"Prison riots cannot be dismissed as one-off events, or as local disasters, or a run of bad luck."
"They are symptomatic of a series of serious underlying difficulties in the prison system. They will only be brought to an end if these difficulties are addressed”.
The words of Lord Woolf, written nearly thirty years ago, in his famous report on the 1990 prison protests. The 25-day protest at Strangeways during that period was, and remains, the longest in British prison history.
Lord Woolf's report was welcomed by many. Others considered it a missed opportunity. What is hardly in question is that, thirty years on, the prison population has doubled and prisons remain crisis-ridden.
Across five days next February, we will be holding five webinars marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Strangeways prison protest and Lord Woolf's report. What was the background to the protest? What happened during the protest and the immediate aftermath? Have the subsequent thirty years of reform efforts been anything other than a failure? How might we chart a more successful course for the future?
These are some of the questions we will be exploring across the five webinars. I hope to see you there.
Is it the job of the Chief Inspector of Prisons to lobby the government to build new prisons? The answer should be no. The Chief Inspector's job is to inspect prisons, report on conditions and make recommendations for improvements.
Yet in last week's Spectator magazine, the newly-appointed Chief Inspector, Charlie Taylor, called on the government to get on with building a new children's prison, or 'Secure School', to use the preferred euphemism, on the site of the notorious Medway Secure Training Centre. Moreover, the Christian charity selected to run the new prison, he wrote, should be given "the freedom to... deliver good discipline, bespoke education and therapeutic care".
The long history of well-meaning, but failed, reform efforts should caution us against "this time it will be different" boosterism. The 'Secure School' plan remains highly controversial in youth justice and prison reform circles. The role of a religious charity in running a supposedly secular institution has also raised eyebrows. The Charity Commission has questioned whether running a prison can be considered a charitable purpose at all.
Charlie Taylor is in a good position to extol what he considers to be the virtues of the 'Secure School' model. It was his 2016 report that recommended their creation.
But lobbying for new prisons to be built is not in the job description of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and for good reason.
At the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies we are in favour of prison being closed down, not new prisons being built. But we would not cheer on the Chief Inspector of Prisons were he to lobby for decarceration. Nor do we welcome his call for new prisons to be built.
To be effective, the Chief Inspector of Prisons should offer independent, impartial and trusted assessments of the state of prisons. Not intervene on one side or the other of controversial or partisan policy questions.
I wish Charlie Taylor every success in his new and important role and hope that last week's article was a one-off.
Booking has now opened for our webinars marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Strangeways prison protest and the report on them by Lord Justice Woolf.
Over five days in February 2021, the webinars will discuss the background to the protest, the protest itself, developments since the protest and what the future might hold for prison reform, decarceration, and abolition.
We have some great speakers lined up, including former prisoners, campaigners, journalists and researchers.
We are not charging for these webinars, but are encouraging those able to do so to offer a small donation on booking, to cover the webinar costs.
News and Commentary
We are part of a coalition, led by Article 39, working for the closure of children's prisons. Last week the coalition – End Child Imprisonment – published The case for ending child imprisonment: questions and answers. Read more about the report and our response.
The new proposals on electronic monitoring in the recent White Paper on sentencing reform should be rejected on both moral and practical grounds, according to Mike Nellis in his latest article. Read our previous commentary and project work on electronic monitoring. We'll be publishing a report on electronic monitoring in 2021.
Mike Guilfoyle's latest post is about supervising 'Donny'. Read Mike's back catalogue recounting his experiences over the years working in probation.
We have launched a new series, debating transgender prisons policy. So far we have published three articles, by Dr Kath Murray, Lucy Hunter Blackburn and Lisa Mackenzie, Rhona Hotchkiss, and Kate Coleman. We are keen to foster dialogue on this issue and publish a range of perspectives. If you think you have something to say and would like write us an article, drop us an email and we'll get back to you.
What happened to the prison population during the COVID lockdown? In July we published an assessment by Matt Ford, which proved to be one of our most popular pieces. Matt has now written an updated assessment, which you can read here.
If you couldn't attend our latest webinar on how the pandemic has affected European prison populations, you can catch it here. We'll be holding at least two more webinars on this issue next year. You'll hear all about them via this bulletin.
Update on our coronavirus in prisons work
For the last few months, I’ve mainly been progressing our work on coronavirus in prisons. Earlier in December, I spoke at our webinar (mentioned above) about the impacts of coronavirus in prisons across Europe. I’ve since updated the article I did in July about changes to the prison population in England and Wales now that the data covering April to June is available.
I also wrote two articles for Antigone’s journal. Antigone is an Italian NGO which coordinates the European Prison Observatory. We are the UK member organisation of the Observatory. The first article is an account of population management strategies in prisons in England and Wales, and trends in coronavirus infection and death amongst prisoners. The second article is based on the survey we carried out earlier in the year. It explores the impact of strategies to manage the virus in prisons amongst a sample of European countries. The articles are due to be published later this month and we'll keep you updated on when they're out.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get hold of the data I was after to produce some coronavirus trackers. I was informed that there is no central recording of how many tests have been carried out on prisoners. I’ve still be keeping an eye on the data that is available though.
A second wave has been in full flow in prisons since September and is ongoing. There were another 1,830 confirmed cases and 14 COVID-related deaths amongst prisoners in England and Wales in the period 9 November to 7 December. The weekly data suggests cases were declining through the period of national restrictions.
Data covering the week to 14 December is due out today, too late for this bulletin. It will be important to see whether cases began to rise again in step with trends in the community. Keep an eye on our website next week for an update.
An eye on criminal justice
Now that the coronavirus vaccines are being rolled out, many are wondering where prisoners and prison staff will come in the queue to receive this vital protection. It was a question asked of our speakers at our most recent webinar. It is also being posed by major publications, including the New York Times, The Lancet, The Irish Times and The Daily Mail, to name just a few.
As our Research Analyst Matt Ford pointed out in a recent analysis, up to 85 per cent of prisons in England and Wales are now affected by COVID-19. Prisons and prison staff, along with others living or working in institutional settings, should be a priority for vaccination.