Prisons in ‘crisis’ after years of dramatic cuts

3 Sep 18

Overcrowding, underfunding and a high staff turnover have left English prisons “in crisis”, with rising levels of violence, reform campaigners have told PF.

Problems with the prison service were highlighted last month when the government dramatically took over the running of privately managed HMP Birmingham following a shocking inspector’s report.

This was the third ‘urgent notification’ to the government raised by the watchdog this year; the others were for Nottingham and Exeter prisons.

In the same week as the Birmingham takeover, the Independent Monitoring Board for HMP Pentonville issued a report saying the prison was “overcrowded and crumbling” and “rife” with vermin.

The Institute for Government’s public sector Performance Tracker, done in association with CIPFA, released last autumn, revealed the number of assaults on officers in prisons was 124% above 2009 levels in 2016-17.

Spending on prisons fell from £3.48bn in 2009-10 to £2.71bn in 2016-17 – a 22% drop, the tracker showed, while officer numbers fell by 26% (6,430).

Mark Day, head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust charity, told PF: “Levels of violence and self-harm have risen exponentially since the impact of cuts to staffing and resources started to take effect in 2012. Birmingham shows a prison system in crisis.

“The responsibility lies with the government to match the resources in the system to the demands upon it.”

The charity suggested increasing investment and reducing prisoner numbers, including through the use of community rather than custodial sentences.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, agreed, saying: “Cramming more people into prisons than they were designed to hold is a recipe for violence, drug abuse and mental distress.”

Birmingham’s prison capacity will be reduced by 300 places while the government improves the service, initially for six months.

Neilson said this was “a tacit admission that prison overcrowding plays a key part in why our prison system fails more generally”.

Graham Atkins, researcher at the IfG, said the reduction in prison officers since 2012 played a big part.

Although the number of prison officers increased 2,819 between 2014-15 and 2017-18, mainly thanks to a £500m cash injection after the 2016 autumn statement, Atkins warned “retention issues still remain”.

Birmingham is one of 14 privately run, publicly owned prisons in England and Wales. The other 108 are run publicly.

Jim Hemmington, chair of outsourcing industry body the Global Sourcing Association, said: “We do not see this as a failure of outsourcing. By and large, a successful track record in this sector goes back over 20 years.”

However, outsourcing commentator John Tizard said the system “is clearly not working”.  He suggested to PF the government should now carry out a review of the privately run prisons in England and Wales. 

The prison’s takeover showed the government did not manage outsourced services well, he told PF. “The government is not good at being a responsible client,” he said.

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