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Pia Sinha: how criminal gangs are taking over prisons

The ex-prison governor and justice reformer on a crumbling British penal system.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Most of us will never encounter the truly broken bits of broken Britain. Unlike hospitals and potholes, direct contact with the criminal justice system – the neglected prison, probation and court services which are collapsing all over England and Wales – is a distant experience for the majority.

But Pia Sinha, a former prison governor who for 24 years worked in both women’s and men’s prisons, has seen it all. Having left the prison service six months ago, her new role heading the Prison Reform Trust means she can finally speak freely.

We met at the charity’s central-London offices on a narrow street of former Victorian warehouses. Her office faced a redbrick facade and arched cast-iron windows – echoes of the cramped and crumbling Victorian era prisons that still host over a quarter of English and Welsh prisoners. She felt “less lonely” in the busy and cacophonous world of prisons (women’s are noisier than men’s, apparently, because “women like to chat!”), which she “loved” from her first day as a 26-year-old psychologist at the women’s prison HMP Holloway in 1999.

Described as a “troubleshooting prison governor” by the prison magazine Inside Time, and credited for turning HMP Liverpool from a violent, rat-infested mess in 2017 to a well-functioning jail within three years, Sinha is blowing the whistle on a hidden system in collapse.

The prison population in England and Wales is 88,225 – more than double that of 40 years ago, and the largest in western Europe. This is partly the result of sentence inflation (longer time being served for the same crimes) and more draconian attitudes to law and order fostered under New Labour and the Conservative-led coalition government – which cut annual prison spending by 21 per cent from 2010 to 2015. Staff levels are 10 per cent lower than they were 13 years ago. “Prisons are constantly running in crisis mode, so you’re not able to do anything meaningful,” Sinha said. “There’s a lack of purposeful activity for the prisoners. That is catastrophic.” She didn’t just blame the government. “Governors in prisons or people aspiring to become governors have become very, very managerial. Running prisons on performance metrics, losing sight of the bigger picture, you can very quickly become distanced from what’s happening on the front line and run sort of virtual prisons.”

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Designing courses to inspire more creative leadership is her priority. “You need to have governors who stand up for their prisons and say: ‘We’re not going to tolerate it; it’s not safe.’ It is possible. But for that, you need a very strong moral compass.”

Sinha, 51, moved from Mumbai to Harrow, north-west London, with her parents and sister at the age of 14. Her dad worked in life insurance, and her mum at a local job centre. They all still live in the same area. She studied for eight years to become a psychologist, and before starting at Holloway ran a pub with her then husband in Islington, north London, called the Penny Farthing (with clientele she’s described as “villains”).

[See also: The Tories should feel no nostalgia for Boris Johnson]

Far from the caricature of a thick-necked haggard old screw, at just 5ft tall with red nails, gold hoop earrings and a scarlet jumper, Sinha often surprised new colleagues and inmates on arrival at the three prisons she led. She gained trust by approaching her relationship with a new jail like therapy.

“The first few sessions, you’re trying to get the whole life story of that person, understand what makes them tick, what makes them stuck,” she said. “That principle applied to how I looked at prisons. My first thing was to just take a step back and observe, talk to people, find out where the beating heart of this prison was.”

Her sparse office – blank whiteboard, one box of chicken-and-leek Cup a Soup on her desk – betrayed her practical approach. At Liverpool, she recruited inmates to deep-clean the wings, paint walls and fix windows, and installed hanging baskets and astroturf where broken concrete used to be. But it’s harder now for governors to experiment, for fear of their prisons being labelled soft or luxurious in the press. “Doing anything that’s likely not to meet the Daily Mail test just gets rejected before it even gets on the table.”

A black wall outside Sinha’s office bears a mantra in stark white lettering: “Whereas no person should break the law, neither should the law break a person.” Values of rehabilitative justice and a compassionate penal code are at the heart of her organisation. In prisons, she noticed colleagues fell into “two camps”: those who saw prison reformers as “meddlers, do-gooders and a pain in the ass” and those who welcomed them. Having entered the Prison Service as a psychologist, learning to understand inmates and embedding her practice in research, she was in the latter camp.

The UK government has already met some of her demands, if by sheer necessity. When prisons were 557 places off being full in mid-October, it scrapped sentences of one year or less and released petty criminals early. To Sinha, this made sense: there’s no evidence that sentence severity affects crime levels.

“We welcome the changes; everyone knows short sentences don’t work, but no one wants to talk about it – it’s like the worst-kept secret. But the sad thing is they’ve been forced to take action when they’ve had the opportunity to plan for this for a while.”

It was an about-turn for the Conservatives, whose ten justice secretaries since 2010 have lengthened sentences and attempted to ban books for inmates (Chris Grayling), as well as restricting the freedoms of rehabilitated prisoners (Dominic Raab). Rishi Sunak’s government placed tougher sentencing high on its agenda in its King’s Speech on 7 November. Labour, too, is talking tough on crime – even accusing Sunak earlier this year of not wanting to imprison paedophiles.

Sinha is “deeply concerned” about this dynamic ahead of the next election. “Labour is talking more about things like shoplifters going into prison. I hope it’s just political grandstanding, and if we do get a different colour of government it’s able to row back…

“What I would say to any government, or those trying to oppose, is: stay clear of criminal justice – just don’t go there, because it’s such a hot potato it’s very difficult to get any mileage from it apart from being ‘tough on crime’.”

When Daniel Khalife, an ex-soldier held on terror charges, escaped via a food van from HMP Wandsworth in September, Britain briefly glimpsed the chaos in its prisons. The London jail, where Sinha worked after Holloway, was 40 per cent down on staff that day.

Inexperienced and outnumbered officers are less confident letting prisoners out – leaving 42 per cent of men spending under two hours outside their cells on weekdays (and 60 per cent at weekends). In her day, there were three things Sinha “couldn’t mess with”: visits, fresh air and meal times. This was her “golden rule” to avoid disorder, but she sees such “red lines” fading. Does she predict further escapes, and even riots?

“My hypothesis is that there is a load of drugs in the system, and a culture of low expectation and ambition means prisoners are just counting the days, and using drugs to cope… At some level, that’s helping the prison service get away with it.”

Control is also shifting from wardens towards criminal gangs, she revealed. “It’s a perfect environment for organised crime groups. In a lot of places, the power base has shifted away from staff. There are no-go areas in prisons, which become ghettoised, and no staff want to supervise them. If staff aren’t running them, prisoners are running them. If this is happening at scale, it’s inevitable that you’ve got that system creeping in to prisons. It’s very sad.”

[See also: GB News isn’t a news channel – it’s Tory TV]

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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