Britain has the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe. It almost doubled between 1990 and 2015, and the prison system has buckled under this increase – a story told by numerous reports of staff shortages, cramped conditions, rampant drug problems and poorly trained guards. Last year, more than 100 inmates took their own lives, the highest number of prison suicides in recent memory.
In recent weeks there have been major riots in prisons across the country. In HMP Birmingham last month, more than a third of the prison's 1,450 inmates were involved in a 12-hour riot. It was the worst since the notorious Strangeways riot in Manchester 26 years ago, when a 25-day riot and rooftop protest killed one and injured more than 200 people. Perhaps surprisingly, the Birmingham riot didn't happen in isolation, but was quickly followed by riots at HMP Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey.
It's common for street riots in one city to spark unrest in another, but how do riots spread from prison to prison, when inmates are supposed to be cut off from most communication? I spoke to Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform – which campaigns for changes to the criminal justice system and better conditions in prisons – to get to grips with what is going on.
VICE: Hi Frances. Why are so many prisoners rioting at the moment?
Frances Crook: There have been disturbances for a long time in places like Moorland, Lewes, Bedford and Birmingham, but things have been deteriorating over the past three or four years. The riots are one of the symptoms of the problem... the suicide rate is the highest it has ever been in the last 40 years, so there are serious problems in prisons, and riots are one of the expressions of extreme distress. Another is staff, who went on strike. It's a perfect storm, if you like.
What causes the prisoners to rebel?
Prisons are in such a terrible state that sometimes it's just the little things that break the camel's back and tip them over the edge. I've just heard from a mother of a prisoner in one of the big prisons, where none of the cards from families were given to prisoners before Christmas. It's the little things like that that can trigger absolute misery. If you think your wife or kids have forgotten you because they haven't sent a card – and you're only likely to get one card – then it's really, really distressing. Don't forget families cannot phone in. You have to phone them, and if you haven't got any money or you're not getting out of your cell to get to the phones, you can't phone them. It's little things like that. Also, the budget for prison food has been cut back. It's around £2 a day for all the meals.
What kind of things are prisoners being served at meal times?
They will get a breakfast pack, which will be a handful of cereal and 200ml of milk. That's breakfast. Then they may get a hot meal at lunch – chips, tinned vegetables and a pie, or something. Then they'll get a baguette for supper with either a small pot of yoghurt or an apple and a couple of pieces of bread. That is what they give grown men. It's the grind of it all. You can't get post, nobody answers any questions, you're locked in your cell all day, it's filthy, you haven't had a shower for three days and you're wearing the same clothes for days, you can't get to a phone. It's the grind, the misery, the loneliness and the pointlessness of it all.
So what actually happens when prisoners riot?
There's nothing organised. These are young men who've taken advantage of grabbing the keys from a prison officer because they may be alone on a landing. Prison guards have keys on them and they have to go up and down the cells letting people out so they can get food. Normally what happens is a prisoner grabs the keys – it's nothing organised or planned – and they let each other out. They're locked in on the wing and the prison service sends in the riot squad and they take it back. It's usually only one wing because they are shut off from each other.
Why is this happening now?
What happened is people in Bedford had rioted, so they sent a whole lot up to Birmingham prison, which is already overcrowded and understaffed, so they rioted in Birmingham and took a load of people out from there and sent them to other overcrowded and understaffed prisons. In Birmingham, a whole wing was put out of action because they lit fires and flooded it, so they had to ship out several hundred prisoners. They shipped out the prisoners who had not been involved in the riot, so that meant the people who had been compliant and well behaved with visits arranged – legal visits, their families were coming to see them – all of a sudden they're put on a bus and shipped out to Durham or Cornwall or somewhere miles away from home – so everybody's punished.
"They're 25-year-old men who have been locked up with nothing to do all day and no exercise. They explode with energy, testosterone and fury. They go berserk."
Do the riots have anything to do with staffing cuts?
It's pretty difficult to riot if you're all locked in your cells, which is why the death rate has gone up – people take it out by trying to cut themselves or hang themselves. More than 100 have killed themselves in the last year.
What's the aim of it all? Do the riots achieve anything?
I don't think there's an aim. Imagine if you put a 25-year-old in a bathroom and left him in there with another man who he didn't know for weeks on end without letting him out and not giving him enough food, and then suddenly someone appears at the door and lets him out. He would just explode with energy, testosterone and fury, and particularly if someone gave him some drugs. That's what happening. They're 25-year-old men who have been locked up with nothing to do all day and no exercise. They go berserk.
Could there be a whole spate of riots coming? Could we see another Strageways situation?
There could be. Not because it's planned, but because these places are explosive. People are really angry and frightened and bitter, and so are the staff. There's a slight difference in that Strangeways became more political because they got on the roof and there were more of them involved. The men were making demands about a change in the system. I don't think the riots this time have developed into that level of organisation; it's mostly been just an explosion of frustration.
Is the anger towards staff or the system?
I think it varies. The staff are disaffected and there's very few of them, and so there are certainly a lot of assaults against staff, yes. None of the staff are qualified at all – you don't have to have a single GCSE to be a prison officer. They're barely trained. Prison officers should be like nurses; it should be a vocation degree, and it's a profession. It should be seen as a profession. They're not guards; they're prison officers.
Are prisons in a worse place because of cuts made by the Tory government?
It goes way back. Labour policy was [to create] an explosion in prisons, and in the good years it was funded. The real problem came with Chris Grayling [former Conservative Secretary of State for Justice] who closed 15 without reducing the numbers – so those people were redistributed to already crowded prisons – and then he cut the staff by 40 percent. So you have a growing prison population in fewer buildings with a significantly reduced staff. That's what the problem was, and that was Grayling's policy. He then privatised the probation service, which meant that there's now no confidence in community sentences because they're an absolute shambles as a result. The courts are using prisons more because the community sentences aren't working – they were before and now they're not.
What about Liz Truss, the new minister for justice, has anyone got any faith in her?
She's only been there a few months – give her a chance. We'll see what she does.
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