The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, recently wrote on the LabourList website that prisons can be improved, and repeat offending reduced, "through education, training and tackling underlying health problems". Of course, that approach is far preferable to the typical government response which ignores, Gove-like, expert opinion from such people as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, bans relatives and friends from sending books to prisoners, and pretends there is no crisis, when it`s blatantly obvious there is. Labour`s objective of reducing the number of prison inmates by limiting repeat offending is an admirable aim, but does little to solve the current problems requiring immediate solutions.
Overcrowding and staff shortages, both the direct result of this government`s policies, are now important factors in the rising numbers of prisoners taking their own lives; this isn`t ignorant conjecture, or even my admittedly anti-Tory view, but the opinion of none other than Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector. The fact is that in the year up to March, there were 88 suicides in our prisons, a rise of 52 on the previous year, with self-harm increasing to 23,478 a year. Are such appalling figures acceptable in a civilised society? Of course not, but there is no acceptance of responsibilty from Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary.He has attributed recent increases in prison inmate numbers to "a number of factors", including, can you believe, "the increased number of convictions for historic sex abuse"! Labour should be not just be complaining about the horrific conditions and over-crowding, they should be shouting from the rooftops, before the prisoners do!
Often prisoners are locked up in their shared cells for 23 hours a day, leaving next to no time for showers, exercise, education or work. The cells look nothing like the official wide-angled photographs; walls can almost be reached by two outstretched arms, table at one end, an unscreened toilet at the other, with a bunk bed at the side. It`s not difficult to imagine how degrading such conditions will be, or how there could be anything less conducive to rehabilitation.
Government policies have simply made matters worse: since 2010, 18 prisons have been closed, the numbers of prison staff have been cut by 30%, whilst the number of inmates has been allowed to rise to just under 86,000. A number of prisons has been handed over to private companies, including Serco, which has dubious records of performance, including the infamous involvement in overcharging for tagging criminals, some of whom deceased! HMP Doncaster, run by Serco, has been heavily criticised recently for locking up inmates in cells without electricity or running water, and having four times higher levels of violence than in other jails.Some "extremely violent" incidents, according to inspectors,had been referred to the police!!
G4S, the other security firm involved in the tagging scandal, and the one notorious for its botched Olympics` security contract, was barred from bidding for government contracts for six months. Since the ban was lifted in April, the company has had its contract renewed to run the Rainsbrook secure training centre for 12-17 year olds!
Despite being "passionate about the delivery of education to offenders", the privately-owned welfare to work provider, A4e, has pulled out of its £17m contract to deliver education to 12 London prisons. The reason will not come as a surprise: it couldn`t run the contract at a profit!
Labour must act quickly. Even at present rates, over 50 prisoners are likely to die by their own hands before there can be a change of government, so urgent action is vital. As much publicity as possible must be generated by the Labour press team, demanding the government admit its policies have failed, that private companies, concerned only for their own profits, cannot be risked with such an important task as the rehabilitation of our thousands of prisoners, and the re-opening of closed prisons. Judges and magistrates must be told that a prison sentence is not always the most suitable of punishments, and that in certain, obvious cases, it is the wrong one.
Cutting the cost of the prison service, like that of education or health, does not save the taxpayer money, even in the long run. Labour has to accept this, and devise its strategy accordingly. Fair-minded voters will accept this, and the others will vote Tory or Ukip anyway!