Britain’s Prison Problem?

The activist, Angela Davis, famously once said that, ‘Prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo’ whilst she was incarcerated for seventeen months in New York State. Shifting our attention to across the pond, following December’s riot at Her Majesty’s Prison, Birmingham and many other previous incidents, has what Davis said come to a reality in the UK?

With 84,500 people in detention, and that figure steadily rising, the cuts to prison staff have been disastrous and disturbances involving violence, drugs, self harm, and suicides have soared. Previous to the Psychoactive Substances Act which was legislated on May 26, 2016, drugs like spice and black mamba were fuelling prison violence and accidents; however, now many addicts behind bars are turning to Class A drugs which some have said are now more readily available as they have a more established production network. The ban on legal highs has therefore done nothing but allow prison gangs to profit more by raising prices for their product as demand increases stratospherically.

Tabloids often report of boasting prisoners, often in for dangerous ‘indictable only offences’ like bank robbery and grievous bodily harm, are living well in prison with access to smartphones, alcohol and drugs. The last big of report of this happening was in a Stafford prison where inmates filmed themselves doing cocaine, dancing, and eating McDonald’s. This poses the question if the decreasing prison staff don’t want to intervene in unnecessary circumstances as the rising of inmate on inmate violence rises, and mental health problems have become much more rife. With 64% of males incarcerated having a personality disorder and 23% suffering from depression, prison staff are said to have been overwhelmed with their duties because of being understaffed, especially as cases of self harm and suicides rise.

Violence and sexual assaults behind bars have increased since 2010 when the cuts began as the newly elected Coalition Government decided to try and balance the budget by 2018 by reducing spending, which clearly hasn’t gone to plan. On top of staff reductions, lack of government investment has meant overcrowding with now some near 85,000 prisoners being crammed into 150 institutions. With 212 incidents in 2012 involving knives and 491 happening in 2016, groups like the UK Prison Reform Trust have appealed to Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, for real change to ensure more investment and reduced sentences for non-violent offenders.

Calls like this from UK Prison Reform and the general public outcry from the riot at HMP Birmingham has meant Secretary Truss has shifted an extra £1.3billion however as the annual budget for prisons is £10billion, this can only be a short term solution to the calamity of the UK prison system.

Theo Ashdown (F, 1YS)