By The Tartan Con

There were a lot of things the new justice secretary didn't know when she appeared before the justice committee earlier this month. She didn’t seem to know what legislation she'd be pushing through, on what basis, or what was happening at her department. She and her rather baffled, investment banker under-secretary of state for prisons Sam Gyimah seem a bit ignorant of what's actually going on in Her Majesty's prison estate, since neither of them have deigned to ask those who have experienced it.

Probably they take the standard view: that prison is basically Butlin's Holiday Camp. As someone who spent a good few years in prison I can assure you it's nothing of the sort. It's about boredom, fences, white shirts and bureaucracy. Our prisons are old, decrepit and not fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

The cells are small, averaging six by eight feet, and built for single occupancy, but they often hold two or even three inmates. This causes an interesting problem due to the fact there is only ever one table and one chair. Privacy goes out the window very quickly. The cell toilet is located usually right beside the door. It's not sectioned off. You eat your dinner just a couple of feet away from an open toilet.

I say dinner, but I mean the unappetising sludge that is served as our only hot meal of the day. The average budget for feeding a prisoner is the princely sum of £1.87 per day for three meals. The daily rations usually consist of this:

Breakfast: Given to us at the serving of the evening meal the night before. Two hundred ml of long life milk, two table spoons of oats, four tea bags, two sachets of powdered creamer and two sachets of sugar.

Lunch:  Served at 11:15. A cold sandwich and an apple. Maybe if you're lucky you'll get a cereal bar, commonly called a door stopper.

Dinner:  Served at 17:15. A hot meal with rice or chips.

We're given a menu to choose from and all religions are catered for, but the portions are so pathetically low you usually end up tearing open the breakfast pack straight after dinner.

Time for the luxuries; which the tabloids love talking about so much. We get the chance to purchase from the prison shop every week and we can use our wages to purchase goods from it. "Wages?" I hear you say. Yes, we do get paid for the jobs that we do in prison. Well those of us that have jobs that is. There are ten prisoners for every position available. And what jobs they are. I once filled plastic bags with those delicious breakfast packs I mentioned above. Another thrilling job involved filling a small plastic bag with three balloons for a well known greeting card company.

The average working week in prison is 30 hours and the average weekly wage is £9.00, or if you prefer £0.30 per hour. Granted, we have no overheads, but that £9.00 is used to buy phone credit to call our family, purchase stamps to write to them and we might even want the luxury of a razor or shaving gel. Oh and also to pay for our television. Prisoners pay £1.00 per week (or just over 10% of our weekly wage) to have a TV in our cell. It's not free.

While we're here, let's clear up the PlayStation rumour. Other gaming machines are available, by the way. Except that actually they're not. Some prisoners do have Playstations, but they must be on the enhanced level of the current Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, meaning they must have been well behaved, attended work or education regularly and paid for it from their earnings. The model must be the older one, which have no wifi or USB ports. You can get a used one of these for about £50, but you're not allowed to buy them. The machine must be new.

If you don't manage to get a job then you're left in your cell with the two or three close friends that I mentioned above and locked up for anything from 23 hours per day to the luxury of only 18 hours per day.

That is the norm of prison life.

The under-staffing of prisons makes it much worse. We're told to choose between either a shower or a call to our family. Our places of work are closed. The education department can't open as there is no staff to handle it. Our visits are postponed or cut short. And what do you think that does to rehabilitation?

The chronic under-staffing in prison must be addressed. Without it, we'll see more riots. Oh sorry, they're not riots anymore. The Ministry of Justice now calls them 'incidents'. But any incident which sees staff afraid for their safety followed by the mass transferring out of prisoners seems to me like a riot. Whatever you call them, they're happening as you read this. In the last month, HMP’s Lincoln, Northumberland and Birmingham have experienced 'incidents' due to under staffing.

Staffing is the crux of everything in prison. There can be no reform without it. The lack of staff allows the flow of contraband to increase, it makes rehabilitation impossible and, worst of all, it costs lives. The recent spate of reporting on the increase of self harm and suicides in prison has brought this into sharp relief. I say that any life that is lost in prison due to the lack of staffing should be noted on a wall inside the Ministry of Justice lest we forget who is to blame.

Rehabilitation? Reform? Not until we make some serious changes. And for that he need a secretary of state who knows what they're talking about, or at least one who'll listen.

The Tartan Con is a pseudonym used by an ex prisoner who was sentenced to seven years in prison. He is passionate about prison reform and blogs regularly on the state of our prisons from his rather unique viewpoint under He is on Twitter at @TheTartanCon.

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