The chief inspector of prisons' annual report has just been published and it is as damning as you would expect. Nick Hardwick is doing the best he can to get the chaos of Britain's prisons into the public sphere and to tentatively offer explanations for why it is taking place.
The situation is currently verging on catastrophic. He found a "significant decline in safety". There were often weaknesses in basic safety processes such as risk assessments for new prisoners and prisoners in crisis being held in segregated areas in poor conditions. Drugs in prisons – legal and illegal – were becoming a source of debt, with the associated bullying and violence which comes with that.
The official National Offender Management Service (Noms) data found a 14% annual rise in assaults involving adult male prisoners – the highest for any year which we have data for. There was a 38% rise in serious assaults. Suicides were up 69% to 88, the highest figure for a decade.
"Inspections… revealed a further sharp decline in outcomes across all areas."
Where things are going right, it is despite the Ministry of Justice, not because of it.
"In many prisons, strong relationships between staff and prisoners mitigated the worst effects of overcrowding and helped make prisons safer than they would otherwise have been," the report found.
Hardwick tries to tie together some of the strands to offer an explanation for why this is happening. Sure, it's about spending cuts and prison officer numbers. But he goes further and lays some of the blame on Chris Grayling's draconian new prison regime.
He cites a reduction of £84 million in public sector prison running costs, which led to a "significant loss of more experienced staff". This compares rather worryingly with the ever-growing prison population, which, at 85,252 in March, was at 99% of the usable operational capacity.
Hardwick then notes that "a significant policy agenda included plans to transform rehabilitation arrangements, make it harder for prisoners to earn privileges and tighten the rules for temporary release". He goes on to say:
"Increases in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violence cannot be attributed to a single cause. They reflect some deep-seated trends and affect prisons in both the public and private sectors. Nevertheless, in my view, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the conjunction of resource, population and policy pressures, particularly in the second half of 2013-14 and particularly in adult male prisons, was a very significant factor for the rapid deterioration in safety and other outcomes we found as the year progressed and that were reflected in Noms' own safety data. The rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths was the most unacceptable feature of this. It is important that the bald statistics do not disguise the dreadful nature of each incident and the distress caused to the prisoner’s family, other prisoners and staff." [italics added]
The link between spending cuts, staff reduction and chaos in prisons is well understood and relatively well publicised. There was a particularly well-written example this morning in the Guardian by the former governor of Brixton prison. What is less commonly commented on is the bullying regime imposed on prisons from Whitehall since last November. That regime has had a year now. It has banned prisoners receiving books and other necessary items. It has instituted a humiliation practice, where punishment and harsh treatment are increasingly the norm. It has made it difficult – sometimes impossible – to secure privileges, like wearing your own clothes or securing entertainment. Work, training and education outcomes – the things which have the best chance of keeping people out of jail - have deteriorated.
The use of TV and PlayStations in cells is often laughed at by the tabloid press as an example of liberalism gone mad. But you try putting criminals in a cell for 23 hours a day and depriving them of any entertainment and hope to see some good come out of it.
Grayling is very proud of his reforms, but the prison inspector is quite clear that they are partly attributable for one of the worst deteriorations in the prison regime we've ever seen.
He has made it quite clear he is not paying attention to these reports. There'll be no change in government policy until after the election at the earliest. The Ministry of Justice has made it almost impossible for anyone in prisons – on either side of the cell bars – to speak about what happens there. The chief inspector is one of the only people in the country in a position to do so. He has done a commendable job. It is a national disgrace he is not being listened to.
Sadiq Khan, Labour's shadow justice secretary, commented:
"This damning report by the independent chief inspector of prisons lays bare the deteriorating conditions in our jails under David Cameron's government. It shows ministers are burying their heads in the sand rather than facing up to the growing levels of overcrowding, staff cuts, violence and suicide.
"The government should be alarmed at reports of prisoners idling away their time in their cells rather than being on courses or working. It does nothing to improve rehabilitation and puts the safety of communities at risk from unreformed prisoners drifting back into a life of crime and creating more needless victims."
The problems with the police started as soon as Ricky Reel went missing. His family say they reported his disappearance, only to be told it was the responsibility of another police station. They say allusions were made to Ricky's Asian ethnicity, with officers telling the family he probably ran away from an arranged marriage.
One week later, his body was found at the bottom of the Thames. He had died moments after a racist attack, but police insisted it was not murder. They told the family he had fallen into the river while urinating.
What the family did not know, but do now, is that the police launched a spying operation against them.
"They were following me," Ricky's mum Sukhdev says. "All this money, this pot of money, was available to spy on me when there was no money left to investigate Ricky's death. Spying was more important than investigating my son's death."
Today is the anniversary of the 20-year-old's disappearance, in 1997. Sukhdev will be holding a vigil outside Scotland Yard this afternoon. She wants answers from a police force which she says ignored her son's death, insisted it was not a murder, and then spied on her family rather than trying to find out what happened to him.
