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How prison drives vulnerable young inmates to despair

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Suicides behind bars are surging. Annette Mackin looks at the shocking conditions in a prison system that kills the people it’s meant to rehabilitate
Issue 2416
HM Prison and Youth Offenders Institution Reading

HM Prison and Youth Offenders Institution Reading

The brutal existence of life behind bars is pushing more inmates to desperate measures. 

Some 42 people have killed themselves in prisons in the first six months of this year alone. This compares to 30 in the same period last year.

Self harm is also on the rise. A recent investigation by the prison inspectorate found the number of vulnerable people at risk of self-harm or suicide rose by 32 percent since 2012. Its reports into a series of jails and young offenders’ institutes paint a shocking picture.

Young men are being left to rot in cells that lack even the basics. This includes many who struggle with addictions, mental health issues or histories of extreme poverty and abuse.

At Glen Parva Youth Offenders Institute in Leicestershire reports of self-harm have increased from 274 to 316 in a year. On the first night the report found they were “clearly not getting the support they needed”.

It went on, “Half the population were doubled up in cells designed for one and many cells were dirty, lacked basic amenities such as toilet seats, curtains and chairs, and were poorly ventilated.”

Greg Revell was sent to Glen Parva in June of this year after he admitted threatening another teenager. After two nights inside he was found hanging in his cell.

Only the day before he had spoken to his mother on the phone and she said he was angry and helpless. Greg had cried when he was sentenced to four months. He still had scars around his neck from a previous suicide attempt. 


Another report by the inspectorate slammed the regime at HMP Ranby prison in Nottinghamshire. Four prisoners killed themselves there in the space of a year.

The report found “No arrangements for greeting and settling prisoners on the first night. “Cells for new arrivals were in a disgraceful state; they were dirty, with extensive grafitti, broken furntiture and a lack of essential equipment including kettles and pillows.” 

Both reports into Glen Parva and Ranby found that bullying was a major concern. In both jails prisoners reported that they felt unsafe—some to the point of acting out in the hope of being put in segregation.

The reports are keen to stress that more needs to be done to reform prisons. They cited better training for staff, more purposeful activity and better managed regimes.

But what they really reinforce is that prison does not work. Locking people up in dungeons of despair doesn’t rehabilitate anyone. It simply institutionalises violence. And it’s no solution to the cruel and unequal society that drives people to crime.

Cuts are causing a crisis

England and Wales have one of the highest rates of incarceration in Europe, with 85,795 inmates as of Friday of last week.

The prison population has increased steadily for years, and rose to record levels in 2011. 

After judges handed down punitive sentences for that summer’s riots, the number of prisoners swelled to over 89,000.

Misery is built into the prison system, but has got worse in recent years. Prisons are currently at around 7,000 over capacity. That means conditions are cramped.

Funds have already been slashed so much that basics such as toilet rolls, soap, clean bedding, towels and clothing aren’t provided.

And now the Tories have ordered £149 million of cuts a year to the prison budget. That’s a whopping £2,200 cut for every single prison place.

Fighting for time outside cell

Prisoners have taken the fight over dire conditions into their own hands. Despite tremendous odds, they have fought back.

The report on Ranby notes that, “of particular concern was that there appeared to be a significant number of incidents, many of which were at height, for example, climbing netting, trees and the roof.”

At the end of last month a riot broke out at the prison. Some 120 inmates refused to return to their cells and took over a unit for an entire day. 

They were protesting against cuts to the “association time” put aside for them to get some social contact with each other in the evenings.

Forced work on £8.50 a week 

Ranby operates along the “Working Prisons” concept, where prisoners work 40 hours a week. Out of approximately 1,088 inmates, 200 were not working.

Some refused to work. Others were told there wasn’t anything for them to do. Either way, those not employed spent the entire working day locked in their cell. 


The highest wage in most prisons is £8.50 a week, for inmates working as cleaners.

Tories want a new super-jail 

 There are 133 prisons in England and Wales, including adult male and female jails, youth prisons and immigration removal centres.

Now Tory justice minister Chris Grayling hopes to build a “super-prison” for some 2,000 inmates.

Young offenders institutes are usually smaller. But there are also plans to build one of Europe’s biggest youth jails, dubbed a “secure college”.

The Tories want to coop up 320 young people on a single site.

It’s worse when you’re foreign

Life inside is even harder for foreign nationals.

At Ranby many reported feeling isolated.

They also said there was a lack of information available to them that was not in English.



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