From numbers behind bars to drugs, mental health and regressive legislation, our prisons are in a shameful state, says former Guardian crime correspondent Duncan Campbell
Just around the corner from where the Krays used to hold sway in east London’s Brick Lane there is an establishment called Alcotraz. Described as “London’s first immersive theatrical cocktail bar”, Alcotraz allows you to dress up in a prison uniform, get locked up in a cell, have a cocktail or two, and get your photo taken. So Britain is channelling – in the cause of entertainment – a famous prison in the United States. But look closely and you’ll see that we are also mirroring that country’s relentlessly unforgiving and counterproductive penal policy.
Earlier this year, the prime minister joked that Britain was now “probably the Saudi Arabia of penal policy, under our wonderful home secretary”. In October, the Prison Reform Trust published a report which showed that there had been a “dramatic” increase in the number of people serving long prison sentences, with far more people now serving very lengthy terms. Nearly 11,000 people in prison in England and Wales will spend at least 10 years in custody. More than two-thirds of them are serving indeterminate sentences and do not know when – or if – they will be released.
Prison numbers will also inevitably increase if the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill becomes law. The bill creates new offences that will essentially criminalise the lifestyles of Gypsies and Travellers and bump up the overall prison population with increased sentences for protesters. The new nationality and borders bill means that those arriving in Britain illegally could now be jailed for up to four years.
In addition, a growing number of people on parole are being recalled to prison on the basis of dubious information as the probation service stumbles to recover from the then justice secretary Chris Grayling’s disastrous decision to privatise parts of it in 2014. On 21 October, Kevin Lane, one of those wrongly recalled and only recently released from prison, held a rally in front of the House of Commons to draw attention to this scandal. “The landings are full of people who should be on parole but are back in prison,” he said.
The whole criminal justice system is in a chaotic state, partly – but far from entirely – because of Covid
-19. Of the 320 magistrates courts that existed in England and Wales in 2010, 164 have been sold off to developers for a total of £223m and turned into hotels and apartments. In Scotland, 17 sheriff and justice of the peace courts were sold off or closed in the past decade. All of which makes it harder for lawyers, members of the public – and reporters – to attend courts and see what sort of sentences are being handed down.
September’s justice committee report suggested that as many as 70% of prisoners in England and Wales may have mental health issues. During Covid
lockdowns many of us talked of being “stir-crazy”. For prisoners, often confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and heavily restricted from learning new skills or studying because of staff shortages, being driven crazy is now a daily reality. There is also a drugs epidemic inside, with “spice” – with all its wild and dangerous side-effects – widely available.
In Scotland, which at least has a government more conscious of the problems of drug-related crime, the prison population is also surging. The number of those behind bars has risen sharply to an annual average of around 8,200 in 2019-2020. According to the Howard League Scotland, around a quarter of those inside are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted. Maybe the owners of Alcotraz will not be able to resist opening something called Bar Linnie in Glasgow for anyone else anxious for that “epic yet intimate” cocktail experience.
Britain currently leads its western European neighbours in terms of inmates per head of population. England and Wales jail 138 of their population per 100,000; Scotland 147. Compare that with 76 in Germany and 59 in the Netherlands and Norway. Even Spain (123), Italy (101) and France (105) lag behind us. Maybe not quite “world-beaters” yet but at least we can defeat those pesky Europeans at something.
But where – as many have asked about the response to the recent report on the government’s early failings over Covid
-19 – is the anger? In 1910, a young home secretary, Winston Churchill, the same one our current prime minister bases himself upon, said that “the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country”. It’s a test this country is now shamefully failing.