In the face of the immediate threat posed by coronavirus, governments across the world have acted decisively and swiftly. The crisis has focused minds and prompted action in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.
Prisons provide the perfect environment for contagious diseases to wreak havoc. They are crowded, cramped, unsanitary institutions with inadequate healthcare provision for a population already in poor health. On top of that, in Britain we have an ageing custodial population, with many prisoners now in the age groups at greatest risk of complications from coronavirus.
Many more prisoners will become seriously ill with Covid-19. Some will die.
The event discussed best practices in tackling issues of serious violence and county lines. Since this meeting unprecedented socio-economic interventions have been introduced to address the Coronavirus public health crisis to meet needs and reduce risks from unnecessary suffering.
To be interned is to have your ordinary rights denied and to be subjected to, amongst other things, gross over-crowding, living in abhorrent conditions, abuse, constant violence, inadequate health and mental care and overuse of isolation. No wonder then that when word got out, in April 1990, that the prisoners at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison had taken action to object to the intolerable, it sparked a series of disturbances in prisons across the whole of Britain.
The death of 15 year-old Philip Knight while on remand in Swansea prison, just a few months after the Strangeways protest started, triggered an outcry in the media and Parliament; such was the shock and anger, a television documentary was made about him. Adopted as an infant, Philip started showing behavioural problems from around the age of seven, and was ‘returned’ to care aged 14.
This evoked a poignant memory of my supervisory relationship with Sergio (not his real name) after I had recently transferred to working in a probation office in Central London. For many years prior to this change of work setting, I had been pondering an emotionally unsettling memory, resulting from what I regarded at the time as a callously offhand comment made by a senior probation officer following the death of one of my female clients from a drug overdose.
These demands, largely from prison officers and their union The Prison Officers Association (POA), have pointed to the increasing risk of violence to prison officers from prisoners. Such calls, and the recorded data on prison officer assaults, has entered the public debate with very little controversy. Yet there is a glaring omission in contemporary debates about physical violence in prison – the violence of prison officers.
This painful and angry message reflected the motivation behind what became the longest demonstration in British prison history.
Many of the families we supported were visiting loved ones in the prison then known as Strangeways. The stories they shared and our own knowledge of supporting our loved ones in that situation, were informing us that there were major problems at the prison, including overcrowding, negative staff culture, and ‘Dickensian’ visiting conditions.
Public pronouncements by the government about the aims of the prison system makes clear that its most important objectives are punishing offenders, protecting the public and reducing reoffending. This suggests the prison system has the capacity to simultaneously punish and rehabilitate individuals. However, the hegemonic role of punishment and its impact on the ability of prisons to also rehabilitate those in its charge remains one of the most contentious issues.
The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.