Super-jails are the inhumane mark of ignorant politicians

Hands of a prisoner, Brixton jail

From the Observer 21 February 2015

The dishonesty of official crime policy cuts two ways. The authorities are treating men, women and, to their disgrace, children with deliberate cruelty. They are stuffing them into ever larger “super-prisons”, run by negligent private punishment corporations and dominated by criminal gangs. You cannot rehabilitate offenders in these anonymous warehouses, and the state’s promise to prisoners that it will try to divert them from a life of crime is nothing more than a pious lie.

The government’s deception of the public is as great. If David Cameron were an honest man – my fantasy, I know, but indulge me – he would say: “We want to cram offenders into super-prisons because it saves money. We know we’re not just putting them at risk, but the public, too. After the prison riots of 1990, Lord Justice Woolf’s inquiry said Britain needed small local prisons, so that wives and girlfriends could visit inmates, and keep their relationships going.

“In truth, no one needed a judge to tell them that men with a family that will welcome them home on release are more likely to go straight. It’s common sense. Unfortunately, common sense and austerity don’t go together. I’m slashing funding for the criminal justice system – not just the prisons, but the police, and courts, too. Inevitably, my policies will result in more people becoming victims of crime. For me and my administration, their suffering is a price worth paying.”

Cameron should admit that his policies will result in more people becoming victims of crime

Instead of levelling with the voters, however, David Cameron has put Chris Grayling, a bombastic and ignorant man, even by the standards of the modern Conservative party, in charge of justice. Humane treatment for prisoners no more concerns him than the human rights of the rest of the population. If this sounds like the whingeing of a bleeding-heart liberal, consider that there will be people you meet, who do not yet know that they will be robbed, beaten, raped and murdered as a result of Cameron’s neglect of public safety. Some will even vote for him because they think Conservatives are tough on crime.

Public and private penal bureaucracies want super-jails because they are grand projects. Cost-cutting politicians like them because there are economies of scale in stacking inmates high and keeping them cheap. The Ministry of Justice plans to open Europe’s second largest jail in Wrexham in 2017. About 2,100 men will be kept on the site of an abandoned factory. The Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that even if all eligible Welsh prisoners were sent there, they would fill only 25% of the cells. The remaining 75% of prisoners will be held far from their families. The jail will be a guaranteed relationship-breaker.

After Wrexham, the ministry is planning to build one of Europe’s largest children’s prisons in Leicestershire, a coop for 320 children aged 12 to 17. Not to be outdone, Scottish nationalists, who can be as dangerous as English Conservatives, wanted to build a central super-prison for women in Greenock, Inverclyde. The SNP was happy to cut mothers off from their children until a campaign by Jim Murphy, Labour’s new leader in Scotland, and women’s groups forced it to back down.
Oakwood at Featherstone in the West Midlands, run by G4S.

It’s not as if they don’t know that gargantuan jails don’t work. The largest prison in England at present is Oakwood near Wolverhampton. From the outside it looks like a jerry-built housing estate surrounded by razor wire. Anyone who enters its doors soon learns that appearances do not deceive. Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, reported in 2013 that 1,600 men at Oakwood lived in a gang-dominated hell. Violence was everywhere. Investigators were told that addiction was so common, “you can get drugs here, but not soap”. Many officers opted for the quiet life. They were “passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion, in an attempt to avoid confrontation”. When they didn’t back off, inmates pelted them with excrement. Hardwick effectively put Oakwood and its private manager, G4S, under special measures. Last week he reported that the jail had improved, but you only have to read the report to see that it had improved from the catastrophic to the merely disastrous. Prison gangsters were still demanding money with menaces for drugs, alcohol and illicitly traded medicines. Those who did not comply were “skanked” or “cut up”. The number of inmates on suicide watch remained extremely high. Since G4S opened Oakwood in 2012, thousands of men have been damaged or hooked on drugs. No one could say with confidence that they had been rehabilitated when they were released to live among us, not least because officers kept them locked in their cells when they should have been educating them.

When you look at Oakwood, it’s hard to tell who are the worse criminals: the prisoners on their wings or the G4S executives in their offices. But tempting though it is to damn a company, whose appetite for taxpayers’ money is matched only by its incompetence, condemnations miss the point that it is not the terrible managers of super-prisons who at fault, but the idea of mass incarceration itself.

Every study by the National Audit Office or prisons inspectorate says that smaller jails have lower levels of violence and better relations between staff and prisoners. Frances Crook of the Howard League sounds almost weary when she explains that super-prisons cannot work because the thousands of inmates and the officers that guard them don’t know each other.

Look at how we are governed and it is easy to feel weary, too. Nothing is learned. No progress is made. Decade after decade, the same bad arguments recycled from the bottom of the Whitehall compost heap and presented as fresh initiatives. But exhausted cynicism is not the only option.

In Scotland, Murphy, who is too glibly dismissed as a Blairite clone, mobilised impressive arguments against allowing the SNP to build a central holding pen for women. Scottish public opinion, including conservative opinion, accepted that they shouldn’t lose contact with their children when we already knew that their children would suffer. The nationalists had to retreat. Cheeringly, here in England we also have leaders who will make good, clear arguments. As recently as 2009, one politician exclaimed: “The idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong. I have spent some time at Wandsworth prison and was profoundly depressed by the size and impersonality.”

The name of that politician? David Cameron. Whatever happened to him?

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