Prison safety and reform: When?

Joe Sim
Friday, 2 December 2016

Prison Safety and Reform was published in November 2016. Covering 61 often-repetitive, meagre pages, the White Paper theoretically provides a blueprint for the ‘biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation’.  

The prison crisis provides the incendiary context for White Paper. However, prisons have been in crisis since the end of the eighteenth century. The result has been an endless cycle of crisis/reform/crisis, which has been toxic for prisoners.

The current crisis has been relentlessly tied to the budget cuts. While the cuts have intensified the crisis, they are not its cause. Between 1990 and 2010, 1,404 prisoners took their own lives. Even if the cuts were restored, prisoners would still experience the prison as systemically violent and degrading as they did in the pre-cuts era.

Prison officers and violence

The crisis has been framed within the context of violence towards prison officers. The idea that prison staff are being murdered daily is problematic. As David Scott has pointed out, eight prison staff have been killed since 1850.  Furthermore, the White Paper only focusses on the period from 2012, leaving longer historical trends in assaults unexplored. 

In fact, in 1997, the Home Office noted that definitions of assault ranged from ‘the most serious of assaults to incidents involving little physical contact’ while the National Audit Office pointed out that ‘absences caused by assaults on duty have been falling gradually over the last four years…One-fifth of all time lost for both prison officers and other staff was due to psychological conditions, such as stress, anxiety and depression...’  

In 2014-2015, there were 4,810 acts of violence and physical assaults on different workers including 423 on prison officers below principal officer. This ranked below assaults on Nursing Auxiliaries and Assistants (828), Nurses (640), Care Workers and Home Carers (535) and Welfare and Housing Associate Professionals not elsewhere classified (423). (I am indebted to Steve Tombs for pointing me in the direction of these data).

Prison Governors

The White Paper envisages an enhanced role for governors. Success and failure will be ranked through league tables. For ministers, it is a win-win situation. The vote-winning glow of success can be claimed when things go well while failure can be deflected onto governors.   

The case of John Marriott provides chilling evidence of the devastating impact when lines of responsibility are blurred. In 1995, he was suspended as governor of Parkhurst after three prisoners escaped and subsequently sacked. He died, aged 51, a few years later.

As The Independent explained at the time of his death, the incident ‘led to a welter of claim and counter-claim... about the responsibility for decision-making in the Prison Service; in this case, who had responsibility for deciding whether Marriott should be moved out of Parkhurst. And so a man hitherto almost universally regarded as conscientious, caring, thoughtful and committed, found himself to be in the eye of a storm, or at least a House of Commons debate’. 

What is being asked of governors is a recipe for stress and ill-health, as many teaching professionals have experienced. Ranking schools in terms of league tables has been disastrous for the education of children. In the OECD study published in January 2016, England was ranked lowest for literacy, and second lowest for numeracy in the developed world. It also found that there were three times more low-skilled people among those aged 16-19 than in the best-performing countries.

Prison Officers

The White Paper concedes that staff cuts have had a negative impact. Numbers will be increased by 2,500. However, this is a distraction, based on a false premise, that more staff will result in less crisis. As David Scott has noted, the ratio of prison officers to prisoners is a complex issue, which varies historically, as well as between individual prisons.

Crucially, in the current context, ‘when we look at staffing levels (and certainly the number of prison officers employed in a given year), the claim that staffing levels are dangerously low becomes untenable’. 

Training will be increased to ten weeks, but how can the complex issues faced by many prisoners be resolved by a training regime lasting ten weeks?

Send in the army

The White Paper recommends that ex-military personnel should be recruited. This implies military life somehow magically equips recruits to deal with human beings with empathy and care. The fact that nearly 3,000 prisoners are from military backgrounds suggests that this career choice is not something that encourages stable, well-rounded personalities. 

Crucially, like previous reports, the White Paper ignores the wider, authoritarian, landing culture of prison officers and its detrimental impact on prisoners and those prison staff who attempt to do a decent job in indecent, psychologically-withering circumstances.

Democratic Accountability

The White Paper recognises that there are problems with accountability mechanisms which ‘have grown in a piecemeal fashion’. Ministers want recommendations made by the Prison Inspectorate to ‘have a real impact on improving the system...’

The systemic lack of implementation of official recommendations, and the devastating consequences for prisoners and their families, has been consistently highlighted by INQUEST. The Inspectorate’s recent report on Bedford illustrates this. It found that the number of self-harm incidents had doubled since the previous inspection.

The quality of Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) management was poor, assessments were brief and not all relevant actions were included in care plans. Mental health nurses were inconsistent in their attendance at reviews, prisoners were not engaged in these reviews. There had been at least two self-inflicted deaths since the previous inspection.


…actions from recommendations concerning the quality of ACCT management, attendance by mental health staff at ACCT reviews and robust procedures for identifying risk during reception processes had not been embedded in practice… Action taken in response to recommendations from the [Prison and Probation Ombudsman] investigations of deaths in custody should be kept under review to ensure that improvements in practice are embedded.

Positively, the White Paper recognises that the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme has been used as a ‘punitive measure’, something which prisoners have been saying since its inception.

It further suggests that probation will become the responsibility of prison governors while staff will be able to work as prison officers and probation officers. How such disciplinary and welfare roles can be reconciled is not addressed. There is also no consideration of sentencing policy in fuelling the crisis.

What about women prisoners?

As usual, women prisoners are reduced to a walk-on part. The White Paper recognises self-harm in women’s prisons. However, it devotes 20 lines to discussing plans for creating five small, community prisons, at which point, bizarrely, the document ends with no conclusions offered.

The discussion about women is framed within the context of resettlement, which will do nothing to alleviate the problems of ex-women prisoners. As Pat Carlen has pointed out, they return to the wider society where they are ‘economically and/or socially disadvantaged’.  

Finally, 10,000 new, adult prison places are to be built. This is in a country which managed to build 6,500 houses for social rent in the year up to March 2016.

These new places are likely to fuel further penal expansion: a grim legacy of the expedient and complacent proposals contained in the White Paper. 

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University