18:37 GMT12 June 2021
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    Despite repeated warnings that British jails are in a "state of crisis", incidences of drug use, self-harm and violence have hit record levels in prisons across the country for the second time in just a year year, official figures indicate.

    Annual ‘Prison Performance Ratings' for 2017/18 figures reveal over 46,850 self-harm incidents were recorded in the year to March 2018, up by 16 percent on the previous period, with self-harm incidents recorded 128 times daily on average. Similarly, violent incidents reached 31,025, again up 16 percent year-on-year, of which 9,003 were assaults on staff — in itself a 26 percent annual rise.

    There were 3,926 serious assaults, a 9 percent increase, and five apparent homicides, up three from the previous year. In all, 310 inmates died in prison in the 12 months to July 2018, which included 77 suicides.

    Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is shown around HM Prison Onley in Rugby, central England on February 8, 2016.
    © AFP 2021 / Christopher Furlong
    Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is shown around HM Prison Onley in Rugby, central England on February 8, 2016.
    The number of inmates landing in prison due to self-harm incidents also increased 12 percent to 3,095, an average of nine per day. Female inmates were also increasingly more likely to self-harm, with 2,244 incidents recorded per 1,000, an increase of 24 percent. By comparison, 467 incidents were reported per 1,000 male inmates, a rise of 14 per cent from the previous year. This equates to incidents of self-injury happening every 11 minutes, assaults every 17 minutes, and six deaths in prison weekly.

    However, drugs misuse was the area in which prisons performed most poorly, with around 45 percent rated as being "of serious concern".

    Fudging Figures

    While shocking increases, Faith Spear — a prison monitor turned prison whistleblower — believes official figures may significantly understate the true extent of such issues.

    "Lots of these stats are misleading, they can easily be manipulated to say whatever prisons want them to say, and I doubt everything's recorded too — things like fines for prisoners probably aren't accurately represented at all. Staff know their prison's rating will be affected if they're honest, and they may be penalized as a result, so it's easier to just fudge the facts," Faith told Sputnik.

    Prison whistleblower Faith Spear © 2017 Faith Spear
    Prison whistleblower Faith Spear © 2017 Faith Spear
    The former prison watchdog certainly speaks from experience — she spent several years serving on HMP Hollesley Bay's Independent Monitoring Boarding (IMB), including two years as vice chair and one year as chair. She witnessed a lackadaisical approach to first-hand on several occasions — for example once catching an inmate using a mobile phone, in theory prohibited items in jail. When she attempted to report the infraction, she was obliged to fill out several forms and soften her allegation, suggesting instead she "thought" she "maybe" saw a prisoner talking on a phone, but "wasn't quite sure".  

    "That's just a single case — how often is that happening? Figures are manipulated in other ways too. In January inspectors said conditions at HMP Liverpool were the "worst [they'd] ever seen", with inmates living among dirt, litter, rats and cockroaches and occupying cells "dangerous to live in". Many of the prison's inmates have been decanted into Berwyn now, while the prison is being refurbished — so the prison has a smaller population, and next year the figures for every type of incident will be lower as a result. And the government will likely claim that as a success despite it being nothing of the kind," Faith told Sputnik.

    Still, whether the performance ratings cohere with reality or not, Faith's take on the report is stark — "it paints a terrible picture of modern British prisons, and authorities should be ashamed", she sighs. In all, the performance of 15 prisons (13 percent) is rated as "of serious concern" and 39 (33 percent) "of concern", with the performance of a mere 14 (12 percent) rated "exceptional". However, Faith notes despite 15 being "of serious concern", Urgent Notification (UN) protocols have only been initiated in two cases — Exeter and Nottingham.

    Under UN protocols, the Justice Secretary is alerted to "urgent and severe problems" found during jail inspections, then has 28 days to publish an action plan to tackle concerns raised. A team of specialists is also assembled to ensure immediate action is taken and implement a longer-term plan to ensure sustained improvement.

    Wormwood Scrubs Prison in west London
    Wormwood Scrubs Prison in west London
    In the case of Exeter, the UN protocol was invoked in May because since the last full inspection in August 2016, safety in the prison "had significantly worsened in many respects", with the jail given HM Inspectorate of Prisons' lowest possible grading of ‘poor'. This was despite 14 recommendations being made in respect of safety following the prior inspection — inspectors found none had been achieved 18 months later, and in fact the situation in both respects had "deteriorated".

    For example, there'd been six self inflicted deaths since the last inspection, five of which occurred in 2017 — the overall level of safety was deemed "unequivocally poor". Self-harm during the prior six months was also running at a higher rate than in any other prison, having risen 40 percent since the last inspection. Assaults against both prisoners and staff were also among the highest the Inspectorate had seen, with the use of force by staff "inadequately governed".

    "Illicit drugs are rife in the prison, nearly a quarter of prisoners are testing positive, and all this is taking place in a prison where the living conditions for too many are unacceptably poor. During the inspection we saw many examples of a lack of care for vulnerable prisoners which, given the recent tragic events in the prison, were symptomatic of a lack of empathy and understanding of the factors that contribute to suicide and self harm," Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke wrote.

