Monday, 12 May 2014

Prison conditions and Government silence

What are our prisons really like?
The Daily Mail recently published an article by Angela Levin on what life is really like in prison, former chair of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for West London. Ms Levin, who worked at HMP Wormwood Scrubs for nearly ten years, recently resigned from her position after becoming exasperated at the “atmosphere of hopeless apathy” within the prison system. She says that the Government have so far wilfully ignored the scale of problems within our prisons.

Ms Levin reports appalling standards of hygiene, regular incidents of ‘dirty protests’ where prisoners smear excrement over the walls and themselves, violence against both staff and prisoners and widespread drug use. However, according to Ms Levin, her complaints were brushed under the carpet. She even cites one occasion where she was told by senior civil servants that she and her fellow IMB colleagues could not have witnessed the events they claim to have witnessed.

Her reports are worrying, particularly given the little public exposure of prisons. Few people know what really occurs behind prison walls, and the apparent reluctance of the Government to accept the concerns of an experienced independent monitor calls into question the accountability of our justice system.

Fears of unaccountability have been somewhat corroborated by the recent decision of Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, to block an independent inquiry into the extent of rape and sexual assault in British prisons. The Independent on Sunday reported that the inquiry aims to “understand the nature and scale of the issues and problems… with a view to making prisons safer”.

Researchers are being prevented from approaching current prisoners or prison governors. Giving evidence to the inquiry could even amount to a breach of bail conditions for those prisoners who have been released on licence, which could result in them being recalled to prison.

One cannot help but ask: why is the Government going to such lengths to block this research? According to the report, the Government’s position is that the potential benefits of The Howard League’s proposed work would be limited. Nevertheless, the Government has permitted a separate report into sexual offences in prisons by a first year PhD student. Undoubtedly, the prospective audience of a PhD student’s report, and that of the widely established and oldest UK Penal Reform charity, are likely to be substantially different.

Cutting out the critics?
The Howard League is concerned that their open criticism of Government policies, such as cuts to legal aid for prisoners, may factor in the decision to block their work.

Ms Levin has been similarly critical of Government cuts. Following budget cuts in October 2013, staff numbers were reduced to the point where some inmates were kept in their cells for up to 20 hours per day. Remarkably, staff shortages have reportedly left officers reliant on obedient inmates to help with prison discipline.

Churchill is often quoted as saying ‘the degree of civilisation of a society can be measured by how it treats its weakest members’. In light of Levin’s account, should we be questioning the degree to which our society is ‘civilised’?

This question is closely linked with the way in which justice is achieved through our current prison system. Punishment is not the only purpose of imprisonment. The system also aims to rehabilitate inmates and educate them about the impact of their actions to prevent similar behaviour in the future. Can uncivilised conditions adequately prepare prisoners for release into ‘civilised’ society?

Given that prisoners are not the most politically favourable topic, the apparent lack of Government response is understandable. However IMB’s exist to facilitate accountability and efficiency in our prison system. Ignoring the concerns of an independent authority is likely to come at great cost to society, including through re-offending and the declining level of our ‘civilisation’. This undoubtedly threatens the safety of officers and prisoners, leaves the government at risk of legal action, and will undoubtedly cost more money in the long-term than the short-term budget cuts might have saved.

-The views of members of Wainwright & Cummins' Prison Law Department do not necessarily reflect those of the firm or the partners 

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