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Why British prisons aren’t working

A spate of recent memoirs by former inmates and staff reveal the shocking reality of life behind bars in the UK.

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Halfway through his book A Bit of a Stretch (Atlantic), and almost 24 hours into there being no water in the prison where he is incarcerated, Chris Atkins and his cellmate have a serious discussion about drinking the water sitting in the toilet. In Amanda Brown’s The Prison Doctor (HQ), a recent double amputee who speaks no English is not provided with a disabled cell, and is not told why. In Mim Skinner’s Jailbirds (Seven Dials), a woman so traumatised that she regularly wets the bed has her mattress paraded in front of other prisoners by the guards to humiliate her. None of these stories is presented as unusual.

In the past year or so, a handful of books have offered a sobering look inside the UK’s broken prison system. A Bit of a Stretch is the documentary film-maker Chris Atkins’ account of his nine months in Wandsworth, one of the UK’s largest prisons; Mim Skinner’s Jailbirds recounts her eye-opening time as an art teacher in a women’s prison during her twenties; former village GP Amanda Brown’s The Prison Doctor is a memoir of 15 years working in prison healthcare; and Prison: A Survival Guide (Ebury) is a practical look at how to get by inside by the activist, journalist and self-described “unreformed reprobate” Carl Cattermole.

When I first started reading these books, I could not have imagined that the need for prison reform each of them articulates would become much more urgent. Coronavirus has shone a shockingly bright light on existing injustices around the world, and prisons are no exception. At the time of writing, cases of the virus have been confirmed in more than half of the jails in England and Wales, and total 341 among prisoners and 364 among staff. Public Health England believes the true number of cases may be up to six times higher.

Chris Atkins, who was given a five-year sentence in 2016 for his role in a scheme to defraud HMRC of film-making funds, begins his book by letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that the situation is dire. He writes that his time behind bars coincided with “the worst prison crisis in history”, and quotes a 2018 report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons that details “some of the most disturbing prison conditions we have ever seen – conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century”. Each of these four books confirms this impression a hundred times over.

The reality of life in British prisons is grim. Cattermole, whose no-nonsense guide to prison life enjoys something of a cult status among prisoners, writes that prisons have a budget of between £1.15 and £2.10 per day per prisoner, and that new residents should expect “small portions of crap food… gritty burgers, disinfectant-flavoured rice”. Shower access is frequently withdrawn from prisoners as a punishment, and Atkins recalls one resident throwing his own shit at an officer in protest. Imagine, for a moment, how effective advice to “wash your hands” is in this environment. Before the outbreak I contacted the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) repeatedly to arrange a prison visit for this piece, and each person I spoke to kicked the can further down the road.  I can understand why the ministry might not be keen for journalists to see the insides of prisons. Walls keep people out just as much as they keep people in.

The MoJ insists that prisoners receive “the same healthcare and treatment as anyone outside of prison”, but these books tell us this simply isn’t true. In one chapter of The Prison Doctor, Brown has to beg the prison governor to allow a man with a life-threatening abdominal infection to go to hospital. This is a problem partly of staffing: two officers are required to accompany inmates to hospital appointments. Staff shortages, Atkins tells us, are also the reason why thousands of prisoners in Britain spend 23 hours a day locked up in shared cells originally designed for single occupancy, for months at a time.

The emotional toll of life in prison is unimaginably heavy. Access to phone calls and visits is extremely limited, and is often withdrawn without warning or justification. When Atkins goes into prison, his son Kit is a toddler, and he writes movingly of his son asking over the phone whether he would be able to come to his birthday party, and fighting back tears until the call was finished. The vicious irony of this is that the government acknowledges that family contact and support is proven to reduce reoffending and to contribute to prisoners’ well-being, and yet does next to nothing to make it available.

The pain caused by lack of contact is borne by the families of prisoners, too. Prison:  A Survival Guide contains a chapter written by a child whose father is imprisoned. “The struggles we face are never spoken about. We are never noticed,” she writes. “How can Dad be strong if they’re taking phone credit and visits away? They don’t only punish Dad, they punish us.”

All these books repeatedly emphasise just how desperate the mental health crisis has become in prisons. Atkins notes that MoJ statistics revealed suicides had reached a record high in 2016, with one inmate killing themselves every three days. Atkins signs up as a “listener”, an inmate whose job  it is to sit with other prisoners who are struggling and hear their problems. For inmates deemed a high risk to themselves, there is the mental health “observation cell”, where they can be monitored for their own safety. Atkins notes that this cell was on the main thoroughfare of the prison where hundreds of prisoners pass each day,  shaming occupants publicly in a way “reminiscent of putting lunatics in stocks in the village square”.

