Crime and punishment: A state of the prisons address

A report published this week by the independent Commission on Sex in Prison shows that around 1 per cent of UK prisoners are sexually abused each year. While Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data paints a more moderate picture, it shows sexual violence in UK prisons is on the rise, with 170 incidents of sexual assault reported in 2013, up 34 per cent from the previous year. The true figure is estimated to be much higher; recent research in the US, where sexual abuse in prisons is taken more seriously, shows a high level of under-reporting of incidents. Nigel Newcomen, Britain’s prisons ombudsman, has described the problem as “a hidden issue in a hidden world”.

There is little chance for transparency on the horizon however, given the recent research of the Commission on Sex in Prison was hampered by a lack of co-operation from the MoJ; an attempt to interview current prisoners was blocked by the Ministry, meaning researchers had to rely on testimony from former prisoners who had completed their sentences. A spokesman for the MoJ told The Independent the proposal of research was rejected because of “concerns about the value of the research and how it would be conducted”.

The Commission’s report comes as a tide of violence swells in prisons and young offenders’ institutions across the country. Recent MoJ figures show escalating levels of attacks and self-harm, with self-inflicted deaths increased by 64 per cent in the last year.

Earlier this year, an inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) of three-year-old Isis young offenders’ institution in south-west London revealed limited access to facilities, high levels of violence and violence reduction arrangements based on punishments and sanctions. More recently, HMIP’s inspection of Glen Parva young offenders’ institution in Leicestershire concluded the facility was not safe, noting a 25 per cent increase in assaults from 2012 to 2013 and a 32 per cent increase in prisoners assessed as at risk of self-harm and suicide over the same period. Since then a number of other inspections of young offenders’ institutions and adult prisons have revealed similar conditions, with prison governors warning some British jails are becoming “death traps”.

So does the current Government have blood on its hands?

Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling has denied there is a crisis in prisons. But with a record prison population of over 85,000 in 2014 and budgets cuts of almost 25 per cent over the past three years alongside a fall in the number of prison officers by 30 per cent over the same period, UK prisons are dangerously understaffed, underfunded and overcrowded. Chief Inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick has said it is simply “not credible” for the coalition Government to refute a direct link between the mounting pressures on Britain’s prison system and a dramatic increase in suicides.

On top of this, a number of new measures have been introduced by Grayling’s department which will undoubtedly worsen the mental health and wellbeing of those in prison. These include the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme which 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”. As part of the scheme, there has been a blanket ban on books being sent to prisoners. While the MoJ said there are no restrictions on inmates borrowing books from prison libraries, many, including Hardwick, have said gaining access to libraries is often difficult for prisoners.

Earlier this year, Grayling announced a lights-out policy in young offenders’ prisons, requiring lights and televisions be turned off at 10.30pm. A move campaigners have said will leave young prisoners in isolation for too many hours, worsening the current mental health crisis.

More recently, the prisons ombudsman called for prisons to do more to support interaction between prisoners and their families after a series of complaints came to light about problems maintaining contact.

The difficulties encountered with sustaining critical contact with loved ones, the lights-out policy which potentially further isolates vulnerable prisoners, and the ban on books, which are fundamental to education and rehabilitation for offenders, are just some of the instances which indicate the Government’s broader approach to penal reform is less about rehabilitation and more about punishment. And with less and less being done to rehabilitate offenders and treat mental health issues, compounded by cuts to funding and staff, it does beg the question: Are we sending people to prison as a punishment, or for a punishment?

Unless the necessary structural reforms of the prison system and a U-turn on some of the more punitive policies are made quickly, Grayling’s leadership, and the Tory Government’s penal policies more generally, will absolutely be marked by this incidence of sexual assaults, continued lack of transparency, and steep rise in prison violence, self-harm and suicide.