EXCLUSIVE: How UK Prisons Became 'Warehouses of the Damned'

Kit Klarenberg
Wormwood Scrubs Prison in West London © AFP
Over the closing months of 2016, an insurrectionary epidemic spontaneously swept UK prisons, plunging jails up and down the country into violent chaos. The eruption would endure into the next year, to the point riots, takeovers and tumult were almost a monthly occurrence.

The events made public an uncomfortable reality the UK government had long sought to ignore and suppress – prisons are in a state of crisis, and urgently cry out for reform. The only questions are how they reached this point, and what can be done.
Prison Diaries
Unbelievable as it may seem, prison inmates aren't uncommon on social media platforms such as Twitter. One such tweeter is "The Lifer", currently serving a 24-year life tariff. His biography states users can ask him what they like, except his name and location – so ask Sputnik does.

"I shot someone – a bully drug dealer who tried to kill me, so I killed him. Prisons are boring, life here is repetitive, a circle of events that just keeps on going. Underfunding is obvious – prisons look worn out, with dirty cells, broken equipment and old clothing," The Lifer told Sputnik.

The inmate has been tweeting since May 2013, using phones brought in by staff members. He notes there's "quite a few" corrupt staff, mostly attributable to workers "not being paid much and feeling unhappy with the job and how their career is going."

Such wardens are a viable source of "most things" inside his Category A (high security) prison, but illegal drugs –commonplace in other jails – aren't an issue.

"Staff bring in steroids, but there isn't a big drug problem here, that's a 'C Cat' problem. There, staff bring in Spice and phones mostly. I work on the servery, serving food to inmates, so I'm unlocked most of the day, from 7.45 am onwards, apart from lunchtime and teatime bang up," The Lifer told Sputnik.

On how he's gotten away with tweeting so long, he says he doesn't use his phone "at stupid times" – "in fact I need to put it away now," he says, in the last message he'll send.

A typical prison cell © 'The Lifer' 2017
'Warehouses for the Vulnerable'
Faith Spear headed the Independent Monitoring Board of Hollesey Bay prison for a year. She attempted to publicly blow the whistle on the appalling state of UK jails in 2016, and was subjected to a concerted campaign of abuse by ministers and officials in response. Undeterred by the UK government's bullying crusade, her battle to expose overcrowding, understaffing and rising numbers of inmate deaths continues today.

Her view of UK prisons in 2018 is stark – they are "warehouses for the vulnerable," crumbling due to underfunding and outsourcing to private companies.

"Many are in extreme disrepair and neglect. I've seen vermin, rubbish thrown out of cell windows and food left to rot there, rotten fire doors that would provide no safety in the event of a blaze. We're knowingly putting people in conditions unfit for habitation. Drugs are a problem, bullying through debt is rife, so is corruption. They create more homeless individuals, more poverty and more mental health issues, and breed criminality. Once in prison you're crammed into a room with another inmate for up to 22 hours or more at a time, eating beside your toilet with little or no contact with the outside world." Faith told Sputnik.

Over the course of her year at the head of the IMB, inmates at her jail most commonly complained about discrimination from other prisoners and wardens, unhelpful staff apparently unable to assist with the most basic requests, a lack of food, boredom, property going missing after transfers from other jails, and a total lack of hope.

Given the picture of prisons she paints, such grievances are entirely predictable. The former prison watchdog likens prison to "mental torture" – there's an abject lack of purposeful activities for inmates, with some forced to carry out effective "slave labour" for big business, for hours on end. She personally witnessed the dismantling of DVDs and CDs in HMP Whitemoor, the sewing of wash bags and towels in HMP Norwich, and the assembly of remembrance poppies at HMP Ford – "all mind numbing and boring."

Prisoners cannot use skills they entered prison with, or acquire new ones inside, and the loss of experienced staff has merely further exacerbated this toxic milieu, resulting in volatile prisons where the safety and security of staff and inmates alike is compromised – "it's a ticking time bomb," she laments.
"Society puts people in prison and expects them to reintegrate after their sentence and not reoffend, but recidivism is high because often the root cause of offending is not addressed – I saw many inmates with mental health issues that were not dealt with, I saw young men frightened. I listened to the way some Governors and Custodial Managers spoke about those in their prisons and wondered how they got to their positions..."
Faith Spear
Former IMB Chief
The Lifer's Christmas Dinner © 'The Lifer' 2017
'Diabolical State'
Robin, Director of UK prison documentary Injustice, is not a former inmate, but he nearly was. Given a six-month suspended sentence for common assault in 2014 – he was a "prisoner on the outside, as it were" – during that time he researched prisons and made a film about his findings, conclusions he summarizes for Sputnik explicitly. In brief, prisons aren't merely in crisis, they are a crisis.

"They're in a diabolical state. Almost nobody in power, whether in prisons or the criminal justice system, denies that – yet the mainstream media is still perpetuating the myth prisons are like holiday camps. They're brutal places making damaged people worse, and less able to live law-abiding lives. There's roughly a death every day in UK prisons, and suicide attempts are even more frequent, a rate of one every four hours approximately. The level of assaults is also at a historic high, with around 40,000 each year - in a population of 80,000 prisoners. Why would that be happening if they weren't in crisis?" Robin fulminates.

On top of overcrowding, staffing issues and the easy availability of drugs, the filmmaker attributes the catastrophic state of prisons to deeper underlying philosophical issues at the conceptual core of prisons themselves – they "are a failure and always will be," archaic institutions designed at a time "when we seemed to know no better."

"The problem is modern governments don't know what else to do. If they speak of reform, scandalizing newspapers accuse them of being soft on crime - even though all the evidence points to them neither deterring crime nor rehabilitating people. Prisons are hugely expensive - it cost between £40-80,000 a year to keep people behind bars – but are seemingly one area the government is happy to waste money on. Instruments such as Imprisonments for Public Protection leave people in prison for years after their sentences should be over. Successive governments have created a pressure cooker to which they keep adding," Robin told Sputnik.

While making Injustice, Robin heard many painful stories about life on the inside from inmates and prison officers alike. One officer recounted how a prisoner with severe mental health issues would break open razors for shaving, and saw his fingers off one-by-one.

The inmate wasn't violent, but every member of his family had committed suicide, and he was terrified he'd do so himself. He'd apologize for his actions, and beg for help, but it was slow-coming – when he was finally psychologically assessed, the report concluded there was nothing wrong with him. By that time, he'd sawed off all but four fingers – but the prison surgeon refused to sew them back on.
"Michael O'Brien's story is also worth mentioning. He served 11 years for a murder he didn't commit. He learned to read and write inside, then learned the law, then took the Ministry of Justice to the High Court – and won. His conviction was eventually overturned, but in the meantime his child died while he was inside, and he emerged with post-traumatic stress disorder," Robin says.

However, while tales of violence and misery were commonplace, the most common complaint – as Faith Spear experienced – was boredom and lack of family contact.

"Families are the best route away from crime, but contact is difficult, especially if someone's placed in a prison far from their home town. This is particularly bad for women prisoners - because there are so few of them relative to men, they are often placed in facilities a long way from home. I was told yesterday of a 19-year-old imprisoned under joint enterprise for a murder someone else committed. He's been placed in a facility on an island off the coast of Kent, south east England, while his family remains in Manchester. It's obvious such isolation and erosion of family bonds will damage the boy irreparably," Robin told Sputnik.
Upwards and Onwards?
On how prisons should be reformed, Robin is likewise clear – the government must recognize both the criminal justice and prison systems are "fundamentally broken," and "just do not work."

"Trials simply aren't fair, and the level of criminalization is mind-boggling, with more and more social actions likely to result in imprisonment. The adversarial court system is absurd and utterly childish, it needs to be stopped and something new put in its place," Robin told Sputnik.

As part of this comprehensive reform program, dangerous criminals should be placed into "therapeutic communities," and prisons should cease being "containers for social problems governments don't want to deal with," such as mental health issues, drug addiction, poverty, homelessness and abuse, which the vast majority of prisoners are afflicted by in some way, Robin claims. In the short-term, there should be more focus on employment, therapy, and decent work – showing prisoners there can be alternatives, and a good life on the outside, is "paramount."

"At the very least, prisons should be reduced in size. Every governor, prison officer, prison monitor I've spoken to, and even the prison inspectorate, all state very clearly smaller prisons are better for everyone – yet the government has embarked upon a project of building 'titan' or 'super prisons', so policy is going the direct opposite way of what we know to work. They've ignored the advice of people who know, in order to follow the US system, which we know to be an abject failure," Robin ruefully concludes.

Robin's suggestions for transitory reform are largely echoed by Faith, who notes some prisons she has visited had "excellent initiatives" of that ilk in place.

"For example, I went to two motivational events for inmates at Thameside prison, first with a former prisoner turned author and Eastenders actor, then Sir Lenny Henry. I also spent a day at HMP Oakwood, observing the Chrysalis Programme designed to provide a guide for change beyond rehabilitation, and into engagement and reintegration, aiming to stimulate inmates thinking, attitude, social capability, and capacity," Faith told Sputnik.
© 2014 All Rights Reserves
Facebook | land@scape.eu
Made on