It's no secret that years of austerity have had a terrifying effect on the British prison system, but for the majority of us those effects are pretty much out of sight and out of mind. Inmates in prisons in the UK's North East recently revealed to VICE a few examples of these real-world effects, among them spice use being the worst it's ever been, and serious assaults being largely brushed over.
As spending on prisons has plunged more than 20 percent, the prison service has lost 70,000 years of on-the-job experience over the last ten years. One in three staff now have less than three years of experience in the role, and these inexperienced guards are struggling with a prison intake that has almost doubled in size since 1993.
Staff shortages are acute, and risks to both prisoners and guards are often severe, with one prison warden attacked every working hour in British prisons last year. Meanwhile, seven staff were stabbed in County Durham's HMP Holme House, among 100 other "serious" assaults on prison staff across jails in the North East over the past year.
In one incident, VICE can reveal a high-risk prisoner held a prison van driver's phone to ransom after he snatched it while being transported between jails. The prisoner, 35-year-old Sam Walker, claims he only gave it back after he was given a Big Mac and fries. Walker says he made a series of personal calls on the phone as he and other prisoners were being moved between cells, raising questions about the government subcontracting the transportation of criminals out to private security firms to cut costs.
Walker, who has lengthy convictions for drugs, violence and armed robbery, claims he snatched the phone when it fell out of the warden's shirt pocket and under his locked cell door. He told VICE, "In the worst case scenario, I could've used that phone and rang armed assistance to get me and the other prisoners out of the van. I want this story in the public domain because there is a huge risk in transporting six inmates with inexperienced staff who don't follow protocols. That phone should not slip into a prisoner's hands."
VICE has heard voicemail messages Walker left while using the phone, which reveal flapping security staff pleading with the prisoner to return the handset, as other inmates in the van – driven by staff from private security firm GEOAmey – can be heard howling with derision. In one message Walker can be heard telling the warden, "Stop saying you'll nick me. What are you going to say? 'Oh, I've dropped my mobile phone and it's gone under the door and he won't give it me back?'"
Multiple prisoners have escaped from GEOAmey vans while being transported, and on one occasion a van was filmed driving with its back doors open (GEOAmey said at the time that no prisoners were being transported). In response to Walker's claims, a GEOAmey spokesperson told VICE: "We can confirm that a prisoner managed to have access to a GEOAmey work mobile phone after it was dropped accidentally." The firm deny that a Big Mac was swapped in return for the phone, and say the van didn't deviate from its route at any point.
Away from transportation, the lack of staff within prisons causes its own problems. In an assault at HMP Durham – which has previously housed Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, as well as East End gangster Ronnie Kray – a disabled inmate who used a zimmer frame was badly beaten up in a frenzied attack after sharing a cell with another offender.
Smuggled phone pictures show bloody marks still visible all over the walls the cell. The Ministry of Justice acknowledged an assault had taken place, but didn’t make any further comment about the attack.
In one complaint letter seen by VICE at another jail in the North East, HMP Haverigg, a prisoner in solitary confinement alleges that faeces which had been thrown out of a cell by a mentally ill inmate, had been left for three days for people to step around. It also said spice use is the worst they'd seen at any prison. In response, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson denied wardens manipulated inmates in this way, and pointed to the prison's record of clean drugs testing.
As is the case across a lot of prisons, letters are photocopied and given to prisoners, to prevent substances from being soaked into the paper and then ingested or smoked in cells. Still, this doesn't stop drugs from getting in; four hypodermic syringes were found inside a sock in an inmate's cell at Haverigg just last month.
A lack of experienced staff also presents another set of problems. In another attack at HMP Durham, a violent torture killer was able to beat unconscious another younger prisoner and then walk freely around the same wing as his victim.
For his original crime, George Dixon, 39, was sentenced to 17 years for the New Year's Day killing of Ashley Cochrane, 29, in 2018, who was found dead with multiple injuries after a gang had tortured the complete stranger for his PIN code in Middlesbrough. Cochrane had every rib broken, and many bones in his face were crushed. Dixon was found guilty of manslaughter and received a 17-year sentence. At Dixon's trial, his solicitor said Dixon hopes to "live a better life when he is released".
However, despite only arriving in HMP Durham in November of 2018, Dixon attacked a younger inmate, putting him in hospital almost immediately. An inmate told VICE, "Dixon would walk up the landing, thinking he could bully the younger inmates. He shoved past one, an 18-year-old, and said, 'Watch where you're fucking going.' The younger inmate said nothing, but Dixon then kicked and punched him to the floor and stamped on his head on the corridor."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson admitted the assault had taken place. "Staff at Durham quickly resolved a prisoner-on-prisoner assault on the 20th of April. One prisoner was treated in the prison's healthcare unit and the perpetrator was placed on report."
Dixon was only given a prison caution for this assault and, when the victim returned, was still roaming the wing unattended and still able to reach his victim, a breach of prison guidelines. As Dixon had no history of assaults which actually took place in the prison, he was not eligible for the Challenge Support and Intervention Plans (CSIP), which might move him from the wing.
Such overcrowding and an increased threat of violence is also greatly affecting inmate mental health. Furthermore, prisoner sexual assaults have trebled since 2010 and there were 92 self-inflicted deaths in 2018, up from 72 in 2017.
Kerry Daynes, an author and forensic psychologist in Britain's prisons, says suicide rates, self-harm and violence in prisons all go up as spending goes down: "Over 70 percent of inmates will suffer significant mental health problems while inside. Prisoners are an 'out of sight, out of mind' group, and the myth of cushy, holiday-camp British jails is still the stuff of tabloid headlines. When prisons are pressured and punitive rather than rehabilitative, they create more of the very problems they were designed to tackle – post jail-term reoffending rates are at an all-time high."
A decade of aggressive government austerity is costing lives, increasing the number of assaults and ruining the chances of prisoner rehabilitation. Sarah Arnold, Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation, says, "Prisons are in a bad way. Recent stats from the government on prison performance confirms this – 62 percent of prisons are overcrowded, while 14 percent were recently rated as having performance of serious concern, the highest proportion since ratings began."
Justice Select Committee Chair MP Bob Neill said in a national prison study released in April that austerity is failing our prisons. "We need to rip up the rulebook that puts arbitrary targets ahead of real lives. The government has been focusing on bringing down the deficit at the expense of society and our environment, and we are starting to see some of the worst impacts in rising knife crime, homelessness and declining life expectancy."