    Keystone Kops

    Faith believes many of the most critical issues affecting prisons have common origins. For instance, she suspects staff are probably one of the primary sources of illegal drugs in jails, exploiting poor and/or lax security provisions for personal profit — yet the government's response to high and rising illicit substance use among inmates is to implement measures aimed at users, rather than pushers.

    "When I visited HMP Oakwood in 2017, run by private contractor G4S, I queried why staff were carrying such large holdalls when in uniform. I was told they had nowhere to put their possessions as there wasn't enough locker space. A few weeks after my visit, a young employee was caught with drugs strapped to their body. Security at HMP Wandsworth is also absolutely shocking — I've visited six or seven times and never been searched, just waved through. That prison is absolutely filthy too, even in staff areas. Once I conducted a training session there, and we were told not to use the toilets as they were overflowing," Faith told Sputnik.

    Many of the issues blighting British prisons stem directly from privatisation — the first European nation to allow for the fully private design, construction, finance and management of prisons, the UK's first — HMP Wolds — opened in 1992. As of July 2018, there are 14 privately run prisons on UK soil, housing around 20 percent of the country's inmate population.

    This inexorable push has continued under both Conservative and Labour governments, despite a 2003 National Audit Office report concluding prisons run by the private sector tended to perform far less well than their public equivalents on key issues, such as safety and security. Incidents of assault, theft and drug use were high, many prisoners expressed anxiety over their personal safety, and serious concerns were voiced regarding the experience of staff (or lack thereof).

    Issues related to staffing were found to be exacerbated by private prison operators cutting staffing budgets, decreasing employee pay and holiday time, reducing personnel and extending working hours in a push for maximal profit, resulting in a high level of staff turnover and poor workplace morale.

    "I've seen with my own eyes how young and inexperienced many prison staff are, and worry many of them are being eaten alive, being run rings round of, exploited by prisoners and senior staff alike. Staff retention figures are very difficult to come by too — I'd imagine turnover is massive," Faith told Sputnik.

    Prison riot
    © CC0 / Pixabay
    Prison riot
    Reform and Rehabilitation

    The UK has the highest number of prisoners in the European Union in numerical terms (84,746), and per capita in Western Europe (143 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens) — and therein lies the primary underlying cause of Britain's ever-worsening prison crisis, Faith suggests.

    "People can get sent to prison very easily, and the damage done to them is huge. When you're imprisoned for any length of time, you lose your job, your accommodation, contact with your loved ones, and your family is often stigmatised. How do you rebuild? How do you reintegrate? How do you recover what you've lost? Especially when a criminal record impacts you negatively ever-after," she despairs.

    On top of the ease with which people can be imprisoned in the UK, Faith notes ex-convicts are recalled to prison at an "alarming" rate, due to the whims of their "often poorly trained" probation officers, or the stringent terms of their release licenses.  

    Faith acknowledges making it more difficult for offenders to be sent to prison may be a tricky sell, especially given the UK government and public alike are overwhelmingly wedded to a retributive "lock them up and throw away the key" mentality. However, the Netherlands offers a palpable demonstration of just how effective a truly rehabilitative criminal justice system can be.

    Under the watchful eye of prison security personnel, Britain's Prince Charles, not seen, tours Belmarsh prison, in southeast London, Thursday Sept. 10, 2009.
    © AP Photo / Lefteris Pitarakis
    Under the watchful eye of prison security personnel, Britain's Prince Charles, not seen, tours Belmarsh prison, in southeast London, Thursday Sept. 10, 2009.
    There, most criminals aren't sent to prison — instead, they're fitted with electronic ankle monitoring systems, allowed to maintain jobs and relatively normal lives while under surveillance. A 2008 study conducted by the University of Leuven found the system reduced recidivism by up to half compared to traditional incarceration. Moreover, almost 30 prisons have closed in the country since 2013 — and there's so much space in remaining Dutch jails the country rents out cells to other governments without space to house their own troublemakers.

    Faith is determined to see a similar structure in place in the UK — and to facilitate that, is doing all in her power to publicise the appalling state of British jails far and wide. While her previous whistleblowing efforts led to a government campaign to silence her, sacking from HMP Hollesley Bay's monitoring board, and a ban from serving on another IMB for at least five years, she has ironically found she has a louder and more influential voice outside the system than she ever possessed within.

    "I'm visiting HMP Berwyn in the next few days, and I'll record and report exactly everything I see and hear — the good, the bad and the ugly. What's the point of presenting a distorted message of reality to the public just to please the powerful? It's inhumane. Prison inmates are forgotten people, housed in warehouses of despair in generally appalling conditions. Someone has to tell the world the truth," Faith concludes.

    The views and opinions expressed by Faith Spear are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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    prison crisis, prison conditions, whistleblowing, prison, HM Inspectorate of prisons, United Kingdom, Netherlands
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