HMP Pentonville, London. Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images
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Lessons learned far too late: Inside the prison system with the Conservative justice minister Andrew Selous

Following rumours of overcrowding and poor morale, Ashley Cowburn visits Onley Prison - and asks why the system is in such a state.

Around a dozen male inmates are gathered in a warehouse at Onley Prison in Warwickshire, taking part in a bricklaying course. The lessons are among the many “multi-skill” workshops offered by the institution to prepare prisoners for their release. Every inmate wears identical clothing: green trousers and a red T-shirt, caked in cement. Their tools have tags on them.

Chris, a 34-year-old, is holding a buttering trowel as I approach him. He has been in and out of prison for over 17 years and expects to be released in just two months’ time.

“This place is all right, compared to other prisons,” he says. I ask him what he means. “Well, put it this way, Pentonville is a lot worse . . .” But, before Chris can explain, a Ministry of Justice press officer interrupts and asks us not to discuss “other prisons”.

Built as a borstal in the late 1960s, Onley held young offenders for more than three decades. Many of the original buildings still stand. At the turn of the century, the facility was transformed into an adult prison for “category C” prisoners – those who cannot be trusted in open conditions but are unlikely to make a determined effort to escape. Today, one of its main functions is to act as a resettlement institution for the Greater London area. Many of the inmates are approaching the end of their sentences.

The prison governor, Stephen Ruddy, is a plump, middle-aged man with a trimmed, white moustache and a northern accent: the perfect image of a prison governor. He tells me that Onley has 742 inmates, which means that it is operating at maximum capacity, but is quick to add: “There’s no overcrowding.”

“What we should have, we’ve got,” he says.

The Howard League for Penal Reform claims that prison overcrowding is at a “crisis” point in England and Wales. The charity reports that, over a two-year period (January 2013 to January 2015), 12 prisons were closed down, cutting the number of places available from 78,935 to 75,374, despite an increase in the number of prisoners. It stresses that overcrowding has coincided with “deep staff cuts and a rise in the number of suicides, self-harm incidents and violent attacks behind bars”.

Yet Andrew Selous, minister for prisons and the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, claims that overcrowding is lower than it was under the previous government. We meet at the Onley visitors’ centre on the day he arrives to trumpet the achievements of a pilot scheme, “Inside Out”, which looks after the well-being of both prisoners and prisoners’ families. He says that prison crowding peaked in 2007-2008 and is “actually coming down”. “We have crowding but we’re building more capacity,” he tells me. “We’ll end this parliament with more adult male capacity than when we started it.”

I ask about the alarming increase in suicides in British prisons. Selous acknowledges that the number is high. Last year, it was reported that 125 prisoners in England and Wales had killed themselves over a 20-month period – an average of more than six a month.

“We try and learn lessons from every single incident,” Selous says. “Essentially, it’s about giving people hope. Why do people take their own life? It’s because things look bleak.

“The number of suicides is going up in society . . . and prison reflects what’s going on in society. The area I would like to concentrate on is trying to give the vision of a positive future at the end of the sentence.”

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn



This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.