Expert comment: English prisons – nothing short of a catastrophe

Prisons expert and Professor of Criminology Yvonne Jewkes comments on the latest damning reports on the state of prisons in Liverpool and Nottingham.

Rat-infested rubbish piling up in prison yards, cockroaches scuttling around cells, unchecked violence and intimidation, and a personal intervention by the Chief Inspector to have a prisoner with serious mental health issues moved from a dark and damp cell with broken windows, exposed wires and a filthy blocked toilet.

‘The Dickensian images being conjured up by the press with regard to conditions at Liverpool and Nottingham prisons are truly shocking and suggest that prisons have reached a point of crisis never experienced before – or at least not in living memory.

‘The recent news that prisons previously slated for closure are to remain open for at least five years has resulted in the worst of all planning decisions. The retention of overcrowded establishments that former Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, said contain ‘dark corners’ which facilitate violence and drug-taking (along with a host of other serious offences), and the construction of new ‘mega-prisons’ that will provide 10,000 extra beds but will resemble sterile warehouses that offer little in the way of hope.

‘Meanwhile, staff are demoralised and in some cases genuinely frightened.  They are not trained or equipped to deal with the complex mental health needs of increasing numbers of prisoners, nor with the devastating effects of drugs like spice.

‘As a result, we have reached a point that is nothing short of a catastrophe. Criminologists, prison reform groups and criminal justice professionals might be divided on what prisons can realistically hope to achieve, but few would argue that our bloated prison systems have become squalid and dangerous places that offer little hope of rehabilitating offenders who will one day return to society.

‘As the current revelations show, the “failures of leadership”, as the Chief Inspector has described them, go to the top of government.  The steep decline in prison conditions can be traced back to another Minister of Justice, Chris Grayling’s, decision to slash the budget by £1bn, lose one-third of frontline staff and make prisons “less like holiday camps and hotels”.

‘Amidst the merry-go-round of Secretaries of State (six in the last eight years) and the collapse of Carillion, whose failures in service delivery have exacerbated the problems, lies a story that, were it happening to almost any other group of people on the planet, would probably be described in terms of a humanitarian crisis.

‘This, then, is not simply a catastrophe for the people living and working in our wretched and unsafe prisons, or for those charged with managing the crisis; it is a catastrophe for all of us.’

Professor Yvonne Jewkes

Yvonne Jewkes, is Professor of Criminology, in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. Her main research interest is prisons and the sociology of imprisonment, especially prison design and prison culture. She has recently completed a major ESRC-funded study of prison architecture, design and technology and a project on designing ‘healthy’, trauma-sensitive prisons for women, which was funded by the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness.