacks and self-harm, and self-inflicted deaths increased by 69 per cent.

Alice at PSI: So does the current Government have blood on its hands? According to figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform, the number of prison officers in England and Wales has been cut by 30 per cent in three years. Indeed, prison officer numbers at Glen Parva were reduced from 250 in 2010 to 140 this year. The drop in officer numbers nationwide has coincided with the Government’s closure of a number of prisons. The increasing prison population, crammed into a diminishing number of establishments, is therefore undergoing a significant overcrowding crisis, resulting in the alarming rise of violence and self-inflicted deaths.

Further, earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice introduced, as part of its Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, a blanket ban on books being sent to prisoners. The IEP places strict limitations on what prisoners can receive in the post and keep in their cell and is designed to crackdown on what ministers have described as prisoners’ “perks and privileges”. The Government has pointed out that there are no restrictions on inmates borrowing books from prison libraries, but many, including Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick, have said gaining access to libraries is often difficult for prisoners.

The ban on books, which are fundamental to education and rehabilitation for offenders, is perhaps another indicator that the Government’s broader approach to penal reform is less about rehabilitation and more about punishment.

Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling has said he is determined to bring “right wing solutions to bear on social problems”.

Which begs the question – with the planned programme of prison closures, decline in prison officers, increasing numbers of offenders, a concerted deterioration of prison conditions, and violence and suicides on a steep rise – is the Tory-led Government sending people to prison as a punishment or for a punishment?