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Editorial Britain’s jails are a nightmare world of lethal violence

THE potentially lethal attack on a prison officer who required 17 sutures after his throat was cut has to be a wake-up call to politicians who have allowed violence in our jails to spiral out of control.

As the POA union warns its members now face “extreme violence on a daily basis.” And assaults on guards are not the whole story — the breakdown of order in prisons over the nine years of Tory (and until 2015, Liberal Democrat) cuts has created a nightmare reality for prisoners as well.

The number of assaults annually per 1,000 prisoners has doubled since 2012. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice earlier this year showed rising violence on every conceivable measure. 

There were 24,138 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the year up to September 2018 — an 18 per cent rise in a single year.

There were 10,085 assaults on staff — a 29 per cent rise.

There were 325 deaths in custody — a 10 per cent rise — and self-inflicted deaths rose from 72 in 2017 to 92 last year.

The number of sexual assaults in prisons has trebled since Labour were last in office.

Tory cuts have devastated so much of the social infrastructure that communities rely on — members of the National Education Union meeting in Liverpool are discussing the funding crisis engulfing our schools, local government has seen budgets slashed to the bone resulting in collapsing services and the crisis in our NHS gets worse each winter.

Prisons are no exception, with callous ministers axing 7,000 staff as the prison population continued to rise both north and south of the border.

A belated acknowledgement by Prisons Minister Rory Stewart that the cuts had been too deep has not seen sufficient new officers recruited to resolve the crisis.

Last August Stewart promised to resign if he hadn’t managed to bring down drug use and violence in 10 target jails within a year, but this is not a question of ministerial competence.

The Tories have not merely cut staff. They have privatised some prisons (and probation, resulting in a rise in violent reoffending).

They have presided over what POA general secretary Steve Gillan calls an “unprecedented decline in health and safety standards.” 

They deny prison officers the basic right of taking strike action and have ignored their demands for a retirement age of 60, despite the obviously dangerous and physically demanding nature of their work.

The number of prison officers resigning doubled in the two years to 2018 in the face of soaring violence, a serious problem when, as Labour’s shadow justice minister Imran Hussain points out, “there is no substitute for experienced officers on the balconies in our prisons.”

The entire approach to our penal system needs an overhaul.

The Conservative government has shown that it cares little about what happens behind the prison wall.

Prisoners and their guards are out of sight, out of mind.

It doesn’t trouble ministers’ sleep if the overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately black prison population (13.7 per cent of prisoners are black, compared with just 2.7 per cent of the population) are exposed to savage violence from the most dangerous inmates.

It should worry us, though, since the gangland dystopia that our prison system has become is not only destroying lives and putting public servants at risk, it means that any idea that prison might be a rehabilitative process that gives criminals a chance to turn their backs on crime and re-enter society has disappeared.

The professionals to whom we entrust prisoners have neither the time nor resources to assist such a process and the chaos cuts have inflicted on the system make our jails schools of hardened criminality whose graduates are more dangerous than ever.

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