Prison crisis: Can jails keep control without enough staff?

Despite the censorship, reports emerge of security collapse in prisons

Despite the censorship, reports emerge of security collapse in prisons

The most effective tool the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has for covering up the prison crisis is censorship. Prisoners can't talk, former prisoners can't talk, guards can't talk. The only reliable information published is from the chief inspector of prisons and the independent monitoring boards, who Chris Grayling can't shut up.

That information is a snap shot of a system in chaos, falling apart under the combined weight of funding cuts, staff shortages and Grayling's "right-wing solutions" to reoffending.

Today the report came in from an unannounced inspection of Elmley prison on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. It is dangerously overcrowded and understaffed. There has been one major disturbance a month for each of the last 11 consecutive months, with prisoners refusing to go back to their cells. This compares to zero disturbances the year before. The offender management unit is "overwhelmed".

Almost 200 of the men there spend 23 hours a day in their cells. Fights and assault are up 60% in the last year. Vulnerable prisoners are being abused without staff intervention. Five people have committed suicide in the last two years.

Rehabilitation has completely ground to a halt. Of the cases looked at by probation inspectors, not one showed meaningful work being done to address the offending behaviour of the prisoner.

As we've seen before, drug use is high and mandatory drug tests are counter-productive. These tests push people away from drugs like cannabis, which statistically are not dangerous, and towards new substances like spice and black mamba, which don’t show up on the test. These are much more unpredictable, as the inmates' nickname for ambulances – 'mambulances' – testifies. The mandatory drug tests show 7.2% positivity, but 40% of prisoners told inspectors it was easy to get drugs. Take a guess which one of those figures is more indicative of the truth.

In Brixton prison, the independent monitoring board report also noted "unacceptably high" levels of drug use, citing positive test results and anecdotal evidence from prisoners.

Staffing levels are so low they "wholly ignore the requirements of running a prison effectively, safely and humanely".

Over at Bristol prison, where another independent monitoring board report has just been published, it was the same. They found staffing levels were "insufficient" to ensure a safe environment.

"The financial constraint has had a clear detrimental effect on many aspects of prisoners' lives", they found. The prison is at "bursting point".

Chillingly, they found some officers and staff "feel unsafe when prisoners are out of their cells". That's the point of total collapse. Once staff feel unsafe, none of the things prisons should be doing – such as training, educating, maintaining family contact or offering therapy – are possible. Security in a jail is like oil in an economy: once you remove it, everything else grinds to a halt. Classes, family visits, medical tests – they're all affected. Nurses, for instance, were advised not to unlock cells in C wing because the number of prison officers is too low and they felt unsafe. The health implications are potentially grave.

The board concluded:

"Frontline staff should feel safe in carrying out their daily routines. The board considers that senior managers lack sufficient resources to fulfil these basic requirements."

That is as damning a statement about the state of a prison as it's possible to read in the western world. It means any civilising impact of the institution has been lost. We are now in the business of holding humans, rather than trying to stop them committing more crime.

Even the data is falling apart. The board basically gave up on the statistics on violence and threats of violence. "The figures that are generated by the prison do not inspire confidence," they concluded.

Again, synthetic drugs were washing through the prison, often replacing cannabis to escape the mandatory drug tests. The report found: "These [drugs] can be severe and can result in hospitalisation."

On top of this chaos, Grayling has forced prisons to implement his "right-wing solution" to reoffending, a draconian new prison regime that bans prisoners from receiving parcels, including books. The system also purposefully stacks the odds against inmates staying on 'enhanced' level, where they are allowed some creature comforts, and pushes them towards lower levels, where they are often denied things like TVs or their own clothing.

The Brixton board said the "robust implementation" of the regime saw prisoners "have their status downgraded "without any corresponding deterioration in their behaviour". The basic unfairness obviously contributes to disorder. But it goes further than that. It pushes the prisoner away. It says: no matter how you behave, or what you do, you may be subject to arbitrary punishment. No-one could consider that a good condition for rehabilitation, but the secretary of state evidently does.

The standards of the new regime "were so ambiguously drafted that their implementation across the prison estate was inconsistent", the board found. "What was intended as incentive often became, in prisoners' view, an unfair and haphazard punishment." The ban on books "inhibits education". The ban on clothes being sent meant prisoners did not show up for work dressed appropriately, a seemingly-minor change which takes away a level of preparedness for normal life, a feeling of routine which can be essential in the transition from cell to suburb.

In Bristol, the board noted "with sadness" that softer subjects like art and music were no longer provided, "despite the fact that they are widely believed to have a positive and therapeutic effect on prisoners".

Like a tiny beam of light, people are still in these prisons trying to do the right thing. The small library in Brixton is cramped and inconveniently placed, but staff have done their best to counter the damage Grayling's policy has done. They make it bright and stack it with colourful magazines and books. Two prison reps set up a local catalogue system and booking system which worked extremely well and significantly reduced losses. Librarians hosted programmes like Story Book Dads and Six Book Challenges. They gave workshops on producing letters and cards from dads to their families. It is remarkable that they must actively try to stem the damage of a government policy which inhibits prisoners' education.

Decent-minded people are doing what they can while a needless government programme lays waste to the institutions around them. Under Grayling's tenure, the very concept of rehabilitation has ground to a halt. Security itself has been compromised by funding cuts and Whitehall initiatives designed to placate right-wing tabloids.

We are barred from hearing what’s going on. All we have are these reports. They paint an appalling snapshot of a system coming apart at the seams.