Our prisons are inhumane, as I’ve seen in Wandsworth

Published by The i paper (11th September, 2023)

Daneil Khalife is back behind bars after police pulled the 21-year-old former soldier from a bicycle as he pedalled along a canal towpath. Ministers will be relieved the four-day manhunt is over and no doubt the news agenda will move swiftly on. Yet this saga revealed the reality of the prison system in the starkest light. It provokes serious questions over the shoddy state of the incarceration regime, which is meant to safeguard citizens and yet allowed a man suspected of spying for our enemies to flee. And it exposes a flailing system that is our most egregious example of political failure, even in a country where so many public services seem to be crumbling.

Questions will be asked about why Khalife was held at a medium-security prison. We do not know yet whether he was aided in his escape from Wandsworth or exploited an inadequate number of guards; one union chief said there were just 69 officers on duty for more than 1,600 inmates when he visited last year. We do know, however, that this is an inhumane institution long plagued by staff shortages, overcrowding and squalid conditions. Yet Westminster’s response is to keep cramming more and more people into a prison built before the Crimean War and others like it. Little wonder Wandsworth’s last inspection report was so damning, finding most inmates sharing cells built for one person, and a majority locked up 22 hours a day.

I visited this grim place eight years ago with Michael Gove, then justice secretary, for a BBC Panorama documentary that I made on prison reform. One man, who said he lacked decent role models growing up, told me how he began taking drugs in the prison a decade earlier in a “very dark gloomy cell” before going on to explain how such places were like universities of crime in which convicts exchanged ideas. “You have to say that prison is failing when almost half of those who are in prison go on to reoffend,” admitted Gove afterwards.

He was sacked from this job a few months later in the fallout from the Brexit farce. This was a shame since Gove became a convinced reformer, even if his idea of adopting the school academy model of autonomy in the prison system floundered. Yet he was right in his analysis: our failing prisons are a national disgrace England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, followed closely by Scotland. Their rate is more than double that of Germany, where a court earlier this year refused to extradite to the UK a man accused of drug trafficking “in view of the state of the British prison system”.

This decision underscores the shameful state of our prisons, so grotesque that neighbouring nations refuse to send human beings into such hellholes. The system is swamped with citizens damaged by chaotic backgrounds, many suffering from addiction, educational or mental-health struggles that fall through gaps in other parts of the public sector and are then intensified in prison. Short sentences are especially damaging, with more than half those locked up for less than 12 months reoffending. Even one former Tory prisons minister confessed that people given community sentences are less likely to reoffend – yet only Scotland dares introduce a presumption against use of short sentences.

“Wandsworth is fairly typical of most inner city Victorian prisons,” said Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, this weekend. A few months after I visited, one of his predecessors quit, fearing he was growing desensitised to horror after repeatedly seeing squalor and disturbingly high levels of self-harm and suicide.

Yet nothing changes. Four months ago Andrea Albutt, who ran four very different prisons before becoming president of the Prison Governors Association, delivered a damning indictment to MPs of these “warehouses of danger, despair and degradation” that have seen record rises in violence, self-harm and suicide.

Prisons deliver a form of punishment that might be familiar to those thrown behind bars when places such as Wandsworth were built two centuries ago. But they fail to curb reoffending, despite surging numbers. And as shown by a recent study for the Sentencing Council, the severity of sentences has “no effect on the level of crime in society”, since criminal acts are often spontaneous, driven by fury, intoxication or mental health episodes. Yet average length of a prison sentence has increased by more than half over the past decade as dismal politicians from both main parties joust to look tough. All they do is fuel fear of crime while displaying their weakness.

Albutt accused politicians of duping voters by pushing a myth that jailing more and more people for lengthening terms makes society safer. “It’s a lie,” she said. “Prison does not work.” Other countries prove the benefits of reform. The Netherlands, which used to match British incarceration rates, has less than half our reincarceration rate after seeing that reducing use of prison had little impact on crime levels while freeing cash to tackle social issues.

Norway made the same shift, cutting sentences and introducing a famously humane prison system – and then saw reoffending rates plummet from 70 per cent to the lowest in the world at 20 per cent. Even the United States, with its horrendously high use of prison, has changed tack – as I showed Gove on that documentary, taking him to Texas to see how drug courts sought to break the cycle of addiction, chaotic lifestyles and crime.

Many conservatives there view prison as a costly state failure, rightly seeing that it is senseless to repeatedly lock up damaged citizens. Brave Texan politicians reached across the tribal divide and sparked a national movement that has transformed public debate – leading to a 25 per cent fall in prison populations since 2009. But British politicians on left and right remain timid and trapped in the past – much like those hideously crammed Victorian prisons such as Wandsworth.

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