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Tories’ punishment and privatisation fuels crisis in prisons

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Issue 2566
Prisons in England and Wales are sites of violence, squalor and misery
Prisons in England and Wales are sites of violence, squalor and misery (Pic: HM Prisons Inspectorate)

Prison officer riot squads were sent into HM Prison the Mount in Hertfordshire last week.

Prisoners reportedly took over its 250-inmate Nash wing in the two days of rioting.

A separate incident also broke out at HMP Erlestoke in Wiltshire. Five prison officers were reportedly hospitalised, including one who is undergoing surgery for a broken jaw.

The prison population has risen by 82 percent in the past 30 years

At the Mount recent weeks have seen inmates locked in their cells all day, with cold food delivered to their cell doors. A woman who said her son is an inmate tweeted that he had been on “24 hour lock down for weeks” at the prison.

England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe

England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe

Other prisoners complained of not being allowed out to shower or make phone calls.

An assessment from the jail’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) said that last summer “all the ingredients were in place for the Mount to suffer disorder”.

That is true across the prison system. And Tory policies are undermining health and safety.

A contract outsourcing prison maintenance meant checks on fire equipment as well as tests for legionella have not been carried out. Broken showers have been left unrepaired for months.

The Ministry of Justice said that it entered into the £500 million five-year contracts with Carillion and Geo Amey without full knowledge of the costs.


According to prison affairs academic Alex Cavendish the system is on the “brink of a meltdown”.

Attacks and self-harm have reached an all-time high in prisons in England and Wales—119 people killed themselves in 2016.

In 2015 the rate of self-inflicted deaths among the prison population was 120 per 100,000 people—over ten times higher than the general population.

There was a 20 percent rise in the number of reported assaults to 26,643 in the year to March. That includes 7,159 attacks on staff.

The number of self-harm cases reported was at a record high of 40,414, a rise of 17 percent.

Last month Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, described the conditions some inmates are held in as “squalid, dirty and disgraceful”.

Some 76 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales are officially overcrowded. They hold 9,496 people more than they were designed to.

Around 21,000 people are held in overcrowded cells—nearly a quarter of the whole prison population. The majority of those are doubling up in cells designed for one.

This level of overcrowding has remained broadly unchanged for the last 12 years.

Tornado team—meet the screws’ riot squad

Specialist teams of prison officers are used to break up prison riots.

They take officers from a number of prisons into what are called “tornado teams”. These are controlled from a command centre in London to retake prisons.

The way they operate is secretive.

The government and the prison service refuse on operational grounds requests for information about the equipment or tactics the squads use.

The squads of 50 officers have shields and PR-24 sidearm batons.

This is a further escalation from control and restraint teams who are used to attack individual prisoners in riot gear under normal prison rules.

Tornado units are being called out in increasing numbers.

In 2011 they were called to three incidents and in 2012 two, but in 2014 the number of incidents rose to 16, with 15 calls in 2015 and 16 calls in 2016.

G4S, Serco and Sodexo staff are all used in the Tornado teams, though getting attacked by state robocops probably feels similar to being attacked by private ones.

Child lock-up

No young offender institution is safe according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Some 858 children were in custody in England and Wales in March 2017.

Youth Justice Board figures for 2016 showed 8.9 self-harm incidents per 100 children compared with 4.1 in 2011.

Assault rates were 18.9 per 100 children compared with 9.7 in 2011.

Some 42 children in custody are 14 or younger. More than 43 percent are from a black or minority ethnic background.

There are about 360 “restraint” incidents a month.

More people are sent back

Anyone leaving custody who has served two days or more is now required to serve a minimum of 12 months under supervision.

The number of people recalled to custody following their release has increased by nearly 1,000 people since the changes in 2015.

Some 6,554 people were in prison on recall at the end of March.

Sparking up discontent?

Newspapers claimed prisoners set off a bomb in a Cardiff jail.

The truth was simpler. Smoking was banned at the prison.

Prisoners dismantled kettles and television power cables to light cigarettes made from tea bags and shredded nicotine patches.

One inmate ignited a plastic container with tea and coffee whitener inside. The Prison Officers Association called for the removal of whiteners from jails.

Large rise in Muslims in jail

Over a quarter of the prison population are from a minority ethnic group.

The number of Muslim prisoners has more than doubled over the past 14 years. In 2002 there were 5,502 Muslims in prison. By 2017 this had risen to 13,000.

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