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Rehabilitation is paid little more than lip service in British prisons. Educational programmes are frequently unavailable due to staff shortages, or are prohibitively expensive. UK reoffending rates are extremely high – Cattermole notes that 61 per cent of people are rearrested, but that the proportion drops to just 19 per cent when people are in employment.

Employment is difficult to find when you have nowhere to live, however. Skinner tells us that 60 per cent of women are released from prison to no address. Homelessness forces people back into crime, dangerous living situations and drug addictions that led to their imprisonment in the first place. All of these books talk about how, for many people, staying in prison can feel safer than the hardscrabble life outside its walls. “I’m so scared,” one of Skinner’s students tells her. “What have I got out there? No house, no family, no support. Nothing.”

Employment is also difficult to get if you have little to no education, and it is estimated that half of the UK’s prison population are functionally illiterate. This is where the grand cycle of incarceration is most obvious. Atkins writes of a prison job he had, giving incoming prisoners an English assessment: “Seeing the appalling levels of literacy made it patently obvious why the cycle of reoffending perpetuated. Many of these guys simply couldn’t operate in normal society.”

Why are our prisons in such a terrible state? Cuts, cuts and more cuts. Cuts to mental health services, cuts to educational programmes, cuts to facilities, cuts to staff funding. Atkins writes that the huge amount of time prisoners spend locked up in their cells is “a direct consequence of officer numbers being hacked to the bone… between 2010 and 2015, the number of prison officers was cut by a third”. Skinner puts it succinctly: “Politicians don’t want to look like they’re putting money into the prison system rather than the NHS.”

The corporatisation of prisons is also to blame, and their management by private companies. Prisoners are a useful sponge for the government and private companies to squeeze for money. In jail you earn £5 a week. “Prisoners haven’t received a pay rise since 1997,” Cattermole writes, adding the MoJ makes £500,000 a year from in-prison spending. BT, which has a monopoly on prison phones, charges eight times as much as it does to customers in the outside world.

But prisons are also in crisis because they reflect a broken society. There is a drugs crisis in prison, for instance, because there is a drugs crisis outside of prison. Atkins writes that the most popular magazine in Wandsworth is GQ. “Prisoners drooled endlessly over Orlando Bloom’s watch or David Beckham’s shoes, believing they too could possess these luxuries if they sold enough drugs. Prison is what lies behind the mirror of consumer capitalism, the unseen consequence of telling everyone that they can have whatever they want.”

Our society lets people down long before they end up behind bars. Cattermole writes that “the cause of so many crimes is either trauma or poverty, and prison makes you poorer and more damaged”. In Jailbirds, Skinner tells us that this is particularly true of women, who tend to be victims of more significant crimes than those they are convicted of. In one class, she asks her students to draw a timeline of their life’s journey so far. One of them responds: “Am I supposed to draw a load of fucking children’s homes, then? And stick figures standing outside for all the blokes that abused us?”

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Each of the books calls for things to change, but none is particularly hopeful about the prospects of it happening. We need a radical shift in how we think about prisoners. “The British public has developed a sadistic mindset towards prisons,” Atkins writes, “and fiercely resists any policies that actually rehabilitate offenders”. Even on a purely economic basis, the state of our prisons doesn’t make sense. Reoffending costs the UK a staggering £15bn a year. By contrast, in Sweden, where there is a greater focus on educating and rehabilitating offenders, crime has fallen, which Atkins notes is doubly cost-effective: “Less money is spent catching criminals, and fewer people need locking up.”

Prisoners are often people who have simply fallen through the cracks, or been unlucky in the circumstances of their birth. But it’s no wonder people think of them as deserving of the worst treatment possible. Atkins cites some recent tabloid headlines: “PRISONERS PARTYING ON DRUGS, VODKA AND FAST FOOD” and “JAILS TO GET EVEN SOFTER”. “Fear and sensation sells newspapers,” writes Cattermole. “Only around 70 prisoners are serving full life sentences, but we’re all characterised as psychos and paedophiles.”

Each of these writers does an admirable job of keeping the doom and gloom at bay. “I sometimes think that everyone should spend a little bit of time in prison,” admits Atkins. “It’s comforting to know that there’s humour, hope and kindness in even the darkest corners of the world.” Skinner’s book is full of lovingly drawn portraits of the women she worked with in prison, and she explains exactly why. “Humans are, on the whole, affected more by faces than facts.” If her readers can come away feeling that prisoners are human beings rather than statistics, she has done her bit.

It seems tragically inevitable that coronavirus will run rampant through our prisons. It may already be too late, even with immediate and drastic action, to prevent this happening. And I suspect that even when it does happen, the unspoken question at the heart of each of these books will continue to go unanswered: why do we not care about the way our society treats the people it has failed? 

This article appears in the 15 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion