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.”