Seventeen years ago, Ricky had been out with friends in Kingston-upon-Thames. He never came back. His family went to the local police but they were told to refer it to Uxbridge police station, where Ricky lived. Uxbridge police sent the family back to Kingston. Neither station wanted to use its resources on the case.
Sukhdev called her MP, John McDonnell, who called the police and demanded to know why they hadn't started investigating the death yet. She believes this may be the point they made the decision to start spying on her.
"What crime had I committed? she asks. Then she trails away. She finds the days leading up the anniversary of Ricky's disappearance difficult. "My crime was I wouldn't go away. I wouldn't shut up. Because I kept on saying I want them to investigate why they killed him."
Ricky's family say officers told them their son had probably run away to escape an arranged marriage. "We were begging on our knees asking them to find Ricky," Sukhdev says. "We were out in groups looking for our son. We were putting up posters, collecting evidence like CCTV and handing it to police. All that time they were spying on us."
A week later, Ricky's body was found in the Thames.
He and his friends had been attacked by two white youths that evening, shouting: "Pakis go home." Police claimed Ricky fell in the river while he was urinating, after escaping the attack.
Ricky's family have always believed he was murdered. They say his phobia of open water would never have led him to urinate near a river. They commissioned a post-mortem which indicated he fell in backwards, not something one would expect from someone who fell in while urinating. It also noted blunt-impact bruising to his back.
A report by what was then the Police Complaints Commission (PCC) concluded there were "weaknesses and flaws" in the original investigation and singled out three officers for neglect of duty. The watchdog found CCTV footage had been destroyed. Other tapes had not been taken by police in time. Ricky's friends weren't shown photos of known racists to see if they recognised them as the men who attacked them. No forensic analysis was made of the scene where police believed Ricky fell in the river.
Ricky's family believed his Asian ethnicity was pivotal to the way the police treated his case. But they had no idea of the full horror of how the police had handled the case. Instead of looking for the people they believe were responsible for his death, they had spied on the family itself.
In March Theresa May revealed to the Commons that Scotland Yard's now-disbanded undercover unit - the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) - had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence. Rocks were being turned over to find out what was underneath them. Four months later, Sukhdev was called in for a meeting with Derbyshire police.
They told her the SDS had been spying on her. There were ten secret reports – five of them 'appropriate' and five 'not appropriate'. But they would not tell her what form the spying took, when it took place or what was in those reports. They wouldn't even say on what basis a report was classified as 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate'.
"As soon as he mentioned all this spying, the room started spinning," Sukhdev says. "I wasn't aware what was going on. I just wanted the meeting to stop. The one thing that stuck in my mind was them calling the spying 'collateral intrusion'. They wouldn't say spying."
Sukhdev says she signed an authorisation form to see the documents but no-one has been in contact with her yet. All she knows is that it happened. None of the details have been revealed.
"The time frame when they were gathering information on us was when we were at our lowest," she says.
"For all I know they could have been in my house. I was out handing out petitions and attending meetings. The door was always open, there were lots of people coming in and out to help. My youngest child at the time was ten years old. How do I know they weren’t sitting next to my children? Were my children spied also? Were they followed also?"
Derbyshire police have been tasked with investigating the spying practices of the undercover police in the Met, but for Sukhdev the distinction is not reassuring.
"It's still the police investigating the police," she says. "It's not an independent body. They said: 'We've been brought in to do this'. Well you keep doing that, but I have no faith in any investigation you do. How can they tell that this is the total information the police have gathered about the family? The police are asking us to rely on their word, but because of the way they behaved we don't have any trust in the police force. Why did they still have the files all these years later?
In this regard she is no different to the other families affected by police spying, including the relatives of Stephen Lawrence and Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian mistakenly shot in the aftermath of the London bombings. The families remember the slander about Menezes put out to the press in the wake of killing, including that he vaulted over the Tube barriers and that he was in the UK illegally. They shiver when they consider what the police were spying on them for.
"They thought: 'This woman won't shut up'," Sukhdev says. "They thought: 'We'll spy on her, find something out about her and maybe use it against her'."
Even now, Ricky's family get precious little information from police. When someone came forward with information about the case recently they referred them instantly to the solicitors, so they could not be accused of influencing them. The police interviewed them, but they've heard nothing back.
"We haven’t heard anything from them," Sukhdev says. "Nothing at all. Not even to say: 'We'll arrange a meeting' or the outcome of it. It's just gone dead."
So tonight, Sukhdev, her family and their supporters will go to New Scotland Yard and hold a vigil for Ricky, who went out with his friends 17 years ago and never came back. Over 77,000 people have signed a petition supporting them on Change.org, demanding a public apology from the Metropolitan police commissioner to all the families affected by police spying.
But from the police themselves, there is silence.
Update - 10:24:
A statement from the Met poilice said:
"The investigation into the death of Ricky Reel remains open and we would urge anyone with new information to contact the MPS.
"Any new information will be dealt with sensitively and anyone who wishes to remain anonymous can call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111."
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