A saying may be a cliché but true for all that. Some of the biggest prison clichés are variants of the phrase attributed to Dostoevsky: ‘The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’ Churchill said: ‘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.’ And Nelson Mandela: ‘It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.’

Whilst it is hard to imagine three more different characters, they all came to similar conclusions. What they had in common was experience of imprisonment: Dostoevsky in Siberian labour camps; Churchill as a prisoner of war in the Second Boer War; and Mandela was notoriously a prisoner Robben Island (but the famous quote referred to a local prison in Cape Town). They had learnt something profound and it might do us some good to reflect on what our own prisons tell us about our country today.

‘The prison system in England and Wales is in crisis.’ These are not my words, but those of the cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee. The Conservative MP Bob Neill, an Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple and Chair of the Justice Committee, said this in its latest report on prison governance: ‘The prison system in England and Wales is enduring a crisis of safety and decency. Violence and self-harm are at record highs and there is little sign of improvement.’

The Committee’s conclusions echo the findings of the Prisons Inspectorate when I was Chief Inspector. After a period of gradual improvement in the first decade of the century, inspection reports and prison safety statistics show a sharp decline from 2012 onwards. The evidence is clear:

  • Suicides, self-harm and violence at record levels.
  • Two in five prisoners in local prisons spending 22 hours a day or more doubled up in cells the Victorians designed for one.
  • Pervasive squalor and a £900 million maintenance backlog.
  • More than 50% of prisons officially overcrowded – with not just insufficient space but insufficient education, work, programmes, telephones for the population held.

This is not just a matter of the treatment of prisoners. Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high and that affects us all. The Justice Committee estimates the annual cost of reoffending as £15 billion a year. There is also a cost in bloodied victims, frightened communities and wasted lives.

How did this happen?

There is no doubt that the task of the prison service has become more difficult. The prison population has always included disproportionate numbers of the multiply disadvantaged. Now, on top of that, in men’s prisons at least, there has a been a long-term trend for the proportion of the prison population convicted of high harm, violent and sexual offences to increase. And there are fewer staff to manage them.

In March 2010 there were about 25,000 operational prison officers. Nearly 90% of those had three or more years’ service. In March 2015 the total number of staff had fallen by more than 25% and staff with three years’ service had reduced by a similar amount. Since 2016 the staff cuts have begun to be reversed but staff retention had become a huge issue. The proportion of staff with three or more years’ service had fallen from 90% to 60%.

The key issue here is resilience. Into that volatile, frustrated, overcrowded, badly supervised mix there was a surge in the availability of Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids. The Inspectorate first identified it as a problem in one prison in 2011; by 2014/15 we were describing it as a serious concern in two-thirds of prisons. Easy to manufacture, difficult to detect, Spice has been a game changer. The issue was not the effect of the drugs themselves – although that was bad enough. The problem was the trade. Huge profits were to be made, organised crime muscled in to organise demand and supply, debts were created and violence followed when debts were not paid. There were simply not enough staff to counter the threat.

And in the middle of all this, politicians decided it would be a good time to poke the system. Privileges were removed. Day release was restricted. Prison services were privatised and management fragmented. There was a disastrous reorganisation of the Probation Service.

Leave aside for the moment whether these changes were a good or bad thing – the system simply did not have the capacity to implement them. There seemed to be no connection between deciding a policy or passing a law – and the need for real people to do stuff to implement it.

Ministers cannot say they were not warned about this. The developing crisis was plain to see and I and others spelled it out in terms. The system has been bedevilled by changes of Minister and policy. I was appointed as Chief Inspector in 2010 by Jack Straw. Since then we have had Ken Clarke, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, Liz Truss, David Liddington, David Gauke and Robert Buckland as Justice Secretaries – eight in nine years – each with their own, sometimes contradictory, policies. Chaos.

David Gauke and Rory Stewart, until recently the Prisons Minister, tried harder than most and there are signs the decline in standards and safety may have been slowed if not reversed. But if there has been progress, it is very fragile.

Before the election Boris Johnson promised to build an extra 10,000 places at a cost of £2.5 billion. It is not clear whether that is in addition to the 10,000 that Liz Truss promised in 2016 or is a restatement of that plan. Enough new places cannot conceivably be ready by the time the proposed increases in the prison population have come into effect. Hence the announcement a few weeks later that plans to close some of the worst Victorian prisons would be scrapped.

Bob Neill, the excellent Chair of the Justice Committee, denounced what he said ‘might be called ‘policy by press notice’ without any clear or coherent vision for the future of the prison system’. He went on: ‘New prison places might be welcome, but they do nothing to improve the appalling condition of much of the current prison estate, nor the prospect of offering a safe environment in which to rehabilitate offenders.’

With effort, reforms to turn the tide

A different approach is possible. It will require sustained effort over a number of years. First, a system bedevilled by ministerial churn, each determined to make their mark – or stay out of trouble – and the ever-present temptation to make policy by press notice will not provide the consistency of purpose required. There is a strong cases for establishing a publicly accountable board to oversee the system that could provide the strategic consistency and focus required. A model might be the Youth Justice Board or the Prison Commissioners we had in the past.

Secondly, nothing can be achieved without re-establishing order and control. That’s going to take some tough decisions. We need to change the balance of risk for the organised crime groups running much of the drugs trade.

Thirdly, I would address issues of pay and conditions to make it more worthwhile for experienced staff to stay in the job and I would invest heavily in staff training too.

Fourthly, there must be a better match of population to capacity. We need to increase capacity – places and staff – or reduce the population. We will soon see how or whether that equation will be resolved in the new government.

This article is based on a speech Nick gave to Middle Temple on 4 November 2019 where he is an Honorary Bencher.